Pearl Harbor: In the Words of My Mother

Today is the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  My mother who was twelve years old at the time and her family were on the island of Lanai during the attack.  Twenty-seven years ago I interviewed my mother for a Women’s History class in college which included asking her about that day and the ensuing days, weeks, and months following the attack.  Below is an excerpt from the paper I wrote for that class. 

Socorro and her family had no knowledge of the bombing when they came home from church that day.  They returned home and her mother turned on the radio, but nobody seemed to notice that there was no broadcast.  The radio stations had been silenced to keep Japanese planes from homing in on the islands.

The local authorities on Lanai rounded up the leaders of the various communities.  Since Socorro’s father was a store owner and thus considered one of the neighborhood leaders, he was asked to attend a special meeting where he was informed of the Japanese invasion.  He returned home and told the family that the U.S. was at war with Japan.  Socorro remembered her reaction to the news:

It was a horrible feeling.  This fear that literally clutches at your stomach…  We didn’t have very much protection on the little island of Lanai…  The few men in the National Guard were whisked off immediately to Honolulu.  And what was left to protect us?  One Sea Scout troop and one Boy Scout troop… They would patrol the streets to make sure the blackout laws were followed.

The Girl Scouts, in which Socorro was involved, also played an important role on the island.  A Junior Scout at the time, Socorro learned and passed the Red Cross First Aid Course and the Home Nursing Course to prepare for invasion.  The Senior Scouts carried messages by foot to huts in the sugarcane fields and made sure no lamps were left burning during blackouts (after sundown, no lights whatsoever were allowed to be seen outdoors in order to prevent being spotted at night by enemy planes flying over the island).  Islanders began community gardens should food shipments be cut off and began stocking up on food should there be a shortage.  Gasoline and food was rationed and ration cards were issued to the residents while storekeepers made sure no one went past their allotted limit.

Family photo (Socorro, back row, on left)
Family photo (Socorro, back row, on left)

All residents of the islands were issued gas masks that were from World War I.  Everyone was required to carry their gas masks everywhere they went.  They also all had to be registered, finger printed, and immunized.  U.S. Government money was withdrawn and special money was printed with “HAWAII” stamped across the bills.  Socorro said the reason for the money switch was that in the event Hawaii was invaded and taken over, the government treasury could disavow the “HAWAII” money.  She believed that the U.S. government was willing to give up the Hawaiian Islands if they were invaded again,

For a very, very long time after Pearl Harbor, there was still the fear and the possible danger of the islands being invaded.  And the islands were written off immediately.  If the Japanese invaded they were to be allowed to fall, because in order to allow the government to retrench along the West Coast, we were to be expendable… It’s really amazing that the Japanese didn’t follow through because if they’d followed through, the islands would have fallen before the end of December, I’m sure, because we didn’t have what was necessary to hold them off.  If their fleet would have come through we would have fallen.  We were expendable.

Government-issued identification (side one)
Government-issued identification (front)

The beaches were barb-wired and for a long time no one was allowed on the beaches.  Many families were distressed by this restriction because they depended on fishing for their food supply.  Almost a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, people were allowed to go on the beach if they had permits.  The beaches were under close surveillance by the military:

One time our family went down to the beach for a Sunday picnic.  And I brought along my drawing pad and my drawing pencils and I was sitting on the beach trying to draw this sand dune; and all of a sudden there was this military reconnaissance plane buzzing the beach!  It came down once!  It came down twice, quite low!  Then all of a sudden my father realized what was happening.  They saw me drawing on the beach.  You know, this great fear of spies.  He was buzzing to try to get close to see what I was doing.  So my father said, “Put that away!”… Then the Signal Corps sends this jeep down the road and my father went and talked with them and brings my drawing pad and says, “No, she’s not a spy, she thinks she’s an artist.”

Government-issued identification (side two)
Government-issued identification (back)

Because of the state of emergency, schools were closed until early January.  While in school, students were required to engage in gas mask drills (“which usually happened after you forgot to clean out the dust from your gas mask”).  Socorro learned about blackouts and memorized facts such as the number of miles away a lit cigarette could be seen in the dark.  The students also dug trenches along the front of the school to go to for protection in case of attack.  Trenches were also dug at all the residents’ homes.

By the time the schools reopened, Socorro had befriended many of the neighborhood children who were Japanese-Americans.  On her first day back in school, Socorro witnessed the newly arisen prejudice against the Japanese students:

I walked into my homeroom and all the Japanese kids were on one side of the room.  And on the other side of the room were the Filipino kids and the Korean kids and the Chinese, except one Filipino boy was sitting with the Japanese boys.  And I walked into the room toward the Japanese girls whom I was close to and a Filipina girl says, “Hey, don’t go with them, you know, they’re Japs! Come over here!”  And I remember, Helen Tamura says, “It’s not our fault.”  And then Jaime, the Filipino boy who was sitting with his friends who were Japanese… he says, “Yes, it’s not their fault.  They didn’t bomb Pearl Harbor!”  And at that point, the class went back to normal.  We mixed and suddenly there wasn’t this empty space in the middle of the classroom.  And to my knowledge throughout all that time, that was the only time that I remember that there was a disparity there.

Although Socorro perceived the prejudice against the Japanese in Hawaii as less severe than that on the mainland, she realized that many Japanese were being arrested on the islands and taken to the mainland.  One was the father of Francis Imura, a close friend of hers.  He was sent to a high security camp in Montana where he stayed until 1946.  While he was incarcerated, his eldest son had volunteered for the U.S. armed forces and was killed in Italy.  He returned to Hawaii a completely changed and broken man.  Socorro remarked that Mr. Imura’s treatment “was the most unjust thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

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