A tattered loose-leaf notebook, “9-22-17” neatly penned on the inside cover, reveals a glimpse into a small part of the remarkable life of Mary Yone Akita, the first registered nurse of Japanese descent in California and at Cedars-Sinai (known as Cedars of Lebanon when she joined the staff in 1935).
The notebook’s 49 pages span two years of a tumultuous—and shameful—time in U.S. history, when Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II.
From January 1943 to March 1945, when she was interned at Manzanar War Relocation Center in Inyo County, California, Akita used the notebook as her diary, detailing sharp, daily descriptions of all kinds of goings-on, from weather to worries to work.
Her words are especially meaningful during May, Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
May 7, 1944: “Sick to stomach from worry. No appetite.”
They are personal.
May 25, 1944: “1 pr. new stockings hope they will last until we return to our home.”
They are descriptive.
Aug. 23, 1944: “Caesarean section on Yuri @ 2:30.”
Sept. 5, 1944: “Scrubbed all day did 4 cataract and 2 strabismus. Work from 7-11 p.m.”
They share everything from her bouts of hay fever to colds, headaches and hampering exhaustion as well as run-of-the-mill workdays that were “nothing unusual.”
Akita was a highly respected surgical nurse and was drafted to Manzanar near Death Valley by the U.S. Public Health Service. She was assigned to set up and help run a hospital in the camp, which would eventually serve up to 10,000 people.
Akita lived at Manzanar for more than three years—the only break in her more than 40 years of service to Cedars-Sinai, which took her through retirement from full-time nursing in 1971, followed by part-time work until 1981.
“I’m grateful that Mary Yone Akita’s story is part of the fabric and enduring legacy of Cedars-Sinai,” said Patricia “Peachy” Hain, MSN, RN, executive director of Nursing. “What a dynamic part of our history. I’m certain that our caring staff will always continue to uphold the values of fortitude, compassion and commitment that she represented.”
In 1990, Japanese Community Health honored Akita for her work as a pioneering health professional during a special ceremony at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.
As The Journal of the National Medical Association noted: “The story of Japanese physicians and nurses during World War II is a widely overlooked yet heroic story in U.S. medical history. Their achievements hold important lessons for medical professionals today.”
Born in 1897, Akita was the first Nisei (second-generation Japanese) girl born in L.A. County. According to county records, her father was the first Japanese person to become a permanent resident.
Akita was the oldest of four children. In a 1994 article titled “The Akita Sisters of L.A.,” published in the Los Angeles Japanese newspaper The Rafu Shimpo, she and sister Anabelle explained that making sure all the children learned perfect English was of utmost importance to their mother. They were fully immersed in both American and Japanese culture, which served them well throughout their lives and careers, they said.
In 1920, Akita graduated from Angelus Hospital nursing school in Los Angeles and became a private-duty nurse. Several years later, after spending three months at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital practicing and perfecting surgical techniques, she was asked to join the surgical staff.
Discrimination and Determination
In the spring of 1942, three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order directing the U.S. Army to remove all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast from their homes and send them to internment camps. Manzanar was one of the 10 Japanese internment camps in the U.S., which housed 110,000 people across seven states.
Akita was in her mid-40s when she was assigned to Manzanar.
She later told a reporter, “Cedars wanted me to stay because I was one of the principal nurses. But they [the government] wouldn’t let me stay. And I went to Manzanar because they told me I had to go.”
Akita set up the 250-bed hospital there and eventually became its head of surgery. According to one acquaintance, she was the only experienced nurse assigned to Manzanar, so she was on call 24 hours a day.
“You couldn’t top her experience at Cedars,” the acquaintance said. “She was the only one who had that experience.”
As such, Akita was commonly permitted to leave the camp to perform surgical procedures. She frequently traveled to Los Angeles, and as her diary notes, she also traveled out of state to help perform surgeries at other camps. Over several days’ entries, she describes being sent to Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah.
June 5, 1944: “Received air mail special from [Dr. Goto] asking me to come to assist in surgery.”
June 7, 1944: “Still not sure about leaving but finally left at 10:30 a.m. Arrived Reno 5 p.m. Stop over until 5 a.m. Bus crowded.”
June 8, 1944: “Arrived Salt Lake 1 a.m.—3 hours late. Mary met me at Bus depot.”
Back at Manzanar, surgical conditions were less than optimal.
One report described a power blackout mid-surgery. Akita, helping a doctor with an appendectomy, shone a flashlight over the operating table while the two finished the procedure in otherwise pitch-black darkness.
On Dec. 17, 1944, Akita noted encouraging news in her diary: “Exclusion ban lift was announced over radio. Date set 1-5-45.”
Once she was able to leave Manzanar and go back home, Akita made her way back to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital and reassumed her nursing duties. Over the years, she was photographed for the hospital’s publications, demonstrating new surgical technology. She is often credited with helping open the field of nursing to other Japanese Americans.
In 1961, when she had been an employee for 25 years, she was presented with a special service pin and membership in the hospital’s Quarter Century Club.
When she retired at age 65, she received a Golden Service Award in recognition of her outstanding work and commitment.
The Journal of the National Medical Association noted that, “Doctors and nurses of Japanese ancestry worked behind barbed wire and under guard towers to maintain the health and wellbeing of their communities displaced from their homes on the West Coast. Their altruism and self-sacrifice under demanding conditions are excellent examples of commitment to serve and medical professionalism.”
Highlight of Her Life
Akita and sister Anabelle lived together in a Los Angeles duplex for some 50 years. Neither married, and after the deaths of their parents and siblings, they had no other family in the U.S.
Akita frequently cited nursing as the highlight of her life, telling a reporter, “Mentally, I always bring everything back to the nursing. My nursing is my only fallback, something that always guides me.”
Akita died in 1998. She was 101 years old.
*Mary Yone Akita’s diary is courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries
Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Critical Care Nurse Olena Svetlov