In late August, local historian Tim Thomas was searching through a bank of file drawers in the second-floor conference room of the Japanese American Citizens League Hall in Monterey when he made a startling discovery.
In a slightly frayed, rolled-up, legal-sized envelope dated May 9, 1945, he found a cache of West Coast history related to the mass incarceration of 120,000 Japanese, including American citizens, during World War II. It had not been seen in nearly 70 years.
What Thomas uncovered was a collection of petitions calling for residents of Monterey to "insure the democratic way of life" of those of Japanese ancestry who would be returning to their homes on the Monterey Peninsula in the months ahead.
Among the signatories were some of the most prominent cultural figures in the region, including Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck; his best friend, celebrated marine biologist Ed Ricketts; photographer Edward Weston and his wife, the model-writer Charis Wilson Weston; artists Barbara and Ellwood Graham; and nationally renowned Big Sur poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife, Una.
The 440-plus names gathered during the petition drive were later listed in a huge full-page advertisement in The Herald on May 11, 1945, under the banner headline "The Democratic Way of Life for All.
In addition to the local literati, those who signed the petitions reflected a remarkably broad spectrum of the community at the time, including business and labor leaders, educators and journalists, attorneys and janitors, clergy and women who were holding down the home front while their husbands were off fighting the war.
One of the signatories was Nancy Costello, whose husband, Jimmy Costello, was a well-known journalist at The Herald who was fighting with the Army infantry in France.
Nancy Costello died late Friday at the age of 95. She was the last known signatory.
Before her death, she said she signed the petition because she wanted "to support our Japanese friends" and out of respect for her husband.
"He had been assigned to report on the gathering up of the Japanese before they were sent away (in 1942)," Costello recalled. "It was the worst assignment of his life. These were good people, loyal citizens. Jimmy was mortified by it. He knew it was wrong."
Thomas said he immediately began to cry once he realized the historical significance of his discovery.
"There's really no other known act like this during the war in which non-Japanese Americans stood up as a community for their Japanese friends and neighbors," Thomas said."These petitions represent a really unique moment in American civil rights history."
Thomas is curator for the Japanese league's Heritage Center and the author of "The Japanese on the Monterey Peninsula." He described his find as something akin to discovering the Rosetta Stone.
"It made me so proud of this community," he said.
Monterey Peninsula College professor emeritus David Yamada called it "one of those once-in-a-lifetime eureka moments."
"Discovery, however, is seldom a final step," he said. "It is but one step in the process of unfolding fact and knowledge to help us understand humanity."
Larry Oda, who has served as the Japanese league's national president, said the petitions "tell the story of (Monterey) during the war—where people stood in relation to their neighbors. It heartens me that so many prominent members of our community rose up for justice, when it was not really popular to do so."
In February 1942, during the early months of the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which sanctioned the relocation and eventual incarceration of more than 3,800 residents of Japanese descent on the Central Coast. It launched what many consider one of the darkest chapters in American civil rights history.
By December 1944, with the war grinding well into its third year, Maj. Gen. Henry C. Pratt of the Western War Command announced that the incarceration centers would be closed down within the year and that those of Japanese descent would be returning to their homes.
But almost immediately, widespread opposition to the announcement mobilized throughout the western states. In Seattle, for instance, a pair of organizations—the Remember Pearl Harbor League and the Japanese Exclusion League, both composed of business, agricultural and union interests—pushed for a constitutional amendment to prevent Japanese from becoming U.S. citizens.
In Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas, a survey conducted by the Salinas Chamber of Commerce in 1943 claiming to "definitely represent" approximately 10,000 residents resulted in only a single respondent, attorney George D. Pollock, supporting the Japanese return.
Some Salinas respondents contributed additional commentary to the survey.
"There never was and never will be a Jap that was or ever will be loyal to the United States," wrote one. It was a common theme expressed throughout the survey.
Virulent anti-Japanese sentiment soon developed into a cohesive movement throughout area, centered in Salinas but reaching to Santa Cruz in the north and King City to the south.
By February 1945, an organization calling itself the Monterey Bay Council on Japanese Relations filed articles of incorporation "to discourage the return to the Pacific Coast of any person of Japanese ancestry."
The council was represented on the Peninsula by Matthew Beaton and Corum B. Jackson of Carmel, while Santa Cruz was represented by Andy Balich, general manager of the Hotel Palomar downtown and a prominent real estate developer.
But the hot point of the movement was clearly Salinas, where Edward M. Seifert served as the council's leader. Seifert, president of the Salinas Grower Shipper Vegetable Association, had been a longtime advocate for removing Japanese from the Salinas Valley. Early in the war he had written to California Attorney General Earl Warren, declaring that "we must eliminate as many of the undesirable aliens from the lands of California as possible."
As the winter of 1945 turned into spring, the first Japanese from the incarceration centers began to trickle back home. Seifert's anti-Japanese activities escalated. On April 23, the council published large, foreboding advertisements in regional newspapers with bold headlines proclaiming: "Organization to Discourage Return of Japanese to the Pacific Coast."
The council's advertisement in The Herald was unsigned. The only contact information was the number of the group's Post Office box in Salinas.
