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Voices of Chicago

December 7, 1941

December 7, 1941

Kakaako,
Honolulu, Hawaii.

Sunday

George Suyeoka at his grandfather's house in Japan after the war.

It is very early in the morning. I look out and it is still night. 4 a.m. I usually don’t get up until 6:30 or 7 a.m. I’m still sleepy, but I quickly snap to and brush my teeth. There is always a not unpleasant rush of tightness or adrenaline just under my breastbone when I anticipate doing or going to an event. I have this feeling of excitement this morning as I get dressed and get my bicycle out.

My brother, sister and mother are still asleep. It is cool out and it promises to be a great warm day. I am on my way to deliver over 400 Japanese language newspapers. But first I make a detour to my best buddy Hide’s home about a mile away. Quietly I knock on the door and whisper his name. But he is up already and he is preparing haupia , a coconut juice pudding.‘“ey Mike, going be nice day, huh? You going like this haupia ”, Hide greets me. And I do. At 15 years of age I am voracious, and anything sweet tastes great.

“ey, Hide where you learn to make this haupia ? I gotta learn to make it.” I said.
“My mom taught me. It’s easy to make”, replies Hide and he proceeds give me the recipe and lesson.

It is still before daybreak and we are on our way. This is a one day a week paper route I had on Sunday and generous Hide almost always helped me with the rolling of the paper and delivery. The family-owned printing shop was located on the first street below the top of Punchbowl, a small volcanic hill overlooking all of downtown Honolulu. This now national cemetery was an occasional climbing event for Hide and me. It was not difficult to climb, but it was steep enough for a bicycle to negotiate, so we usually rode in from the gradually sloping mountain side road. The owner of the paper had arrived from Japan with his wife and two teenage daughters less than a year ago and started this four page Japanese language paper which mostly contained news from the other two Japanese newspapers, the daily Hochi and Nippujiji .

Upon arrival, he greeted us cordially, and Hide and I immediately began rolling the papers to the size of a pencil in thickness, which made it easy to fling it onto the veranda or doorway of a house. Hide and I were usually quite animated in our conversation on these occasions and were trying to decide the day’s events. My impression of the owner was that he and his family were always cordial, almost friendly, and I thought he was very generous, paying me all of three dollars for the delivery.

Dawn was breaking and it was quite light by now. Hide said “I see you later”, and started his run. I started to gradually zigzag down the hill with my overloaded bike, tossing a paper here and there, when I became aware of anti-aircraft gun activity. I thought this was unusual so early and on a Sunday. Then I was really surprised at the black smoke bursts created by the exploding shells in the sky.

George Suyeoka today, with his sculpture of the samurai warrior.

I had always been a fan of the military, especially the aircraft, so whenever the U.S. Army was target practicing makai (ocean side) of Honolulu, I would stop to admire the white puffs of the exploding practice shells in proximity to the target pulled by an aircraft.

I could see the silver specks of aircrafts near the black puffs and it began to dawn on me that this was not the usual anti-aircraft pattern. I became concerned. It did not occur to me that I should look toward Pearl Harbor, which was barely visible from Punchbowl. Duty calls. I continued to deliver my papers.

I don’t remember how many times the sky was filled with black puffs. It may have been three of four times. I also became aware of distant explosions and the sound of emergency vehicles, but Honolulu still seemed asleep. At some point I began to hear the strange and frightening sound of shells scraping the sky followed by a distant explosion. The shrieking sound seemed to begin near Pearl Harbor and traveled over Honolulu, so I immediately suspected that these were anti-aircraft shells. None fell near me so I continued to deliver my papers.

When I saw several B-l7d’s fly over Honolulu, accompanied by guardian P-40s, and saw that these magnificent bombers were followed by anti aircraft puffs, I experienced that itchy excitement in the pit of by chest. I felt a rising sense of excitement and apprehension. I looked toward Pearl Harbor and saw a heavy pall of black smoke rising and fading toward the sea. And I swear I thought I saw silver specks of aircraft diving in and out of the rising smoke. It must have been around 8 a.m. I could hear the fire engine, police and ambulance sirens blaring away. They appeared to be converging on Pearl Harbor.

I finally finished my appointed rounds, and met Hide on Kapiolani Boulevard behind McKinley High School. I don’t remember us being afraid but rather excited. Staid, peaceful and paradisiacal Hawaii disappeared and the visions of Hawaii becoming the power center and staging point in the Pacific became obvious.

