Tom Oye as a young soldier in World War II.
Every year at this time, the City of Edina asks for nominations for the annual "Tom Oye Human Rights Award." Until we put together our current exhibit "Edina's Greatest Generation: On the Home Front and the Front Lines," Tom Oye was just a name to me.
The man behind the name has a great story worth telling. The lessons learned in World War II affected his whole life and inspired him to work for human rights. Edina benefited from his experiences.
Tom, a second generation Japanese American or Nisei, grew up on a celery farm in Salem, Oregon. On the day before Tom was drafted to serve in World War II, his family was among the Japanese Americans rounded up and incarcerated in crowded, tar paper barracks.
Although the United States had treated his family like criminals, his father told him, "I want you to always remember that as a citizen of this country you owe everything to preserve your status as a citizen."
Tom served as a member of the 100th battalion of the 442nd regiment, a segregated all-Japanese unit that became the most highly decorated unit in military history. "Rarely has a nation been so well served by a people it so ill-treated," said President Bill Clinton, as he presented Medal of Honor awards for acts of bravery not recognized during the anti-Japanese sentiment following World War II.
Tom's unit fought bravely in the battle to save the "Lost Battalion" of Texas soldiers trapped behind German lines. The story of the 442nd's heroic efforts is movingly told by the Go For Broke National Education Center. ("Go For Broke" was the 442nd's motto and they lived up to their word.) The 10 minute video below is worth your time; no one can tell the story better than the men who were there.
The battle was devastating for both sides, with as many Japanese Americans losing their lives as those they saved in the Texas unit. When later asked to recount the most important lesson learned during World War II, Oye said, "In the heat of War, one must wear humanity as a shield to ward off those forces that seek to destroy those qualities that make us the species that we are."
After the war, Tom attended law school and worked for General Mills, a job that brought him to Edina. In addition, Tom was in the Army Reserve for 20 years, retiring at the rank of Lt. Colonel.
Tom actively volunteered in his adopted community, for both the school district and the Human Relations Commission, which established a hate crimes response plan and worked with the under-served. Tom also shared his experiences with racism with Edina Public Schools classes.
"Tom is a student of racism and has spent his life learning as much as he could about it," said then Human Relations Commission Chair Betsy Flaten in 2003. "he takes his knowledge and teaches those that surround him."
In 2003, Tom was named "Volunteer of the Year" for that work as well as activities for Meals on Wheels, Edina Resource Center and his church. He also was awarded the 2003 Prize for Humanity by the Immortal Chaplains Foundation. In 2006, the city created the Tom Oye Human Rights Award. Past recipients have included the founder of the Child Advocacy Coalition, an organizer for advocacy work in Darfur and two Edina High School students who fought for human rights causes within the school, the community and beyond.
Note: We have an interview with Tom done by cable television around 2003. It's on our list to digitize to make it more widely available to researchers.
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