We have had an exciting summer here at Pacific Atrocities Education! A few of our summer projects include Japan’s Miracle Economic Boom after WW2, Vietnamese Famine During WW2, and The Forgotten Chinese Expedition in Burma. We have also revamped our website, merchandise page, as well as launching Boba Talk!
Talk from Survivor- Jean B. Chan
Jean B. Chan is a retired mathematics professor at Sonoma State University. She was an early member of the Rape of Nanking Redress Coalition. She had worked tirelessly to include a memorial for the Asian holocaust in Sonoma’s Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove. She shared the story of losing a brother from starvation and inadequate medical care during the Japanese Imperial Military invasion of China in WW2.
Workshop from ESJF
Education for Social Justice Foundation presented “Comfort Women” History and Issues.
Workshop with Facing History’s Brian Fong
We participated in discussion and discourse surrounding the topic of remembering history. We were faced with questions like “How do you decide who is responsible for these atrocities?”, “How do we commemorate and memorialize these atrocities?”, and “How do we move forward in today’s world without forgetting history?”.
Professional Shadowing Day:
Our interns also shadowed Dwayne McDaniel, Developer Advocate at Pantheon Systems, Julie Soo, Commissioner on the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, Enforcement Bureau for California Department of Insurance, and Judge Lillian Sing, retired at SF Superior Court’s Collaborative Court for professional development.
In March 1942, Japan seized control of the lower region of Burma by taking the city of Rangoon. Rangoon, now known as Yangon, was Burma’s administrative and commercial capital. The city was a crucial communication and industrial center in Burma and had the only port capable of handling troopships. Perhaps most importantly, strategically, the Burma Road began in Rangoon and allowed for a steady stream of military aid to be transported from Burma to Nationalist China. This supply route was essential for both Chiang Kai Shek’s armies as well as allied forces in the region. As a result, the fall of Rangoon to the Japanese had significant consequences.
The Burma Road reopened in October 1940 and by late 1941 the U.S. was shipping munitions and other materials to supply the Chinese Army, whose continuing strength, in turn, forced the Japanese to keep considerable numbers of ground forces stationed in China. In fact, nearly half of the Imperial Army was stuck fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. As a result, the Japanese decided it was necessary to close the Burma Road and cut off Chiang Kai Shek’s lifeline. If successful, the Chinese would be able to free their forces for use elsewhere in the Pacific and perhaps gain complete control of China. Additionally, Burma was considered the gateway to gaining control of India. Overall, all parties involved in the Pacific War viewed the loss of Rangoon as the loss of Burma.
The Japanese, led by General Shojiro Iida, had a straightforward plan to first seize Rangoon, Mandalay, and then the oilfields at Yenangyaung. In mid-January 1942, two divisions of Japan’s 15th Army had crossed from Thailand into Burma hoping to capture Rangoon before the British could land reinforcements. The Japanese began their campaign against Rangoon with a series of ‘softening-up’ air raids. Initially, these air raids proved to be incredibly deadly with nearly 1,250 killed in the first raid. This was primarily because there were no civil defense or air-raid precautions. But, by the third raid, the casualties were down to 60 killed and 40 wounded. Opposing the Japanese invasion was the recently arrived 17th Indian Division commanded by Major General Sir John G. “Jackie” Smyth. The British opted for a defensive strategy against the Japanese invasion because they were confident that they would be able to stop the Japanese as they approached Rangoon by utilizing the three rivers that barred the way to the capital. However, the Japanese pushed on past the Salween, Bilin, and lastly the Sittang. Over two days, February 22-23, the British-Indian brigades in Burma were crushed in the Battle of the Sittang Bridge. This defeat was described by Wavell as having “ really sealed the fate of Rangoon and lower Burma.”
The defeat at the Battle of the Sittang Bridge led to the subsequent evacuation of Rangoon. By February 24th, Rangoon was described as a ghost town. Burmese citizens vanished in mass and the Indian police abandoned their posts. There are also reports that criminals were released from their cells and roamed the streets looting and raping. As the Japanese continued to advance towards the city, General Harold Alexander was put in charge as the new corps commander in charge of operations for the British. Alex, as he was known, approached Rangoon with 40 of his men in early March. They engaged in a frantic activity to move as much material as possible north to the Burma Road. However, it was still necessary to destroy more than 900 trucks in various stages of assembly, 5,000 tires, 1,000 blankets and sheets, and more than a ton of miscellaneous items to avoid them being seized and utilized by the Japanese forces. Additionally, Alex and his men blew up nearly $14 million worth of installations belonging to the Burma Oil Company. On March 8th, Alex and his men came under Japanese counterattacks and were close to being surrounded. His entire command was nearly wiped out but was able to escape just before the rest of the Japanese troops arrived in the city.
On March 9th, 1942, the Japanese entered Rangoon and found it completely deserted. They were able to successfully cut off the Burma Road which deprived the Chinese Nationalist forces of their much-needed supplies. Additionally, despite Alex’s attempts to destroy the remaining war materials in Rangoon, over 19,000 tons of lend-lease material remained in Rangoon when it fell to the Japanese. The fall of Rangoon meant the fall of Burma and had significant consequences for Chiang Kai Shek’s armies as well as allied forces.
Bernstein, Marc D. “The 17th Indian Division in Burma: Disaster on the Sittang.” Warfare History Network, 14 Nov. 2018, https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/the-17th-indian-division-in-burma-disaster-on-the-sittang/.
