Monday, February 27, 2012

Friends and Enemies

Well, it's official now. The President has signed an Executive Order authorizing the removal of all people of Japanese descent from Military Area Number One, which encompasses the Pacific Coast. It hasn't been decided yet exactly how or when it's going to happen, but everyone seems to have an opinion. There's testimony before the Tolan Committee in Congress, reported every day in the paper. Some leaders from the Pacific states are demanding all Japanese be removed immediately. Others say that's excessive, and worry that we'll lose the benefit of all the agricultural work the Japanese do.

Even my own circle of friends is divided. Susan feels it's wrong to treat all the American Japanese the same. Her opinion is colored by the experience of her son Jimmy. He's crippled by polio but able to go to school, where he's an honor student. "I don't know what his life will be like when he's grown," Susan told me once, "but to me every 'A' he brings home on his report card is a slap in the faces of the people who told me I should put him in an institution. You just can't judge everyone by appearances." Susan feels strongly that the local Japanese should be dealt with individually, with the FBI determining who should stay or leave.

Then there's Betty. Of all my friends she was the most upset by Pearl Harbor and the subsequent destruction of Seattle's provincial tranquility. She's always fervently hoped for a quiet domestic life, and that's all in jeopardy now that her husband Joe's on his way to Alaska to build the new military highway. She confided in me once that she often has nightmares that something bad will happen to Joe. That seems unlikely to me, and I've hidden my annoyance at her concerns as best I can, but honestly my Bob is in a lot more danger since he's actually off to the front in the South Pacific. But I try to remind myself that Betty can't help how she feels, and those feelings have made her rabidly anti-Japanese. She blames the local Japanese for everything from sugar and tire rationing ("I'm sure they've got warehouses full of stuff hidden away in those warrens in Japantown") to power outages ("Sabotage! Obviously!"). Betty would gladly take personal charge of loading every Japanese man, woman and child in Washington State into ships headed back to Tokyo if she could.

Jane is enigmatic as always. She's the only one of us who's actually known a Japanese person well - her family employed Mr. Murakami as a gardener for many years. Ever since he quit his job and returned to his family in Japantown immediately after Pear Harbor, Jane's had little to say on the subject. I suspect she is opposed to the evacuation but for some reason doesn't want to draw attention to her opinions.

For my own part I don't see things as clearly as either Betty or Susan. Every issue of the paper is filled with gut-wrenching descriptions of atrocities committed by the Japanese in the Pacific. I'm half thrilled and half terrified that Bob has gone there to take them on and help try to stop their unbelievable wickedness. But Seattle's Japanese community has been here for decades, and from everything I can see they seem peaceful and hard-working. Night after night I read news accounts of allegations that Japanese all up and down the coast are spying for their brethren across the Pacific, but I've noticed that none of these articles seem to include a lot of concrete evidence. But who knows for sure? I do know that my heart is uneasy about the evacuation, particularly the wholesale nature of it. It seems hasty and uncharitable, and not something I am proud of.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Gearing Up for Battle

Over the last week I've begun to feel more of a sense of purpose. I still catch myself in odd moments of fear and self-pity, and I secretly hate, hate, hate the sugar and rubber rationing that have put an end to both baking and driving. But I find concentrating on my war work pushes those thoughts aside. So concentrate I do.

Thanks to endless practice at the trade school my rows of rivets are now clean and perfectly-sunk. My arms are strong enough to hold the pneumatic gun all day without tiring, and the woodpecker-noise headaches have receded enough that I can drown them out with Benny Goodman when I get home.

Our instructor, the dull bald fellow we all call "Mr. Cueball" behind his back, says we're as ready as we'll ever be for the Boeing factory. Always thrifty with compliments, his most encouraging remark has been, "The odds are fairly good that the wings won't fall off any B-17s you riveted."

Betty and I have both been hugely cheered by letters from our husbands. We find it a strange coincidence that they're going to opposite ends of the world. Betty's jealous that my Bob is off to the South Seas while Joe is headed to Alaska to build that new highway that FDR just announced. But I keep reading about sightings of Japanese ships near the Aleutians, so I think Joe may be protecting us from a more immediate threat.

Speaking of the Japanese, there have been reports in the paper over the last few days that some of the Japanese-Americans, both foreign- and native-born, may be made to leave Seattle and other places on the West Coast. I feel uneasy about such draconian action if it really happens, but I trust the President and the Army must have our best interests at heart.

Monday, February 13, 2012


We finally got our hands on real tools this week. Betty, Susan and I are out of the classroom and onto the trade school's shop floor. I've been learning how to use a pneumatic gun to drive rivets through pieces of metal into a "bucking bar" to create a secure fastener. By repeating this process hundreds of times we can stitch huge slabs of metal into a bomber. Susan likens it to sewing.

But it's hardly a genteel afternoon of quilting. The gun, while only about the size of a pistol, is heavy and I have to hold it in awkward positions. At the end of every day my arms ache as though I've been lifting weights, and I fear I'll develop a physique like Charles Atlas. Betty misses no opportunity to remind former starlet Jane of the same thing, suggesting she can audition for the role of Tarzan after the war if Johnny Weissmuller retires. Jane replies that there might be a role for Betty if Cheetah retires.

Bickering aside, we're making a lot of progress and we'll soon be ready for the Boeing factory floor. As I ride the bus home every evening, with the hammering sound of the air gun still ringing in my ears, I think of the brave Brits and their desperate last stand in Singapore. Their airmen fly outdated biplanes that are no match for the Zeroes. The sooner we can ramp up aircraft production the better off we and all our allies will be.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Willing to Learn

Seems I'm always in the dark now. Dark when the clanging alarm clock wakes me in the morning, dark when the bus drops me off in the evening. And dark when I sit through endless instructional films in my riveting class at the vocational school.

Our instructor acts as though he drew the short straw when it came time to decide which faculty member got stuck teaching a bunch of women how to do factory work. He's happiest with his back to us, scratching away at the chalkboard while we watch his glistening bald head. Betty passed me a note once: "It's like having a cue ball for a teacher." At the desk on my other side, Jane occupies her time doodling fashion designs. Only Susan, who sits behind me, seems reasonably studious.

It's not as though we're not motivated. Betty and I are desperate to keep at bay the loneliness and worry that come from having husbands in the service. Susan and Jane need the money. And all four of us are determined to do everything in our power to help win this nightmare of a war that's upended all of our lives.

But we're all impatient to get out of the classroom and onto the Boeing factory floor. Mr. Cue Ball may be unavoidable, but he seems more like a barrier than a bridge. We're as anxious to be done with him as he with us.

Despite the long, dark days, the cold coffee (I've taken to brewing it the night before because I don't have time to make it in the morning) and the dull classes, I find myself filled with a strange restless energy. World events are so catastrophic as to defy comprehension. I lie awake at night listening to the ticking clock and imagining air raids, burning ships and armadas of aircraft droning through the skies. When I finally fall asleep I dream, unsurprisingly, of rivets. Rivers of rivets, rushing by in rows faster and faster until they blur together.

Rumor has it that next week we'll finally start practicing with real tools. Can't happen soon enough.