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LA Mayor Bowron's role in the Japanese American internment




In this 1949 photo, Mayor Fletcher Bowron is shown asking City Council to investigate complaints against police and other city employees.
In this 1949 photo, Mayor Fletcher Bowron is shown asking City Council to investigate complaints against police and other city employees.
Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

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December 7, 1941 was "a date which will live in infamy," but just two months later FDR himself was responsible for an infamous date. He signed signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, forcing 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the order, LA City Archivist Michael Holland tells us the story of Mayor Fletcher Bowron's support for the criminal mistreatment of so many of his city's citizens.

Certainly, some way should be devised for keeping the native-born Japanese out of mischief. I feel that this could be handled on the theory that the burden is upon every American-born Japanese to demonstrate his loyalty to this country, to show that he really intends for all time, in good faith, to claim and enjoy one citizenship rather than dual citizenship. Since the question to be determined is whether there is a mental reservation in his declaration, it would, of course, take considerable time to make the necessary investigation, possibly as long as the war would last, and during the period of such inquiry, while the question of loyalty may be in doubt, so long as there may be a possibility of an American-born Japanese having hidden in the secret of his mind an intention to serve the Mikado as a loyal subject of Japan, when and if such occasion should arise during all of this period the American-born Japanese might be well engaged in raising soy beans for the Government.

LA Mayor Fletcher Bowron, 2/5/1942, KECA Radio

World War 2 made LA into the metropolis it would become. People came here in droves for work in the defense industry and many of them stayed for the weather and lifestyle. But that success story has a very dark side which we are still grappling with, and some of the proof is in the LA City Archive.

The archive contains radio speeches Mayor Fletcher Bowron made every Thursday night. Alas, there are no audio recordings of these speeches, but there are paper transcripts that let us recreate what they might have sounded like. (Listen to the audio player to hear actor Christopher Murray read excerpts from Bowron's radio speeches.) In many of them, Bowron supports the Japanese Internment and details how and why it would be carried out.

A radio speech LA Mayor Fletcher Bowron delivered on February 5, 1942.
A radio speech LA Mayor Fletcher Bowron delivered on February 5, 1942.
LA City Archive

Bowron was elected in 1938 to replace the corrupt Frank Shaw, and instituted reforms to restore confidence in local government. He used the radio as a bully pulpit to call out other politicians who were resistant to his agenda. He was re-elected in 1941.

In a precedent setting ceremony, Judge Bowron is shown taking the oath of office in the City Council's chambers. This was the first time a mayor took office in a public ceremony and Bowron is the first mayor to be elected by means of a recall. Standing in front of the microphone from left to right: City Clerk Robert Dominguez, who is administering the oath; Council President Robert Burns, City Attorney Ray Chesebro, and Mayor Bowron.
In a precedent setting ceremony, Judge Bowron is shown taking the oath of office in the City Council's chambers. This was the first time a mayor took office in a public ceremony and Bowron is the first mayor to be elected by means of a recall. Standing in front of the microphone from left to right: City Clerk Robert Dominguez, who is administering the oath; Council President Robert Burns, City Attorney Ray Chesebro, and Mayor Bowron.
Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

Then came the attack at Pearl Harbor, which bred a special hatred towards the Japanese living here in Southern California, many of them American citizens by birth.Los Angeles was at the center of the war effort, with the Ports of LA and Long Beach, oil refineries, and the factories producing the materiel needed to defeat the Axis Powers. In mid-January, 1942, Mayor Bowron had been told about a plan to intern local Japanese, supposedly to protect the home front and the defense industries from spies and saboteurs. His radio speech of January 29th mentioned the first part of the plan.

A few days ago, we dropped, at least temporarily, from the city payrolls all employees of Japanese parentage. This was done without violating the legal rights of anyone.

Not everyone approved. Clifford Clinton, of Clifton’s Cafeteria fame and one of the men behind Bowron’s election, wrote a letter of protest that reads, in part, "We should not permit hysteria and indignation to serve as a substitute for hard work and hard thinking. We should build up public morale by taking intelligent and humane action, not undermine it by yielding to the hysteria of a witch-hunt."

