Ten weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This law, enacted February 19, 1942, authorized the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent and resident aliens from Japan. This measure only affected the American West; the U.S. military was given broad powers to ban any citizen from a fifty- to sixty-mile-wide coastal area stretching from Washington state to California and extending inland into southern Arizona. The order also authorized transporting identified citizens to military-run “internment” camps in California, Arizona, Washington state, and Oregon.
This controversial action was undertaken in the name of national security and affected almost 120,000 men, women, and children. The Order was suspended at the end of 1944 and internees were released, but many had lost their homes, savings, and businesses. Subsequent efforts by community and legal groups in the 1970s resulted in rescinding the Order and offering compensation to those affected, and legislation was passed to try to ensure that such a broad disruption of civil liberties would not happen again.
The impact of the war, and of the suspension of basic human rights, personally affected two of Kaiser Permanente’s first Japanese American physicians. Once hired, they remained here their entire professional careers.
Isamu Nieda, MD (1918-1999)
Hired as a radiologist at Kaiser Permanente in 1954, retired 1987
Isamu “Sam” Nieda was born in Ashland, Calif. (a small community in the central East Bay of San Francisco) in 1918 to Japanese-born parents. He was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and then went to medical school at U.C. San Francisco. Partway through his studies he heard the news of Executive Order 9066.
According to Dr. Nieda’s late sister, the family held a meeting with Sam and determined together that he would leave the evacuation area to continue his studies. Family lore stated that he had to sell his microscope to pay for the journey, and that the rest of his family chipped in as well. He then departed for Salt Lake City, where he worked briefly as an orderly, before continuing to Temple University in Philadelphia. The American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) helped Sam through the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council. This program worked with colleges and universities in the Midwest and Eastern States to admit qualified students from the camps, and placed four thousand students before war’s end.
Dr. Nieda completed medical school in 1944 at Temple University, and after World War II he served as a Venereal Disease Control Officer in Japan, working for the Public Health and Welfare department of the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the American occupation (1945–1952).
Dr. Nieda returned to the U.S. and worked as a radiologist at Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco Medical Center for 33 years.
Dr. Nieda always identified as a U.C. student, so it was meaningful to the family when in 2009 UCSF granted honorary degrees to all Japanese American students from the Medical, Dental, and Pharmacological schools who had to stop their studies due to internment. (Sam had passed away ten years prior.)
Ikuya T. Kurita, MD (1922-2005)
Hired in respiratory medicine at Kaiser Permanente in 1957, retired in 1999.
Ikuya “Eek” Kurita, MD, was born in San Francisco in 1922 to Japanese-born parents. He attended U.C. Berkeley for two years until 1942, when he and his parents were relocated to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. Internees could leave Topaz if they had a job or were admitted to school, so Kurita was able to complete his undergraduate degree at the University of Utah. He then served in the army from 1944 to 1947 and returned to the University of Utah where he graduated from medical school in 1950.
Dr. Kurita worked at Kaiser Permanente hospitals for 42 years, first in Oakland where he began as Chief of Emergency from 1957.
He was appointed chief of the Department of Emergency Services at the Oakland hospital in 1965, and in 1975 ran the new rehabilitation and educational clinic for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). An article in the KP Reporter described that program:
According to lkuya Kurita. MD., Emergency Department Chief at Oakland, and physician consultant for the Respiratory Care Clinic, the purpose of the program is to bridge the gap between acute hospital care and home management, with primary emphasis on reaching and helping patients before their condition erodes to the point of warranting hospital admission. “The clinic helps to fill the gap between acute care and what is often fragmented care,” says Dr. Kurita, who is a specialist in pulmonary diseases.
Dr. Kurita began working at the Martinez Medical Center in 1977 and retired from there in 1999.
Special thanks to the family of Isamu Nieda, retired Permanente physician Michael Gothelf, Dr. Ken Berniker of the TPMG Retired Physicians’ Association, scholar Elaine Elinson, and video producer Robert M. Horsting for their help with this article.
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Laura Robertson, 97, chuckles when her doctor in Kaiser Permanente’s Colorado Region stumbles on the tiny size of her pharmacy order. She takes so few medications that the doctor assumes something’s off – but Laura assures her she’s just in very good health.
Laura’s not just healthy, she’s been connected to the big Kaiser picture almost all her life. I had the chance to sit down with her last October, and she’s got quite a story to tell about roots in the Kaiser shipyards and experiences as Kaiser Permanente member.
Early Years: Portland before the War
I am the oldest survivor of my family. I have outlived all my original friends, including people I’ve worked with. There are too many people that live in the past, and I have no desire to do that. Day-to-day is much more interesting.
These younger people think you’re lying, that you’ve got a great imagination.
I had to dig pretty deep for some of this stuff.
Portland. I went there with my mother, Rube (pronounced “Ruby”) Bingham, in 1938. I worked in a restaurant, and was a member of the Cooks and Bartenders Union. I made $20 a week.
