Add another event to the expanding list of bittersweet COVID-19 cancellations: The final reunion for the St. Marys School of Nursing was supposed to kick off Friday in Rochester.
Since the Sisters of St. Francis opened the school in 1906, more than 3,000 student nurses were trained in rigorous classes and long shifts at St. Marys Hospital, one of the two Rochester hospitals associated with the Mayo Clinic. The school closed in 1970, so organizers decided this year’s would be the last reunion — the 50th anniversary for the Class of 1970, and the 60th for octogenarians from the 1960 class.
Now they’ll have to wait until September 2021, disappointing many at a time when nurses deserve a celebration more than ever. But the delay can’t stop stories flowing about one particularly valiant group of St. Marys nursing graduates: the Japanese-American women for whom the school was a haven from internment.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that uprooted more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and moved them to 10 internment camps in the West and South during World War II.
For Teruko Yamashita’s family of seven, it meant leaving their home near Fresno, Calif., to live for three years in cramped barracks at the Gila River camp in the southern Arizona desert with 16,000 other Americans of Japanese descent. One day she noticed a recruiting poster for the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, another FDR initiative to address a wartime nursing shortage. The corps was open to women from 17 to 35, barred racial discrimination and promised them a free education.
Yamashita became one of 42 Japanese-Americans welcomed into the St. Marys program. With Rochester roughly 2,000 miles from the West Coast, St. Marys won Army and Navy approval to train nurses of Japanese heritage living in the camps. The FBI scrutinized their families before they were accepted.
Sister Antonia Rostomily, the school’s director during WWII, first met with students at the school to gauge their support. The students “saw no reason why the Japanese-American students could not be part of their school,” according to Virginia Simons Wentzel’s 2006 book on the nursing school, “Sincere et Constanter” (Latin for the school’s motto, Sincerity and Dependability).
“We have found them all to be loyal, ambitious, outstanding in their scholastic accomplishments as well as skillful,” Sister Antonia said of the new students in 1942.
Ida Sakohira, a 1947 St. Marys graduate, had never been away from her California home when she headed to Rochester. “When it was time to load the bus, I was in tears as I waved goodbye to my family,” she said, in a series of stories shared with Wentzel.
But the school warmly opened its doors to them, according to Sumiko Ito, Class of ’46. “It was with a thankful heart and a fierce determination to succeed that I entered my probationary period,” she said in 1994. “The weeks passed quickly as we studied and tackled floor duty” at the hospital.
As she neared the end of probation, Ito went with others to a friend’s house and “time got away from us.” They were a few minutes late for curfew and a note on the bulletin board the next morning ordered them to report to Sister Antonia’s office.
She entered the office, she said, “with great trepidation.” But instead of admonishing the students, Sister Antonio just wanted to talk. She realized the Japanese-American nursing students were “undergoing many adjustments and that we were subject to racial intolerance,” Ito said.
Many of the nursing students went on to long careers, such as Yoshiki (Edith) Yonemoto, who retired in 1984 after 25 years as a birthing nurse in Carmel, Calif. She had left her family at the Manzanar camp in California in 1942, boarding a bus to Reno and then a train to snowy Rochester. The nuns scared her at first, but the kindness of the other students and Rochester residents soon eased her fears.
Most of the Japanese-American nurses from WWII have died, said Wentzel, 82, a 1959 graduate of St. Marys and the school’s unofficial archivist. She knows of only one still alive.
“Every dark cloud has a silver lining,” said Fumiye Yoshida, who was at a bowling alley in Tacoma, Wash., on Dec. 7, 1941, when she learned about Pearl Harbor. Five months later, her family was taken in military trucks to ironically named Camp Harmony at the fairgrounds in Puyallup, Wash.
“We were locked behind barbed wire fences, with sentry towers spaced around the perimeter and guarded by soldiers armed with guns. ... The gates clanged behind us as if we were in a concentration camp,” she said.
The University of Minnesota was unable to accept her because of her Japanese heritage, but it sent her application to St. Marys. When the internment camp’s gates next clanged for her in 1943, “This time I was on the outside,” Yoshida said — heading to Rochester and “one of the best schools in the nation.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.