The anonymous ad spurred those supporting their Japanese neighbors on the Peninsula into action. A furious letters-to-the-editor campaign was initiated, protesting not only the anti-Japanese sentiments reflected in the ad but also The Herald's decision to publish the advertisement in the first place.
A lengthy letter to the editor on April 26 was signed by Edward O. Sisson, the Rev. James Crowther, Vera Peck Mills, Rolf Bolin, Margot Morrow, Thor Krogh, Toni Jackson and Marian Todd. Shall Peninsula residents "give (their) support to the forces of bigotry, prejudice and selfishness or to those of tolerance, justice and the largest good?" it pondered. "Shall we sow hatred or love?"
Missives aimed at the newspaper were equally impassioned. Charis Weston wrote that she was "shocked at (The Herald's) irresponsible attitude in selling page space to a blatantly un-American, anonymous organization."
Ed Ricketts wrote a pointed letter riddled with irony, equating the racist views expressed in the council's advertisement with Hitler's theory of superiority.
But the most most powerful of the letters published was that of Mariko "Mollie" Sumida, whose family had been interned in Poston, Ariz., while her husband, Yukio, was fighting in Italy with the celebrated 442nd Regimental Combat unit, the most decorated regiment in the history of the U.S. Army.
Mollie Sumida wrote that she had been "quite hurt to read the language in the ad." She mentioned it had been discussed "widely" at Poston but it had not changed her desire to return to the Peninsula.
"Some day when the war is over, we want to return to Monterey with our little son," she wrote. "I want to thank the people of Monterey who wrote to The Herald to defend us. I know as long as there are people like that left in this country all of the Nisei boys did not die in vain."
Ad for an ad
As the flurry of anti-council letters continued to be published, supporters of the local Japanese community began gathering signatures for a full-page advertisement of their own. Fifteen petition packets with stiff blue cover paper were stapled together and circulated throughout the region.
"Among the (returning Japanese)," the petition asserted, "will be veterans of this war and relatives of Americans who are fighting for democracy on all our fronts. These families have made their homes here and have been part of the life of our community. Their sons are making the same sacrifices as our own boys."
While it remains uncertain who instigated the pro-Japanese effort — or even if there was a single leader — Nancy Costello said the petition she signed had been circulated by Evelyn Londahl, wife of Herald City Editor Marvin T. Londahl.
Several of the petition packages have a name written at the top indicating who was in charge of that petition. Among them were Charis Weston; Monterey High School history and economics teacher Wayne Edwards; attorney (and later mayor of Carmel) Eben Whittlesey; popular dean of girls at Monterey High Gertrude Rendtorff; and office equipment store proprietor and arts patron Fritz Wurzmann, who had been the target of anti-German sentiment during the war.
The petition signed by Steinbeck was circulated by Toni Jackson and included the signature of Ricketts, who was then her boyfriend. Also signing it were artist and art supply dealer Myron Angelo Oliver; textile designer Virginia Barclay Varda (then married to artist Jean Varda, who did not sign); and several figures associated with Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, including Rolf Bolin and Mortimer Starr.
According to Costello, there were several subtexts to the petition drive. While many of those who signed did so out of a commitment to civil rights and empathy with the Japanese community, she contends that longstanding tensions between Salinas and Monterey also fueled some of the indignation.
"Those damn Salinas people!" she declared. "They thought they had a God-given right to all that good land."
Steinbeck's signature on the petition has been largely ignored by his biographers. Although his liberal tendencies have been well documented and define his most important works, most notably his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Grapes of Wrath," his writings are devoid of Japanese American characters.
That said, in the fall of 1941, as historian Susan Shillinglaw has noted in "A Journey Into Steinbeck's California," the author met with U.S. intelligence officer "Wild Bill" Donovan and shared his belief that the majority of the Japanese on the West Coast were "inherently loyal citizens."
Steinbeck returned to Monterey in October 1944 with his second wife, Gwyn Conger, hoping to build an idyllic life with his newborn son, Thom, in Carmel Valley.
Instead, he encountered "jealousy and hatred and the knife in the back—just pure poison," Shillinglaw wrote.
He claimed he wasn't able to rent an office for writing. By the time the advertisement ran in The Herald on May 11, Steinbeck had left Monterey for Mexico. But he returned to the Peninsula for short stints during the remainder of his life.
"This isn't my country anymore," he wrote prophetically to his editor, Pat Covici, that spring. "And it won't be until I am dead."
For the Japanese of the Monterey Peninsula, the end of the war marked a time of profound upheaval and new beginnings. Not all returned to the region. Continued hostilities in Salinas prevented many from returning there, but others did.
"The dreams of Japanese Americans were shattered by WWII and their forced removal and incarceration," historian David Yamada noted. "The wounds of war are not easily healed. Yet the post-war return of Japanese Americans to the Monterey Peninsula eventually resurrected their shattered dreams."
As Yamada said in his book, "The Japanese of the Monterey Peninsula: The History & Legacy, 1895-1995," the petitions, letters and full-page advertisement helped pave the way for their return.
Thomas said he hopes to display his discovery at the Japanese league's Heritage Center in the near future and to later mount a traveling exhibit.
"Although this is a Monterey story," he said, "I believe it has universal implications."
Dunn is a Santa Cruz historian and writer.