Life on the Home Front

New History San Jose Exhibit Portrays Santa Clara County’s World War II

Those of us younger than 60 usually think of World War II in terms of our fathers or grandfathers battling enemies in far-off Pacific island jungles and snow-covered European fields, or through iconic images of Iwo Jima, D-Day and the atomic bomb. We often forget that the last formally declared U.S. war also absorbed the entire population of our country in a massive coordinated effort to defeat ideologically driven enemies that really did threaten our very existence as a nation. A fascinating new History San Jose (HSJ) exhibition in the Pacific Hotel Gallery at History Park in Kelley Park shows how Santa Clara County, on the western domestic front of the war, played a significant part in that effort and how the war affected the everyday lives of people in the valley.

Opening on Dec. 7, the 67th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, The Home Front: Santa Clara County’s World War II, put together by Melissa Johnson, Curator of Interactive Media at HSJ, tells the story of the “folks back home” during the war years, through displays of period household objects, civil defense paraphernalia, fashions, photographs, posters, letters, archival documents, periodicals and specially produced audiovisual material.

Popular music from the period playing throughout the exhibit sets the tone for the journey back in time.  The next level of the experience is based on carefully chosen San Jose News front pages placed at each stage of the exhibit, chronologically travelling through the war’s big stories from Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt’s address to Congress the next day, to the explosion of the “sun bomb” over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 (headline: “New Weapon Cost $2 Billion, Most Terrible Ever Seen”).

A display showing a typical American kitchen anchors the exhibition, followed by a correspondence section. Letters from soldiers in far-off places—including ones from Harry Farrell, future San Jose journalist and author—bring the action on the front to friends and family back home.

The civil defense materials on show remind visitors of the careful preparations that were made to provide aid to citizens in the event of an enemy air attack. There is a map showing each precinct in San Jose and the location of air raid sirens and strategically placed emergency supplies, first aid kits and stretchers.

The many factories dedicated to war manufacturing and food canning in the valley that employed large numbers of women provide the materials for another display. There are photos and documents related to the Hendy Ironworks in Sunnyvale that made engines for liberty ships, the huge Permanente Cement Plant and Libby’s canning factory in San Jose, and the first IBM plant that opened in 1943 to produce punch cards.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving his military commanders the power to designate “exclusion zones” for any military purposes they felt necessary. In March, U.S. Army Gen. John DeWitt, commander of the U.S. Fourth Army and the Western Defense Command, used Roosevelt’s order as a pretext to exclude both citizens and noncitizens of Japanese ancestry from the Western U.S., declaring them “undesirables” and a danger to national security. Japanese-Americans living in the Western states were first subject to curfews and banned from owning firearms, radios and cameras. Nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans, 75 percent of them citizens, were rounded up with what possessions they could carry and moved into internment concentration camps. Many from San Jose were sent to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. In December 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the internment of citizens unconstitutional, and the detainees began leaving the camps in January 1945. In cooperation with the Japanese American Museum, there is an extensive display of documents and photographs related to Japanese internment, including a number of “loyalty oath” documents with photographs and personal information that each person was required to sign.

The exhibition concludes with items from the end-of-war celebrations. There is also an interactive audiovisual presentation of several interviews where local citizens tell the stories of their experiences during the war over sequences of photos and images from their personal collections. Over 100 of these are also available online at , a joint production of HSJ and the Digital Clubhouse Network.

The Home Front: Santa Clara County’s World War II opens in the Pacific Hotel Gallery in History Park at Kelley Park on Dec. 7 and goes through Sept. 11, 2009. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11am to 4pm.


  1. The presidential order applied to Italian and German nationals as well as to Japanese.

    In addition, there were two kinds of camps, those for “relocation” and those for “enemy alien internment.”

    It’s a shame that this topic cannot be covered in a candid way.

  2. In actual fact, the presidential order does not mention any ethnic group in particular, but “all or any persons.” However, DeWitt and other generals obviously used the authority granted them by the president to apply exclusion orders to German, Italian and Japanese Americans and organize the resulting internments that were implied by the order’s provision to supply “transportation, food and shelter” to those affected.

