Pearl Harbor Day and My Grandfather

On this day in 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack that would rip through the American psyche in a way unequaled until the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001. The next day my paternal grandfather, Henry Cornelius, signed up the US Navy and served in World War II. He wanted, he said, “a piece of the Japanese” after the attack. Anger and the need to fight back is a common feeling after such an event, and at least there was a country and military force to declare war on (and thus a good, solid target to hit at).

My other grandfather was, like most soldiers in WWII, drafted to fight after we entered the war. Most people don’t know it, but more soldiers were drafted to fight in WWII than were for the Viet Nam War. Two-thirds of soldier in WWII were draftees; only 1/3 of soldiers in Viet Nam were.

Both grandfathers fought with distinction in WWII, but Grandpa Cornelius was much more forthcoming about his time in the Pacific Theater, so I know more about his stint in uniform. He said until the exact moment he stepped off the train back into his hometown he thought he was a dead man walking. He was resigned to his death. Between the coal mines of Eastern Kentucky and the losses of American lives in WWII, he didn’t expect to live. It seemed too unlikely. Why should he survive when he had seen so many other men die?

Grandpa Cornelius retained a grudge against the Japanese of that generation for the rest of his life. Not only did he have the residual anger over Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military committed several atrocities against Western and Chinese peoples during that war that left a deep-seated dislike for the Land of the Rising Sun in my grandfather’s heart. This didn’t extend to children born after the war. My cousin dated a Japanese-American guy when she was in high school, and my grandfather had no beef with that. However, he did not trust or admire the Japanese of his age group … even Japanese Americans in that cohort.

My grandfather and I would disagree frequently on the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. I considered it an appalling blight on the history of America, unmitigated racism, and an unholy affront to the Constitution of the United States. Until the day he died my grandfather insisted that the interment was 1) necessary for the protection of Japanese Americans, since vigilante action after Pearl Harbor was a real risk and 2) necessary because many Japanese Americans were secretly loyal to Japan. His argument was that if he moved to Japan he would still be American, and fight for America, and he expected the Japanese fellas to feel the same way. He regarded my argument that many Americans were interred because they LOOKED Japanese rather than were Japanese to be weak sauce.

He would have rejected – vehemently rejected – any attempts to have instituted a holocaust against Japanese Americans, but he considered a few years interment to be not such a big deal. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese Americans feel differently about the “inconvenience” of interment based on their ethnicity and heritage.

Part of the problem is that as bad as interment camps were, they were not noticeably inferior to housing and the lack of amenities the coal mining camps Eastern Kentucky miners were subjected to. It’s hard to see the racism underpinning the interment conditions if those same conditions were applied to you and your blonde siblings.

While I still strongly disagree with the internment of the Japanese Americans, I have a much better understanding of HOW otherwise good people let it happen. I’m watching friends and neighbors, all of whom behave with the utmost decency in their daily life, support and condone opinions about Muslims that mimic almost perfectly the stereotypical arguments about the “inherent” danger of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. “They” might hurt “us” because “they” are “different” and more prone to be ruthless killers for their “cause”. They seldom know any Muslims personally, just like most of the people willing to condemn Japanese Americans wholesale didn’t know actually have any good friends from that community. It is easy to dehumanize humans you don’t know who seem alien. It is a very human failing.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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