Old friends share perspectives on Pearl Harbor, WWII, to Modesto’s ‘Silver Panthers’

Pearl Harbor presentation

Modesto High alums hear from a fellow grad who served in the Philippines in World War II and an Oakdale resident born in a Japanese-American internment camp.
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Modesto High alums hear from a fellow grad who served in the Philippines in World War II and an Oakdale resident born in a Japanese-American internment camp.

Joe DeWees turned 16 on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese empire attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. Less than two and a half years later, the young man was in Navy boot camp in San Diego, working his way toward joining the war in the Pacific.

Wednesday morning, two days before the 77th anniversary of the attack, DeWees and a longtime friend shared with the Modesto High School alumni group — the Silver Panthers — two perspectives on that day and the war with Japan that followed.

The friend was Ken Narita, a retired Modesto City Schools employee who wasn’t even alive on what then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.” Narita was born in the Amache internment camp in Granada, Colo. His family had been relocated there from its farm in the Merced County community of Cortez.

For six years, 1943 Modesto High grad DeWees has reminded the Silver Panthers at their December meetings of the horrors of the Pearl Harbor attack, the war and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The sky over the U.S. base that day was filled with hundreds of Japanese airplanes, he said, which within 95 minutes had killed more than 2,400 people, wounded 1,140 more and damaged or destroyed 329 airplanes and 19 vessels — eight of which were battleships.

He joined the Navy in March 1944. After boot camp, he was in radio school six months, then the Naval Academy preparatory school for six months. Myopia kept him out of the academy, though, so DeWees became part of the Fleet Marine Force and in January 1945 was deployed to the Philippines. He was engaged in skirmishes but is fortunate to never have been wounded or otherwise injured, he said.

DeWees was in the fifth wave of the U.S. invasion of Japanese-occupied Cebu City between March 26 and April 8, 1945. A radioman, his job was to set up communications.

When the atomic bombings in August 1945 ended the war the next month, the remainder of his service was aboard a submarine chaser and training Filipino sailors on radar, sonar and radio equipment.

The Pearl Harbor attack had a profound impact, too, on his family, Narita shared. His grandfather brought his family to the United States in the early 1900s and bought land in Cortez, which at the time was largely made up of immigrant Japanese farming families. His grandfather’s farm passed to his daughter and her husband — Narita’s parents.

When FDR signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans citizens and resident aliens from Japan, the Naritas and other Cortez families were given two weeks to prepare before being bused to the Merced County fairgrounds. They were allowed to take only what they could carry, Narita said.

After about a year at the fairgrounds, the interned were taken by train to the Amache internment center in Granada, Colo. There, about 7,000 people were kept for three years, Narita said. His parents and siblings lived in a 16-by-20-foot barracks.

His mother worked in a garden, his father in the mess hall. When Ken was growing up, “they didn’t share much about the internment because they were embarrassed,” he said.

One good thing came out of the Amache internment, he told the Silver Panthers: He was born there in 1943.

After the war, when Japanese-Americans were allowed to return to their homes, the Naritas went back to Cortez. It wasn’t like they could just get off the bus and walk up to the front door, though. For about their first year back in the community, the Japanese had to live in tents.

But the 60 or so farms owned by the Japanese-Americans in Cortez all had been protected by neighbors, by good people who saw that property taxes were paid so no one could seize the land, Narita said. So, eventually, the relocated were back in their homes.

Speaking to the 50 or so Silver Panthers who gathered this week, Narita held up a book with photos from Amache. He showed a photo of a Boy Scout troop that had been formed in the camp, and pointed out his brother among the kids.

“They came here to America to be Americans,” he said of his family and other Japanese immigrants. “They said, ‘We’re Americans.’ So Boy Scouts, learning American songs, all that was really part of being an American.”