“Remember Pearl Harbor when you sight down the barrel of your gun …”

“Remember Pearl Harbor, wipe the Jap from the map …”

“We’ll blow every one of them right off of the face of the Earth …”

– “Remember Pearl Harbor,” written by Frank Luther

GORHAM — Those are lyrics from a popular song released after that infamous attack 75 years ago this month. Designed to motivate our troops to fight, it was recorded by Carson Robison, played over the airwaves and on jukeboxes and sung by us all. That included me, who turned 8 on Dec. 10 that year. Those my age remember when the news came over the radio that Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, as we scurried to our atlases and globes to locate Pearl Harbor.

The crude lyrics of “Remember Pearl Harbor,” the song on the B-side, “We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap,” and similar recordings represented the feelings of Americans. Cartoon enlistment posters portrayed bucktoothed, grinning yellow faces with exaggerated slanted eyes.


For West Coast citizens of Japanese descent, things got ugly quickly. Rumors of pineapple plants arranged in arrows pointing toward airfields incited bigots and white farmers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an order to evacuate and detain Japanese-Americans. Soon, 110,000 people were incarcerated in desolate areas in drafty tar-paper shacks.

Over 20,000 Japanese-Americans joined the armed forces. An all Japanese-American regiment, the 442nd Infantry, suffered 800 casualties to save 211 GIs surrounded by the Germans. When Daniel Inouye, who served in that regiment, was sworn in as a U.S. senator, he had to raise his left hand – his right hand had been lost in Italy.

This incarceration was based on outright racism. There was no security risk, no sabotage. A Japanese-American woman recollected being removed from her classroom and told “Your people are not welcome here.” Of life in the internment camps, she remembered: “I can still smell the straw in the horse stables at (the Los Angeles-area racetrack) where they confined us.”

Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt said, “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not.” The Los Angeles Times declared in an editorial: “A viper is nonetheless a viper, wherever the egg is hatched.” The reaction was comparatively mild on the East Coast: About 7,000 people of German, Italian and Japanese descent were interned on New York’s Ellis Island.

In small-town Maine, I stood in knee-high snow proudly watching Dad chop down spruce trees to build an airplane lookout tower. My friend Porter would point out windows facing the Damariscotta River: “Look at those vases arranged, sending a signal to U-boats about destroyers at Bath Iron Works.”

Listening posts at Two Lights did hear German U-boats charging their diesels at night off Casco Bay. But the World War I veteran who reported a submarine in Damariscotta Lake didn’t explain how it got up over the alewife stream connecting with the river.


Later, I worked with Japanese-Americans and German-Americans. Even though all of us were just kids during World War II, their memories were vivid.

Ken Akiyama, a draftsman in our Chicago office, grew up in the Midwest and had been immune from relocation. In Ohio, Gladys, a fellow school nurse and friend of my wife, Blanche, served a traditional Japanese meal as we kneeled on the floor; as children, she and the boy who grew up to be her husband spent the war in different relocation camps.

Friend Eric and his lovely wife, Erica, grew up in Germany and immigrated to Canada, falling in love on the boat over. “The first American I met was a soldier who tossed us Hershey bars from his tank,” Eric told me.

Their stories inspired me to read up on the subject. I was shocked to learn of this disgraceful time in our country; my speech on the topic at Toastmasters Club was a revelation.

President Ford officially rescinded Roosevelt’s executive order, declaring the Japanese internment a “tragedy” and calling upon Americans to “resolve that this kind of action shall never again be repeated.” President Reagan signed legislation offering an official apology and giving $20,000 to each survivor of the camps.

When I entered the paper industry, a dozen U.S. companies made paper machines; today, there are none. The leading manufacturers now are based in Germany, Austria and Finland – part of the Axis empire 75 years ago. I have friends and business acquaintances from all over: Germany, Italy, Greece, Sweden, Hungary and Poland.

Today it isn’t hard for some Americans to substitute “Muslim” for “dirty Jap” and seriously consider lists, roundups and expulsion. Whenever I see a woman wearing a burqa, selling her vegetables at the farmers market or walking her child to school, I think, “that could be a ‘dirty Jap’ 75 years ago.”

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