We take you to Seattle on Dec. 7, 1941, and the days after Pearl Harbor. As the U.S. joined the war, mobs smashed downtown Seattle windows, local businesses sold bomb shelters, soldiers swarmed to guard Boeing, and Japanese Americans suddenly became outcasts in their own country.
This was Seattle on Dec. 7, 1941, and the days that followed 75 years ago.
Blackouts that begin at 11 p.m. — cars can’t have their headlights on and home lights can’t be seen from the outside. They might be spotted by Japanese planes.
Radio stations silent at night so the Japanese can’t home in on their signals.
Young guys volunteering to serve and making brave statements, in the language of war: “Hank Ayres, Redmond, high-school boy — I want to help out my family and bring back a Jap.”
A mob of 2,000 smashing downtown Seattle store windows and signs for having lights on.
Fearful Japanese Americans as a roundup begins.
The examples are from The Seattle Times archives, the Seattle Municipal Archives, letters in the Washington State Historical Society collection and other historical sources.
Up until that Sunday, the war in Europe had been distant headlines for two years.
More than 350 Imperial Japanese planes had attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying 188 U.S. aircraft and killing 2,400 Americans.
We take you to the scene.
Silence and an uproar
Through the daytime hours of Dec. 7, news about Pearl Harbor doesn’t come as one long broadcast.
The country gets much of its entertainment from radio shows that offer a combination of music and comedy, and sometimes dramas.
So a hit radio show such as “The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny,” named after the General Foods sponsor, fades out of music, has a news bulletin telling listeners not to panic, and fades back to the music.
That Sunday night, Seattleites get their first night radio blackout. It is only KIRO-AM, with its powerful 50,000-watt signal, that’ll broadcast here after 7 p.m., and only “information necessary.”
It is an eerie time. There are no scrolling breaking-news updates, no tweets.
Silence, except for thinking about what might happen. In one report, a fearful mom bakes bread and sews winter clothes for her kids in case they become refugees, bombed out of their home, living off the land and wandering the West.
The first lights blackout on Monday night brings out the worst in a crowd of 2,000 that gathers downtown.
The Times headline the next day says, “Sailor’s wife leads glass-smashing mob blacking out lights.”
The sailor’s wife turns out to be Ethel Chelsvig, 19.
The crowd, many of them reported to have been drinking, smashes 26 plate glass windows and a bunch of neon signs in stores in which lights are still showing.
Her voice “high above the roar of the crowd,” Chelsvig cries out, “I’m married to a man in the Navy. He’s out there fighting. Are you going to stand by while these lights threaten the very life of our city! Break them! Turn them out!”
At one point the crowd sings “God Bless America.”
Chelsvig ends up being found guilty of disorderly conduct.
The judge tells her, “All that a mob needs is a spark — I believe you were that spark.”
She is fined $25 ($488 in today’s dollars) and given a 30-day suspended sentence.
A woman named Helen Johnston writes letters to her husband, William Johnston, who’s in the Naval Reserve.
On Dec. 8, she writes about war, “So it finally came — honestly it doesn’t seem possible yet.”
A couple of days later she tells her husband, “It’s the early morning blackouts that are inconvenient — and if a light shows the cops tell you about it and they aren’t kidding … Boeing is really guarded — is swarming with tents, soldiers and machine guns and anti air craft, etc.”
By Dec. 9, the state’s Liquor Control Board orders that no beer or wine can be sold during blackouts. And, in case bars might try to cover up selling, they’re told they cannot cover their windows. The Seattle City Council prepares an ordinance banning congregations of three or more people during blackouts on any street or sidewalk.
The blackouts result in numerous car accidents. In one night, 10 people are injured.
A 20-year-old man suffers a critical head injury after his 23-year-old friend drives into a bulkhead on Alaskan Way.
The driver tells the cops, “I was driving about 35 or 40 miles an hour to get off the city’s streets by blackout time. The bulkhead suddenly loomed up in front of me.” He is charged with reckless driving and having no license.
‘Future has become gloomy’
Every day brings a news item about the fate befalling Japanese Americans in this area.
