Barbara Finneson

Living on the west coast at the time, Barbara Finneson was in the fifth grade when Pearl Harbor was attacked. 

In this interview, Barbara discusses how she remembers having Japanese classmates while in school, but soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they seemingly disappeared. Following Pearl Harbor, she witnessed one of the first anti-Japanese sentiments in her neighborhood.   

Learning About the Attack

It must have been the radio. That’s all we had. It was on a Sunday, and I suppose my parents were listening to a program, and everything was interrupted. It was daytime, maybe afternoon – I’m not quite sure about that. But I remember my father coming in and telling us what had happened, my sister and I. Oh, he was furious. He couldn’t believe it, and it [brought up] all the prejudice he ever felt. There was that element in my father. My mother was quiet, but he was kind of a person who didn’t like people of different colors and mannerisms. So that just fit right in with him, and he was absolutely furious.

Losing Japanese Friends

At the age of 10 in 5th grade, we certainly knew about the war. We had no television so anything visual that we got was from the movies—the old newsreels that they used to put on. Pearl Harbor was a total shock; I don’t even think I knew there was a Pearl Harbor. At that point in time, Hawaii wasn’t even a state. So Pearl Harbor was probably a new word, we were all focusing on the war in Europe. And we knew about Hitler and Mussolini and all that, but Pearl Harbor was new, this was like—everybody went into shock. As a ten-year-old child, I was scared.

I got angry too. You know, I felt like we had been betrayed. But then when everything else happened, and Dad started with his tirade, and they were taken away, I felt badly. I mean, I didn’t know what the reasoning was, I just felt badly, guilty about it. It didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem right.

I lived in Los Angeles, Southern California at that time, West Los Angeles. And we had a lot of Japanese people who had become citizens and who lived in that area. And coming over from their country, the primary job that they had was gardening. And we had bean fields. I just assumed that it was soybeans all around us. We were kind of out in the toonies. We were far from Los Angeles proper; we were toward the ocean, West Los Angeles. And we had a lot of bean fields, and they were maintained by Japanese farmers. Their children all went to the public schools. We knew, afterwards, that they went to Japanese school after they went to our school. They were learning their language and their customs, you know?

And I had a good friend, Gladys Chikasawa, not a really good friend, but I knew her in school, and we kind of palled around together and talked a lot. And I remember thinking, because they were saying, “They stabbed us in the back” and all that—I thought, “Is she really doing that? Was she a part of this?” Of course, she was my age, but I wasn’t rational then. I just remember being very much afraid and very insecure for the first time. And we were right out on the West Coast; we felt very vulnerable. Even though we were so far away from Japan, we still felt that we were exposed for the first time. And I remember, all of a sudden, I didn’t see Gladys anymore, and I didn’t see any of my friends anymore. I mean, the parents immediately took their kids out of the school.

And that’s when they were taken away and put in a Japanese concentration camp. And it was called “Manzanita” [Manzanar War Relocation Center], and I remember that because everybody that we knew went to Manzanita. And after the war, we never saw them again. I don’t know what happened to all of my friends. By the time the war was over, I think I was in my first year of high school. It was a four-year war.

School Efforts to Support the War

I just remember all of the teachers telling us that we would be expected to work. I remember them saying that we would do our part—whatever we could do as a school to help the war, it was to help the war and help in any way, and we did. And, of course, we became very patriotic, but nothing was ever said about any of the Japanese students in derogatory way or any way that I remember. They just didn’t talk about it.

And then, you remember the story about us buying a Jeep. We saved newspapers, and we made enough money. I mean, we became very competitive, this little tiny school that was seven bungalows in rural Los Angeles, if you can believe it. Got every scrap of newspaper we could, and the different grades were in competition to get the most newspaper. We went hither and yon as far as we could and got every paper we could. And sometimes the stacks, I swear they were as high as this ceiling before the trucks would come and take the papers away. And we tied them up in very neat bundles. We did all that stuff. We finally raised enough money so that we bought them a Jeep. They were so pleased that this little school had done that, that they gave everybody in the school a ride in the Jeep.

How She Felt About the Japanese

Well, we understood that because we were at war with them, and they were our enemy. At that point in time, I don’t know many were 1st generation, 2nd generation living there, but I think it was pretty fresh. I think the immigration started not too long before that war. They’re a very bright group of people, and the fact that they were still working in the bean fields and everything makes me think that they had come over fairly recently. I really don’t know what my feelings were. It was kind of acceptance, I think, until this war. And then we worried [whether they were] plotting against us. I wasn’t bright enough then, I guess, to figure out it would have been their parents and not the kids. I grouped them all together.

It never really came out until the war started, but I don’t know why. I mean, it was just—you went to school, and they were different. They were Japanese. They looked different, and most of us were, you know white, Christian people, and here was this different group of people.

