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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Pearl Harbor

I’m writing this on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. Arguably I should have written it last week, prior to the anniversary, but the Miami Book Fair was a more timely topic last time. And the past never is past, so it’s okay to get to it late.

December 7 has been called Pearl Harbor Day for decades, yet I’m sure many Americans could not find that harbor on a map. Some, especially the anti-Obama “birthers,” probably aren’t even aware that it is in his home state of Hawaii. It’s just outside of downtown Honolulu, and you go near it on your way there from the Oahu airport. Although a smaller area than Tampa Bay, it’s analogous in that the main tourist beach of Waikiki is about ten miles away from the military/commercial port of Pearl Harbor.

On December 7, 1941, commanders of the US Navy were so oblivious to threats from Japan’s fascists that they docked the majority of the US fleet there. They should have known better, as for years, Japan had been taking over other Asian islands, as well as Korea and coastal Chinese cities. Like ISIS today, Japanese militarists bombed civilians with impunity – and again like today, the US refused to accept refugees from this reign of terror.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was racism enshrined into law. Adopted in 1882 and renewed in 1892, it completely outlawed immigrants from China. The act was not repealed until 1943 -- when we were in the middle of the war against Japan with China as our ally – and even then, the annual quota for Chinese immigrants was a tiny 105. The only bit of humanity in between was an 1898 Supreme Court ruling that a child born in the US of Chinese parents could not be deported under the Chinese Exclusion Act. Much like Mexicans today, however, many came to the US illegally during this long era. Almost all were imported (and perhaps deported) by corporations that ignored the law and were glad to keep their employees in this semi-slave status.

Not all who fled Japanese bombs during the late 1930s were Asians. One of the interesting – and initially perplexing – things I discovered in researching the two books I’ve written on women during World War II was a magazine story about the 1939 bombing of Shanghai, written by Eleanor Roosevelt. I knew enough about THE Eleanor Roosevelt to know that the first lady was not in China in 1939, but it took a while to figure out this identity crisis. The other Eleanor Roosevelt turned out to be the wife of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who was the son of famed Teddy Roosevelt. Former president Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, just after World War I, and this younger generation of Roosevelts lived in China in 1939, as World War II was beginning. Many other Americans and Europeans lived there, too, especially merchants from Britain and Holland.

On the first day that Shanghai was attacked by Japanese planes, more than 1,300 civilians died. Eleanor B. Roosevelt, who had lived in France during World War I, described Germany’s 1914 invasion there as “a child’s tea party” compared with the horror of Asia in 1939. Partly because of this Roosevelt influence, a brief cease-fire allowed 410 Americans, almost all women and children, to board an overcrowded ship. They made the 12-mile trip down the Whangpoo River to a waiting vessel of the still-neutral United States – with shells and sniper fire barely missing them.

A more perilous evacuation from Shanghai was that of Mrs. Lester Peterson. She wrote under her husband’s name, and I never found a first name for her. He was a physician working in China, and they escaped with two others in a 36-foot boat. Evading warships and enduring storms, these civilians were such excellent sailors that they made the 5,000-mile trip to safety in a record 85 days. Even without the external hazards of weather and war, preparing enough food and especially water for such a long voyage – while also being bombed – is an almost miraculous achievement.

Canton was the name that English speakers used for the city that now is Guangzhou (sometimes called Guangdong or Kwangtung), and it had fallen to Japan in 1937. Rose Hum Lee, a native of Montana, was a businesswoman there, and she stayed to organize refugee relief. She later returned, earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago, and was the first Chinese-American woman to head a university department. In 1960, she published a pioneering work, The Chinese in America.

But back in the 1930s, bombers continued to drop their lethal loads on Pacific Rim lands, and planes strafed fleeing families with deadly shrapnel. Tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – European and American civilians then were confined to internment camps from Manchuria to Java. Most were forced there soon after “the day that will live in infamy,” as President Franklin Roosevelt called December 7, 1941.

* * *

Cornelia Fort of Tennessee may have been the first American to see the planes approach Pearl Harbor. A talented aviator, Fort had taken a male student up for flying lessons and was in the sky when planes with Japan’s Rising Sun appeared just next to her. Although she escaped safely that day, Fort would die later in the war. Other American women also were shocked by the audacity of the attack, especially at how low the planes flew. A member of the Navy Nurse Corps recalled, “I could see the bombs coming out six in a row.” An Army Nurse Corp woman at nearby Hickam Field wrote, “I ran outside and saw the red sun on a plane that was coming in so close that I could see the faces of the pilots. One of them looked at us and smiled.” A third said they flew so close to the ground that “I could hear the radio communication between the pilots.” Stationed at Schofield Barracks, she added, “The hospital was hit, even though the building had a large Red Cross painted on the roof.”