“Burma, 1942.” U.S. Army Center of Military History, 3 Oct. 2003,
Hickey, Michael. “The Burma Campaign 1941 - 1945.” BBC, 17 Feb. 2011,
McLynn, Frank. The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph, 1942-45. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008.
by Yesenia Olmos
A superhero defeats evil supervillains in the name of justice, or do they? Superheroes offer us the perfect revenge and fantasy without the constraints of the law. American pop culture, for example, is obsessed with this idea of superheroes, this the U.S. government knew. The U.S. funded a government agency accordingly and named it ‘War Writers Board’ (WWB) in (1941) that introduced western “history” into comics to entertain, shape and sway Americans' opinions during wartime. Along with (WWB), Detective Comics (DC) writers and cartoonists brought to life war stories that would captivate an audience that had just suffered the post-traumatic stress of WWI and the beginning of the Great Depression. Comic books were geared towards all ages, that is what made them so popular and alarming. Acknowledging the time these comics were printed, there was sure to be wartime hysteria, (yellow peril) especially directed towards their enemies the Axis powers. It will be hard to say by the end of this blog if the previous statement is true or only a prospector's reality.
The beginning of the twentieth century would be known as the “Golden Age” of “innocence”. This was a time used metaphorically to describe the “innocence” of America or as an ironic description of the horrors of war. The period of the “Golden Age” of comic books would begin in (1938-1946) with the “first” American superhero, Superman. Accordingly, there had to be supervillains, America's wartime enemies, such as the “Japs”. The Japanese were often shown in comics as villains with yellow-tinted skin, pointed devil ears, long jaws, buck teeth, and sometimes fangs. By the 19th century, Americans had stereotyped the Asian population with the racist color-metaphor “yellow peril”. The term is integral to the xenophobic aspect of colonialism, saying the peoples of East Asia were an existential danger to the Western World. Paradoxically, they also tried to emphasize racial tolerance systematically to seem inclusive as opposed to their enemies abroad.
The Claw was a superhuman monster obsessed with America's complete destruction. The Claw orders a wave of “slaves” aka (Asian immigrants) to invade the U.S. The Claw was purposefully colored yellow, to represent the Yellow Peril a racist term that originated in the 19th century after Chinese immigrants moved to the West. This racist color-metaphor related to the people of East Asia as an existential danger to the Western World.
Black Dragon Society was created with the goal of driving the Russian Empire out of East Asia. The Black Dragon Society was a nationalistic right-wing military group in Japan, in the late 20s and 30s. During WWII Americans invoked wartime hysteria to sway the youth to think of the enemy as less than and incomparable to the American “intelligence”. Again, we see an illusion of how the American people saw their enemy.
The Atom disguised as Japanese miner. This was a way in which (WWB) along with DC cartoonists vilified wartime enemies. This picture is very racialized, with Atom slanting his eyes to exemplify wartime hysteria.
Beginning in 1938, the term nomos would come into context. Robert Cover, a law professor at Yale himself said, “nomos is a normative universe where we constantly create and maintain a world of right and wrong, of lawful and unlawful, of valid and void.” The introduction of superheroes created nomos. Unfortunately, some of the American population could not assimilate fact from fiction. The purpose of the (WWB) was to create hyper-nationalism amongst the American population while promoting inaccurate stereotypes of the enemy.
Starting December 7, 1941, the U.S. joined the war after a naval attack on Pearl Harbor, HI was bombed by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Comic books then began to emphasize the importance of going to war to defeat the “evil” that was abrupting the peace and justice of America. Comic books essentially became political media for all ages. It is important to realize that these comic books were being read by children who would grow up to be voters, soldiers, and officials of society for the next future generation.
Law is very different from justice. Law is associated with the dominant. While justice is associated with the person who escaped the bonds of the dominant. Greek philosopher, Plato himself said, “justice may be something apart from the law”. Therefore, superheroes became providers of justice. What I am trying to get at is, children, adults, soldiers reading these comics believed that America was the purveyors of justice, trying to defeat communism and fascism abroad. Comic books written during the “Golden Age” helped shape the modern American culture. It is important not to underestimate the impact of propaganda absorbed by the youth.
Many associate the end of the “Golden Age” with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then, comic book creators began to create more inclusive superheroes, such as the ones below:
Cassandra Cain was born for experimental purposes, she became a trained assassin. She was given up by her mother (Lady Shiva) to her father (David Cain) who was part of the League of Assassins and trained her. She is Chinese-American and stands at 5’5, she is currently 19 years old. A vigilante, Cassandra decides to fight for what she believes in. She is later introduced to the Bat-Family and taken in as an adoptive daughter to Bruce Wayne, where she becomes “Batgirl”.
Kai-Ro, also known as Green Lantern, was a Tibetan-American. The ring chose him after he showed remarkable maturity and wisdom. He fought alongside the Justice League, where he advocated for more peaceful resolutions. Although Kai-Ro’s age is not known, it is assumed he is very young and a pariah for his insightful thinking.
Tatsu Yamashiro was trained at a young age to become an expert in martial arts and a samurai master. The sword that she carries is trapped with the soul of her dead husband and thousands of souls, whom she seeks to help. Katana is most known as a ‘vigilante’ in her role in the ‘Suicide Squad’.
“I have been called OMAC (One-Machine Attack Construct), but my name is Kevin Kho. I was transformed, without my knowledge and against my will into this monstrous form. And I have no way to change back.” In his civilian identity, however, Kevin is a Cambodian-American scientist working on genetic research.
Youth will always be targeted as the “weak” link to society. With undeveloped ideas and political views, the youth is always easily swayed. However, this can be changed. The only thing that might have the power to awaken the youth is to study history. History allows one to become a critical thinker, it allows you to decipher your own opinions based on facts. If the youth of today learned inclusive world history there could be a chance of understanding the world without inaccurate stereotypes. Superheroes may fight for justice, but the creators are the ones who form the conscience of what is right and wrong. So, then do superheroes truly fight for justice? Or only in what they believe is justice. Wars do not start on the battlefield, they begin at the home front. I would like to end this with a quote many Batman fans would recognize.
“Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up.” – Batman
Bainbridge, J. (2015). “The Call to do Justice”: Superheroes, Sovereigns and the State During
Wartime.” International Journal for the Semiotics of Law - Revue Internationale de
Sémiotique Juridique, 745–763.
David Dellecese. (2018). “Comic Books As American Propaganda During World War II”, SUNY
Polytechnic Institute, 2018.
Hirsch, P. (2014). “This Is Our Enemy”: The Writers’ War Board and Representations of Race in
Comic Books, 1942–1945.” Pacific Historical Review, 448–486.
Siegel, Jerry, Joe Shuster, Wayne Boring, Jack Burnley, Paul Cassidy, Ed Dobrotka, Don
Komisarow, Leo Nowak, Frederic E. Ray, and John Sikela. (2017) Superman, the Golden
Age. Volume Three.
“DC Comics Inc”. (2019) DC. https://www.dccomics.com/.
by Samantha Quach
The Vietnamese Boat People were a series of refugees that fled Communist Vietnam in a mass exodus occurring in 1954, and again from 1975-1992. In 1954, the Northern Vietnamese fled to Southern Vietnam to escape the corrupt and violent Viet Minh regime. Under the Viet Minh, anyone deemed an enemy was prosecuted under the full extent of the law: this included Catholics, intellectuals, landowners, and generally anyone that disobeyed the regime. Many villagers feared for their lives and wellbeing as the Communist government, similar to China under Mao’s Cultural Revolution, turned everyone against each other in their bid to maintain power and control. The instability in Northern Vietnam led many Northerners to risk fleeing to Southern Vietnam, by boat, which was still under control by the Republic of Vietnam. Despite being in a better place to live compared to the north, the Southern Vietnamese government was still largely oppressive and inefficient. This was the first mass exodus.
From 1954 to 1975, the Republic of South Vietnam was embroiled in fierce combat against the Viet Cong in Ho Chi Minh’s attempt to reunify the country. In this Second Indochina War, better known to Americans as the Vietnam War, the nationalists were unable to ward off the Viet Cong, who eventually took control of Saigon in April 1975. The Fall of Saigon resulted in panic and chaos among the citizens. Previous Northerners knowledgeable of the terror that was the Communist government, along with Vietnamese government officials working with the US, were the first to leave: this time to entirely new and foreign countries. Some were able to fly out of Vietnam with aid from American volunteers, but the rest of the majority was more unfortunate. Most people did not have the means to flee nor give up their life and family uprooted in Vietnam, and thus they were left to brave the Communist government.
Over the next 20 years, with growing oppressiveness and violence, the Communist government began conflict with Cambodia, leaving (the remaining) Vietnamese citizens fearful for their lives. From 1972 to 1992, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese took extremely dangerous journeys by boat in efforts to escape the regime. These “Boat People” traveled to nearby countries like Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Guam, etc., with the hope of sponsorship to democratic countries. The journey by boat was extremely dangerous: there was a constant risk of getting caught, being robbed blind by pirates, facing starvation, and much more. Thousands of Vietnamese died at sea, and those that did survive faced bleak futures at refugee internment camps, not knowing if and when they would be given sponsorship. Once at a new foreign country (often times the US, Canada, France, Australia), the Boat People were forced to assimilate and immerse themselves into an entirely new environment.
In spite of the endless struggles and hardships faced by the Vietnamese Boat People, studies proved that once relocated in a new country, these refugees (and their children) yielded unprecedented academic growth and success. According to the book Children of the Boat People: A Study of Educational Success, refugee students held an average GPA of 3.05 on a 4.0 scale, and scores equivalent to the mid and upper quartiles for state-wide standardized CAT tests. Given their less than ideal circumstances of living in low-income and impoverished neighborhoods, lacking one to three years of schooling due to extended stays in refugee camps, having zero understanding of the English language upon arrival, and attending sub par public schools, many refugee students overcame the odds to succeed in academia and life. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees scattered across the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, etc.
A prime example of refugee achievement in America is my father. This is his story:
“I was born and raised in the town Sa Đéc, of Southern Vietnam. My hometown was small, about a day’s bus ride from Saigon, which was the then-capital of South Vietnam. I lived with my 11 siblings, parents, and grandmother. Being an ethnic Chinese minority (Han), I didn’t really wander around too much, but my recollection is that my house was half a block away from the river, and across from the market where my parents occupied a storefront to sell household goods. In my early childhood, I attended a private Chinese school, walking there and back daily. Again, being a minority, I was somewhat segregated and didn’t hang out with the local Vietnamese children. My favorite childhood memory is on my dad’s farm, about an hour bike ride away from home, where we would fish, paddle in canoes, catch fireflies, plant wheat, and other things that locals did. I remember during good harvest seasons, I would lie on my hammock and look across at the wind blowing against the wheat grains, like a beautiful green carpet moving side to side.
After the fall of South Vietnam in ‘75, there were a few folks from my hometown who were leaving overseas, which made me wonder what life was like beyond Vietnam. At the time, I had two older brothers that safely arrived in America two years prior, after spending some time at a Malaysian refugee camp. One night, my mom called me in to notify me that my aunt had prepared for my cousins to leave the country, but she changed her mind and wanted to keep her youngest son back. So I was a last minute replacement, the accidental kid that was allowed to go in place of my cousin. My third eldest brother, at the age of 15, and I, at the age of 13, were about to embark on the most dangerous journey of our lives.