The principal at Medina School uses his own car one day to take kids to school. They have been refused seats on the school bus.
At Pike Place Market, it’ll soon be the end for the many Japanese-American farmers who sell produce there.
“More than half of the Market’s farmers were forced from their homes and livelihoods, never to return. Hundreds of stalls go empty,” says a history done by the Market.
Joe Desimone, who owns the Market’s main arcades, is quoted that week: “I am going to the Federal Bureau of Investigation today. If they tell me to fire the Japs I have working for me, I’ll fire them all, not only the ones in the stalls, but the ones in the wholesale houses and on the farms, too.”
The Japanese-Americans in Seattle try to allay the fears around them. On Dec. 24, for example, 1,300 of them overflow into the adjacent gym of a newly dedicated Buddhist church here, and pledge their allegiance to the United States.
Toku Shimomura, who had traveled to Seattle in 1912 in an arranged marriage to a Japanese man, will keep 56 diaries in her lifetime. She burns many of them, fearing that U.S. authorities will find them. But some she keeps.
Toku is a professional midwife and has delivered her grandson, Roger Shimomura, who will become an acclaimed American artist. He’s now a retired art professor from the University of Kansas, Lawrence. His dad was a pharmacist, his mom a cashier at the same store.
Roger Shimomura, 77, was a young child when his family was incarcerated at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. A series of his paintings are based upon his grandmother’s reminiscences.
The Sunday of the attack, the grandmother writes, “When I came back from church today, I heard the dreamlike news that Japanese airplanes had bombed Hawaii. I was shocked beyond belief … Our future has become gloomy. I pray that God will stay with us.”
That week, too, all Japanese nationals are blocked from any bank withdrawals, even for living expenses. A few days later the family finally is allowed to withdraw up to $100 from the bank.
“This was for our sustenance, we who are enemy to them,” writes Toku in her diary.
On April 28, 1942, in the aftermath of Executive Order 9066 authorizing the incarceration camps, Toku writes, “At last the day has arrived. It was time to leave Seattle, the city we have lived for such a long time. Even though I tried not to cry, the tears flowed.”
The incarceration of Japanese people affects the daily lives of those still in the city.
By May 1942, Seattle Mayor Earl Milliken writes the City Council about his concern that a number of eating houses south of Yesler Way have closed because of the Japanese evacuation.
“Thousands of war production laborers live in the cheap lodging houses to be found in that area … these workers are delayed each morning in securing breakfast,” he writes. He asks if some of the eating houses can be reopened in some manner.
Sports, business go on
That first week after Pearl Harbor there is news about one particular Japanese American.
John Yoshihara, an Oregon State College football player, is deemed eligible to play in the Rose Bowl game against Duke. He is “an American citizen … some concern had been expressed he might be an alien … ”
Sports continues, despite the war.
A headline that week says, “Husky hoopmen still plan on Eastern jaunt.”
The war also is good for some unusual businesses.
A story runs about a Seattle cement contractor advertising air raid shelters with two concrete walls, the space in between filled with sawdust.
“If a bomb hit them the outer shell might fall apart,” says T.J. Dowling, “but the sawdust and the inner wall would protect the occupants.”
The price is $1,000. That’s $16,444 in today’s dollars. There is no follow-up on how sales went.
The blackout also helps Seldens, a furniture store in Tacoma, survive tough economic times.
That’s because many people didn’t like hanging blankets and painting windows for the blackouts. Much easier to use blinds, and Seldens was one of the firms producing blackout blinds.
By 1942 its plant was running 16 hours a day, six days a week, making the blinds.
Finally, there is this Seattle Times editorial from Dec. 10.
It is titled, “First duty of a citizen: Mind your own business.”
“Motor vehicles are stopped as they cross Lake Washington Floating Bridge. Major buildings are patrolled by police. Guards are on duty along the waterfront. Air raid wardens are constantly on call.
“No one can be blamed for being curious. Yet it is curiosity that in most instances should be left unsatisfied. A handful of interested questioners can soon become a crowd, increasing the problems of patrol …
“One of the most useful things a citizen can do in this emergency is mind your own business.”
Mind your own business.
Always an interesting request of the American citizenry.