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 http://www.digiclub.org/sofs , 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.