On the day of our departure, in January of 1980, we boarded a bus to Rạch Giá, which was a coastal town I never visited before. We had lunch, then we went to a small boat and hid until midnight, where we were transferred to a bigger boat. The boat we were about to board on for a 4-day journey by sea was a fishing boat, not all that large but able to squeeze 36 passengers. We set sail for Thailand. A few hundred yards from shore while still in Vietnam waters, we were chased by the Vietnamese Navy, but fortunately made it to international waters and they gave up. Come to find out, the captain never embarked on such a long, treacherous journey before, and had nothing but a compass to guide him. We were short on food and water, and at some point we also ran out of gas, leaving us to float endlessly at sea. Along the way, we ran into Thai fishermen also doubling as pirates. I was half seasick on the back of the boat, and the first thing I opened my eyes to was a hatchet, buried deep into the side of the wooden boat. The pirates began to board, throwing more hatchets down as a warning that if you resist, you die. They demanded money. At the time I had next to nothing: my brother and I each had a bracelet, and I had twenty US dollars sewn into my shirt. My older brother overheard somewhere that if you hide anything from the pirates, or if they believe you are hiding something, they will outright kill you. So, he threw all of our belongings overboard. Luckily, as seasick as I was, the pirates never bothered to search me and I successfully kept the only money we had. After the first round, the pirates took what they wanted and left. We floated again at sea the next day, when we saw a huge boat filled with Chinese-Thai fishermen and pirates. My boatmates were able to communicate with them in their local Chinese dialect. Again, they robbed us of our gold and jewelry, but this time also provided us with rice and water. After leaving the Chinese, late that night, we were robbed for the third time. In this encounter, local fishermen anchored our boats together and began rocking us back and forth at a quick pace. Still seasick on the back of the boat, all I could see were white bubbles streaming out. I thought to myself, this is it, I’m going to die. The pirates managed to kidnap my female cousin, but eventually her brother was able to retrieve her through giving up whatever gold we had left. We floated around some more, and the next day we finally docked on the shore of Southern Thailand.
After landing on the beach, in our half-dead state, we managed to make our way to the highway. There, we were chased by locals who demanded even more money. Eventually the Thai police picked us up, and fed us, then sent us off to the refugee camp in Songkhla. On the first day of camp, each family was given a tent. Since my older brother and I were minors, we stayed in my cousin’s tent with his family. However, following disagreements, we decided to part ways with our cousins. Since losing our allocated living quarters, we were forced to relocate to an empty space at the end of the camp, where people did their business in dug up holes. The area reeked of feces and held an overwhelming amount of flies. It was unsanitary and uninhabitable.
Life in the camp was tough. With barbed wire and guards that carried AK-47s on watch towers strategically located around the compound, it definitely resembled an internment camp. The locals hated us too, and occasionally threw rocks over the fence at us. At the front of the camp was the ocean. With nothing better to do, we spent all day swimming in the sun. One day, while out swimming with my older distant cousin, we came across a sandbar. After getting knocked off the sandbar, I panicked and kept trying to swim back. Unfortunately, for all the gains I made, it was negated by powerful waves. I began to slowly drown. My cousin kept pushing me toward the sand bar and he was quickly running out of steam; I looked into his eyes and saw exhaustion and defeat. I feared he would eventually give up on me. For the second time in four months, I believed I was going to die. Fortunately, there was someone coming out to the shore, and he helped guide me back to shallow waters.
On the bright side of living in the refugee camp, the UN gave us an abundance of rice, and a portion of fish once a week. We also used the $20 in my pocket (equal to 400 Thai baht) to buy premium soy sauce for our meals. For the next three months, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, consisted of soy sauce and rice. We relied on my older brothers, who’d just settled in the US as dishwashers, to send us what little money they were making. After a few months of camp, we received an interview with the US delegation, which was our primary destination for relocation. The interviews were challenging and humiliating, and so upsetting that my brother decided to apply for relocation to Canada instead. As soon as my eldest brother received wind of our situation, he telegrammed us and told us not to go to Canada, for he wanted the four of us to reunite in San Francisco. Luckily enough, after the second round of interviews with the US delegates, they took us in. At this point, we already spent five long months in camp.
In May of 1980, my brother and I boarded a bus to Bangkok, Thailand. In Bangkok, we stayed for over two weeks at a large building filled with refugees like us, and very harsh, unkind guards. Finally, we received sponsorship to America and flew into the Oakland airport in California. My eldest brother picked us up and took us to San Francisco, where we lived for the next few years in a tiny 1-bedroom studio apartment in the Tenderloin on Eddy Street. All three of my older brothers worked full-time making minimum wage as dishwashers, so as a 13-year-old, I was left to fend for myself. I ended up at Francisco Middle School. The environment was challenging to say the least: kids at the school were segregated along racial lines, and many were violent. On the first day of school, I was roughed up, thus imposing a negative environment of survival of the fittest. I gravitated towards other Vietnamese kids in the same predicament, and we banded together to keep one another safe. Whether you would call it a gang or not, it was pretty close to it. We got into a lot of fights and were often given detention.
My parents and my younger siblings finally arrived two years later, as I was about to graduate 8th grade. I remember just after their first week here, I got into another fight and it was the last straw. The principal called me in with my mother on the phone, informing us that I would be suspended for a few days. During the meeting, my mother was sobbing, and I felt very embarrassed. It was then that I decided to get my act together, making sure not to get into any more trouble in high school.
After graduation, all 14 members of my family moved to a small house in the Inner Richmond. For high school, I attended George Washington High School. At Wash, there was a big divide between newly immigrated students, labeled “fresh off the boat”, and second, third generation Asian Americans that were raised here. I felt that I didn’t belong there, and after two years, I decided to transfer to Lowell High School, the most prestigious public high school in San Francisco. It took a lot of hard work and determination get in and become successful there: every night, I would lock myself in the cold basement to study, avoiding the noisiness of living in a house with 13 other people. I pretty much did everything on my own. Luckily, the new environment at Lowell motivated me to work harder. In 1987, I graduated from Lowell with a 3.4 GPA, an active participant in numerous sports, and while working part-time as a busboy.
