Nakamura | The Man and The Courthouse

“Last weekend, the Nakamura Federal Courthouse was broken into, a smoke bomb and an American flag were burned, and the building was tagged with graffiti inside and out…” 

– November 6, 1954 letter to a Seattle schoolgirl, The Douglas Letters (1987)

Seattle, where that theoretical gravitational pull rings true. Here, we reflect on the building, but equally the man whose name adorns 1051 Sixth Avenue in downtown.

July 4, 2020 marked the 76th anniversary of the battlefield death of Pfc. William Kenzo Nakamura of Seattle, the namesake for the city’s courthouse for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Fifteen days later, on a warm summer evening on July 19, 2020, peaceful protestors once again marched past the Art Deco inspired building in downtown Seattle – but on that night, some people broke away from the nonviolent demonstrators and damaged the courthouse, the damage coming near, but not destroying, the artifacts of the courthouse’s namesake.

Nakamura was the first U.S. courthouse – built in 1939 to 1940 – created for the unique purpose as a stand-alone federal courthouse. Up to that point, most federal courthouses sprung from multipurpose buildings, such as the James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco designed in the 1890s to house the federal courts and the San Francisco post office. But not Nakamura. Like its namesake, it is one of a kind. But the name would not be associated with the building for another 60 years after its initial opening to the public.

Nakamura, born in Seattle in 1922, graduated from Garfield High School, and attended the University of Washington at the time the U.S. entered World War II. It was December 1941. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In February 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed an Executive Order placing all people of Japanese ancestry into relocation centers. After Pearl Harbor, wartime mania reached its zenith and anyone of Japanese descent was considered a likely spy, even American citizens like Nakamura. The government swept up Nakamura and his family along with more than 110,000 other Japanese Americans from Hawaii and the Pacific Coast, into internment camps. Nakamura was placed at the Minidoka Japanese internment camp in Idaho, also known as Camp Hunt, the largest internment camp with over 9,000 refugees. More than 1,000 of the camp’s incarcerated men enlisted as soldiers to fight for America in World War II.ii

“Many of them volunteered to fight when they were behind the barbed wire enclosures of relocation centers . . . . They volunteered to fight for the land of their birth, the adopted land of their parents.”

– “Go For Broke” United States War Department Filmiii

From behind the barbed-wire enclosure, Nakamura volunteered, and the government deployed him to Italy with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated U.S. Army unit during World War II made up of Japanese-Americans. There, on Italian soil, a German sniper cut short his life at the tender age of 22. In giving his life, Nakamura singlehandedly protected his platoon by his own initiative. For his valor, Nakamura was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2000.v

That November, Congress voted unanimously to pass legislation and officially name the courthouse in Seattle for Nakamura. President Clinton signed it into law and by 2001 the Seattle-born Nakamura and medal honor recipient officially gained a permanent place in his native city.

To learn more about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, see our Executive Order 9066 Exhibit







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