There was no retaliatory fire, as most soldiers and sailors still were asleep on the Sunday morning – but there also was no ground invasion, and despite some 2,400 deaths on that infamous day, Hawaii remained free throughout the war. That was not the case in the Philippine Islands, where the ground invasion of Manila succeeded on Christmas Day. The turkey dinner at the Army’s Sternberg General Hospital went uneaten, as military personnel were far too busy. For sleepless days and nights since Pearl Harbor, nurses had driven themselves to care for the wounded who crowded the corridors of the hospital and overflowed into annexes in night clubs, colleges, and business buildings. Because medical corpsmen (who were enlisted men) were driving ambulances to retrieve men from battlefields, nurses (who were officers) found themselves doing heavy and loathsome work. “We had to cut off clothing soaked in blood and stiff from burning,” said one woman, “and that took so long that we couldn’t get to many of the men even to give them emergency treatment.”

Now, on Christmas Day, that particular stage of the horror was over. They were preparing to evacuate, as Manila fell to the Japanese. The patients they left behind would become prisoners of war, for the rule of the Army is to live to fight another day, and nurses were part of the Army. Most went to Bataan, a peninsula that later became synonymous with starvation and agonizing death, but then sounded hopeful. They thought they would be there only a few weeks before a victorious US military arrived. Instead, they found themselves running a “hospital” that spread out for miles in the jungle, living with snakes and rats and monkeys that stole the little food they had.

“Little did I dream,” said one nurse, “that we would be always hungry, always frightened. That we would grab shovels and help dig foxholes so we would have some shelter to crawl into when the dive-bombers came. That we would all suffer malaria and dysentery and diarrhea. It was a good thing for all of us that we had no idea what we were getting into.” Accustomed to a ratio of one nurse to ten patients, these women attempted to care for 200 or 300 apiece by the time that Bataan fell. “Days and nights were an endless nightmare,” one recollected. “The doctors and nurses worked continuously amid the flies and heat and dust. We had from eight to nine hundred victims a day.”

Two “meals” a day were all that these hard-working people could get, with breakfast no more than a little oatmeal and supper usually consisting of rice with bits of meat from water buffalo or horses. Once, the nurses enjoyed some remarkably good stew; later they noticed that their pet monkey no longer frolicked around the camp. At the end, when they evacuated to the island of Corregidor, a full day’s ration consisted of a few slivers of mule meat served with a half cup of rice. These dedicated professionals nonetheless donated their own blood for patients – until they again were ordered to flee on April 9. “Nurses were riding out on all kinds of conveyances – ambulances, garbage trucks, anything. Some of them had to walk.” Surrounded by gunfire, watching the sky flare as ammunition dumps were blown up, they proceeded to the dock, only to find that for some it was too late. The last boat had gone. Too tired to panic, they huddled into a tunnel and discovered, to their great joy, a cache of canned hash, peaches, and tomato juice left by the Navy.

Some made it to Australia, while others got to Corregidor on their own. It is a giant rock, and its deep tunnel hospital provided relative safety. Still it was far from pleasant. April 29, the Japanese emperor’s birthday, was a severe test of nerves: bombing began at 7:30 AM and never stopped all day, with as many as a hundred explosions a minute. When the electricity was hit, the hospital was in total darkness, and with no ventilation, the smell could be overpowering. American commanders surrendered Corregidor soon after the emperor’s birthday, and 66 nurses became prisoners of war. Taken back to Manila, they joined some 3,000 American and British civilians. They lived there for the next three years. Ironically, conditions got worse as Allied victory – and Axis defeat – got closer in 1945.

Filipinos risked their lives to bring them food, and they ate frogs, dogs, and rats. “What saved many lives,” reported one, “was the arrival of the Red Cross ship early in 1944.” Even though their guards stole some of the bounty, prisoners received kits containing medicines, vitamins, coffee, cheese, and canned foods. This lieutenant and her bunkmate said “we stretched our kits for almost a year, allowing ourselves half of a thin slice of canned meat each day with our rice and spinach. We ate our last meat on Christmas Day.”

You know how I’m going to end this, so I won’t dwell on the fact that last week – 74 years after the horrible December of 1941 – the Pentagon finally got around to acknowledging that, yes, women can serve in combat. And please remember also that Christmas is supposed to be about peace. War brings more war, and the Middle East of today is not what the homeland of the Prince of Peace should be. Go tell it on the mountains, especially to politicians who preach war.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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