Thomas Bodine


Name Thomas R. Bodine
Born 1915
Died 2005
Birth Location Philadelphia, PA

Thomas R. Bodine (1915–2005), Quaker activist and conscientious objector, served as field director for the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC) during World War II. Bodine toured the WRA's concentration camps repeatedly, building personal relationships with both students and their parents. His strident advocacy for Japanese Americans throughout their wartime removal and confinement often brought Bodine into conflict with WRA officials. By the war's end, Bodine had played a pivotal role in helping more than 4,000 students resettle to pursue their higher education at more than 600 institutions.

Prewar Biography

Born in 1915 in Philadelphia, Bodine attended Quaker primary and secondary schools before enrolling at Wesleyan University in an effort to see the world outside of Quakerism. After receiving a B.A. in European History in 1937, Bodine was hired by Connecticut General Life Insurance (now CIGNA). An active Friend, he helped to establish the Hartford Monthly Meeting of Friends. After war broke out in Europe, Bodine worked with German refugees in Hartford before joining the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) as a conscientious objector in 1941. The AFSC initially enrolled Bodine in its first overseas work training program, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made such travel impossible. The AFSC then assigned Bodine to Seattle to monitor the quickly changing problems faced by Japanese Americans after December 7, 1941.

Wartime Activism

Transferred to San Francisco in June, 1942, to help with student resettlement work, Bodine quickly became an outspoken and passionate advocate for Nikkei students. Bodine's advocacy—in conjunction with other strident West Coast members of the NJASRC—at times led to conflict with the organization's East Coast administrators and, more dauntingly, with WRA officials. He clashed with the WRA early on, going so far as to accuse the government of suggesting "that the only place for Japanese people these days is behind barbed wire."[1] Despite such tense early moments, Bodine and the WRA came to agree that student relocation was essential to improving inmate morale and promoting a broader resettlement program via the students, who served as native-born, American-educated "ambassadors of good will."

Serving as field director, Bodine spent considerable time on the road, touring the WRA's concentration camps to maintain the personal relationships that the NJASRC sought with the inmates. Although he would later recall that "when I lived on the east coast and worked in Hartford I had no awareness particularly of the Japanese American community on the west coast," Bodine's ability to connect with potential students was clear.[2] Whether beginning a talk with a joke about a dying man who explains, "Sure, I wants [sic] to go to Heaven, but—thank you—not tonight" or his rendition of "Manzanar Love Song," a funny ballad that laments the difficulties of romance inside barbed wires, Bodine established a positive rapport with inmates.[3] His willingness to critique the WRA might have generated tensions between the NJASRC and the government, but Bodine's outspokenness no doubt helped inmates to perceive an important distance between the Council and the WRA. One student, to cite just one of many possible examples, wrote the NJASRC to praise Bodine "for his friendly and sympathetic help when he stopped for a few days at our Project;" she later recalled Bodine as "very popular with the students he interviewed." A yearbook signed by Bodine exemplified his encouraging spirit, the field director writing to a student that he "hoped to meet next year in New England, the best section of the USA."[4] Having broken the ice, Bodine could talk with students and other inmates about resettlement. He addressed common concerns—government red tape, anxieties about young women traveling so far on their own, the implications of the draft for male students, weather, the desire to attend larger universities when smaller colleges had more openings, and financial worries, among others—by highlighting successful relocated students who were maintaining high grade point averages and mixing in well on campus. As a tired Bodine continued to tour the camps, his letters to the NJASRC leadership reinforced the harsher realities of life in WRA concentration camps. The Arkansas camps, for example, inspired despair, a constant rain and mud exacerbating tensions based on prejudice, racism, and inertia. Describing the towers, armed soldiers, and searchlights at the Tule Lake segregation camp, Bodine bluntly described the stockade as "a tragic place."[5]

Throughout his work with the NJASRC, Bodine understood a need to change American society. While he hoped that student resettlement would help Japanese Americans to see a more accepting part of the "outside" world, he also viewed student resettlement as a tool with which to shape a broader culture that was more democratic and accepting. In this way, Bodine and others working in student resettlement during WWII became social reformers who promoted cultural pluralism. As Bodine argued, the NJASRC was "selling a minority group on the idea that America has a place for them and . . . helping America create the place."[6] While such efforts could not be described as totally successful by 1945, Bodine, his coworkers, and the resettled students all participated in an effort to reshape American society that, in conjunction with nascent movements across the U.S., would have a long-term effect.

Postwar Biography

Bodine left the NJASRC in 1945 to work in war relief in France. He returned to the U.S. in 1946, continuing to work for Connecticut General Life Insurance, from which he retired as assistant secretary in 1976. Bodine remained active in his community after the war, serving as a commissioner of the Hartford Housing Authority for more than twenty years, chairing the Community Renewal Team in the late 1960s, and working with Catholic Family Services.

Authored by Allan W. Austin, Misericordia University

For More Information

AFSC Oral History Interviews. Philadelphia: AFSC, 1991.

American Friends Service Committee Archives, Philadelphia.

Austin, Allan W. From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Thomas R. Bodine Papers. Hoover Institution. Stanford University.

James, Thomas. Exile Within: The Schooling of Japanese Americans, 1942-1945. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987.

———. "Life Begins with Freedom: The College Nisei, 1942-1945." History of Education Quarterly 25 (1985): 155-174.

National Japanese American Student Relocation Council Papers. Hoover Institution. Stanford University.

Okihiro, Gary Y. Storied Lives: Japanese American Students and World War II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Footnotes

  1. Allan W. Austin, From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 33.
  2. Gary Y. Okihiro, Storied Lives: Japanese American Students and World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 132-133; AFSC Oral Interview #405.
  3. Austin, "From Concentration Camp to Campus", 91, 161-162.
  4. See Kobayashi Collection, Balch Institute; AFSC Oral History Interview #402; Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund Newsletter, (fall 2001), 11; Okihiro, Storied Lives, 132-133; Executive Committee Minutes, February 27, 1945, Minutes, 1942-6, Box 87, NJASRC, Hoover Institute; Austin, From Concentration Camp to Campus, 115.
  5. Bodine is quoted in Memo, E. Emlen to Swan, April 21, 1944, Bodine-Field Reports, Box 3, NJASRC, Hoover Institute.
  6. Austin, From Concentration Camp to Campus, 166.