updated 5/19/2008 12:51:26 PM ET 2008-05-19T16:51:26

More than six decades after they were forced to leave college, some 450 Japanese-Americans interned during World War II have been awarded honorary degrees from the University of Washington.

Relatives wept during the ceremony Sunday to honor the students, who were among 120,000 ethnic Japanese who were relocated in 1942 under the executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The degrees were presented to at least 65 surviving former students, mostly in their 80s, and 110 relatives representing others who had died or were unable to attend.

"It still seems like a nightmare to me," said recipient Teru Nakata Kiyohara. Like many other former internees, she later earned a degree at another school.

The UW Board of Regents voted in February to award the honorary diplomas.

"The message of today's event is a simple one, and one that I believe none of us should ever forget," former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, himself a former internee, told the crowd. "It's never too late to do the right thing. It's never too late to rejoice that the right thing has been done."

Evacuation notices were issued the spring after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the U.S. into the war on Dec. 7, 1941. At the time, the University of Washington had more Japanese-American students than any college in the country except the University of California, Berkeley.

In short order they went from studying at the library and hanging out at the Japanese student club to being confined behind barbed wire, many at a camp on a fairgrounds in Puyallup, east of Tacoma.

"I know this degree is called an honorary degree, but in no way should that signify that those of you (here today) did not fully earn your degree," Board of Regents Chairman Stanley Barer said during the ceremony. "The term 'honorary' means that you earned it in the most honorable possible way."

Some students received diplomas at the camp a few months after being relocated in 1942. The Army had rejected the university's appeal to allow them to attend graduation with their classmates.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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