    Executive Order No. 9066

    The President

    Executive Order

    Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas

    Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities as defined in Section 4, Act of April 20, 1918, 40 Stat. 533, as amended by the Act of November 30, 1940, 54 Stat. 1220, and the Act of August 21, 1941, 55 Stat. 655 (U.S.C., Title 50, Sec. 104);

    Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary, in the judgment of the Secretary of War or the said Military Commander, and until other arrangements are made, to accomplish the purpose of this order. The designation of military areas in any region or locality shall supersede designations of prohibited and restricted areas by the Attorney General under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, and shall supersede the responsibility and authority of the Attorney General under the said Proclamations in respect of such prohibited and restricted areas.

    I hereby further authorize and direct the Secretary of War and the said Military Commanders to take such other steps as he or the appropriate Military Commander may deem advisable to enforce compliance with the restrictions applicable to each Military area hereinabove authorized to be designated, including the use of Federal troops and other Federal Agencies, with authority to accept assistance of state and local agencies.

    I hereby further authorize and direct all Executive Departments, independent establishments and other Federal Agencies, to assist the Secretary of War or the said Military Commanders in carrying out this Executive Order, including the furnishing of medical aid, hospitalization, food, clothing, transportation, use of land, shelter, and other supplies, equipment, utilities, facilities, and services.

    This order shall not be construed as modifying or limiting in any way the authority heretofore granted under Executive Order No. 8972, dated December 12, 1941, nor shall it be construed as limiting or modifying the duty and responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with respect to the investigation of alleged acts of sabotage or the duty and responsibility of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, prescribing regulations for the conduct and control of alien enemies, except as such duty and responsibility is superseded by the designation of military areas hereunder.

    Franklin D. Roosevelt

    The White House,

    February 19, 1942.

    [F.R. Doc. 42–1563; Filed, February 21, 1942; 12:51 p.m.]

  3. Internment of enemy nationals is not an unusual step in wartime. I believe it is permitted by international law.

    The internment of Japanese-Americans is a different matter because most of them were American citizens. Those who weren’t were probably mostly eligible for US citizenship by virtue of long residence, and had they been given the opportunity they might well have taken out citizenship.

    I know that some Italians and Germans were interned, but were there any who were not enemy nationals but US citizens?

    The US is an unusual case. Because it is a nation of immigrants, whatever country it goes to war against, there are bound to be some citizens of that country living here. And most likely a lot of them came here because they don’t care much for the government back home.

    I have some Iranian-American friends, and while they are proud of their native country’s cultural heritage, none of them has any liking for the current government of Iran. That’s one reason they’re here instead of there.

    The text of that order is interesting. This is the first time I actually read it. It’s so vague that it could be used for just about anything. It’s no wonder it was found to be unconstitutional, but it’s a pity it took so long.

    I’d like to read an informed analysis of why it was drawn up in the first place. Clearly there are issues such as excluding people from the areas around the gun batteries that were placed all along the Pacific Coast. Excluding enemy aliens from being within a certain distance from the coast might be understandable, to prevent landing spies from submarines, etc.

    But it seems to me that DeWitt stretched things a lot. I don’t know anything about him, but I get a feeling he must have had his own private agenda.

    I know that J. Edgar Hoover, regardless of his shortcomings in other areas, was shocked at the idea of interning US citizens.

    Here’s a case where SJ can hold its head a little bit higher, because this is one of the few places where the internees managed to recover most of their property, thanks to a few brave people who stood up for them.

    Here is something I only came to understand recently. I’ve often heard of the Fillmore district of SF as being a historic African-American neighborhood. Writings from the 40s and 50s are full of descriptions of the lively culture in the area, plenty of great jazz clubs, etc. And later you read complaints about how the area is being gentrified.

    It was a KQED documentary about SF neighborhoods that made me realize what really happened. That was the prewar Japantown. When the internment happened, that property was snatched up by speculators at bargain basement prices.

    Because the Bay Area was a major area for war production, and because Pres. Roosevelt had insisted on integrating war production jobs, African-Americans from the South came here in droves to get jobs in defence factories. But where were they to live? One answer was the now-deserted Japantown in SF, which turned into an African-American neighborhood.

    I hope the exhibit of the American kitchen doesn’t contain my toaster. That’s what happened the last time I went there. My toaster is only 45 years old; my parents gave it to me when I went off to college!