An interview with Dr. William Ito

This post comes from Zoë Maughan, Student Archives Assistant in the Historical Collections & Archives.

In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re reaching into the archives and publishing a few oral histories that we have not been able to make public before. The first of these is a 1998 interview with Dr. William Shunsuke Ito.

Image of Dr. William Ito from the Class of 1939 first year photograph composite.
Dr. William Ito in his first year at UOMS, 1935

Dr. Ito was a graduate of the University of Oregon Medical School (UOMS). In this interview, conducted by Sarah Porter, Dr. Ito reflects on his experiences as both a Japanese American physician and World War II veteran, detailing his experiences before, during, and after World War II.

The interview opens with Dr. Ito discussing his upbringing in Portland as well as his experiences as a medical student at UOMS, noting how he faced very little racial discrimination in his time at the University. Dr. Ito attended the University of Oregon as an undergraduate from 1932 to 1935 and was accepted at UOMS in 1935. Interested in studying a number of things, Dr. Ito notes how his, “family tree included no physicians but with [his] dad’s encouragement [he] decided to meet the challenge of a subject and a profession about which [he] knew nothing.”

Dr. Ito describes how he began to encounter racial prejudice when seeking internships and later, residencies, as anti-Japanese sentiment grew in the 1930s and 1940s, though he eventually secured an internship at Multnomah County Hospital and later, a residency at Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Dr. Ito decided to establish his practice in Hawaii and was serving as chief of the surgical service at Queen’s Hospital on December 7, 1941. He describes how he frequently saw white puffs of smoke over the Pearl Harbor area on his way to work, but noted that that morning the smoke was black and far more invasive. Working as chief surgeon, Dr. Ito was the only doctor on duty that morning and describes working tirelessly over the next two days to care for civilian casualties.

I think the frightful thing at that time was that we didn’t know to what extent the fighting was to go on. We didn’t know whether the ships were close by, whether the enemy troops were landing, and we didn’t know how hard Pearl Harbor was hit. At night we could see the tracer bullets and we didn’t know who or what they were shooting at. We could hear the planes go over the city. It was scary mostly because we didn’t know what was happening. 

Shortly after, Dr. Ito’s brothers informed him that the F.B.I. had taken their dad, a prominent member of the Japanese community in Portland, away to an undisclosed location, and eventually to an internment camp in New Mexico. Dr. Ito’s mother and brothers were sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center, an internment camp in Idaho. In 1943, Dr. Ito was drafted into the Army. Following assignments at Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, an engineer construction battalion, and several different hospitals, Dr. Ito was discharged in 1946. Spending the entirety of the war apart, Dr. Ito reunited with his family in Portland after the war and then made his way back to Hawaii, a place that had become home to him, to continue his practice.

Dr. Ito went on to serve as the first Japanese American president of the Honolulu County Medical Society in the 1950s, noting free choice of physicians, insurance coverage, and workers’ comp as critical issues. He discusses his practice as well as the changes he observed in medicine from the 1930s to the 1990s.

Reflecting on his life, Dr. Ito said, “My life has been good. My experiences were widespread, most of which have been good, happy and beneficial.” Dr. Ito passed away in 2001.

Read the interview

Know of someone that should be interviewed? Let us know!