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LISTEN IN… 9 Questions The Honorable Norman Mineta - Part 2

Norman Mineta and President Barack Obama. Courtesy of Norman Mineta.

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When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, how was your family impacted?

On December 7th, a lot of things happened quickly. By one or two o’clock that afternoon, the FBI had arrested a number of people of Japanese ancestry. They were really looking for people who were sympathetic to the Japanese and who might be supportive of their war efforts.

At about 1:30 p.m. that afternoon, I remember hearing our next-door neighbor, Joyce Hirano, who was one of my classmates. We had a hedge between our two homes and there was a little cutout down below where Joyce or Irving (Joyce’s brother) and I could go between our homes. Joyce comes running in the backdoor yelling, “The police are taking Papa away! The police are taking Papa away!” So, my Dad runs out the front door and goes next door, but by that time, Mr. Hirano was already gone. So, my Dad asked Irving, who was about fifteen at the time, “Irving, who was it?” He responded, “I don’t know. Just guys in dark suits. They took Papa away.” And, Mrs. Hirano didn’t know either. She was an Issei (first-generation Japanese) and she didn’t really know anything about who those people were either.

As it turned out, no one, including the family, ever found out. It probably took seven to nine months before they ever found out what had happened to Mr. Hirano. He had been arrested. He was the executive secretary of the Nihonjin Kai, a Japanese association. It was strictly a social organization. They put on the New Year’s celebrations in the community and things like that. So, on that day, they took Mr. Hirano away. They also took away the Japanese language teacher at the Buddhist church and they wouldn’t tell my father anything about where anyone was being relocated.

When they took Mr. Hirano away, my Dad called the city manager. The city manager responded, “Mr. Mineta, I don’t know what you are talking about. Why don’t you call the police chief?” So, he called the police chief and the police chief responded, “Nah, I don’t know anything about what you are talking about. Why don’t you call Sheriff Emig.” So, my Dad called Sheriff Emig and he said, “Well, it’s not my operation because I would know about it if it was. It’s the FBI; they are going out arresting people they think are sympathetic to the Japanese. I’ll call the FBI and have them give you a call.”

Well, the FBI agent came to the house about 4:30 p.m. and he said that they were picking up people who were sympathetic to the Japanese and also people who were close to the government in Japan. The FBI guy also said, “We are picking up people who are community leaders.” My Dad thought of himself as a community leader. He thought it was strange that he wasn’t considered worthy enough to be picked up. So, after the FBI left, my Mother and Dad packed a suitcase, just in case the guy came back. The guy never came back.

It was kind of funny, though, because when the FBI guy said that they were picking up community leaders, my Dad frequently told the story about how he felt kind of insulted that he wasn’t in the same league as the other community leaders who were being picked up.

Norman Mineta (as a youngster, wearing white shirt) with family members. Courtesy of Norman Mineta.

Can you describe some of the events that led to your family being eventually interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming?

We left San Jose on May 29, 1942 to go to Santa Anita, the race track. President Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The order said that the government was able to pick up people for evacuation and internment, but they didn’t specify German, Italian, or Japanese. They were delegating that responsibility to General John DeWitt, the commanding general. DeWitt was really a racist. He was the one who coined the phrase: “Once a J-A-P, always a J-A-P.” He figured that if the Japanese were able to attack Pearl Harbor, they would have the ability or resources to also attack the West Coast of the United States.

DeWitt was the commanding general of the Western Defense Civil Command. He figured that if the Japanese military ever came to the West Coast that the Japanese living in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona, which was his jurisdiction, would all join up to support their military forces. That’s when the government came in.

General DeWitt commandeered most of the race tracks and fairgrounds in the area because they had built-in living quarters with the horse stables. By the time we got to Santa Anita, we were literally one of the last ones to arrive in camp. All of the horse stalls were already taken up. I used to visit friends of mine who were already living in those horse stables. This was summertime of 1942. The stench was really terrible where they lived, but I knew that DeWitt could care less.

I also remember another thing that happened right after the president had signed Executive Order 9066. All of these big placards started going up on the utility poles and on the sides of buildings where there were large populations of people of Japanese ancestry. And, so I saw on the placards, in big letters: “INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY.” What stuck out to me, though, was that it was directed to both “aliens” and “non-aliens.” My brother, who was nine years older than me, stood next to me. I said to him, “Who is that? Who is a non-alien? Is that you?” And he said back to me, “That’s you!” I said, “I’m not a non-alien! I’m a citizen!” He responded, “In this case, it means the same thing. Non-aliens are citizens.” I responded, “So why are they doing that?” He replied, “I don’t know. Maybe it is some sort of psychological warfare against us.”