Clifford Clinton - founder of the Clifton's Cafeteria chain and a Bowron supporter - joined the Army in early 1942. Here, as a technical sergeant in the anti-aircraft artillery, he talks with Mayor Bowron June 1, 1942.
Clifford Clinton - founder of the Clifton's Cafeteria chain and a Bowron supporter - joined the Army in early 1942. Here, as a technical sergeant in the anti-aircraft artillery, he talks with Mayor Bowron June 1, 1942.
Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

An unnamed Pasadena realtor also protested, writing, "Sometimes I wonder how genuine our democracy is. If by democracy we mean freedom and liberty for the white man, let’s say so and promptly subjugate all others so Hitler cannot divide and conquer. But it’s not that kind of America: let’s publicly reinstate these citizens."

But dissenting voices – and a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence -- were ignored. Bowron’s background as a judge was on full display as he defended the internment in his weekly radio address.

I have merely pointed out a legal theory that native-born Japanese never were citizens under a proper construction of the provisions of the United States Constitution. If they never were citizens, nothing could be taken from them and their position is different … (they) are in a class by themselves.

The theory he cited was a dissenting Supreme Court opinion from the 1890’s. He went on to express his preference that Los Angeles would never again have a large concentration of Japanese.

Tule Lake Japanese Internment Camp, 1945.
Tule Lake Japanese Internment Camp, 1945.
Los Angeles Public Library Shades of LA Collection

But many internees did return ...

It appears that within the next 3 months, 10,000 Japanese will be brought back to us from the relocation centers.

... and started up their lives all over again. A few reclaimed their homes and businesses, but most couldn’t.

The case for justifying the internment camps was never successfully proven. The U.S. Government no longer considered Southern California in danger from sabotage in mid-1943 and started to release the internees. The Supreme Court ruled against indefinite detention of U.S. citizens in December 1944. Six city employees were photographed with Mayor Bowron when they returned to city service in January of 1945.

January 15, 1945: Mayor Bowron welcomes Japanese back to LA. L-R: (seated): Mrs. Melba Matsuuro, Mary Yoshimizu; (standing): Jack Yoshimizu, Henry Yoshimizu, Meriko Hoshigama, Mayor Bowron, and Harley M. Oka. Speaking on December 18, 1944, Mayor Bowron said he was fearful that the return of the Japanese might lead to a serious outbreak of race riots and impose a heavy burden on law officers.
January 15, 1945: Mayor Bowron welcomes Japanese back to LA. L-R: (seated): Mrs. Melba Matsuuro, Mary Yoshimizu; (standing): Jack Yoshimizu, Henry Yoshimizu, Meriko Hoshigama, Mayor Bowron, and Harley M. Oka. Speaking on December 18, 1944, Mayor Bowron said he was fearful that the return of the Japanese might lead to a serious outbreak of race riots and impose a heavy burden on law officers.
Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection

Bowron was mayor of Los Angeles until 1953, and until Tom Bradley, was our longest serving mayor. After he left office, he became director of the Metropolitan Los Angeles History Project.

LA Mayor Fletcher Bowron welcoming Madame Chiang Kai-Shek on her visit to Los Angeles on March 31, 1943. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (seated left, center) was raising funds for China during World War II. Mrs. Bowron is seated behind him. His talk is being broadcast on various radio stations.
LA Mayor Fletcher Bowron welcoming Madame Chiang Kai-Shek on her visit to Los Angeles on March 31, 1943. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (seated left, center) was raising funds for China during World War II. Mrs. Bowron is seated behind him. His talk is being broadcast on various radio stations.
Los Angeles Public Library's Harry Quillen Collection

Fletcher Bowron died in 1968 at the age of 81, but before he did, he made several public apologies for the treatment of the Japanese citizens of Los Angeles.

Michael Holland first told this story in Alive!, the LA City employee newspaper.

The Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo will be marking the 75th anniversary Executive Order 9066 on Saturday, from 2-4p, with a Day of Remembrance.