Date of infamy: Pearl Harbor's flash leads to healing, reconciliation
A Dec. 7 presentation at the Oregon Historical Society focuses on transformation since the attack, examining the 'powerful trust and friendship that emerged between the people of the United States and the people of Japan and today's shared desire for peace and reconciliation.'
The "date which will live in infamy" is now so far in the past that today's youth might not know offhand what that quote even refers to or who said it, without a quick Google search.
But for baby boomers, their parents and those who celebrate and commemorate United States history, that date — Dec. 7, 1941 — and its meaning is pivotal and unforgettable.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke those words in a Dec. 8 speech condemning attacks on a United States naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Japanese the day prior. The surprise attacks killed 2,403 people, including military and Navy personnel, Marines, Army and civilians, and is what launched the United States' involvement in World War II.
Because of the attack's impact on America and the rest of the world, it's a tragedy that is now often likened to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — rather than the other way around due to passage of time and loss of context.
Cameron Smith, director of the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs, says both incidents were bleak, but a moment when Americans rallied together. "It was really a united front of Americans coming together after an incredibly devastating loss," he says.
Seventy-five years later, few World War II veterans are left — the Veterans Administration estimates that 492 die each day — and the pool of those who were at Pearl Harbor is even smaller. Exact numbers are hard to pin down. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association was disbanded in 2011, following the 70th anniversary, due to age and health of the few surviving members. Portland's chapter no longer exists. The group held reunion meetings the first Friday of each month at Heidi's in Gresham — a tradition that stopped years ago, according to a manager there.
Smith says the lack of an accurate count has to do with that generation's humility. Literally called the Silent Generation, "there's a quietness and humility to this generation ... they're not out there beating their chest saying, 'Look at me, look at me,' for all they did," Smith says. He says there are many efforts to capture their stories so they're not lost forever.
At least one former Portlander, Edward (Ed) Allen Johann, at 93 is happy to discuss his experience surviving the Pearl Harbor attacks.
Fighter planes like mosquitos
Johann, now living in Lincoln City, is sharp as ever in recalling the attacks on Pearl Harbor. He says the day was a "hard world of hell."
"The fighter planes were flying around like mosquitos," he says.
Johann, who later went on to be a firefighter in Portland for 28 years, served in the Navy from 1941-45. He joined at 17 years old as part of a "minority cruise" — a program where people could enlist at 17 years old and be discharged before their 21st birthday.
He says he joined so he could make money to send back home to his family in California, because in those days, he says, many were out of work. Though, he adds with a laugh, there also was a less imperative reason he joined: "My brothers and I seen a movie where there were two sailors and all they (were doing) was singing and dancing with lots of girls, so I thought I'd join the Navy."
Six months before the war started, he traveled on the USS Holland to Pearl Harbor and served as a water tender third class in the boiler rooms, where he turned saltwater into freshwater using evaporators.
He was on the USS Solace, a hospital ship, when the attacks began.
"Dive bombers would come out of the sun and they'd drop their bomb and then fly up to the black smoke going above the (USS) Arizona," he says.
In 2009, for the 68th anniversary, Johann made news reports when he returned to the site for the first time. He has also visited Japan.
Though the attacks sent the world into a state of hysteria and instilled harsh animosity toward Japanese-Americans, Johann says he does not hold any anger.
"I feel no pain," he says. "I was in Japan in August of last year and those people are just like us." He says professional service officers and politicians are to blame.
Now, he just likes to tell the story when people ask.
"There's so many things happening now and happened since then. You know, years ago, for a couple years after Pearl Harbor ... publications and things always had 'Remember Pearl Harbor,' " he says. "But after a while (remember) was cast aside.
"Everything's changing, nothing's the same as it used to be. Progress I guess they call it."
A Dec. 7 presentation at the Oregon Historical Society will focus on the transformation since the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Johann, Smith and several others are expected to participate. The program will "examine the powerful trust and friendship that emerged between the people of the United States and the people of Japan and today's shared desire for peace and reconciliation."
The United States was sent into a frenzy after the bombings, and Oregon was not exempt from the ensuing hysteria. The U.S. government stripped Japanese citizens of their civil rights, and President Roosevelt signed an order in February 1942 that required all people of Japanese ancestry living in California, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii to be relocated to internment camps.
Many Japanese people living in Portland were taken into custody without due process and held at the stockyards and then sent by train to the camps. Some headlines at the time reflected the paranoia and anger: A January 1941 article in The Oregonian reported an attempt to burn a Japanese-operated hotel at 1335 S.W. First Ave. Another reported when a 13-year-old boy went missing from Vancouver and was later found trying to enlist so he could "take a crack at the dirty Japs." An advertisement in The Oregonian for a massive sale on oriental rugs wouldn't even print the name of the manufacturer and noted that weavers had discontinued patterns.
Some Portlanders went so far as to build air raid shelters in their homes. A 1942 news photo in The Oregonian announced one built in the basement of 2124 N.E. 25th Ave.
Public schools planned air raid drills and local businesses planned for blackouts. Portland Fire and Rescue officials and civil defense leaders gave demonstrations on how to extinguish incendiary bombs.
The fear from this period of time has abated for decades.
Rex Ziak and his wife, Keiko, are helping to bring closure to families affected, 75 years later, through their organization, OBON Society, based in Astoria. Obon means memorial day in Japanese.
The society aims to reconnect families with items taken from Japanese soldiers during war — battlefield souvenirs such as flags or other heirlooms. Americans often find these in their possession when a relative dies.
"As the times have changed and feelings toward the Japanese have changed and history has moved more off into the horizon, people are thinking about these items," Rex Ziak says.
The endeavor began in 2009, after his wife's family in Japan was reconnected with her grandfather's flag that had been with a collector in Canada for 62 years.
He calls it the final chapter of World War II. "If you were to write a book, you'd have the first chapter of the teens and 1920s and events leading up to the hard feelings of the '30s, then a flash of Pearl Harbor and the war, then the surrender and treaties, then you'd have an occupation chapter ... then the '50s and '60s when Japan starts to build and design things," he says.
"The final chapter is when the families of the soldiers give back the souvenirs that their fathers and grandfathers brought home.
"This is a healing ... not between corporations, governments or universities, but people who actually suffered," Ziak says. "A soldier to soldier connection."
Pearl Harbor Remembrance
Conflict Transformation across 75 Years
When: 7-9 p.m. Dec. 7
Where: Oregon Historical Society, 1200 S.W. Park Ave.