I then left the restaurant business and went to a business school a half day and worked for the school a half day to pay for tuition. I worked nights and weekends in a restaurant. During the war years I worked for Industrial Claims, an insurance company that handled insurance for “high risk” industries.
I worked on the 13th floor of what I think was the Board of Trades building, right down on the waterfront. You know the river splits the town in two – I lived on the West side, close enough that I could walk to work, or I could walk down to the corner and take the streetcar. When I got to work and took the elevator I could look down onto the decks of the foreign ships that were coming in and loading and unloading. And, of course, it took me a while to understand that they came in on the tides, and had to wait to go out on the tides. And when they went out, it was fresh water, and the decks were practically at the water level. But once they passed the bar, the sea water was more buoyant. There were all sorts of countries coming and going – German, Russian, Scandinavian.
I was married in 1941. My wedding ring was from a jewelry store in Portland. It cost $30, and we bought it on an installment plan of $5 a week. The girls in my office were envious because I actually had a diamond. It was just a chip!
Working in the Shipyards
My mother worked in the Kaiser shipyards. Here’s a photo of her in 1943, in her work clothes. She installed sheet metal ducting after it was insulated.
I remember the change in Portland during the war years. Kaiser was advertising for help all over, and they were coming in from all areas. Before the war, Portland was a pretty typical city. The Chinese worked in restaurants and laundries, the Filipinos were in the food industry, the Japanese were vegetable farmers. I had never heard a foreign language until I went to Portland.
[Editor’s note: wartime workforce labor migration dramatically affected many West coast cities, including Portland. The largely white, urban, population experienced struggles with an influx of mostly poor rural people and immigrants of color. Before World War II, Black Americans made up only 1 percent of Oregon’s population; most of them lived in Portland. By war’s end, the black population had grown from 2,000 to 20,000. In a 1974 interview, Kaiser Permanente founding physician Dr. Sidney Garfield remarked on the impact of this wartime immigration: “Portland people were rather unhappy with the influx of workmen into their area because Portland was sort of a staid, stuffy community…”]
I grew up in a town of 300 in Iowa, right next to Missouri, and I finished high school in 1936. We were very close to the Mason-Dixon Line. Just 25 or 30 miles south of us the schools were segregated; where we were, what few blacks were there went to school with the whites. We didn’t experience some of the extremes that people did in the south.
But in wartime Portland, if they weren’t speaking a foreign language they might have well have, if you were trying to understand what they were trying to tell you. They all had their own lingo. That, too, created quite an interesting atmosphere. Everybody trying to understand all these different people, and they were having trouble trying to understand us.I remember Vanport. I had friends who lived there. It was in a vegetable garden, in a flood plain, and it did eventually flood – but I’d moved to Denver by then.
[Editor’s note: Henry J. Kaiser built Vanport – Oregon’s second-largest city – to handle the enormous need for temporary wartime housing, including most of the immigrant black labor force. It was the largest public housing project in the nation and included facilities such as schools, movie theaters, and the first publicly funded daycare center built in the United States. On May 28, 1948, a dike failed during unseasonably high flooding on the Columbia River, resulting in at least 15 deaths and the total destruction of the city.]
Denver: Becoming a Kaiser Permanente Member
I came to Denver in October, 1947. Denver was that much behind the coast, on lots of things. Denver was a completely different region and atmosphere.
I took a loss in wages. Because of my union connections, I got a job with the Joint Council of Teamster locals. I started working for Local 17, the freight dock workers, where I worked for seven years before being fired when a new manager came in.
I got a job working for the Atomic Energy Commission in Grand Junction, so I moved there with my husband. The paperwork to get a clearance was incredible. It took me weeks to prepare it. An official came out to my house to talk about my application – which was very unusual – and he said that after contacting all of my references they didn’t get one negative comment. I got the job. I was on the procurement desk for the expiration division. That meant a worker brought the yellowcake samples to my desk and I took them to the lab. I contacted the warehouses to check on availability of equipment needed. If none was available I completed a nine-carbon form that I presented to the proper authority for his signature so that the equipment could be ordered.
I worked about one year, and in 1962 returned to work for the Teamsters in their Grand Junction office. I walked in their office and organized their records, which were a mess. This was just about time the Teamsters came under federal investigation. I had to stall them for two days because my boss was out of town.
It was through my Teamster employment that I became a Kaiser Permanente member, and have been ever since.
My mother stayed in Portland. Here’s a Bess Kaiser Hospital postcard from my mother, on which she wrote “My Summer Home. Third floor, May 10, 1964 – Broken arm; fourth floor, September 3, 1964 – head-on collision. Fifth floor, August 1962 – gall bladder operation.”
-Special thanks to the Colorado Kaiser Permanente communications team for setting up this interview, and to member Laura Robertson for her patience and support in producing this story.