After graduation, I applied to several universities and was accepted to 5 UCs and SFSU, receiving full financial aid for all. I settled for UC Santa Cruz, but on the day I was supposed to submit my housing deposit, I had a discussion with my family and decided it was best for our financial situation that I stay home. While at San Francisco State, I attended school full-time and averaged 25-30 hours a week as a legal assistant (supporting the low-income Southeast Asian community) to help out my family. After graduating in four years, I received a job with the State Department of Transportation, while attending MBA school at night. Through working with Caltrans, I developed a keen interest in IT and management. Currently, I am the IT Director.
As first generation immigrants, we are scrappy. We wanted to succeed and felt that nothing could ever stop us from becoming successful, because we’ve seen hardship, we know what a hard life looks like, what it means to live a life in poverty, to survive with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We know what hunger feels like, what internment feels like, what discrimination feels like, and what hopelessness feels like. As a child, embarking on that perilous journey by boat, I hardly believed I would have survived past the age of 14. As a teen, living in the Tenderloin, I didn’t believe I’d make it past high school. But I did. I made it. And now, I hope that I gave my kids everything they need to succeed in life.”
Vo, Nghia M. The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975-1992. McFarland & Co., 2006.
Caplan, Nathan S., et al. Children of the Boat People: a Study of Educational Success. University of Michigan Press, 1991.
“Vietnam War.” HistoryNet, www.historynet.com/vietnam-war.
“Resources.” PROJECT YELLOW DRESS, www.projectyellowdress.com/resources.
Come to our Public History Night to learn more oral history and share your own family immigrant story! Afterall, we are a nation of immigrants.
by Samantha Lam
If you were asked to describe a “soldier,” what kind of image does that word conjure up in your mind? Popular media has generally portrayed the American soldier as a muscular white male, or sometimes a white female, and while they may have constituted the majority of the U.S. military force, history fails to give recognition to the Asian American women who contributed to the U.S.’s victory by taking on many different roles during World War II to assist the armed forces. Starting in 1943, Japanese women, known as “Nisei” or “second-generation,” were accepted by the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) to work as nurses and doctors to provide medical care and as Military Intelligence Service officers and linguists. Aside from the Nisei, many other Asian American women have also served in the war, including Chinese American women serving in the Army Air Force and Filipino American women working in the underground resistance in the Philippines. Though Asian American women served many important functions in World War II, they are still overlooked or completely ignored in modern discourse. This post focuses on the Nisei women who served as linguists and their struggles balancing their identities as an American woman and a Japanese woman, while studying their mother tongue under considerable pressure at the U.S. War Department’s Military Intelligence Service Language School in Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Their histories and struggles during the war are just as valid as any other American war veteran’s experiences out on the field. The Nisei women, along with the many other Asian American women who also served, must also be recognized and commemorated as heroes who sacrificed themselves for their country.
World War II deeply impacted the lives of all Americans. While it was a time of great tragedy, it also provided new opportunities for work for certain racial groups and women. For example, African Americans were able to find work in factories in urban cities and move up north and out west. Women began turning them away from their traditional societal roles as homemakers and caretakers towards more proactive roles opening up in the factories and the military. For Japanese Americans, on the West Coast, however, with Japan being the “enemy nation” after bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941, they were labeled as “enemy aliens” and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, forced from their homes into internment camps. Though the U.S. vindicated the whole Japanese American population after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the military recognized the need to improve intelligence operations and trained and recruited specialists in the Japanese language to serve as interpreters, interrogators, and translators, and so around 5,500 Nisei were assigned to the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS).
With struggles against racism combined with normalized sexism in the military, Nisei women, and many other Asian American women, had a unique experience while serving their country. While Military administrators rationalized the idea of accepting women, especially Japanese American women, it was under gendered and racialized reasoning. The WACs were given assignments that “did not transcend the domestic sphere”, therefore stuck behind desks doing clerical work. Furthermore, they were expected to emphasize their femininity through their physical appearances, “feminine” meaning short skirts and makeup. Along with these demands, the Nisei WACS were also expected to act as “American women” but retain their Japanese linguistic heritage in order “to serve as role models as Japanese women who were able to attain American womanhood.”
Like many second or third-generation Asian Americans today, Nisei WACs did not all possess fluency in Japanese, especially not at the level needed to comprehend military-related documents, hence why they were sent to MISLS to study Japanese.
Harada recalls the difficulties she had there:
“I wasn't very strong in Japanese, coming from an area [Idaho] where there were no Orientals. We just didn't speak the language... And so, when we were sent to Japan, I had an awful hard time working with [Japanese] military terms...Some of the girls from Hawaii used to work as radio announcers in Japanese. They had a lot more training and they could read and write [Japanese] fluently. At Fort Snelling, I was in one of the lowest classes, just learning the basics of Japanese.”
After they graduated from MISLS, they were assigned to various military sectors and helped the military forces immensely. Many of the graduates worked at war crimes trials as translators and interrogators and helped link a number of atrocities to individual Japanese by the captured diaries and letters, written during wartime, that they studied. Maybe one of their most impressive contributions, in the Civil Affairs branch, was censorship- screening the press, inspecting the postal system, watching communications of all kinds, and helping to find out what "has gone on in Japan these many years." These linguists classified approximately 2,000,000 Japanese documents according to tactical, strategic, or long-range value. In all, they translated some 20,000,000 pages.
The WAC’s and other Nisei linguists’ work for the United States should be honored and remembered. They wanted to serve in the U.S. military for various reasons, but mainly to show their loyalty to the United States. Some were also motivated by reasons that were rooted in their culture and status in their family and community. One former Nisei WAC, Grace Harada reveals her discussion with her parents on why she felt the need to serve in the military:
“They just felt that I shouldn't be doing something like that, and going so far away from
home. But I told them that I just couldn't stay home and do housework. I wasn't
accomplishing anything I said. [Harada's brother had already joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.] I said [to my parents] "There is a war going on and he can't do it alone." ...I said what I would be doing is replacing all these men to help end the war. I tried to talk with my parents into letting me go, and finally they released me and signed the consent for me to go in.”
