U.S. concentration camps in WWII

Did you know that the U.S. had its own concentration camps during WWII? Every time I re-encounter this fact, I am amazed anew. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order and 110,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and placed in camps in the western U.S. By the way, almost half of the 68 civilian casualties at Pearl Harbor were Japanese Americans. (A total of 2,403 Americans died that day.)

In the 1980s, an investigation determined that the decision to put Japanese Americans in camps had little grounding in any evidence of disloyalty and was instead due to “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” (Senate Bill 1009, 1987). This led to President Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 that apologized and authorized reparations for camp survivors.

Today’s debates about immigration, deportation, and refugees are held in the context of constant background fear about terrorism. Our history shows us that our country, just like any other, can be moved to acts we later regret out of fear and concerns about national security. We can claim no inherent moral superiority.

In addition to knowing facts, like how many people were groundlessly incarcerated, it is helpful to hear about individual experiences. The Densho digital archive collects stories of Japanese Americans with a particular focus on their incarceration in American concentration camps in WWII. Densho provides more than 900 video interviews as well as photos, documents, and camp newspapers. The photo at right is of the Manzanar concentration camp in California, taken by Ansel Adams.

The interviews talk about how people were rounded up, life in the camps, and the impact of that experience. As just one example, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga talked about giving birth to her daughter while living in a camp. She was unable to persuade the camp to provide canned milk for her daughter, who was allergic to powdered milk. Yet some internees had access to art classes, or softball games as shown at left (I love this picture).

One detail of personal interest I learned is that one of the Citizen Isolation Centers (where “so-called troublemakers” were sent from the concentration camps) was located near my hometown of Moab, Utah.

These interviews are fascinating and educational. I look forward to listening to more of them. Perhaps the stories shared in this collection can help us to avoid repeating our mistakes.

Cornelia Fort and WWII

On December 7, 1941, Cornelia Fort was up on the air giving a flying lesson near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombed it. “I jerked the controls away from my student and jammed the throttle wide open to pull above the oncoming plane,” she wrote.

“The painted red balls on the tops of the wings shone brightly in the sun. I looked again with complete and utter disbelief. Honolulu was familiar with the emblem of the Rising Sun on passenger ships but not on airplanes.

I looked quickly at Pearl Harbor and my spine tingled when I saw billowing black smoke. Still I thought hollowly it might be some kind of coincidence or maneuvers, it might be, it must be. For surely, dear God…”

She quickly landed her plane and ran for shelter with her student while Japanese fighters strafed the area. She was 22 years old.

Cornelia survived the attack. Other civilian pilots were not as lucky. She returned to the mainland and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, a precursor to the WASP program.

“We have no hopes of replacing men pilots. But we can each release a man to combat, to faster ships, to overseas work. Delivering a trainer to Texas may be as important as delivering a bomber to Africa if you take the long view.”

Tragically, she died just two years later (age 24) in a mid-air collision with another ferry pilot. She was an excellent pilot and no doubt would have gone on to do other great things. How I wish I could have known her!

Training as a WASP for WWII

I recently read a charming book by Bernice (“Bee”) Falk Haydu. She was a member of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) program in WWII.

It’s delightful to follow along with her training. Before being accepted into the WASP program, Bee learned to fly in a Taylorcraft. As a WASP (starting in 1944), she learned to fly a Stearman PT-17 (“PT” for “primary trainer”), which had an open cockpit, no radio, and a 220-hp engine:


The instructor sat in front and spoke through a funnel into the student’s ear. The student couldn’t talk back to the instructor.

After a couple of months, she moved up to a Beechcraft AT-6, with a closed canopy, lots of instruments, and a 650-hp engine. Quite an upgrade in capability and complexity!

She also used a simulator on the ground called a Link trainer, for use when the weather was too poor to fly outside or to practice instrument and night flying. The hood could be closed to block out all light.

Her training was intense. She spent half of her day in ground school and half flying. She went through several check rides to demonstrate her ability to fly each plane. She received instrument training. She had to demonstrate proficiency with Morse code. She did a *2000-mile* cross-country flight, not as a special race or endurance test, but as part of her training (today you count anything over 50 miles as “cross-country”!).

On her first solo cross-country flight, she had engine trouble (her right magneto failed) and had to do an emergency landing. She describes it as “really fun, nothing serious.” I would have been terrified!

