The beam from the policeman's flashlight awakened K. Patrick Okura in his bedroom and made him realize, on that December night 49 years ago, that his American citizenship meant nothing.

His father was arrested that night; Okura and his new bride were spared.

Earlier that day, Japanese war planes had attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II and ushering in an era of prejudice and hysteria against people of Japanese descent.

"It was terrifying," Okura said of the period being recalled this week as the U.S. government begins fulfilling its commitment under the 1988 Civil Liberties Act -- to officially apologize to more than 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans who were interned during the war.

An estimated 3,000 of the 5,000 Japanese Americans living in the Washington metropolitan area were taken from their homes, and qualify to receive a monetary award.

Okura, 79, of Bethesda, recalled that the hysteria against his people began almost immediately on the day of the attack, Dec. 7, 1941. The FBI, aided by federally deputized police officers, arrested more than 2,000 community leaders of Japanese descent along the West Coast -- including Okura's father and father-in-law.

For Okura, among the first group of 23,000 Japanese Americans scheduled to receive a $20,000 check and a written apology from President Bush, this federal atonement is a long-awaited validation that democracy works.

"Despite the injustices that may exist in our system of democracy, if you stick to it, if the cause is right, then you do have a chance of righting the wrong," he said.

This redress, estimated to cost $1.25 billion, comes 48 years after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, 70 percent of whom were U.S. citizens.

"Not only the authorities, but the public was unfriendly. Hostile. Nasty," he said.

Okura and his wife, Lily, both retired, spent most of their first year of marriage living in a temporary internment camp on the grounds of Santa Anita raceway, near Los Angeles.

Okura, the highest-ranking Japanese American working for the City of Los Angeles, was accused of plotting against the government.

A syndicated newspaper columnist said the American-born psychologist, who earned a master's degree at UCLA, was trying to pass as Irish by spelling his name O'Kura.

The column said Okura had recruited 50 Japanese Americans into city service, and was leading a plot to sabotage the city's water and power plants. Twice, the mayor asked him to resign after the false allegation was published and twice he refused, Okura said.

Years later, after requesting his FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act, Okura found out the mayor had labeled him the most dangerous Japanese in the city, and ordered the police department to investigate him.

Okura and his family were among the first 7,000 Japanese Americans to receive notices from the War Department in March 1942 that they were being interned as threats to national security. They were ordered to report to the race track for a two- to three-week stay, until permanent facilities were built in remote sites in 11 states. Not a single incident of espionage involving Japanese Americans was ever documented.

The young Okura couple, along with their mothers and siblings -- the fathers remained separated from them for three years -- lived in horse stables for the next nine months, witnessing the arrival of 19,000 others in that location alone, and experiencing one of the most blatant breaches of civil liberties in U.S. history.

"It was a very sad time," Okura said, describing an encampment where he and his wife lived in an 8-by-8-foot tack room that smelled of horses. They considered themselves lucky because they had privacy.

Okura and his wife were allowed to leave the internment camp when a Catholic priest in Omaha sponsored them and six other families for jobs in the Boys Town youth home. One of his younger brothers got out of the camp by volunteering for the all Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat team, and was killed in action.

"This is a very significant historical event in our lives," Okura said of the reparation program, the culmination of more than a dozen years of heated lobbying efforts. Okura and his wife said they intend to donate their $40,000 to the Okura Trust Fund, which he established with $25,000 two years ago. The fund gives stipends to Asian Americans for leadership training in the human services field.

Despite the indignities he experienced, Okura said he is not bitter. "How one handles hardships makes you a better person," he said. "You accept it and make the best of it."