Stories and Histories
“The war changed us, all of us as a country so dramatically that it’s probably the single most important event, I think, that has ever happened to the United States of America.”
World War II was a formative era for not just the United States, but also the entire world. In academia today, we think of the war in the past tense, as a harrowing reminder of the culmination of human folly and greed. Indeed, several of the events of the war, such as the Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Japan, remain vivid in the public consciousness today. But through this lens, we easily lose sight of the people who lived during this time of such great human conflict. Few events in the scope of history have affected an entire generation of people such as WWII did. For them, the war, though long past, breathes life still within their minds. Whether a civilian or a veteran, whether a child or a young adult, whether on Asia or the United States, each member of this so-called “greatest generation” has his or her own story to tell, and many remain with us today.
Over the winter break, students at Irvine High were asked to interview a person who lived through the war era. The idea was to gain an overview of the war’s effects on people from all over the world. Students contacted relatives, family friends, and various organizations in search of that story that they would document, and the person who lived the tale. The resulting compendium of knowledge was nothing short of comprehensive. The broad assignment allowed for the class to amass information from various nations, cultures, localities and social classes, and the over 60 interviewees each contributed their own part towards a fuller understanding of the human aspect of the war.
World War II officially begun in 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland, yet for the past decade, Asia had been plunged in a conflict spearheaded by Japan. Under the banner of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Japanese began their brutal imperialism, with a blatant disregard for human life. As much of our class is of Asian descent, students interviewed their grandparents and other relatives, learning much about their family histories in the process. Some lived in towns directly occupied by the Japanese, forced to accommodate to their standards. Others lived much of their childhoods in hiding, running from one mountain to one town to the next. Many were mere peasants, who were little acquainted with industrial agriculture, let alone bombs that could level a whole village. Nevertheless, the sight of a plane hovering up ahead was an omnipresent threat that drove the war truly close to home.
As Europe and Asia fell into bloody conflict, the US hoped to remain aloof. Yet this neutrality would time again prove to be but a dream as the nation was drawn into the war on December 7, 1941. Though the USA is expansive, and communications back then were inadequate, children in the Midwest and South alike soon began rallying against the two words that had so enraptured national attention: “Pearl Harbor.” For a country left in shambles by the Great Depression era, the war would prove to be, as Cubbison stated, an event that would bring about an awareness of what it truly meant to be American. A number of those interviewed are veterans of the war, and each again has his or her own recollections and experiences. Civilians, on the other hand, found ways to involve themselves in the war effort, whether it be rooting for a family member or friends overseas, or planting victory gardens to preserve supplies.
When we think of wars, we tend to gravitate towards leaders, soldiers, and battles. Yet, the lifeblood of any human society is its citizens, and in a total war situation, the civilian populace must adjust accordingly. In our suburban lives of relative comfort, it is hard to imagine how a child would experience, and react to a war. Joan Coate1 remarks how “everyone was all excited saying Pearl Harbor, Pearl Harbor,” while her 8-year-old mind parsed this as her neighbor Pearl Hower. Allen Coate1 remembers being upset because the annual Easter egg hunt was cancelled because of the war. Roland Olson2 recalls several Japanese families that “disappeared from the bus [and] literally stopped coming to school.” A young child has little understanding of the world, let alone something as mature as a war. In the face of unfamiliarity, they attempt to take make sense of things, asking questions that parents cannot easily answer: “Why? Why isn’t so-and-so at school anymore? Why isn’t the Easter bunny coming this year?” Parents explain tersely, “because there’s a war,” but a child does not understand such concepts, only its effects upon the immediate environment. And so they ask.