To this day, I’ve always cherished the word “citizen” because my own government, the United States government, would not use that word to describe me during that time. When I give speeches today, I always say, “When is the last time you stood on a chair and pounded your chest and said I’m a proud non-alien of the United States?” People laugh, but that’s what we went through in 1942. And that’s why I cherish the word “citizen.”

Norman Mineta playing with one of his favorite toys. Courtesy of Norman Mineta.

As the Secretary of Transportation on 9/11, what was one of the most significant things that you were involved in?

As a result of the tragedy that happened on 9/11, many people were saying that we should keep Middle Eastern people off of airlines, keep the Muslims from flying. I was the Secretary of Transportation at that point and so on that morning, Tuesday, 9/11, I called the ACS at the Aviation Civil Security office at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). I told them to pick a few people to come up to my office at the Department of Transportation and start putting together a new security regimen to allow the airliners to get back to their business, return to the air, and resume flying.

When that third plane hit the Pentagon, however, I was talking to Monte Berger at the FAA and I said “Monte, that’s the third commercial airliner that has been used as a missile in the last hour and a half.” We had to quickly change course and do something drastic. In the military, they have something called a “stand down.” They bring everything to a screeching halt. They try to focus on one specific element and withdraw from everything else that they were originally planning to do that day. And so, I said, “We’re going to have to do our own version of a stand down. We’re going to have to bring all of those planes down.”

On that day, we had 6,438 airplanes in the air over the United States, so I said, “Monte, bring all of the planes down.” Monte, who started his career at the FAA as an air traffic controller, was the number two guy at the FAA. He responded, “Will we bring all of those planes down at pilot discretion?” I told Monte, “Screw the pilot discretion! I want all of the planes down NOW!” I didn’t want a pilot over, let’s say, Albuquerque, or a pilot over Phoenix, flying around in order to continue to their original destination in Los Angeles because they wanted to go home. Airplanes have the capability to know which airport can handle the size of their airplane, so I wanted them down as soon as possible. It turned out to be the right decision.

We brought all of those 6,438 planes down in two hours and twenty minutes without any major incidents. They were all able to land safely. The coordination that went on between the air traffic controllers, the flight decks, and the pilots was outstanding. The flight attendants in the flight cabin were also exceptional since they had to calm passengers who had no idea where they were about to land.

Do you have any advice you’d like to pass on to Asian American communities?

For young people, I tell them that they have a long career in front of them but I want them to volunteer so that they can help make the important decisions that affect their lives. The other thing that I try to do is to tell them that they own two things that no one else can own. One is their name and the other is their integrity. I tell them that it is important to protect both of them. If you don’t protect your integrity, you won’t be respected and people won’t trust you with the decisions that have to be made. I see so many young people who have good, long-term goals, but they stumble somewhere along the way because they don’t protect those two things.

For everyone else, I always try to encourage them to get involved with public service. In the past, that generally meant that I wanted people to run for public office. In a free and democratic society, you have an entire arc of citizens, from the regular citizen to the person who wants to run for public office. I maintain that the ones who want to run for office are maybe only about one- or two-percent of the population. So that means that there are still 99% of the other people who are still around. I always tell those people to pursue their career goals, which is good for the nation. They don’t have to run for public office to be involved in public service. What they should do is pursue their own career or professional goals, but set aside some time so that they can say to the mayor, county executive, governor, or president of the United States, “I’m a subject matter expert, and Mr. Mayor, Mr. County Executive, or Madame Governor, or Mr. President of the United States, I would like to serve on a board or a commission.”

I also tell them, “You can pick up a poster and run up and down the streets. It may make you feel good for the moment and you might even make it on television, but the problem is that decisions are being made about us and for us by people who really don’t even know anything about us.” I want Japanese Americans and Asian Pacific Americans to know that they don’t have to run for office to do something worthwhile. I try to encourage people to sit down and enjoy your lunch and dinner, but think about contributing by volunteering for a board or a commission. If they choose to get involved, they should always remember that current decisions are not necessarily being made in our best interests. By actively participating and making people aware of our wants and needs, we have a chance for better outcomes in the future.


* This article was originally published on The North American Post on October 24, 2019.


© 2019 Randy Tada, North American Post

9/11 norman mineta politics seattle World War II