Her flight log from a night cross-country flight would be familiar to any modern pilot! It has estimated and actual times for passing a series of check points along with compass heading, magnetic course, and ground speed. It’s annotated with her notes about the winds (used to compute some of those values). She talks about using an E6B, which is a circular slide rule that we still use today for quick calculations (like distance, speed, and fuel needed to reach a destination). Her flight log doesn’t include fuel information :)

In 1944, the VOR system (radio navigation) wasn’t yet widely available. I’m not sure what she used during the day for navigation (possibly just her eyes and landmarks), but for this night flight she describes the use of light beacons which were spaced out every 10 miles and would flash a one-letter Morse code. By decoding the Morse letter, you could figure out where you were. (VOR stations also use Morse code – audible instead of visible – and pilots can listen to confirm they’re tuned to the one they want. But with the availability of GPS, VOR is more of a backup system, and we are no longer required to learn Morse code.)

Bee was a member of one of the last WASP classes to graduate. She was posted to the Pecos Air Force Base, where she was to spend only three months before the WASP program was disbanded in December, 1944. However, she was determined to continue in aviation, and she became a ferry pilot for Cessna and then headed her own Cessna dealership, flying a demonstrator plane around to raise interest and sell planes. She also successfully led the campaign to get official government recognition for the women of the WASP program for their service to the country. She is now 95 years old.

Bee autographed my book. What an honor!

Amelia’s Last Flight

Amelia Earhart planned to write a book about her around-the-world expedition. It was to be called “World Flight.” She wrote some material before departing, and she sent back notes and logs from various stops across the globe. When the flight ended prematurely, her husband assembled the pieces and notes into a book that he published as “Last Flight.”

The first-person narration gives you a real sense of Amelia’s voice and character. She was fearless, in an awe-inspiring way. She was ever ambitious, reaching for the next challenge. She was also very interested in encouraging women in engineering (and aviation in particular). She criticized the way boys and girls were (… are …) shuffled into certain kinds of hobbies. “With rare exceptions,” she wrote, “the delights of finding out what makes a motor go, or batting the bumps out of a bent fender, are joys reserved for masculinity” (p. 47).

To enable her plans to go around the world, she acquired a plane that seems mammoth to me:

“The plane itself is a two-motor, all-metal monoplane, with retractable landing gear. It has a normal cruising speed of about 180 miles an hour and a top speed in excess of 200. With the special gasoline tanks that have been installed in the fuselage, capable of carrying 1150 gallons, it has a cruising radius in excess of 4000 miles. With full load the ship weighs about 15,000 pounds. It is powered with two Wasp ‘H’ engines, developing 110 horsepower” (p. 50).

By comparison, the Cessna 172 that I am learning to fly carries a maximum of 40 gallons of fuel and has a max takeoff weight of 2300 lbs. It has a cruising speed of 120 mph and a radius of about 600 miles. It would take a long time to get around the world that way!

She chronicles her travels from Miami to Brazil, then over to Dakar in Africa, then through India, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, and Lae in Papua New Guinea. Even knowing in advance that her trip will be truncated, it’s hard not to gain enthusiasm and confidence that it will somehow succeed, after she travels through so many different places, weather, and challenges. The book ends, necessarily, abruptly.

… and we still don’t know exactly why.

American female pilots in WWII

Did you know that American female pilots flew, and died, for their country in WWII?

For a brief period from 1942 to 1944, the U.S. trained and employed 1,102 female pilots (WASPs) to help with the war effort. They weren’t allowed to fly in combat, but they performed other duties that consequently freed up male pilots to head overseas. Those duties included variously low-prestige and/or high-risk activities such as:

  • flying planes from where they were assembled to the port from which they’d be flown to the war fronts
  • towing a canvas target for ground troops to shoot anti-aircraft guns at (really!)
  • testing newly repaired planes to certify them to be sent back out to the front

They also learned to fly large bombers that, in some cases, no other pilots were willing to fly. These planes (such as the B-29) were often prone to engine fires or other issues. Yet after a few women pilots were trained to fly them, and started providing instruction in the strategies they developed to avoid or deal with those problems, male pilots became willing to take over the controls. The B-29 was later used to drop the bomb on Hiroshima.

Despite their excellent track record in terms of safety and efficiency (e.g., in delivering planes across the country), the WASP program was canceled in late 1944, and women were not allowed to fly military planes again until 1977 (!).

WASPs were, in fact, never an official part of the Army (the Air Force had not yet been created) because Congress had not included “pilot” in its list of wartime duties women were allowed to perform. WASPs therefore did not receive military insurance, and those who died while performing their duties (38 women) received no government recognition. This changed in 1977 when President Carter signed a bill that recognized WASPS retroactively as having served in active duty, and WASP veterans received official honorable discharges.

Other countries employed women as military pilots in battle during WWII. In Russia, female pilots were called night witches (fascinating reading) by the Germans who often tangled with them in the air at night. From what I’ve read, our female pilots would have been willing to do the same.

For more info on WASPs and their accomplishments, see WASP on the Web.

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