Authors: Richard Reeves
Tags: #History, #Military, #World War II, #United States, #20th Century, #State & Local, #West (AK; CA; CO; HI; ID; MT; NV; UT; WY)
DeWitt’s headquarters was reporting enemy sightings day after day, stating that Japanese air force planes and submarines were engaged in constant reconnoitering all along the Pacific Coast—and wilder tales of bombardment from the sea, arson around Seattle, and illegal radio transmissions up and down the coastline. Almost all of that was untrue.
The second-ranked soldier in the West was Major General Joseph Stilwell, commander of Fort Ord in California, later to become famous as “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in China and India. He kept a pocket diary during those early days. Some of his notations beginning on December 8 included:
Dec. 8—Saw DeWitt Sunday night “air raid” at San Francisco.… Fourth Army kind of jittery. Much depressed.
Dec. 9—… Fleet of thirty-four [Japanese] ships between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Later—not authentic. (Sinking feeling is growing.) More threats of raids and landings …
Dec. 11—[Phone call from Fourth Army] “The main Japanese fleet is 164 miles off San Francisco.” I believed it, like a damn fool.… Of course, the attack never materialized. The [Fourth Army] passed the buck on this report. They had it from a “usually reliable source,” but they should never have put it out without check.
Dec. 13—Not content with the above blah, [Fourth] Army pulled another at ten-thirty today. “Reliable information that attack on Los Angeles is imminent. A general alarm being considered.…” What jackass would send a general alarm [which would have called for the evacuation of Los Angeles] under the circumstances. The [Fourth] Army G-2 [Intelligence] is just another amateur, just like all the rest of the staff. Rule: the higher the headquarters, the more important is
Stilwell knew, of course, who the “jackass” was: his immediate superior, General DeWitt.
On December 21, Stilwell was ordered out of California. He was called to Washington to work on planning for an Allied invasion of North Africa toward the end of the coming year. He was more than glad to leave. His diary was filled with what he called:
The wild, farcical and fantastic stuff that G-2 Fourth Army pushes out! The latest is a two-pound bundle of crap. An investigation of a PhD, at California Tech, a distinguished research man in weather, who runs a service for orange growers. He voluntarily discontinued his broadcast when the war broke out, but [Fourth Army] had him investigated by FBI.… Report from Army that secret airfield had been reported about 20 miles north of Palomar (in San Diego County), the planes being concealed under alfalfa.… Where is our Navy? Five Mexican destroyers coming up from Panama to patrol Baja California. (The day has come we lean on Mexican Navy!)
Then something did happen. On December 23, a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank a Union Oil tanker, the company’s largest, the USS
, in sight of the beaches of the town of Cambria, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. No one was killed or wounded and four lifeboats brought the thirty-six-man crew safely to shore. This time, because of rising fear and hysteria across the state, the navy and Coast Guard denied there was an attack. The news that two other smaller freighters were torpedoed off the California coast that same week, the
, was also censored by the Coast Guard. Before and after the three real incidents, there were dozens if not hundreds of rumored stories, including one that Japanese farmers were cutting or burning arrows into their fields to guide Japanese planes to American bases and factories.
The rumors won the day. By Christmas of 1941, soldiers, FBI agents, police, and local authorities were conducting raids on homes across California, Oregon, and Washington, arresting people whose names had never appeared on the sloppiest government lists. Sometimes breaking down doors, the agents and police were confiscating ordinary radios and binoculars along with guns and anything with Japanese characters on it. After raids on Japanese farms in the Palos Verdes section of Los Angeles, city law enforcement officials proudly showed the results of the raid to local newspapers: a length of water pipe called a possible cannon part; wires for hanging clothes identified as a possible shortwave radio antenna; and insecticides, which were called poison gas. “Our goose was cooked,” wrote Thomas Sisata, after seeing such photos in the
Los Angeles Times
and after his fiancée was fired from a housekeeper’s job on the day after Pearl Harbor. “I really began to believe,” he wrote in a college paper, “that the average intelligence of people in the United States was that of a high grade moron.”
