The Charlotte News

Wednesday, December 17, 1941


Site Ed. Note: "Borneo Oil" conveys the tale-teller of the ultimate goal for the strike at Pearl Harbor. It took the Japanese but nine days to get to the oilfields of the East Indies. The chart published on December 13 of the distribution of the world's resources showed the Allies with 78% of the world's oil, including the 3% of the East Indies. The Axis and Axis-occupied nations were shown with but a total of 3%, therefore to be doubled by acquisition of the East Indies oil, the bulk of which was in the oilfields of Borneo.

A child was born, you see, to the Empire of Japan--a healthy, healthy baby boy, even if born out of the condition of wedlock. Its first words, however, were, endearingly though they may have been to its immediate audience, e-i, e-i, o.

It is bitterly ironic that, as war news filled the headlines now and the attack at Pearl Harbor was being treated with each passing day as an increasingly distant memory, as news of war in the Pacific began to settle in as a commonplace experience to the stateside reader, hints of unabashed racism, even if playfully submitted, crept into the reportage and editorialization of the day. Phrases such as "slant-eye" and "yellow-belly" were tossed about without reserve in print.

No one of course can blame them for the anger directed at the Japanese militarists, at the spineless Emperor who signed off on the mission from Mars. But such anger was misplaced as generally directed toward the Japanese people. The reaction was much the same in this country in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy of September 11, 2001. But especially with regard to what the whole purpose of the fight was in Europe ultimately, a fight against racism and ethnicism, that which gave birth to the Hitler movement, it was not becoming to newsmen and editors to participate in such cant with general application to a race of people. Indeed, the classification of the Nazis as representative of poor white trash was directed at a particular party within Germany--one with its origins in brute force and cant of its own more than political ideology--, not to the German people as a whole, even if, by the facts of life extant, party membership for all but non-Aryans was compulsory lest one either emigrate or risk being imprisoned, tortured, or shot, branded as a spy or Communist.

In saying that, however, it must be recognized that undoubtedly the average man and woman on the street were uttering far worse things in the way of ethnophaulisms than those stated in print; and so some of the verbiage, at least in the national press, in all likelihood was intended to discharge some of that negative electricity, to prevent the worst, beatings or killings of Japanese-Americans. Yet, there were no Japanese-Americans in Charlotte, as reported on December 8, few in North Carolina at the time, indeed, for the obvious reason of relative proximity to Japan, comparatively few in the entire country beyond the West Coast, chiefly centralized there in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. So...

A letter writer today makes her point with regard to the mockish Uncle Remus tone of the quotes attributed to some black man remarking to his employer on the latter's intent to enter the military. While obviously a jest in this instance, it nevertheless obviously was considered offensive to some even in 1941, even in an age where, as Dorothy Thompson suggested in her first editorial after December 7, America was in part characterized by Amos 'n' Andy, then played of course on the radio by two white men, Gosden 'n' Correll. Rochester of Jack Benny fame also comes immediately to mind. But these were cartoons of real people, both white and black, staged in humorous settings, and not real people, even if some inevitably find it difficult to distinguish theater from reality and use the thusly conveyed stereotypes actively to hurt the feelings of people staged in reality.

All of that sensitivity can, however, be taken at times far too far, to the point of absurdity, voiding the language of color, chilling expression of ideas by irony, the best friend of tolerance, until all expression of truth is lost from language, leaving a sentimentalized record of an age which never existed, suggestive by turns that all was well with race relations in the society in 1941, as plainly it was not, despite the virtual cessation for the time in the South of racism's most virulent manifestation, lynching. Such a sterile record actually does harm to progress as it sends under the rose the invidious stereotypes potentially to find their targets in less controlled settings than newsprint.

But the letter writer makes her point, even if she was probably being far too harsh on Mr. Paul's particular, relatively innocuous representation of dialogue which may well have been verbatim. Such expressions were heard in the South well into the 1960's. If so, one can say that it was not a mockish tone, any more than mimicking rural Southern speech generally, but rather a presentation of a slice of life in theater to spell a desperately serious and dark time, where all males in the society much under 50 were facing the potential for being called into military service and shipped to the Pacific or Europe or Africa to die. Unlike the Vietnam era, the fighting was done in those days, because of segregated branches of military service, almost exclusively by white men.

But the letter writer makes her point. Dorie Miller became the first African-American ever to receive the Navy Cross, awarded in May, 1942 for his heroism in the midst of the attack at Pearl Harbor. A mess attendant barred by the fact of his race from serving as a regular seaman, he attempted, albeit futilely, to save the life of Captain Mervyn Bennion of the stricken West Virginia as the Captain lay dying. Miller, amid bullets, bombs, and the danger of onboard explosions, violated the Captain's orders to him and carried the Captain, torn and bloody from shrapnel, to a place out of harm's way. After doing so, he took a position at a machine gun on which he had no training and began firing at the Japanese attack planes flying overhead. After returning stateside to participate in promotional tours, he returned to service, was promoted eventually to Petty Officer while remaining as a cook, and died onboard the carrier Liscome Bay, sunk November 24, 1943 at the Battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. Dorie Miller, like his valiant predecessor, Reuben James, who in 1804 saved the life of Stephen Decatur, had a Navy ship, a destroyer escort, christened after him in 1973. That ship was decommissioned in 1991. Perhaps, in the long Navy tradition, it is time for another ship to bear his name.

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