“A Date Which Will Live in Infamy” by Matthew Ragasa

Posted: June 2, 2014 in Vol. 5: Spring Essays 2014

As my grandmother, Loretta Godfrey, and I sit in her living room on a warm March day, I ask her if I could interview her for an essay. My grandmother does not reply and instead tilts her head slightly, shifts hers eyes up, indicating that she is going over all her memories. Before my grandmother can respond, I ask her, “If I were to ask you what your most memorable moment from your childhood is, how would you respond?”

Instantly, she looks back at me, leans forward, and answers, “That would have to be when I lived in Kakaʻako and the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”

After hearing my grandmother’s response, I immediately reflect on the countless stories she has shared with me, realizing that she has never discussed what her life was like during World War II. My grandmother starts off by explaining to me that she grew up in the Kakaʻako area, and she even remembers her old address, 432 Keawe Street. My grandmother tells me her old neighborhood was filled with businesses, warehouses, and residential buildings. She goes on to say that the families that lived in her neighborhood were made up of mixed ethnicities such as Japanese, Filipino, Hawaiian, and Portuguese.

I ask her if she remembers where she was the morning that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. My grandmother looks at me with mixed emotions, a bit of excitement to share her memories yet a hint of sadness due to the events that occurred that day.

plane“I was 10,” she says. “ When we were in church, we could hear the bombings. We [my friends and I] whispered to each other, what was the navy doing, training so early in the morning on a Sunday. The bombing started about five minutes before mass was supposed to end. I told my friends, I hope Father hurries up so we can go outside to see what’s going on. When mass ended, we all ran outside. We experienced the Japanese flying over that Sunday morning. We knew it was the Japanese cause we could see the Rising Sun insignia. Mrs. Tiwanak, an old Filipino lady that went to the same church as us, walked out, and I saw her bless herself [with the sign of the cross]. I asked her, ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘Inday [Filipino word meaning young girl], I think it’s war.’”

My grandmother pauses momentarily to gather her thoughts, and as she does, I ask her, “So what did you do next?”

She explains that she was the oldest out of her group of friends and considering what they had just seen, she instructed them to get home. “We had to cross Mother Waldron Park [Cooke Street and Pohukaina Street intersection] to get from our church to where we lived, but my friend June was wearing a bright red dress and was too scared to cross cause she thought the planes were going to see her and shoot her.” She smiles. I think because it allows her to revisit friends in her mind that she has not seen in a very long time. She makes a slapping gesture and explains she had to slap her friend June to talk sense into her and that it was important for them to get home. After crossing the park together, my grandmother and her friends split in different directions to their respective homes.

When my grandmother arrived home that day, no one was there, and she began to cry. The entire apartment building was empty. My grandmother proceeds to tell me that there was a lumber yard behind the building, so she started to walk in that direction. With a sense of relief in her voice she said, “Wow! What’s going on?” It was Uncle Sonny [her brother]. “My dad and Uncle Sonny had been watching planes get shot down from the lumber yard. I sat down next to my dad and he asked me why I was crying. I told him no one was home; I thought you guys left me.” It is clear to me that thinking of her father and brother being safe on this tragic day brought my grandmother happiness. She then tells me that they all walked back to their apartment. Before they got inside, she says, there was a bit of commotion around an elderly Japanese man. My grandmother later discovered that he was seen waving a small Japanese flag in the air during the attack, which made people upset. Since she was friends with this man’s grandchildren, she asked them for clarification. My grandmother states, “Mr. Ayano was waving his flag in hopes that the Japanese wouldn’t bomb our building. Later when the government came to collect the Japanese for internment camps, someone told on him, and they took him away.” My grandmother went on to say that two of Mr. Ayano’s older grandchildren wanted to prove their loyalty to the United States, so they went on to join the Army and became members of the 442nd Infantry Regiment.

I then ask my grandmother, “What was life like during the war?”

She mentions that they didn’t have to go to school for a few days, but when they returned to school, they had to share a campus with the all-boys school that my Uncle Sonny attended since her school, Sacred Hearts, had been turned into a make-shift hospital. My grandmother also tells me that during the war, some people in the neighborhood exhibited racism towards people of Japanese ancestry because of what happened. However, she was not brought up that way and was not a part of that group. My grandmother explains, “We’ve known these kids since we were little, they weren’t the ones that attacked us. These were our friends.” She goes on to say that there was Martial Law, meaning that children were not allowed out after dark without an adult, and they had to carry a gas mask around everywhere they went in case of a chemical attack.

Not all of her stories of this time are somber ones. My grandmother happily tells me about how the neighborhood kids would play stickball in the street and some of the navy men staying at a nearby reservation would come and play with them.

I then ask my grandmother, “What was it like when you found out the war was over?”

My grandmother excitedly leans forward, visibly replaying the events of that day in her head.”I was at home and heard people celebrating out in the street,” she says. “So I went outside and asked one of my neighbors what was going on. He said the Japanese surrendered; the war was over! People were kissing each other in the street, people were throwing toilet paper in the air, and everyone was cheering. Service members from the nearby military reservation brought out rolls of toilet paper for everyone to throw. I then started to cry. I cried because of the people who suffered most. One of my friends came over and asked me why I was crying. I told her that I knew that not all the guys who used to play [stickball] with us made it [survived the war]. We need to go to church and pray for them.”

After learning of my grandmother’s deep personal connection to the events that transpired on December 7, 1941, and over the years that followed, I will always have a deep admiration for what she has endured during this time period of her life. Although I live in a time of war and even served overseas in the military, I do not have the same special link that my grandmother has to World War II. I will always have an appreciation for what my grandmother has gone through.

 

Written for Cara Chang’s ENG 200: Composition II

 

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