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At the end of last year, pediatric patients being treated at Kaiser Permanente’s Moanalua Medical Center in Hawaii received a special holiday visit from Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Pluto. Aulani, a Disney resort on Oahu, sent these cartoon characters to spread cheer to children during the holiday season.
But few know that Minnie has been greeting children at Kaiser facilities for more than 70 years. The historic connections between Kaiser (Kaiser Industries and Kaiser Permanente) and Disney (Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland) are longer than the bobsled ride down the iconic Matterhorn.
During World War II, when Henry J. Kaiser was building hundreds of ships for the war effort, Walt Disney Studios was producing posters for the War Manpower Commission encouraging home front workers to be productive.
The weekly Kaiser Oregon shipyard newspaper The Bos’n’s Whistle included several mentions of former Disney workers – one 1942 back cover safety graphic had been drawn by Bob Davidson, a field aide and draftsman in the shipyards who’d worked in Walt Disney’s publicity department illustrating children’s books and posters for theater advertising. An article on the Hull Detail department boasted that “One of the most interesting types of work handled in the department is production illustration … which includes some ex-Disney men from Hollywood.”
Another article from June 29, 1945, titled “Artist Prefers Hull Drawing to Comics” interviewed one of those illustrators:
Sketching pink elephants and giddy fauns is a far cry from the businesslike lines of a ship’s hull for Charles Shaw, Oregon Ship Company production illustration supervisor, who was formerly an artist-animator connected with the famed Walt Disney studio. “Dumbo and Bambi were fun to sketch, but I’d much rather be doing just what I am – production illustration,” Shaw declared.
The waiting room of a pediatric ward at one of the wartime Kaiser shipyard hospitals featured a mural of Pluto and Minnie Mouse with two unidentified young mouse characters. A recumbent Bambi graces the floor.
After the war both Kaiser Industries and Walt Disney greatly expanded their operations.
On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened to the public in Anaheim, Calif. – and one of the featured displays in Tomorrowland was the Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame. The display ran until July, 1960.
Interestingly, one of the theme parks that inspired Disneyland was Children’s Fairyland, which had opened five years earlier on the shores of Oakland’s Lake Merritt near the headquarters of Kaiser Industries – just across the lake from the current Kaiser Permanente’s national headquarters at 1 Kaiser Plaza.Kaiser Permanente historian emeritus Tom Debley described the Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame:
A giant aluminum sphere sat in the center of the exhibit, onto which was projected a knight who would bemoan the fact that his armor was not made of aluminum. The knight would fade away and be replaced with a firefighter and then a spaceman. On the outside walls of the exhibit were smaller displays extolling the benefits of the “miracle substance” called aluminum. After you signed your name in the registration book, with an aluminum pen, you got to meet the Kaiser Aluminum mascot pig, KAP (“Kaiser Aluminum Pig”). KAP was 3 feet tall, wore aluminum overalls, and carried a wrench. According to lore, he was the first non-Disney character at Disneyland.Disneyland Park would serve as a venue for many Kaiser Industries and Kaiser Permanente events. Beginning in 1967 and onward for several years, Kaiser Permanente hosted “family fun parties” at Disneyland.
A 2006 Kaiser Permanente media release enthused that “Disneyland Resort Welcomes Kaiser Permanente as Presenting Sponsor for the Inaugural Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend,” which included more than 8,000 runners.
“The Disneyland Half Marathon is the perfect setting for our message about the importance of good health,” said Ed Ellison, MD, Medical Director for Kaiser Permanente in Orange County [Dr. Ellison is currently Executive Medical Director and Chairman of the Board of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group]. “This will be a beautiful weekend event filled with fun and physical activity for the participants and spectators alike. We hope that everyone involved will be inspired to live well and thrive.”
As far as Kaiser Permanente’s presence at Disneyland is concerned, undoubtedly the biggest moment was at the “Innoventions” pavilion that was installed when Tomorrowland was redesigned in 1998. Kaiser Permanente was featured in a huge interactive educational display about health and health care. A story in KP Perspectives, the internal news medium in videocassette format, explained how it all came to be. These quotes from that video told our story:
“We were approached by Disney. They were going to redesign Tomorrowland, and the centerpiece of Tomorrowland was going to be the Innoventions exhibit.” -Kathy Swenson, senior VP, Communications, Marketing & Sales.
“They needed a health care organization that met their standards, and Kaiser Permanente came to mind.” -Kenneth E. Bell, MD, medical director, Kaiser Permanente, Orange County.
“I saw it as a terrific opportunity for us to partner with a wonderful organization that knows how to bring critical messages to the American public.” -David Lawrence, MD, chairman and CEO, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals.
“It was important to us that the people pictured in these exhibits were real Kaiser Permanente staff and real Permanente physicians. We are not in the fantasy business, what we do is very real.”
-Sharon Levine, MD, associate executive director, The Permanente Medical Group [currently director and senior advisor, The Permanente Medical Group].
Kaiser and Disney – spreading fun and health since World War II.
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