The FBI officials and local police reported that they had confiscated guns in the hundreds from Japanese residents of California. What they did not report was that most of those arms were collected at Japanese-owned or -operated sporting goods stores, of which there were more than a hundred in a state noted for its hunting. The count of confiscated items for the three West Coast states came to 2,592 guns, 199,000 rounds of ammunition, 1,652 sticks of dynamite, 1,458 radios, and 2,015 cameras. The Justice Department secretly advised the president, “We have not, however, uncovered through these searches any dangerous persons. We have not found a single machine gun nor have we found any gun in any circumstances indicating it was to be used in a manner helpful to our enemies.”
* * *
When the war began there were only a few thousand Japanese and Japanese Americans, mostly farmers, living east of the Rocky Mountains. In Hershey, Nebraska, Ben and Fred Kuroki, who had been at the North Platte church meeting where Mike Masaoka was arrested, told their father that night that they wanted to join the army. “This is your country,” said their father, Shosuke Kuroki. “Fight for it.” So the next morning the brothers got in the farm truck for the 150-mile drive to Grand Island, the nearest army recruitment station. They filled out the papers but then never heard back. Two weeks later, Ben Kuroki heard on the radio that the Army Air Corps was looking for men and had opened a station in North Platte. This time they were accepted. When they asked why the Air Corps would accept them, the sergeant in charge of the office said, “I get $2 for every enlistee. Welcome to the United States Army Air Corps.” A photo of the Nisei brothers taking their oath to serve the United States made the front page of the state’s largest newspaper, the
But it wasn’t all quite that easy for the two farm boys. Even on the train ride to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a couple of other enlistees began hassling them. “What are those two lousy Japs doing here?” one said. “I thought this was the American Army.” Fred was assigned to digging ditches and Ben, who had learned to fly in a little Piper Cub, spent his first twenty-one days in the army peeling potatoes—and pretending not to hear the “Jap” jokes and threats of white soldiers and airmen. “We were the two loneliest men in the United States Army,” Ben recalled.
Finally, the Air Corps separated the brothers, sending Ben to clerical school at Fort Logan, Colorado. Then it was on to Barksdale Field near Shreveport, Louisiana, and more KP, peeling potatoes again. He was depressed and lonely, and his misery got worse when he learned that his brother had been dropped by the Air Corps and assigned to an infantry unit. After a month of pleading, begging really, with officers, he was assigned to a combat unit, the 409th Squadron of the Ninety-Third Bomb Group. It took three months in the Ninety-Third, but more and more of the white guys were nodding when they passed by and a few began talking with him. Still, many of them were soon on their way overseas and Ben was still begging officers to send him with those groups. Then it happened, and the boy from Nebraska was on the
with nineteen thousand other soldiers passing the Statue of Liberty on their way to England. Soon enough about eighteen thousand of them, including Kuroki, were pale and vomiting for five rough days.
At the same time, back in Washington, D.C., there was confusion, contradiction, and debate about what to do about young Japanese Americans already in the military or trying to join. Corporal Akiji Yoshimura, an army medic at Crissy Field in San Francisco, was taken to jail by two FBI agents for interrogation.
“Will you fight against Japan if you are called upon to do so?” asked one agent.
“Of course, I would. Anytime, anywhere,” said Yoshimura.
“You sonofabitch,” said the interrogator. “I expect you to say that you will shoot down the Emperor and tear down the Jap flag and stomp it into the ground.”
Yoshimura, like many of the more than three thousand Japanese Americans serving in the military, draftees and men who had enlisted before Pearl Harbor, was discharged from the army. Later he volunteered for the Military Intelligence Service, a secret unit of Japanese-speaking Nisei training to serve as interpreters in the Pacific Theater, winning a battlefield commission as a lieutenant.
In Nebraska, the Kuroki boys were accepted for enlistment after Pearl Harbor, but, in California, Nisei were routinely being turned away. Most of the Nisei in military service before Pearl Harbor were summarily discharged by March of 1942, especially those in California. “We don’t want any Japs in our Army, you guys are no damn good. So get out of here,” an army recruiting officer in San Jose told one Nisei, Yasuko Morimoto.
