Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Two World War II Heroes

Gwen Coffin with Senator Bob Packwood
February 19 marked the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of any or all people from military areas “as deemed necessary or desirable.” The military then defined the entire West Coast, home to the majority of Americans of Japanese ancestry or citizenship, as a military area. And although race or ethnicity were not mentioned in the order, the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast—citizens or no—were targeted for removal.

In the middle of a “just war” against Fascism and Imperial Japanese expansion over peoples across the Pacific, Gwen Coffin, the editor of the Wallowa County Chieftain, rose to challenge President Roosevelt and Executive Order 9066. From his far outpost in Wallowa County he spoke to remind people of who we are and why we were fighting. It was a brave thing to do. I remember him saying once, with a chuckle, that the barber would not cut his hair; I am sure there were more serious threats.

In the troubled times in which we live, when religion and national origin are again topics of the day, and again related to real battles with real bullets, it is worth carefully reading Gwen Coffin’s courageous words of April 8, 1943:

“Much of the resentment on the West Coast toward the Japanese was not the outgrowth of the war but arose during peacetime as the Japanese achieved some success and prominence in their pursuit of agriculture and trade. Many employers preferred to see the Japanese remain in the ranks of the low paid wage earners. Others were resentful at the sight of Japanese prospering….

“It is foreign to our conceptions of democracy, however, to distinguish between peoples on the basis of color or nationality. There should be only one test for the right to share in the opportunities which this country provides, and that is the test of belief in our democratic ideals and government, and a willingness to work with other Americans to further those ideals and to support this government.”

This anniversary reminded me that we addressed WW II in 1994, at the seventh annual Summer Fishtrap Gathering at Wallowa Lake. My vivid memories of that July meeting involve three people: Jean Wakatsuki Houston, Richard White, and Alvin Josephy. Houston had grown up during the War in a Japanese Internment camp in California, and written a book about it, Farewell to Manzanar. Manzanar is most widely known as the site of one of ten camps in the United States of America to which over 110,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly moved and then held under Order 9066 during World War II.

And I remember historian Richard White telling us that the Japanese in America were not a threat—any with dangerous ties to the Japanese government were known to our government, and if Americans of Japanese ancestry were serious threats, those on Hawaii should also have been rounded up and incarcerated. They were not, because the Japanese there were crucial to the economy and our war effort.

The internment, White said, was done out of war hysteria for purposes of propaganda.

As it turned out of course, many Japanese-Americans served with great distinction in the European theater, no Japanese Americans were prosecuted for spying, and, in 1988, President Reagan apologized and awarded $20,000 to each of over 100,000 camp detainees still alive at the time.

Finally, I remember Alvin Josephy playing his recording of the Marine landing at Guam. Alvin, a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent, had walked the last quarter mile with a microphone covered by a condom against the seawater, tethered to the recording machine in the belly of a halftrack by a 40-foot cord. He said later that he became numb as he talked his way to shore, passing bodies of comrades—over 20 of the 32 on his boat were hit in that quarter mile. On the day in 1994, tears in his eyes as he and we listened to a recording of shouts and cries, gunfire and engine noise, he rose and said that “some of us felt guilty about coming home alive.”

He stepped down from the stage, where Jean Wakatsuki Houston stood to give him a hug, tears in her eyes too.

I replayed all of this in my mind as I listened to news reports on Sunday, February 19, the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. World War II was a dangerous juncture in our nation’s history. Thousands of Americans and millions of Germans, Russians, French, English, Japanese and others died in that War.

There were heroes in the War, as in any war. Alvin Josephy would not have called himself a hero, but in my mind he was, putting his own life on the line to write about his fellow Marines, and to remind them and the American public of how and what they were fighting for. Gwen Coffin was a hero too, reminding us of our better selves in a time when it was not easy or popular to do so.

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