Honolulu was stirring rapidly. Hide and I wanted to “investigate”, but had no concept of what to do except “defend” Hawaii with our “extensive“ ROTC training of three months. Of course like many teen age boys in Hawaii, we had some experience with BB guns. At this point, the shells were still occasionally falling in various parts of Honolulu. We decided return to our homes and meet later.

I hurried home to face a distraught and furious mom who imagined me being hurt. Our one and only Philco was blaring away with news of “enemy attack by a foreign power”, and urgent requests for all armed forces, police, and emergency personnel to return to their bases. My step brother Rich was just back on a short furlough and was quite undecided on when and how to get back to Schofield Barracks. Rich and his father disagreed on whether he should report to duty immediately.

It was clear to me how strongly the older generation Japanese felt generally ambivalent toward this situation. Rich’s wife and father were fearful of retaliation and of becoming a casualty of the Japanese attack. Rich of course was one of the first group of Japanese Americans to be drafted into the 100th Battalion. All Nisei’s and most of the older generation were sure of defending Hawaii, but some of the older people who were active in Japan friendship societies, cultural groups, churches, and businesses were ambivalent and perhaps angry at this turn of events.

Home to me in Kakaako was a Japanese ghetto in the best sense of the word. These Japanese communities abounded all over Hawaii, as did the Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Portuguese, and other ethnic communities.

All the young children and teens were excited and dashed about, home to home, asking about schools and whizzing shells. My brother Joe and I climbed up the mango tree and onto the neighbors corrugated roof, along with other teens and tried spot the Japanese planes. A huge cloud of black smoke rose over the Pearl Harbor-Hickam Field area and drifted to the sea. It’s hard to know if we saw specks of light flashing down and up over the rising smoke. Our parents were screaming at us to come down because the shells were still occasionally scraping the sky over Honolulu.

The sequence of the day’s events is blurred, but I remember making a few rounds to the grocers to stock up. And all available buckets and pots were filled with water. Schools were declared closed, all coastal areas, especially harbors and bays were taboo, blackouts were declared and travel restricted. There were fearful talks of imminent invasions and what we should do, especially since Kakaako was a central fishing area, with Kewalo basin and its docked sampans not a quarter mile away.

Night came, a quick supper and the checking of all doors and windows for light leakage. Later, a fearful knocking on the door. “Who is it?” some one answered.
“This is the Defense Patrol ... light coming from the window”. We thanked them and quickly adjusted the window shade. The fire engines and ambulances were still rushing about.

There were rumors galore: spies caught, mysterious blinking lights in the hills, invading boats; another air attack imminent, water supply poisoned all Japanese to be rounded up and deported or sent to the mainland.

To most of the fishermen in boats who had been out to sea since early morning, it was a nightmare. Since we lived close to Kewalo Basin and Alamoana Park, we heard the rat-tat-tat of machines going off all night long. The late boats came in after the waterfront was secured by the Army and met a hail of machine gun fire as they attempted to enter the harbor. Some larger sampans had radio but hardly any had any communication radios. Many of them had no knowledge of the attack. I don’t have any record of deaths, casualties, or sunken boats but that night and a few succeeding nights heard many bursts of gunfire.

There were some casualties among the Japanese Americans in succeeding days when irate citizens attacked them. The horror of the Japanese attack was kept quiet for a while, but the tremendous death and damage became known soon after and horrified us.

Despite my mother’s warning, I snuck out the following day and visited Hide and together we visited our closed high school for damage. There was a gaping hole in the pavement near our school, and if the shell had landed ten feet closer, the statue of President McKinley would have been demolished.

That day, I realized that my world had changed forever.

The author with one his sculptures, a political satire.

* This article was originally publised in the Voices of Chicago by the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society .

 

© 2007 Chicago Japanese American Historical Society

About this series

The articles in this series were originally published in Voices of Chicago, the online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, which has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

Voices of Chicago is a collection of first-person narratives about the experiences of people of Japanese descent living in Chicago. The community is composed of three waves of immigration, and their descendants: The first, about 300 people, came to Chicago around the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1899. The second, and largest, group is descended from 30,000 who came to Chicago directly from the internment camps after World War II. Called the “ReSettlers,” they created a community built around social service organizations, Buddhist and Christian churches and small businesses. The third, more recent, group are Japanese nationals who came to Chicago, beginning in the 1980s, as artists and students and remained. A fourth, non-immigrant, group are Japanese business executives and their families who live in Chicago for extended periods, sometimes permanently.

Chicago has always been a place where people can re-create themselves, and where diverse ethnic communities live and work together. Voices of Chicago tells the stories of members of each of these four groups, and how they fit into the mosaic of a great city.

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