Robin Camille Davis
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An interview with my grandmother: Hawaii in December 1941

December 07, 2012
Tags: history, nonfiction, preservation

Today is the 71st anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. My maternal grandparents both grew up on O'ahu and were adolescents at the time of the bombing. It turned their lives upside down. My grandfather was 18 at the time, and he volunteered for the Army soon after. My grandmother was still a teenager in school. (They wouldn't meet for another two years.) Her parents had migrated in the early 1900s from the Philippines to Hawaii. Her father worked as a supervisor on the Dole Plantation, and they lived in a small town in the countryside near Schofield Barracks. Her mother and father were leaders in their community, which was very diverse — Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, and other mostly Asian immigrants who worked on the pineapple plantation.

In 2009, I conducted a series of recorded interviews with my grandmother about her childhood and life in Hawaii. She is a great storyteller, but at that time, she started showing early signs of memory loss, so it became urgent that I preserve some of her stories. The below is an edited transcript of our conversation about December 7, 1941, and how her life changed.

It was a Sunday morning. We were having breakfast.

At the first boom, the first bang, Papa went out to see what was happening. We could see airplanes zooming overhead and thought at first they were Hickam Field maneuvers. But Papa could see the airplanes dogfighting already. He saw one of the planes had a red sun on the bottom of its wings, and he ran home to say it was war. Then they were dogfighting above us.

We were still in our sleeping clothes, which were kimonos. Papa told us to change right away and that we had to leave. We brought all the nonperishable food we could carry with us, and flashlights too, and we ran downhill. We were scared to death.

We spent all day and all night in the hills. We hid near the zigzag in the river. So did everybody else in our community. No one burned a fire at night, no one used a radio. We thought the enemy would land troops, too. It was really scary to everyone, thinking that the Japanese troops would land and kill all of us. And to us, we were scared of the US military too. What did they care?, we thought. We all looked the same. We were afraid we would gunned down by the enemy and our own soldiers alike.

The next day, back in our village, everybody was lined up by members of the US military and identified as Japanese or not Japanese. It was very helpful that Papa could still speak Filipino [because her family looked especially Japanese].

We survived the panic. We could have shot each other up, started fighting within our community. What held us together was a kind of paralysis. It was strange — the Japanese community in Hawaii was bewildered. Whose side were they on? They sided with the American forces, but under suspicion.

As for us, we were afraid to show that we sided with our Japanese neighbors. We avoided all contact with the Japanese members of our community, because we would be suspect if we continued our regular friendships with our old-time friends and neighbors.

I had gone to a Japanese school as a child. Papa burned all of my Japanese school books and any Japanese material, because nobody wanted to be identified as friendly to the people who attacked Pearl Harbor. They took most of the Japanese teachers, newsletter editors, and leaders of the community. They took educated, American-born Japanese, and sent them to internment camps in Hawaii and the deserts of California. [Less than 1% of the Japanese population of Hawaii was sent to internment camps, but those interned were usually community leaders. Source.] I had friends at school who were sent away.  We were scared to interfere, because that might have meant that we’d be sent away, too. It was chaos for the Japanese sent to internment camps.

The plantation did a lot to identify the people in our village because they were dependent on their workers. “This man is in charge of a certain plot of land and has been cleared by the military,” and so forth. The economy of the island depended on pineapples, and they couldn’t put everyone in internment camps. The plantation identified people who were necessary for their fields to function. They maintained a workforce to keep up production. Papa [a supervisor at Dole] was one of the first given the responsibility of identifying his former friends and neighbors as Japanese or non-Japanese. He had to sort them out. He couldn’t make one false move, otherwise he would be suspect too. He had to reorganize our whole community, and even then he was not above suspicion. I remember he told Mama not to argue with anybody, that all our lives were at stake.

There were military police on every corner of our town. Classes stopped. The high school within Schofield Barracks closed, and a makeshift high school was set up outside the barracks, since the military didn’t want civilians within their area.

Everything went under military rule. You needed clearance and passes to go from one place to another. We couldn’t go downtown [to Honolulu] for a while. They even confiscated our Model T, but we got it back eventually. Without it, though, I couldn’t get to my godmother’s house [where she was staying in Honolulu to attend high school]. But my godmother was married to an an officer in the Navy. So they got passes to travel between the city and the country. That was a good break. The Navy wasn’t as strict as the Army. It wasn’t scary to be in the city, compared to the countryside.

Can you even imagine?

It is not easy to remember how close we really are to history, or the ways in which our parents' and grandparents' lives are both so similar to and yet vastly different from our own.

One of the best things I have done is to ask for and record my grandmother's stories. They are among my most prized possessions, along with her diaries and letters.