The war changed everything. It brought blood drives, victory gardens, the rationing of meat and sugar in the dining hall. The curriculum was adjusted to better prepare prospective soldiers and sailors. (In particular, math and physics offerings grew.) A summer session opened, and everything speeded up. The College held its first midyear commencement. Spring vacation was cancelled to help take the strain off the nation’s trains. Intramural football was cancelled, too; what players were available were needed for the varsity. A mixed chorus replaced the men’s glee club. Women became the campus majority. Fourteen students, all men, became war casualties.
In the fall of 1942, a new campus organization, the Student Refugee Committee, sought to bring to the College four war refugees who were American citizens: college students from California of Japanese descent. The Committee’s efforts came in response to an attempt by the federal government to soften the plight of Japanese Americans—interned by the War Relocation Authority—by placing some of the students among them in colleges willing to welcome them. The support of Elmhurst students for the Committee’s work was, in President Lehmann’s words, “practically 100 percent.” However, despite the program’s federal pedigree—and the fact that the Niesei students were subjected to FBI investigations—the Committee’s efforts created what the local newspapers called a “storm” of off-campus controversy.
On September 29, 1942, The Elmhurst Press ran an opinion piece under the straightforward headline, “NO ROOM FOR JAP STUDENTS IN THIS TOWN.” The vocal minority of local citizens opposed to accepting the students centered around American Legion Post 187 and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In a public forum on the issue, a Legion member stated the reasoning behind his position. “The Japs have proven to our country’s sorrow both before and since Pearl Harbor that they as a race cannot be trusted or treated with either respect or tolerance, and I say segregate them in a locale of our country where there would be no opportunity of using their foul tactics to our detriment.” Unabashedly racist, it was an apt summary of the rationale for the internment policy itself.
President Lehmann sought to engage the Legion and VFW in “brotherly discourse.” He invited both groups to a meeting with students and administrators on October 19, 1942. The meeting did not go well. In a subsequent message to the Board, Lehmann urged the College to “take a step of faith and accept these students.” He added, “Our response to the American Legion and the VFW should be restrained if any, but a brief acknowledgment is made in receipt of their protest.”
The Board would meet on October 27 to settle the matter. In advance, Chairman Paul A. Jans circulated a letter among the members. “Democracy is on trial here as elsewhere,” Jans wrote. “The local community must be willing to accept the challenge for itself which the nation has thrown to the rest of the world .… As a church-related college we have a duty, a Christian duty, to perform .… We must make our contribution so that a majority of local American people will insist on fair treatment of these Japanese and not succumb to race baiters.” When the day came, the Board voted unanimously to admit the Niesei students.
In February 1943, Yuriko Okazaki, originally of San Francisco, became the first of the Niesei students to reach the campus. Martha Abe arrived from an internment camp in March; Seiji Aizawa and Himeo Tsumori came in September. Three of the four students would graduate with honors. In a comprehensive study of the episode, completed as a class assignment in 1999, a young alumnus, Brian B. Dag, concluded, “They were, simply, good American students.”