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A noted architect’s journey from Japanese-American internment to Washington University in St. Louis

Dick Henmi is a noted St. Louis architect, best known for the so-called "flying saucer" building on Grand, but his journey to St. Louis started during a dark period of American history.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Dick Henmi is a noted St. Louis architect, best known for the so-called "flying saucer" building on Grand, but his journey to St. Louis started during a dark period of American history.

If you don’t know Richard (Dick) Henmi by name, you definitely know one of his most iconic contributions to St. Louis’ architectural assembly: the so-called "flying saucer" building in Council Plaza off of Grand Boulevard. Henmi designed that building in 1967.

But the winding story behind what brought him to St. Louis goes back much farther. His journey started in 1942, when his family was forced from their home in California to live in a Japanese-American internment camp.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Henmi shared his incredible story as a 17-year-old in Fresno in 1942, leaving the internment camp for architecture studies at Washington University in St. Louis. But that’s not all: while studying at Wash U, he was drafted into the military, went to officer candidate school and was eventually given the duty of transporting German POWs in the United States back to Germany after World War II ended in 1945.

Related: The legacy of Japanese-American internment, 75 years after the executive order was signed

That’s just where his story in St. Louis begins. He would later rise through the ranks of local architecture firms, eventually becoming the chief designer with Schwarz & Van Hoefen, an architecture firm founded in 1900. Henmi would later become a partner in that firm and it would continue on in his name until 1989.

He was also an integral part of theJapanese-American Citizens League in St. Louis.

At 93 years old today, the retired Japanese-American architect has designed and renovated many iconic hotels and buildings in St. Louis.

Early life & internment

Henmi was born in Fresno, California. His parents had a grocery store where they worked seven days a week. He lived with father, mother, grandmother and younger brother. At 17, he had just begun his freshman semester at Fresno State College when the Pearl Harbor attacks happened in Hawaii.

He said he went to church on December 7, 1941 and when he returned home, he heard an announcement on the radio about the bombing attack.

“I didn’t know what to make out of it so I walked over to our grocery store and wanted to discuss with [my parents] what this meant,” Henmi said. “They didn’t know anything about it. … Eventually it developed into the evacuation of people of Japanese ancestry in the whole of the West Coast.”

"We could only take what we could carry."- DickHenmi

Gradually, more and more rights of Japanese-Americans living on the coast were rolled back. Finally, the family received notice they would have one week to gather their things and get ready to move from their home.

“We could only take what we could carry,” Henmi said. “Pets, cars, houses … all those things we had to get rid of it. After a week, we were put into military busses and were taken over to temporary evacuation center.”

Henmi and his family were taken to the Fresno County Fairgrounds. This location was especially painful for Henmi. He said he used to go to the fair there each year. A lifelong love of making model airplanes led him to exhibit at the fair, bringing home ribbons and trophies each year.

“Ironically, this became our concentration center,” Henmi said. “They had built wooden tar-paper shacks, buildings. Each building had six units, enough for six families. Each family had a space that was 20 x 20. One lightbulb in the space, two windows, one door, no partitions, the floor was wood panels. You had to hang sheets to separate men and women. Toilets and showers were in a single building and some were 200 feet away from where you lived.”

There was a mess hall for meals, where Henmi recalls eating beef and pork — but not the  meaty parts, mostly gristle and fat.

All the work in the camp was provided by people who were interned. Henmi recalled that doctors, teachers and nurses, professional career people, were paid $16 a month for their services. Skilled workers, like sign painters (Henmi’s job at the camp), carpenters and the like were paid $12. Unskilled workers, were paid $8 per month.

Henmi recalled there was no provided entertainment, but that kids got together to dance.

“We used to have jitterbugging back in those days: that’s how I learned how to jitterbug,” Henmi said.

When asked how he felt about being interned at the time he said: “I was 17 years old and I don’t think I was too involved with politics at that point. I was still pretty young to understand everything that was going on.”

Henmi would live in that internment center for three months, guarded by barbed wire and officers with rifles guarding his family from leaving at will.

A move to St. Louis & attending Washington University

Henmi’s journey to Washington University in St. Louis was not completely planned.

At some point after his internment, Henmi found out you could leave the camp if you could be accepted at an inland university to attend school. He and his friend, Ted, pursued this opportunity, and were accepted at University of Colorado-Boulder.

They left the camp and arrived in Boulder in August of 1942, prepared to start school in September. When they got there, they found out the Navy V-12 training was going on.