With political circumstances so against them, the Nisei had made every effort to forget their Japanese heritage and prove they are “American.” The experience of attending the MISLS was both a challenge and a chance for the Nisei, to balance both of their identities for a cause and prove their loyalty to their homeland, the United States. Furthermore, as Nisei women, they constantly had to navigate social norms and persevere against sexually and racially intertwined expectations to serve as model American women in Japan, yet maintain their “Japanese-ness” to be competent translators. Their experiences are invaluable in that they not only but also expand one’s perspective of what kind of people serve in the military but also add another complex layer to the Asian American narrative.
Ano, Masaharu. "Loyal Linguists: Nisei of World War II Learned Japanese in Minnesota." Minnesota History
45, no. 7 (1977): 273-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20178492.
Hirose, Stacey Yukari. “Japanese American Women and the Women's Army Corp, 1935-1950." M.A. thesis:
University of California, Los Angeles, 1993.
Moore, Brenda L. Serving Our Country: Japanese American Women in the Military during World War II. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Sato, Marie. "Japanese American women in military." Densho Encyclopedia. n.d. Accessed July 5, 2019.
Ano, Masaharu. "Loyal Linguists: Nisei of World War II Learned Japanese in Minnesota." Minnesota History
45, no. 7 (1977): 285. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20178492.
"Squadron of Nisei Women's Army Corps (WACs), c. 1941-1945.," Densho Encyclopedia.
by Junyi Han
In May 1942, the rainy season in Burma just began to reveal its true color, soaking lands with nightmarish thunderstorms. In the meantime, tens of thousands of soldiers from the Chinese Expeditionary Force were suffering from a disastrous retreat in the jungle. Gu Luo, a soldier serving in the Fifth Army wrote in his diary: “The jungle covered everything for miles, leaving us deadly thirsty…The soldiers are all in rags and look very gaunt. Everyone is carrying a bag of rice, a water-can, a diesel tin, and in the other hand, a walking-stick…Because we haven’t had any oil for a month, my stools are very hard and my anus has split” (Mitter 640). Luo only provides us with a sketch of this withdrawal. In fact, about 30,000 soldiers died in this foreign jungle (Wangyi). The tremendous death toll urges us to question how and why this tragedy happened. Historical records suggest that this military disaster was primarily caused by a split among the Allied leaders and it was exacerbated by the extreme climate in Burma.
In early 1942, the situation in Burma was unfavorable to the Allied forces. In late April, the Japanese troops continued advancing in eastern Burma and successfully seized Lashio on April 29th. Under such circumstances, Joseph Stilwell, the commander of the American Army Forces of the China-Burma-India Theater and the Chiang Kai-Shek’s chief of staff, was concerned that the Allied troops in this region would be destroyed by the Japanese army and therefore wanted to initiate an imminent retreat (Chen). However, a split between Joseph Stilwell and his superior Chiang Kai-Shek broke out as they were setting out the withdrawal plan. While Stilwell wanted to bring his troops to India instead of back to China, Chiang was “aghast when he heard the news that his chief of staff had ordered a substantial part of his army into another country, and wondered whether Stilwell had lost his resolve because his proposed attack in Burma had gone so wrong” (Mitter, 637). Chiang then reversed Stilwell’s order, commanding the generals to lead their troops to assemble in Myitkyina, a town in northern Burma. Stilwell was determined to leave. He formed a party of about eighty people – including American, Chinese, and British soldiers, Indian engineers, and Burmese nurses – and headed to India (Mitter, 638).
While Stilwell’s group managed to arrive in India without any deaths, the rest of his troops were not as lucky. For instance, general Yuming Du, the commander of the Fifth Army, decided to follow Chiang’s order and led his troops to Myiktyina. For the Fifth Army, the most lethal threat on their way did not come from the Japanese troops, but from nature. When Du decided to dispatch his troops into the Burmese jungle, he had no idea how terrifying the journey could be. In early May, because the communications broke down, they decided to move northwest into Mandalay and soon got lost in the jungle. The rainy season in Burma came along with extreme weather. Massive thunderstorms soaked soldiers to the skin. Moreover, everywhere they go, insects attacked them ruthlessly. The longer they stayed, the conditions became even worse. The soldiers were too exhausted to carry their own weapons. The weapons were destroyed and abandoned so that they would not be captured by the Japanese troops. Luo recalled that as his division wandered in the jungle, he saw corpses scattered everywhere. Their company cook was missing and the remains of his body were found half-eaten, supposedly by tigers (Mitter, 639). By the middle of June, the soldiers were bogged down into a more desperate situation. They were “starving, digging up roots to try and survive; meanwhile the monsoon rains poured down every day. Even when supplies were dropped in the area from the air, tragedy struck, as some soldiers were hit and killed by the falling boxes. More then died from eating too fast after a period of long deprivation” (Mitter, 641). Other divisions of the Chinese Expeditionary Force also went through extreme hardships, and a large number of soldiers were wiped out by assaults from native people, Japanese attacks, and disease. Recently, the skulls of three female soldiers were found in a native Burmese tribe. The chief of the tribe said these skulls were used as medicine ladles for women who suffered from difficult labor (Sina). These skulls have been taken back to China. Now they are kept in Dianxi Anti-Japanese War Memorial Hall located in Yunnan, China. There were many more soldiers lost in the jungle and remained unknown in a foreign land. Overall, the retreat was a fatal disaster. It led to the death or injury of about 25,000 Chinese troops (the exact number is unclear) along with over 10,000 British and Indian troops (Mitter 642). This failure was rooted in the distrust among the Allied leaders, and the death toll substantially increased due to the extreme weather in Burma. This massive withdrawal caused severe damages to the Allied defense in the China-Burma-India Theater. The supplies to China were cut off as the Japanese troops seized the Burma road. Therefore, the National Government led by Chiang became even more isolated.
