By Sherman Elliott, EdD
Dean, College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Claire was listening to her favorite radio program, “The Shadow,” when an important broadcast interrupted the popular murder mystery program. The announcer read the copy, “The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor.”
Claire ran into the kitchen to tell her father the news. Putting his newspaper down, he quickly admonished her for saying such things. “No, Dad, it’s true. Come listen to the radio,” she pleaded.
Glen stood in silence as the radio broadcaster repeated the details of the unprovoked attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That was the first time my mother ever saw my grandfather cry.
On that fateful day, more than 2,400 military and civilian lives were lost and the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet was seriously impacted. The next day, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a Declaration of War against Imperial Japan. The nation that remembered the horrors of World War I and the long, painful economic recovery of the Great Depression found itself at war with a country and people it knew very little about.
“Go give Mrs. Okuno some lemons and thank her for the sugar,” my grandmother told Claire. Claire was eager to do so as she knew it was an opportunity to play with the Okuno family’s young girls. Growing up in a small suburb of San Francisco in 1941 meant that everyone felt safe and knew their neighbors quite well. A few months later, the Okuno family was removed from their home and hauled away in trucks. Claire never saw her friends again and no one on the street ever mentioned their names.
President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. This presidential order allowed for the relocation and internment of over 110,000 people of Japanese descent from the Pacific states of California, Oregon and Washington, to government run camps located throughout the West (including two sizable camps located on tribal land in Arizona).
Over 62 percent of Japanese children and adults who were forced to abandon their jobs, friends, schools and churches were U.S. citizens. They were now living behind barbed wire fences and in isolation from their hometowns and family connections.
Americans were scared and impulsive after the Pearl Harbor attack. If someone spoke Japanese and presented a culture that was different from the local mix, they were interpreted as a threat to everyone’s safety, even the little girls playing hopscotch on W. Broadmoor Street. Recent historical research has revealed, however, that military memos circulating at the time stated that the vast majority of Japanese-Americans living along the West Coast were “loyal” Americans and were not a threat to their country.
On Dec. 7, 2016, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This vicious assault on the United States led to the eventual destruction of millions of lives throughout the world. Hopefully we will remember both the lives lost by war and the lives we afflicted with a judgement of those whose culture and race may be different from our own.
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