But at the same time, there were others still in uniform in many states and young reservists were being called to active duty in Hawaii. The new Military Intelligence Service was based at the Presidio, close to DeWitt’s headquarters. Sixty-five Nisei and
were secretly studying military Japanese before being sent to army units in the Pacific. After Pearl Harbor, General DeWitt demanded that the military move the MIS, and so the handful of teachers and the sixty-five trainees were sent to Camp Savage in Minnesota.
* * *
On December 12, a small newspaper published north of Los Angeles, the
San Luis Obispo Independent
, was the first on the West Coast to call for the evacuation of
Japanese, citizens or not, from Pacific coastal areas. The
New York Times
reported a rumor that the Japanese had a secret air base in Baja California, the Mexican state south of San Diego. Its source was Earl Warren, California’s attorney general. The paper quoted General DeWitt as saying that anyone who disbelieved these reports was “inane, idiotic, and foolish.” On December 15, after a visit to Hawaii, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, a former publisher of the
Chicago Daily News
and the Republican nominee for vice president of the United States in 1936, held a press conference in Washington. Knox portrayed the tens of thousands of Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the islands as a gigantic spy nest and claimed that “the most effective ‘Fifth Column’ work of the war was done there.”
Untrue, every word. If Knox had a reason to say that, it was to shift blame for the devastation at Pearl Harbor from the navy, which had been unprepared for sneak attack, even though, for weeks, there had been military intelligence predicting some sort of assault. Dorothy Thompson, a nationally syndicated columnist, writing the day after Knox’s performance, said: “There is a monstrous fifth column in the United States—just as there is fifth column in Hawaii, which contributed to the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Have those people been found? And are they still operating?” They were certainly in plain view;
were 37 percent of Hawaii’s population. Except for General DeWitt, few officials even thought about interning Hawaiians because there was no doubt the local economy would crash if Japanese were taken away from the islands’ huge fruit and sugar plantations. And, of course, the Hawaiian Fifth Column would never be found because it did not exist.
There were certainly many Japanese in Hawaii and California who sympathized with the rise and ambitions of the Old Country, but there was no evidence of sabotage or spying in either place. Instead, there were cadres of nervous military men and panicking politicians reacting to rumors and sensational news reports. There were also thousands of Californians who would benefit economically if the state’s Japanese were forced out of their farms and businesses.
California’s Governor Olson put forward a plan in mid-December to restrict all Japanese and Japanese Americans to their homes. It amounted to house arrest, but Olson argued that it would prevent violence and riots by angry white Americans. The plan was rejected by the California State Council of Defense, which countered that because Japanese farmers owned or worked so many of California’s farms, there might be a food shortage if they stopped working. At the same time, General DeWitt was sending secret plans to his superiors in Washington. His first proposal, cabled to Washington on December 19, called for the relocation of all males, enemy aliens and citizens alike, over fourteen years old, including Germans and Italians, to camps east of the Rockies where they would be held “under restraint.” It was the first of dozens of often contradictory plans put forward by DeWitt. The “restraint” proposal, whatever that word meant, was turned down by Major General Allen Gullion, the army’s provost marshal general—because it did not go far enough. Gullion, formerly the army’s chief legal officer, wanted Japanese of all ages, noncitizens and citizens, brought under military control. Germans and Italians were essentially exempt from the treatment forced on
. The reason was simple enough: officials in the Justice Department estimated that Italian Americans and German Americans in California had more than fifty million relatives in other parts of the country—a third of the nation—and without their help the United States had little chance of winning the war.
* * *
It seemed the worst of times, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The confusion and fear touched every American, including the First Lady in Washington. In December, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to her daughter Anna, who lived in Seattle: “Dearest, the news of the war has just come and I’ve put in a call for you and Johnny as you may want to send the children East.… I must go dear and talk to Father. Much, much love, Mother.”