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Alumni Profile

From prisoner to prominence

bob naka

Bob Naka was interned in a prison camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II before being released to attend MU. His engineering studies led to a career as a pioneer in electromagnetics, on which stealth technology is based. Photo by Justin Allardyce Knight.

In the winter of 1942–43, snow blocked mountain passes to Manzanar, in the high desert of California. Trucks bearing heating oil could not get through. Robert Naka, then 18, was one of the 10,000 Japanese-Americans imprisoned there.

Naka’s job was to help distribute the dwindling supply of oil. When the passes froze, he used calculus to figure out how to deliver precise amounts from the tank trucks to ration it through the winter.

Naka was rounded up with his parents and more than 120,000 other Americans of Japanese descent to be imprisoned in camps for the duration of World War II.

Naka, now of Concord, Mass., says the internment was “a catastrophe” for his parents, who gave up the chance to become large landowners in Japan in order to live in America. But he was released when the Japanese American Student Relocation Council supported by the American Friends Service Committee, or Quakers, arranged for 4,000 college-age Japanese-Americans to attend school in the Midwest.

“My father didn’t want me to go,” Naka says, “but my mother said if I stayed in camp I would rot. She said if I left, even if I got killed, at least I would have tried.”

With those ominous thoughts, Naka arrived at MU in February 1943. To his great relief, he was treated like any other student.

“My experiences at Mizzou gave me my bearings,” Naka says. “I did very well in my studies, and I was popular on campus. I became a whole person again, and that was a very important factor in my life.”

Naka had a knack for electronics. “I always liked taking things apart to see how they worked.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Mizzou in 1945, a master’s from the University of Minnesota in 1947 and a doctorate from Harvard University in 1951.

As the Cold War chilled relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Naka began working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to perfect radar detection of aircraft. His research was used in early warning radars across North America.

The technology could help planes avoid radar, too, and soon Naka was enlisted to design aircraft that could escape detection. His work on the U-2 and Oxcart aircraft was the forerunner of stealth technology.

In 1969, Naka moved to Washington, D.C., to lead the National Reconnaissance Office — a secret group the U.S. government would not acknowledge.

His supervisor said to him, “There was a time when you were a distrusted American. Now you are one of the most trusted citizens we have.”

In 1987, Naka addressed graduates at the MU College of Engineering commencement. “I charge you to make sure what happened to me [in the internment camp] doesn’t happen again,” he told them. “The problem is, you may not recognize it when it happens. There will be an element of fear, and it will only happen to a small number.”

His words were prescient, Naka says. “It’s happening today to Muslims. They are being whisked away, and only their immediate neighbors know that it’s happening. Our civil liberties are being eroded by our trying to defend ourselves against terrorists.”

Naka was ambivalent about the bill President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1988 to pay reparations to Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II. No amount of money could compensate for the losses endured by more than 120,000 innocent people. But some amount was necessary, Naka says, to draw attention to history.

He took his reparation check for $20,000, added $10,000 of his own money, and gave half to the Quakers and half to MU for undergraduate scholarships. Nearly 40 students have benefited from his gift.

After a career of service to America, he paid a debt to the groups who freed him and made him whole. 

— Kathy Love