Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Morning After December 7

I meant to write about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but life got in the way. So I'm blogging today about what happened on Monday, December 8, 1941, and over the next several years.

In the months before Earl Warren stepped down as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, there was a campaign, albeit very low-key, asking him to apologize for the internment of the Japanese while he was still Chief Justice. At the time of the Internment, Earl Warren was Governor of California. I was old enough to follow the discussion and I asked my mother about it.

"Well," she said, "times were different then."

My mother and father were high school sophomores in San Francisco on December 8, 1941. My mother's brother had been drafted a few months prior and was in Alaska (then a U.S. territory), serving in the Army. The attack on Pearl Harbor happened at 9:00 a.m. Pacific time. Initial radio reports were confused, but there was one thing almost everyone was sure of: the West Coast was next.

Not just California--the entire West Coast, including British Columbia. Canada was part of the British Empire and was already at war with Germany, an ally of Japan. There were panicked reports of sub sightings and plane sightings, some real, many imagined. The Bay Area, with one military base and two naval shipyards, was considered a legitimate military target.

The high school my mother attended, the High School of Commerce, had many Japanese students. On Monday morning, the principal called an assembly. According to my mother, the mood was tense. What she remembers from the assembly was this message from the principal: "I don't want to hear of any incidents."

The Internment did not happen immediately. The father of one of my mother's friends was taken from his home at dinner time because he was the head of a Japanese-American association, something like the Japanese-American Chamber of Commerce. Eventually, though, the Japanese students left for the Relocation Camps. Most went to the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, where Seabiscuit had overcome tremendous odds a few years earlier. The teachers brought their students books, typewriters, and letters from their fellow students. My mother still exchanges Christmas cards with one of her friends, whose family was lucky. The white man they "sold" their store to when they were forced to leave took good care of it and gave it back to them on their return.

My father was at Sacred Heart High School, at that time all-male and predominantly Catholic. His reaction was to volunteer for the Navy as soon as he was old enough. I asked him once, "Why the Navy?" He answered, "I figured I would have to walk less." When the Navy sent him away to college in North Dakota, he deliberately flunked out. He wanted to be where the action was, not stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere.

My uncle, newly married and stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere, saw his enlistment extended.

One of my father's shipmates served aboard the Arizona on December 7. My parents were his guests at the 50th Anniversary Memorial of the Attack. According to my mother, Arizona survivors are treated like royalty. Red velvet ropes are removed. Navy officers in dress whites showed them to their seats and acted as guides. They attended a special, private ceremony where the ashes of a former crewman were carried by a Navy diver down to the actual Arizona itself and interred there. It was, according to my mother, an awesome experience. My father didn't talk about it--he was too emotional.

Generally, the men I knew who were at Pearl Harbor on December 7 didn't talk much about the experience. Two gentlemen I knew worked together for about five years and didn't realize that both had been young ensigns stationed at Pearl Harbor until the subject happened to come up during lunch. They spoke of the chaos, the confusion, and very, very briefly of the crewmates who died. Their memories were not for display and discussion, but were quite private.

Pearl Harbor is gently fading from memory to history.