In Asia, the war was a much more tangible being. Li Gu-yan3 speaks for everyone when she says, “From my first memory all I remember is that we had to hide from the Japanese.” Faced with a threat, animalistic instinct takes hold: run. In Southern China, Xu Jie’s4 schooldays were punctuated by the sound of the alarm signaling for everyone to hide. “Life was unpredictable” in that way, she recalls. He Zhengzhong5 concurs in the north: “our lives [were] very uncertain… people often died, and we had to run, run, run.” Many others such as Chou Chiu-Hua6 and Shen Yi Zhang7 were also forced to leave their ancestral homelands in pursuit of the elusive safety as bombs rained from the skies. Others were deprived of the “luxury” of running, living under Japanese occupation. Much like the Nazis in Europe, Japanese soldiers considered their Yamato race to be inherently superior to those of other Asians. Such an excuse gave way to brutal incursions such as the Rape of Nanking. And once the Japanese established their power, they did not ease down. Civilians had to start respecting the Japanese; if not, they would kill you. Regardless, belongings were not safe, as soldiers confiscated crops, supplies, and even women as they saw fit. “The Japanese totally treated us like slaves,” Young Susan Chin8 recalls. Schooling continued with the Japanese language as the mode of instruction, whether in the Philippines, in China, in Korea. Students woke up daily to the sound of the Japanese national anthem and the sight of the Imperial flag. The intent of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, then, was clear: to assert Japanese superiority over other nations.
A total war necessitates the complete mobilization of resources and population, such that a civilian is no less active in the war effort than a combatant is. This was most clearly felt in the civilian population through rationing, a subject in which every single interviewee has recollection of, for the feeling of hunger and “just having everything you need” is universal. In the United States, “it wasn’t very long before everything was rationed.1” Citizens were given tiered ration stamps that heavily restricted supplies available, and so people found it impossible to maintain their pre-war lives. As gasoline reserves, fell short roads emptied; as nylon was needed for parachutes, clothing production fell to a standstill. Even foodstuffs were given priority to the battlefront. Marylin Miller9 recalls waiting in lines for hours to get bananas for her grandaunt to bake her the customary birthday banana whip cream cake. No matter how far away the fighting was away from home, rationing served as a stern reminder as to the predicament of the rest of the world. In Asia, it was little different. Here the weak governments held no sway over supplies; instead, the supplies dictated their own terms. Villages endured days without food in mountainous areas waiting out bombings. In villages, families did not have enough food amongst themselves4, 5; adults would often go hungry to provide as much as they could, however little, to their growing children. In occupied areas, Japanese soldiers would confiscate harvests and ration out half of it back to the people. Two meals were enough, if you were lucky8. Moreover, civilian Japanese equally had to pay their dues to the military, whether they supported their country or not (Kiyama Hayawo10). Rice alone was not enough to sustain a populace, yet it did in this era. “Undernourishment, spiritually you’re stressed, and politically you are really a slave, you have to work, work,” Young Susan Chin reminisces.
For all the doom and gloom the war brought out, it did serve to bring about a primal instinct that had lay dormant for years. As the Axis Powers enacted upon their imperialistic desires, civilians would not take it in stride. World War II saw a major resurgence of patriotism from all fronts, for united against a common enemy, a nation was made whole again. The Chinese Nationalist and Communist parties resolved momentarily to set aside their differences in order coordinate against Japan. Though antipathy among the groups remained high, Chinese citizens felt a strong alliance towards not a party, but their country. “One doesn’t have to be a part of a party to love one’s party, right?” Li Gu-yan3 once again so elegantly puts. As city after city fell, and news came of atrocities committed wherever the Japanese Imperial Army went, civilian morale did not break down. In fact, the effect was the opposite, and every hated the “Japanese mongrels” (loosely translated from Chinese, Xiang Zhao Luo11). “We were all united by our hatred,” He Zhengzhong5 exclaims. “No one was passive, everyone wanted to fight and win China back.” The same daily bombings that created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty gave rise to a resistance movement. He Zhengzhong5 recalls many of his father’s students enlisting in the army, and seeing many inspiring Nationalist posters encouraging people to have faith and never give up. Citizens felt proud that government and military officials laid their lives on the line, and returned the favors as best they could, often through covert sabotage4.
