Remembering Pearl Harbor (1)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Today on my way in to work NPR and the BBC were covering various stories about Pearl Harbor (Dec 7, 1941), which was up until 9/11/2001 the worst single-event attack on the United States in our nation's history.  The thing that struck me about these remembrances was how few people of even my parents' generation have the kind of visceral reaction to December 7th as my grandparents do - and as Americans alive on 9/11 do now.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, and the greater suite of events that made up World War 2, had a profound effect, though, on my family.  These are lasting effects that you can see not just in the lives of my grandparents who lived through it (interestingly, neither of my grandfathers fought in the war), but also in the lives of my parents and even in myself and my husband.  I'm interested in recording some of the lore as I remember it (and that's somewhat faulty, as my mother reminds me often).

The most obvious interaction of my family with the War in the Pacific comes actually from my husband's family, specifically his father and grandmother.  My grandfather was born in the Philippines in September 1940 (we think) to two American expatriates.  It seems that my husband's grandmother (Elizabeth) was something of a wild child and drifter, and she had moved to the Philippines some time before, where she met and eventually married Milton (grandfather, an engineer who was working on, I think, bridges there) and had two children.  Aunt Beth would have been about 2 on Pearl Harbor Day; Clay (father) was a little over 1.

There are interesting stories about Milton (who went on a business trip to Manila, got stuck there, joined the Army, was promptly captured, survived the Bataan Death March and died as a POW) and Elizabeth (I'll write about her later), but today I'm interested in my father in law, Clay.  When he was 2 years old (and Beth about 3), the three of them were captured by the Japanese and put in a civilian camp.  The stories of how they survived are horrific (See this entry, with a memory from Clay, in the book Civilian Prisoners of the Japanese in the Philippine Islands: Years of Hardship, Hunger, and Hope January 1942-February 1945).  Clay would occasionally tell anecdotes of his time there that chilled me - things I didn't want my own children to hear. 

The more I read about the particular camp that Clay, Beth, and Elizabeth survived, the more I am horrified about one person will do to another in the name of power.  And then I ran across this class action complaint by the US citizens stranded by the US in the Pacific in the lead up to Pearl Harbor and am even more horrified.  Here's the section about my husband's family:
3. Milton Clay, Elizabeth, and Beth Vaughan

89. Plaintiff Milton Clay Vaughan (“Clay”) was born on September 8, 1940, in Iloilo, the Philippines. His parents, Elizabeth Head Vaughan (“Mrs. Vaughan”) and Milton James Vaughan (“Mr. Vaughan”), were both American citizens. Mr. Vaughan worked as a civil engineer for the Pacific Commercial Company. Soon after Clay’s birth, his family moved to Bacolod, the provincial capital of Negros Occidental on Negros Island, located in the mid-Philippines. Now that they had an infant child, the Vaughans made general inquiries about the safety of remaining in the Philippines. They were reassured by American officials that they were perfectly safe.

90. In early December 1941, Mr. Vaughan was sent to Manila on a business trip. On December 7, eight hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Philippines was attacked by the Japanese and Mr. Vaughan was unable to return to his family. He then enlisted in the United States Army. Mrs. Vaughan was left to care for Clay, just over 1 year old, and his sister, Beth, 2.

91. Clay and his mother and sister were rounded up by the Japanese army and sent to the Fabrica camp in Bacolod. On March 2, 1943, Clay was taken, along with his family and many other internees, to Bacolod Pier to be transferred to Manila. The boat was covered in a layer of crude oil from leaking barrels which had been loaded on the boat just before the internees arrived. There were no beds or pillows, so two-year-old Clay slept on the oil-covered hard wooden floor. There was not enough space for everyone to lie down, so the adults took turns lying down for part of the night. There were no toilet or bathing facilities on the boat, and the internees were not fed by the Japanese. The internees lived in the cramped quarters of the boat for five days before the boat even left the pier. Shortly before the boat left, pigs were brought on board and placed below the steps used by the internees, adding to the already filthy conditions. The boat arrived in Manila on March 10, 1943.. The internees were taken to Santo Tomas internment camp, where Clay experienced hardships similar to those of the other internees previously discussed.

92. One day when four-year-old Clay was playing outside, a Japanese soldier walked by, whom Clay did not see. The soldier kicked the child. Clay, who was too young to understand all the rules of the Japanese, did not know why he had been kicked until his mother came out and explained to him that the soldier kicked him because he did not get up and bow when the soldier walked by, as the internees were required to do. All internees were also ordered never to look at planes flying overhead. App. 34, p. 108.

93. Under the military orders governing the camp, the Japanese soldiers in charge were generally not allowed to kill prisoners. However, any person who showed signs of rebellion against Japan could be summarily executed by the prison guards. Accordingly, the Japanese guards encouraged and tried to bribe internees to reveal the names of persons who were critical of, or had a derogatory attitude toward, the Japanese. One day the Japanese soldiers took Clay to a restricted area, encouraging the child to claim that his mother had said derogatory things about the Japanese. Clay was asked what his mother had said the previous night. Clay said nothing, but shook his head to signify that she had not said anything. A soldier then pulled out one of the child’s fingernails, and then repeated the question. Although only four years old, Clay withstood the pain and steadfastly refused to say anything that would implicate his mother.

94. After liberation, Clay, Beth and Mrs. Vaughan were given transport back to the United States, but prior to departure Mrs. Vaughan was required to sign a promissory note in the amount of $825.00 to the government as payment for their voyage. Mrs. Vaughan was also required by the United States Army Counterintelligence Corps to sign a paper promising that she would not reveal information about the internment for at least 40 years. She learned that her husband Mr. Vaughan, who had enlisted in the U.S. Army and survived the Bataan Death March, died in the summer of 1942 in Japanese hands as a prisoner of war.
There are so many things to be horrified by in this narrative.  But here are two things that I hadn't known before: 1: The US assured its citizens that they were safe, when they obviously were not. 2: When my father in law was a toddler, his father went on a business trip and never came home, because of the events of this date. This date, that lives in infamy, even now.


  • Renee Anne

    That's absolutely horrible! I don't even know where to begin with how much is wrong with what happened.

    I was 11 when my grandfather told me about his time in Pearl Harbor...or, rather, how his ship was a day out of Pearl Harbor when it was bombed.

    I think I'm going to have to write my own entry about Pearl Harbor.

  • Jennifer Denning

    My grandfather was an American soldier in the Philippines, who would become a Japanese POW. I wonder what he was thinking on December 7, 1941.

    I am going to post about it tonight.

  • Katy M.


    I came across this blog post while doing some genealogy research on my paternal grandmother who was Lucy Vaughan Kearney, sister to Milton James Vaughan, who would have been Clay's (your father-in-law) aunt. My father (Noble S. Kearney Jr.) and your father-in-law are cousins. I was wondering if your husband had any family history information that we should share.

    Please feel free to email me at katymaffei [at] me[dot]com.

    Katy Vaughan Maffei

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