No, they were’t different at all except they were very smart. [laughs] They got all the best grades.

A New Way of Life

When the war started up, we lived very, very close to Douglas Aircraft Company who manufactured airplanes. Very quickly it seemed to me that barrage balloons went up, and the camouflage went over the whole area. It was maybe a year later that there were actual troops in those bean fields, and they were doing their routine, you know, or whatever they did, preparing to go to war.

A barrage balloon was just like a blimp. And you could see the wires, and they went up in the air. And sometimes there were a whole bunch of them. I suppose they were to keep airplanes from coming in to bomb. Nothing was around Douglass Aircraft except this camouflage which from the air, evidently, made it look like rolling hills.

And it became a way of life. This war became a way of life. And we used to have drills, air raid drills at school, and we’d get under our desks—the old-fashioned desks with the inkwells in them. We’d do all that.

We had an incident one night. We heard anti-aircraft go off. They were, of course, protecting that whole area where the airplane factory was. It woke us up, and the air raid siren started, but we knew this was for real. So that was a real one. (Interviewer:) Was that the time your aunt was visiting? (Barbara:) Yes, God love her. From the East Coast, and she was absolutely so excited and thrilled that this was happening. And she ran out in the street, and my father’s running after her trying to get her. Everybody’s in night clothes. And he’s trying to get Aunt Minnie back in the house, and she said, “This is a chance of a lifetime. I’ll never see this again!” [laughs] And my mother’s trying to keep us under the couch—turned over the couch, and that’s where we would stay. And, of course, we were scared to death because we thought we were being bombed. And, actually, what was happening was they were shooting at an unidentified plane, but nothing was ever said in the paper, ever. But it was a scary night.

German Family Members

When I was 10 years old, I knew about Hitler, and I knew he was a bad person, and Mussolini. Half my family, my mother’s family came from Germany. She was one of twelve children, and half of the children were born in Germany. And Aunt Minnie, famous Aunt Minnie, she was the first one born in the United States. That was at the turn of the century in 1900. And I remember mother getting a letter from her sisters saying that they had been investigated. They were very up in arms about it. And of course, they didn’t do anything, you know. But because her family, her siblings had been born in Germany, they did investigate. This was on the East Coast. They lived in Schenectady, New York. And so they were investigated, and they were just very upset about that. How dare they do that to them? They asked some questions, and they went to their homes, and I think they searched their houses. (Interviewer:) Was this right after Pearl Harbor? (Barbara:) No, it was a little bit later. It was certainly after all of the Japanese were interred, and I thought how lucky they are they didn’t go to a—in fact, I think I asked my mother if they were going to go to a concentration camp. And she said, “No, no.” She said they just came and wanted to ask them questions and things like that.

So I thought, well, you know, since they’re German, maybe they would go to a concentration camp. And I think I probably wondered if they were going to investigate us because we were half-German. She was German, but, no, that didn’t matter. On the West Coast, that didn’t matter. West Coast was definitely Japanese, that’s what we concentrated on, that’s what we worried about—that there would be another Pearl Harbor somewhere along the coast.

Tokyo Rose

The other thing I remember very distinctly was Tokyo Rose. Does that ring a bell with you? She was a Japanese woman who lived in Japan, and she got on our radio, and she told us how Japan was winning the war. And actually, not us, but she would get on these radios that the soldiers have. It was like a psychological war against us, and would tell them how the Japanese had won certain battles and that sort of thing and how they were no good. And this was a big thing. We were also trying to defeat Tokyo Rose, and we could never find her. They never did, I don’t think. I remember just knowing about that and thinking that it was a shame. And I guess the soldiers believed her, I don’t know.

War Propaganda

Everything—all those newsreels and everything—all they showed was how we were winning the war and how wonderful we were, you know. Oh my gosh, yes. It was total propaganda, total. There wasn’t anything that we couldn’t do. I mean we were wonderful, and we were strong, and we were right, [laughs] everything we did. Well I remember hearing and thinking we were wonderful. [laughs] Of course, I believed it. I was ten years old and eleven and twelve even. See, I was a movie freak. All my friends and I went to the movies every Saturday. That’s where we got caught up. And they had these long newsreels. And it showed us our boys over there fighting, winning. We never lost, there was never a defeat, it was always winning. And that was propaganda, that was to keep us going, that was the feel good part. And then the president,President Roosevelt, declaring war, and how awful the Japanese were. He was God. I mean, he was going to save us. And when he died, I remember the war was still on, and I was about 12 then, 13. I remember coming home (I was in junior high then), and turning on the radio which I always did to find out the news and [learning] that he had died. And I remember thinking that we were going to lose the war because he was the reason, he was the reason that we were winning. And that I think came from all the propaganda, you know. This wonderful man who was so brilliant.