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The Homefront, Then and Now

The University of Colorado Goes to War

Japanese teachers and families relax at Boulder's Chautauqua Park. Teachers and students learned respect for each other and many retained relationships after the war. Photo from the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries.
In 1942, the University of Colorado reacted to the attack on Pearl Harbor by drastically changing the classes it offered students. As educators looked for ways to help the war effort, CU expanded courses in flying, business administration, the medical school’s general hospital and school of nursing. They offered radio and telegraphy, and even training in radar detection. Many of the courses were taught under contract with the US Navy.

But there was a more specialized need. There were scarcely more than a dozen American officers fluent in Japanese, and, when Executive Order No. 9066, exiling Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, became effective, a Japanese language course being taught at the University of California-Berkeley suddenly lost its Japanese-American instructors. With citizens—–and the leadership—of almost every state in the West protesting against displaced Japanese people being moved into their state, the military saw only one hope. Colorado’s Governor Ralph Carr’s lone welcoming stance (see my blog dated Feb. 22, 2017) encouraged the military to turn to CU.

The navy proposal was startling. Eighty American-born-Japanese instructors and their families and what would soon become 500 to 700 hundred students learning to speak Japanese would move into this small town of 12,958 people. The university’s some 7,000 students would be encountering the faces and language of an enemy whose conquests and treacheries made daily headlines. The school would provide intensive training in the Japanese language. Its students would be immersed in Japanese thought and speech. Could the community adjust? CU’s President Robert Steans, a friend of Ralph Carr, said “Yes.”

Housing was a major problem. With frightened citizens urging real estate dealers not to sell to any Japanese, Cu sought scarce housing. The Chamber of Commerce resorted to a ¾ page ad in the Boulder Daily Camera: “The United States Navy asks Boulder to meet the most important quota Boulder has ever been asked to meet…immediately.” It compared this “vital” need to housing “the crew of a battleship” and urged Boulder residents to come through. Boulder citizens immediately protested. Japanese-Americans were subject to unpleasant instances of garbage dumped, doors chalked, bee-bees shot, spiting and rude remarks. But the school proceeded.

Naval Intelligence ran the school. The navy desperately needed officers fluent in the difficult language. They needed interrogators, code breakers and translators, and they needed them quickly. Course work would be intense. The students were required to devote 14 hours a day to classes and study, six days a week for 14 months.

Syntax, grammar and theory went out the window. All discussion was In Japanese. All focus was on teaching students to read and write about 2,000 Japanese characters, and speak about 8,000 words. They were busy with rice paper and brush, gaining ability to read newspapers, listen to Japanese radio programs, and converse in Japanese. As quickly as they finished, most were sent to the Pacific.

Beginning in June 1942, as many as 177 Japanese-American teachers in Boulder educated more than 1,200 servicemen in what was considered a top-secret program. After the war, the students provided vital help during the occupation, and many later pursued careers involving the Japanese culture.  Read More 
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