Mitter, Rana. Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II 1937-1945. New York: Houghton Mifflin
Chen, C. Peter. World War II Database. Accessed on July 5, 2019.
Wang Yi Xin Wen. Accessed on July 2, 2019.
Xiao Ming Shi Hua. Sina. Accessed on July 2, 2019.
While you are here, we have a small favor to ask. PAE was founded as a nonprofit in 2014 because we knew the mainstream media wouldn't cover the forgotten voices of the Pacific Asia War. Today, the support from our readers makes up about 2/3 of our budget. This support allows us to dig deep on stories from the past that matter. If you value what you are reading from us, please contribute to make this possible.
Our mission at Pacific Atrocities Education is to raise awareness about the Pacific War and understand its relevance in modern America. We facilitate conversations through the books we publish, our educational outreach programs, and work with local communities. Yet, we yearn to have a larger conversation about why some narratives surrounding the Second World War are more popular than others. It is through this desire that the podcast, Boba Talk, was created.
Our three Communication interns; Hanna, Neomi, and Alexa have created this podcast series to highlight specific narratives of the Pacific war with the goal to look into the past in order to solve the issues of today. This aim is realized in the title, ‘Boba Talk,’ which alludes to the Bay Area’s craze of boba tea, which originated in Taiwan. The San Francisco Bay Area has become home to many Asian Americans, resulting in a diverse and complex history. Yet, Pacific Asian history is not represented in mainstream American culture. ‘Boba Talk’ will attempt to remedy this problem by creating a bridge between Pacific Asian history during World War II and its influences on our contemporary world.
The bi-weekly podcast serves as a discussion forum, covering a variety of topics from the Pacific War including Women in War, The Philippines, Unit 731 and the debate over reparations. Boba Talks uses the knowledge promoted by PAE and demonstrates how it can impact the Bay Area. We are so proud of our communications team for heightening the level of discussion surrounding the Pacific War. Starting July 8th, find ‘Boba Talk’ on Spotify, Soundcloud, iTunes, Apple Podcasts, Anchor, and more. Enjoy!
Google Podcasts: https://www.google.com/podcasts?feed=aHR0cHM6Ly9hbmNob3IuZm0vcy9jN2FjMzYwL3BvZGNhc3QvcnNz
by Neomi Ngo
Canned foods are a staple in every household. Almost every grocery store has an aisle, or even more, of just canned foods. It seems as though you can put almost anything into a can, from fruits to meats. Canning started hundreds of years ago, primarily in France, but did not reach its peak until World War II.
Canning Began in France
During the French Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815), the French government offered a hefty cash award of 12,000 francs to any inventor who could create a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food. In 1809, Nicolas Appert developed the method of sealing food in glass jars, but the Napoleonic Wars ended before his process was perfected.
Canning Moved to the UK and Europe
In 1811, Bryan Donkin developed the process of packaging food in sealed airtight cans made of tinned wrought iron, whereas previously, the process was done with glass jars. Unfortunately, without modern machinery, it was a long and hard process to develop. Additionally, it was an expensive process. Thus, in the mid-19th century, canned foods became a status symbol for the middle to upper class throughout Europe. Later on, with the increasing mechanization of the canning process, coupled with the huge increase in urban populations across Europe, there was a rising demand for canned foods.
Canning Introduced to the United States
Large scale wars in the 19th century, such as the Crimean War, the American Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian War, introduced an increasing number of American working class men to canned foods.
In World War I, the demand for canned foods increased as military commanders needed quantities of cheap, high-calorie food to feed their millions of soldiers. The federal government also emphasized canning as patriotic ventures. Numerous posters were produced emphasizing the correlation between canning and allied victory. During the Great Depression, the canning center movement was accelerated by widespread decreases in farm income, and widespread increases in unemployment across the country.
Canning’s Peak in WW2
In addition to meeting civilian needs, US farms also had to feed the military and the Allies. However, an agricultural labor shortage due to the draft and the internment of Japanese-Americans strained the system. Reducing civilian usage of processed fruit and vegetable products through rationing would help reduce the strain. As a result, there was a mass shortage of food, and people were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens to reduce the amount of processed food needed. Newspapers and magazines published how-to articles, and gardens became popular in backyards, vacant lots, big-city window-boxes, and even on community property. By the end of 1943, Victory Gardens supplied 40 percent of civilian needs for fruits and vegetables.
Throughout World War II, canning became a major focus of the US government. Because Victory Gardens had become such an effective system, women were also encouraged to can the produce grown in their own garden, for preservations’ sake. Canning, like gardening, was presented in official propaganda as a patriotic and unifying act, linking soldiers’ activities to women’s roles in the kitchen. Because of the rise of victory gardens and the Women’s Land Army, both of which promoted and lead women to spend their energy on agriculture, the relationship between victory gardens and canning ensured that just as victory garden yields reached their peak in 1943, so too did canning levels. A poll in January 1944 found that 75 percent of housewives canned, and those women canned an average of 165 jars per year. The USDA estimates that approximately 4 billion cans and jars of food were produced that year.
Along with the introduction of canning in homes, community canning centers were built throughout the states to further promote and cultivate canning. Canning centers proved effective, and in 1945, the USDA stated that 6,000 canning centers were in operation throughout the United States. The government-sponsored and financially backed these centers, and allowed the USDA to provide instructional and educational supervision. The government released convenient bulletins outlining the canning process, including the use of water baths and low-acid food pressure cookers. It also gave guidance on cooking times and temperatures to preserve various foods, making it easy to follow.
