INCIDENT ON BRANCH STREET

From the Arroyo Grande Herald Recorder.

Friday, November 13, 1942 Herald Recorder Vol. 37 No. 30

On Wednesday last a Japanese man and a white woman were seen driving on Branch Street. Chief Fred Norton stopped the car and issued a warning to the occupants. The woman was advised to exit the car and not to ride in any auto with a Japanese man again. The driver was allowed to continue with a caution.

Just a little notice tucked into page three, upper right hand corner of the Bi-Weekly Newspaper. Stright reporting but with a pointed and unfriendly message.

At the time this happened the Japanese empire had attacked the United States just four months before. Feeling ran high amongst local folk. In those days before the 24 hour news cycle, information that had any credibility was very hard to come by. The big city dailies were in full hue and cry with their anti-Japanese campaigns. National columnists spewed hate, particularly Westbrook Pegler. He wrote an opinion column for the Chicago Tribune. His column was distributed nationally through the United Press.

In an article about him in 1938, the New York Times opined; “At the age of 44, Mr. Mister Pegler’s place as the great dissenter for the common man is unchallenged. Six days a week, for an estimated $65,000 a year, in 116 papers reaching nearly 6,000,000 readers, Mister Pegler is invariably irritated, inexhaustibly scornful. Unhampered by coordinated convictions of his own, Pegler applies himself to presidents and peanut vendors with equal zeal and skill. Dissension is his philosophy. Hate is his product.

There was no one he wouldn’t attack. He reached his zenith in 1942 with his scurrilous attacks on the Japanese Americans living on the west cost. Without a shred of evidence he vilified them all.

The local paper had to survive by taking a middle road in its coverage of the war especially in the early days. Throughout WWII the Herald Recorder walked a fine line with the news it published about local businesses and personalities. Before the removal of the Japanese to concentration camps it took a rather even handed approach to the issue, after all, Japanese American businesses advertised, Japanese kids delivered papers and half the high school enrollees were of Japanese ancestry. In a small town, they made up an important part of the buying public.

Loading the busses, 1942. National Archives photo

There were discussions over pancakes at the Greyhound cafe and in the aisles of the Commercial Company. As always there were those who were haters, just looking for ways in which to rub someones face in it. Lets not forget that there were also those of good conscience who did what they could to help their neighbors in distress. Several local boys had already been killed in the Pacific and that drove their families hard. They had no forgiveness and as General John Dewitt, the army general commanding the west coast area had so publicly said, “A Jap is a Jap.” The Chandler family which owned the Los Angeles Times and the Hearst paper, the San Francisco Examiner ran bold headlines demanding the removal of all Japanese from the west Coast. Taking sides in the debate was fraught with peril. Abuse by the anti-Japanese crowd was heaped on those suspected of mollycoddling. Business owners that catered to their Japanese clientele were verbally assaulted; sometimes more than that, including rifle shots through walls and physical assault.

There were many on the other side who supported the Japanese families. As is usually the case, those who personally knew their Japanese neighbors tended to be supportive or at least neutral in their feelings. The bullies, who are not interested in changing their tunes were ascendant by virtue of their aggression. It was a complex issue which found little desire for understanding but rolled on a tide of hate. Under the right circumstance there could be frightening consequences.

By November of that year all but one of the local Japanese-Americans were gone, bussed off to the Tulare fairgrounds where they were housed in horse stables and drafty, cold, temporary barracks until they could be sent by train to the Poston, Arizona concentration camp.

The only Japanese left was Kazuo Ikeda a 23 year old farmers son and graduate of both Arroyo Grande High School and the Polytechnic Cal Poly College. He had received permission from the War Relocation Board to stay and care for his father Junzuo who had broken his back in an accident while driving a team and wagon. Kaz and his father would stay until hospital facilities were complete at Poston.

Kazuo “Kaz” Ikeda, 1942

He was staying with Vard and Gladys Loomis in the Fukuhara home on Halcyon Road. The Loomis family was occupying the home to protect it from vandals and thieves.

A young woman friend of Gladys had been visiting there and when it was time for her to leave for home, Gladys asked Kaz to take her home in the Loomis family car. A kindness that was to have an unexpected result. They knew each other, the woman worked at the Pruess Rexall, the only pharmacy in town and liked to know people. Though Kaz was a man of few words she could more than carry her end of the conversation. It wouldn’t be a long trip anyway a she lived right in the middle of town. On Short Street.

Both the young people were aware of tensions in the community of course. The county sheriff had searched the Loomis home for contraband when Kaz was staying there. Japanese-Americans were not allowed radios, cameras, rifles or knives. As in the receipt below, confiscated items were received and held by the local police chief for return at a later date. After Norton left office in late 1942, the new Chief, Clyde McKenzie handed all the items over to the US Marshalls office in southern California where they disappeared forever. Their bank accounts were frozen and later confiscated by the state never to be returned.

The Sheriff and the Police Chief had their eye on the voter and were consequently vigorous in hunting down the Japanese “Menace.” Trite slogans were as likely to get you elected then as they are now. The chief owed his job to those who supported him. Serving them was his primary job if he wished to keep that job.

When the car rolled to a stop, Kaz rolled down his window. He knew by now that nothing good was going to come from the Chief. Fred Norton was none too polite in inquiring what in the hell did he think he was doing driving a white woman. Kaz was very quiet and very still.

The girl leaned over and smiled. “Hi Fred, it’s Barbara Hall from the drugstore, you know me. Kaz is giving me a ride home so I don’t have to walk. It’s along ways to Short street from Halcyon in these shoes and he’s doing Gladys Loomis a favor.”

The Loomis family were the largest business in town and that carried weight. The drugstore owners, the meat market and several other downtown businesses were also sympathetic to the plight of their neighbors. The sitting Municipal Court judge was also sympathetic to the Japanese-American people who lived in his town. A wrong move here would have its consequences. Any abuse handed out by Chief Norton could come right back at him if he wasn’t careful.

She beamed at him. He blushed with embarrassment. He knew my mother well. He knew there was no hanky panky going on here. He walked around to the passenger door and pulled it open and told mom to get out. She would just have to walk the rest of the way, he huffed, trying to pretend he was in control.

“Fred,” she said, “You are going to owe me a new pair of shoes. She smiled, leaned into the car and thanked Kaz and walked off down Branch towards her parent’s home on Short Street.

Chief Norton told Kaz he needed to be careful, thats feeling in town were not good and not to do that ever again.

Just a week later Kaz and his father were gone. Junzuo would die there, in the camp.. Kaz would be released in the spring of 1945 and return to the farming business. He married Mitzi and they raised their kids in our valley, prospering and becoming valuable members of the community.

Chief Norton lost his re-election bid in November and was out of a job. My mother voted against him. Imagine that.

My mother married my father the next spring and they raised a family of three boys. They lived here the rest of their lives too.

The Ikeda’s lived just up the hill from us and farmed right next door. Their kids went to school with us and we have been friends for decades. Still are.

Kaz and my mother remained friends. In later years when I was grown and first heard the story I couldn’t understand why something like that could have ever happened in this quiet little place. After all those years they both thought it was pretty funny but I suspect at the time it was anything but.

“We were very frightened….the whole Arroyo Grande Valley was. We didn’t have any idea of what was going on. The military was very secretive about the war, we just didn’t know anything.” Eighty years later some people who still live here still insist that the terror they felt justified interning all the Japanese-Americans. People felt they were fighting for their very existence.

As my father said, “It’s impossible to completely understand unless you lived it,” and I suppose he was right. He usually was about things like that.

Barbara Hall Shannon, 1942. Shannon Family photo
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