“That meant the Navy might not appreciate our attending school there,” Henmi said. “The administration had no problem with us but they weren’t sure what the Navy would do. So, we decided to look elsewhere. That’s how we found Washington University in St. Louis.”

Ted Ono, Yo Matsumato and Dick Henmi at Washington University in 1942.
Credit State Historical Society of Missouri
Ted Ono, Yo Matsumato and Dick Henmi at Washington University in 1942.

Henmi didn’t know much about the school or the city, but he knew there were only so many schools accepting students of Japanese ancestry so he felt he could not be choosy.

He remembers vividly arriving at Union Station and that the Campus Y director came to meet him, bringing him to his dormitory on campus.

Henmi remembers there were about 15 other students of Japanese ancestry attending Washington University at the same time.

While Henmi originally studied to become an aeronautical engineer, following his love of designing model airplanes, he realized that wasn’t exactly the kind of designing he wanted to do. So, he turned to architecture.

He found several other Japanese-Americans in the program, such as Gyo Obata and Fred Toguchi, both who have made names for themselves as leaders in the architecture world.  

But the completion of his schooling would have to wait.

Military Service during World War II

Henmi started school at Washington University in September of 1942, but by 1943 he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

“I reported, but they didn’t know what to do with me,” Henmi said. “Because of my Japanese ancestry, they didn’t have a place to put me at the time. So they put me in the reserves and put me back and I went back into school again. Then, in 1945, when they activated me, I had to go into the basic training.”

Dick Henmi, pictured February 13, 2017, at the St. Louis Public Radio studios.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Dick Henmi, pictured February 13, 2017, at the St. Louis Public Radio studios.

From basic training, Henmi applied for officer candidate training school and was accepted. By the time he finished, the shooting part of World War II was finished and the atomic bombs had been dropped. He emerged from officer training school as a second lieutenant and was sent to Alabama to train other recruits on the ways of becoming a soldier.

Eventually, he was sent to Ft. Pickett, Virginia, where he was told he would be sent overseas. But not for the type of military work you’d expect. Henmi was assigned 50 men to manage and 1400 German Prisoners of War who had been held in the United States to take back to Germany.

He traveled with them on a ship to Germany, where he eventually arranged transport in box cars across the country to Bad Aibling, where the prisoners were released to return home.

Henmi stayed in Germany for another 11 months, working as a railway security MP in Munich and Salzburg, Austria.

“Eventually I came back to the states, I left the army and I had school, one semester left,” Henmi said. “I went back to Wash U to complete my training. Then, I went to work.”

Family & experience in St. Louis

After Henmi left the Fresno Assembly Center, his father, mother and brother were transferred  to an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas.

“After a while, they were permitted to leave if they could find a place to live and work,” Henmi said. “My father and mother and brother moved to St. Louis under the auspices of Mrs. Thomas Sayman. The Sayman family had a soap company and lived in a mansion on Lindell. At the back of the property, there was a carriage house with an apartment. That’s where my mother, father, and brother lived.”

Henmi’s father did the chauffeuring for the family and maintained the gardens. His mother was a dressmaker and his brother went to Soldan High School. His brother would eventually serve during World War II in Italy as a part of the famed 442nd Infantry Regiment, a fighting unit composed of solely Japanese-American soldiers.

Henmi lived with his parents in that carriage house before we went to serve in the Army. He remembers summer performances at the Muny.

"The people you deal with, work with, learn with, study with treat you pretty much the same way you treat them. The way you deal with them has a lot to do with how happy your life can be."- Dick Henmi

When asked if he recalled any discrimination or prejudice in St. Louis outside of the internment camps, he said: “There was surprisingly very little. And actually, I was surprised, in St. Louis hardly any. People here were very nice to us. I experienced no discrimination that I could recall. California … that was another story.”

Today, Henmi’s children live in California and he goes to visit them there, but he said he will not go back to visit the Fresno County Fairgrounds, where he was imprisoned during World War II.

He hopes that Americans, when they look back on the time of Japanese-American internment, will learn something about how to treat other humans.

“The people you deal with, work with, learn with, study with treat you pretty much the same way you treat them,” Henmi said. “The way you deal with them has a lot to do with how happy your life can be. Once in a while you run into people who are difficult to deal with but then you don’t have to deal with those if you don’t want to.

“Whatever nationality, background, it is how you deal with them … I found this to be true not only in the states but in Germany, where I spent a year, but also where in my work I traveled a bit: Buenos Aires, Rio, Beijing, Japan, not very much. People, the way you treat them and accept them has a lot to do with how they treat you. To me, that’s very, very important.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.