Constable: Memories survive, but not V-J Day
Only a few Americans still acknowledge V-J Day, which got its start on Aug. 14, 1945, as President Harry Truman announced that Japan had surrendered, and "Victory over Japan" marked the end of World War II.
Japan is a close ally today, and that nation's attack on Pearl Harbor and our nation's use of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are relegated to history. Rhode Island is the only state that still declares the anniversary of the original V-J Day a holiday, and it is called simply "Victory Day" so as not to insult our Japanese friends.
It wasn't always that way.
"I didn't consider myself Japanese. I was just an American," remembers Jean Mishima, 81, a Glenview woman of Japanese descent who runs the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society. "I was born in Long Beach, California. Both of my parents were born here (California)."
She has to dig through paperwork to find birth certificates to get the correct spellings for her parents, Shigeru and Kimiye Matsumoto. "Sorry. I'm not very good with Japanese names," Mishima says.
Her dad ran a farm in Downey, California, trucking vegetables and other crops to the market, and her mother worked in those fields. So did Mishima, the oldest of their three kids.
"My arm got caught between a wagon and the wheel," she says, recalling a horrific accident when she was around 4 years old. "My mother said that my father fainted in the hospital."
She was healed by the time she posed for a photo in front of her family's barracks in the Gila River Relocation Camp, an internment facility on an Indian reservation in Arizona, where the U.S. government moved her family and thousands of other Japanese-Americans in the summer of 1942.
"I didn't realize I was in a camp and incarcerated until I was an adult," Mishima says. But she saw the result.
"My parents lost everything," she remembers. "The camp disrupted the family life. My father was no longer the breadwinner."
Her father worked as a cook in the camp, but her mother was released to take a job as a seamstress in Chicago. Mishima's parents divorced, and she and her siblings came to Chicago in 1944 to live with their mother.
As a boy immersed in World War II, Walter "Gibby" Vartan, now 85 and retired from his position as a brigadier general with the Air Force Reserve, was terrified of the first Japanese people he saw in his Peterson Park neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.
"You'd hear the sirens of these jeeps," Vartan says, recalling how he and his buddies would scramble up the framework of a sign at California and Lincoln avenues to get a good look at the foreign prisoners of war being transported from Fort Sheridan in Lake County to a military facility near Hyde Park, where the men would work in landscaping, janitorial or food services.
"The German prisoners would wave to us and smile," Vartan says, recalling how he'd wave back to the men in the back of open trucks. "A lot of them probably had kids at home, and we were kids."
Prisoners from Japan were enclosed in trucks covered with a wire mesh.
"When the Japanese prisoners came by, we wouldn't wave to them because we'd heard rumors that the Japanese prisoners would eat us," recalls Vartan, who had planned his escape route into nearby woods if any of those prisoners somehow escaped.
Vartan's father, Walter, was an Armenian Christian who lost his mother and two siblings during the World War I genocide in Turkey. He opened a photoengraving business in Chicago and printed many of the propaganda posters during World War II that depicted our enemies as buffoons or monsters.
"The Japanese would have fangs," Vartan remembers.
Mishima and Vartan are included in a new documentary by award-winning filmmaker and Wheaton native John Davies, which features new interviews and recently discovered footage of the war effort in Chicago and the suburbs. Narrated by Bill Kurtis, "A City At War: Chicago" will be shown during prime time Thursday, Nov. 9, locally on WTTW and will air nationwide on public television during Memorial Day weekend 2018.
Mishima went on to receive three master's degrees and worked as a special-education teacher at the elementary level for a decade before becoming a special-need counselor at Lincoln Park High School. She says her first husband faced discrimination in Chicago, such as being prohibited from sitting on the first floor of movie theaters, which was reserved for white people. On the day World War II ended, Mishima was baby-sitting for a Japanese-American mother whose husband was in the U.S. Army.
"I just remember them being so happy," she says.
She didn't visit the homeland of her ancestors until she was invited to speak in 2016 by the Tokyo University of the Arts. Her talks was titled, "Journey to East from Hiroshima."
Vartan, who served in a Junior Marine group that took part in parades and a massive "I Am An American" rally at Soldier Field, remembers crafting machine guns out of wood in a park district arts program and building model warplanes.
His father was an air raid warden who wore a white helmet and led a group scanning the Chicago skies for enemy planes.
Inspired to make a career in the military, Vartan was commissioned as a second lieutenant through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Grinnell College in Iowa. He finished his education at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh before attending Nuclear Weapons School. He was a pilot in the Strategic Air Command's 307th Bombardment Wing, flying a B-47, the plane made famous in the Cold War movie "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."
Vartan never had to fire a nuclear weapon. Having worked with NATO leaders whose fathers fought for our enemies in World War II, Vartan says he understands how people of all nations can get caught up in the differences among people during a war and how those differences can dissolve after the fighting ends.
"It doesn't matter what society you're living in," Vartan says. "The motives and goals are pretty much the same."