In the United States, a similar spirit arose. The Depression ended as the war industry resulted in 100% employment, and with this, the faith in the nation was restored. Women workers were nicknamed “Rosie the Riveters”, the ones that “[were] building the airplanes, riveting the aluminum sides.2” Even those who did not work in the industry played their part. Fat would be scraped off after cooking to be used for ammunitions (Dugard12). Even the schools would get involved, with VaLoye Olson1 noting her schools Saving Bond drives, and how “everyone was buying [them].” People wanted to be involved one way or another, to show their allegiance to their country and its cause. The movies of the time assisted in drumming up public support, with newsreels relaying information from the frontlines, and the movies themselves having staunch anti-German and anti-Japanese sentiments. Though most Americans had earlier wished to remain neutral, after Pearl Harbor the nation was unified in its opposition to Axis aggression.
The war was not merely a homefront affair for America. In the absence of fighting at home, many young men, and even some women, joined the army. There was a draft; however, it was not necessary for one to see combat in the army, as one could be designated a conscientious objector. Whatever the case, it was an honor to serve in the military. There was great support from the home front, after all, and parents were proud their children were serving, as worried as they may have been. Mothers with children in the war would hang a flag with a blue star in their windows; when someone died, a golden star was sewn over it. Goldie Nannes15 recalls how the stillness when the stars were being changed out. In one fell swoop, the war was brought home.
Veteran interviewees were initially a bit hesitant to share their stories. For indeed, though young, idealistic men enlist, hardened soldiers emerge. John Alleck12 was the most involved in the action- “at 17 years old I was fighting on Guam and at 18 years old I was fighting on Iwo Jima.” Alleck emphasizes that it was not how physically ready one was for war, but how mentally capable you were. Those who were not suffered the consequences. He painfully recollects how in Guam he had made the mistake of making a friend, who he taught all he knew about survival in a warzone. “And they got him. He died right there, right in the head. Right between the eyes,” Alleck intones. With friendship out of the question, all that was left for him was to fight, to make it to the next day and to survive, or as he puts it, “GOD BLESS AMERICA. YOU BET YOUR ASS.” Frank Puccilli13 felt similarly about his war experiences, preferring not to go into detail, and plainly remarking, “All the soldiers I served with, they’re all dead.” Frontline soldiers had little concern for the end of the war; all they knew was to serve their duties for as long as they were required to.
But the military experience was not always as dehumanizing as one would believe it to be. Lionel Lopes14 notes how most of his friends when he was stationed in Hawaii were of Japanese descent, and he felt no hatred or resentment towards them. Though the federal government did not distinguish between the enemy and American citizens of the same race, it is evident that soldiers did. Goldie Nannes14 looks back rather fondly back on her days as a marine. As a female in the service, she had to earn respect from her male contemporaries, who initially “thought most of the girls were…tramps or prostitutes.” Only in time did they realize that these girls were actually more like sisters than anything was. “Though Nannes never did get to see combat, she received the same training as the men two did so. “It was really… really something,” she sighs.
Too often, the sole lesson we see to be gained from history that we should avoid the mistakes that others have made. Mistakes such as World War II. But the whole image is often not the most complete, for the lens of an individual is tinted and smudged. To gain a true understanding of history, we must view it from many perspectives. And in assembling the stories of the over 60 souls who so graciously bestowed upon us their most sacred of possessions, their memories, we have succeeded in doing so. Partially.
World War II was a completely different time. Or was it? When you strip away the varnish that encloses those involved in another era, you will find human beings very much like the ones that inhabit the world today. Beings that have hopes, dreams, ambitions. One of which includes to make it a day, hopefully even a lifetime, without being blown up by a bomb. Though the world around them may crumble and envelop them in its wrath, after all is said and done, the human spirit perseveres.
True history cannot be told through the mouthpiece of an individual, as hard as one may try. Nor can it be told by 60, nor a thousand. For history is not a continuous narrative. It is a collection of recollections.