A home demonstrator from the Extension Services or a locally skilled person was on hand inspecting and instructing customers in canning methods within the facilities. Individuals brought their raw food to the center, paying a small fee or donating a small amount of their preserved food in return for materials use.
by Ally Diwik
In December 1941, over the course of only a few days, the Thai government moved from a public stance of neutrality to a military alliance with Japan. Thailand’s alliance with Japan would ultimately define Thailand’s role in World War II in the Pacific Theater. After allying itself with Japan, Thailand would go on to declare war against the British and Americans as well as assist the Japanese in supplying their troops through the completion of the infamous Thailand-Burma Railway. Thus, it is valuable to examine how this rapid shift in government policy took place in Thailand.
Prior to the outbreak of war in the Pacific, Thailand was a quasi-independent state in which the British and French exercised considerable influence. The area to the east of the Menam Chao Phraya Basin fell within the French sphere of influence while the area to the west of the river basin lay within the British sphere. However, in December 1938, Phibunsongkhram took power in Thailand as a military dictator. Phibunsongkhram, also known as Phibun, maintained friendly relations between Thailand and Japan. Relations with Japan had been increasing amiable since the early 1930s and when paired with Thailand’s new strongly nationalistic policies which were anti-Chinese at home and pro-Japanese abroad, relations between Thailand and European powers were increasingly strained. Thai-European relations continued to falter when in November 1940, Phibun ordered the invasion of French territories in western Laos and northwestern Cambodia that had formerly been under Thai control. This move on the part of Thailand was strongly supported by Japan.
The relationship between Thailand and Japan didn't remain friendly especially when it came to the convenience of Thailand. Japanese aggression in the Pacific increasingly strained the Thai-Japanese relationship. Thai officials, including Phibun himself, repeatedly appealed to the British and Americans to help Thailand defend its territory and sovereignty against Imperial Japan. But neither country was able to offer any significant support to the Thai government. As a result, as relations between Japan and its Pacific rivals worsened following the advance of Japanese forces into southern French Indo-China, Phibun declared that Thailand would remain neutral. Unfortunately, the likelihood of war only increased in the following months which in turn increased apprehension within the Thai government that they would be able to remain neutral.
Phibun attempted to remain friendly and yet noncommittal towards the Japanese officials that urgently lobbied his government for support. But by December 8th, 1941, the Thai government was forced to seriously consider all options following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the impending Japanese invasion of Thailand. Four main options were discussed at a cabinet meeting on December 8th. The options included were: (1) Japan and Thailand would conclude an offensive/defensive alliance; (2) Thailand would join the Tripartite Pact with Germany, Italy, and Japan; (3) Thailand would cooperate with Japanese military operations; (4) Thailand and Japan would undertake the mutual defense of Thailand. All four options held the expectation that Japanese forces would be allowed to pass through Thailand. Additionally, each option was accompanied by the Japanese offer to assist Thailand in recovering its lost territories. On the evening of December 8th, 1941, the Japanese ambassador, accompanied by military and naval attachés, went to see Phibun. They arrived with a draft of an alliance treaty they expected the Thai government to agree to. On December 21st, the formal signing of the Treaty of Alliance took place as scheduled at Wat Phra Kaeo. Phibun then reshuffled his cabinet to ensure that it represented a more pro-Japanese group of officials. Then, on January 25th, 1942, the deputy foreign minister announced over the radio that Thailand was joining Japan and declaring war on Britain and the United States.
Following the declaration of war, the most significant role Thailand played in the Pacific War was in building the Thailand-Burma Railway. The Japanese decided it was necessary to build a railway to connect Bangkok, Thailand, with Moulmein, Burma. By early 1942, shipping lanes had become incredibly vulnerable to allied attacks and thus a railway was necessary to bring much-needed supplies to Japanese forces in Burma. It was designed to be 259 miles long running through jungles, across rivers, and over the mountain chain that separated Burma and Thailand. To build the railway, the Japanese and Thai used thousands of Allied prisoners of war (POWs) as well as hundreds of thousands of Romusha (indigenous contract laborers) from Burma, Malaya, Java, and other conquered nations as a labor force. Construction began in October 1942 and within a few months the Imperial General Command in Tokyo, anxious to complete the project, moved up the completion date to October 1943. This acceleration was known as “the Speedo” and it was during this time that the Thailand-Burma railway earned its nickname: the “death” railway.
Ultimately, during World War II, Thailand was only able to gain minor territorial concessions in Burma, Malaya, Laos, and Cambodia as a result of its alliance with Japan. Additionally, the Thai economy greatly suffered during this time which undermined public support for Phibun. The waning public support for Phibun allowed resistance groups based in the United States and Britain to make contact with similar groups within Thailand. The Free Thai, as these groups were known, conducted raids against the Japanese and ultimately succeeded in infiltrating the Thai government. By July 1944, Phibun was forced to resign and his 1942 declaration of war was determined to be unconstitutional and therefore legally void. As a result, Thailand never needed to official surrendered to the allies. Instead, following Phibun’s resignation, Thailand did its best to repair diplomatic relations with the Allies and ceased the majority of its wartime operations.
Eldredge, Sears, “The Thailand-Burma Railway: An Overview” (2014). Book Chapters. Book
Keyes, Charles F. and Jane E. Keyes. “Thailand.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Encycloaedia
Brittanica, Inc., 9 June 2019, https://www.britannica.com/place/Thailand/Chulalongkorn-and-the-foundations-of-modern-Thailand.
Swan, William L. "Thai-Japanese Relations at the Start of the Pacific War: New Insight into a
Controversial Period." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1987, pp. 270-293.
Wilson, Hugh. "The Best of Friends: Britain, America and Thailand, 1945-48." Canadian Journal
of History, vol. 25, no. 1, 1990, pp. 61-84.