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75 years after Pearl Harbor, its Tacoma legacy lingers

Seventy-five years have proved Franklin D. Roosevelt right: Dec. 7, 1941, still lives in infamy.

This week brings anniversary-year remembrances of the global war that followed Japan’s attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and reflections on how the postwar order shapes the modern world.

You can find, as well, its reverberations around Tacoma, if you look closely enough at history.

Internment of Japanese-Americans eviscerated a bustling immigrant community. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt and New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia each visited Tacoma to hastily organize civil-defense projects. A mandatory citywide blackout lasted a week.

A promising start to host college football bowl games at Stadium Bowl petered out a few years after a packed house for the first tilt — on Dec. 6, hours before the attack.

Players awoke to the war news, recalled Washington State University fullback Earl Brenneis, whose team lost.

“I remember someone said, ‘Where’s Pearl Harbor?’ Next day we all knew,” Brenneis told an interviewer shortly before his death in 2013.

In the city today, you can even lay eyes on a likely not-long-for-this-world historical footnote: what’s believed to be one of only two still-floating warships that survived the attack.

Better hurry, though.

Tacoma’s (barely) survivor

The ship, which can only charitably still be called that, is a rusty floating breakwater averting waves for the sailboats and yachts moored at Tyee Marina, hard between Port of Tacoma industries and the bluffs of Northeast Tacoma’s winding residential neighborhoods.

It has been cut down to its gunwales and stripped of its motor and structure. The name in peeling paint on its stern isn’t its wartime moniker, and it is filled with floatation foam so it won’t sink into Commencement Bay. One of the few people who know this vessel’s history will sell you a 4-by-4-inch chunk of its weather-beaten deck plank for $20.

Yet, like the effects of the war itself, it is real and it is here, lashed in place to hold back Puget Sound’s current until the tides eventually win.

“Someday, it’ll all go to rust and settle on the bottom,” said Joe Peterson, a former military instructor who runs a tiny museum on the nearby Comanche, a decommissioned Coast Guard cutter-turned-tugboat that is much better preserved.

Back in its prewar prime, the ship tied up next to the Comanche was called Tiger, a 125-foot cutter built in 1927. The Coast Guard sailed it to chase East Coast rum runners. By mid-1941, it had become part of the Navy’s support fleet and was on patrol when it came under Japanese fire during the Pearl Harbor attack.

The Tiger survived unscathed, by all accounts, and did not get a chance to return fire. A Coast Guard history says the Tiger moored at the Pearl Harbor entrance to watch for more attacks that never arrived, then came under friendly fire from “overly anxious Army units along the shore” after night fell. Again, it escaped significant damage.

Thousands of miles away, the attacks put the West Coast — Tacoma included — similarly on edge.

Tacoma after the attack

For days before Pearl Harbor was hit, Tacomans had been acutely aware war was likely to come. Fraught negotiations between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Japanese had been front-page news for days, right alongside a school strike that sent 7,000 Tacoma students home for several days.

The Evergreen Bowl, the biggest college football game in city history, was played Dec. 6 under sunny skies. A crowd of 26,000 paying customers filled the Stadium Bowl’s seats, plus freeloaders on “precarious perches on the unused scoreboard at the open end of the stadium” and “the upper branches of trees outside the northwest corner of the big arena,” this newspaper reported the next day.

After the attack, sports news vanished from the front page. A citywide blackout was announced and enforced for days. A news story appeared, without attribution, under the headline “Japanese Nationals Are Rounded Up Here.” It described a secretive government plan to restrict travel of Japanese-Americans and “have Japanese citizens placed in concentration camps, should authorities believe such action advisable.”

Japanese-Americans hastened to escape hometown retaliation, sometimes by broadcasting their patriotism. Dozens of businesses jointly advertised a “Japanese-American Creed” of patriotism in a full-page News Tribune ad. Fumio Yokobe, owner of the Great Western Cleaners on North 34th Street, took out a classified ad to tell the city he “is an 100% American Citizen,” was born in the United States and had a brother in the Army at Camp Green, Illinois.

In a radio broadcast, Mayor Harry P. Cain told Tacomans to “keep our balance and poise” during the state of emergency and to not make Japanese residents’ lives “unnecessarily hard.” He distributed store-window placards to downtown’s Japanese-American businesses that advertised their operation “under the protection of the mayor,” according to his biographer, C. Mark Smith, who lives in Richland.

In time, Cain would become one of only two West Coast officials publicly opposed to the federal internment of 110,000 residents of Japanese origin.

“He just believed it was wrong to send away the Japanese-Americans,” recalled Cain’s daughter Candy Tingstad, who lives in Lakewood.

As the attack sent war preparations into high gear, La Guardia, who was the national civil defense director, wheeled into town to direct preparations.

“Keep calm, keep cool, learn the rules, follow the instructions of Mayor Cain and civilian defense coordinators, and you won’t get hurt,” he said.

Not everyone on the coast kept calm.

An hourlong 1,000-person riot went on in Seattle early Dec. 9, ostensibly to enforce the blackout. In it, businesses that left their lights on were smashed and looted. No such unrest was reported in the South Sound. A news report mentioned 11 traffic accidents and a couple of robberies over the course of the week.

“I know of no city in the country which has had better-organized blackouts,” La Guardia told Cain.

Tacoma’s lumberyards advertised plywood for covering windows during blackout declarations. Industries were urged to paint their windows black, and volunteers guarded the city utilities. The News Tribune stopped carrying weather forecasts, citing fears they would enable aerial attackers.

After the initial fears eased, the blackout was lifted in less than a week.

Eleanor Roosevelt comes to town

La Guardia’s top deputy, Eleanor Roosevelt, followed him to Tacoma six days after the attack. She had been involved with civil-defense preparations well before Pearl Harbor, but afterward took a prominent organizational role and flew west, where she also visited her daughter in Seattle.

A series of photos exists of her visit to Tacoma — visiting Cain’s office, addressing listeners on KMO radio and — controversially — speaking with a group of Japanese-American students.

“She wanted to organize all kinds of community groups to be prepared for civil defense in case of further bombardments,” said Blanche Weisen Cook, a history professor at City University of New York, who describes Roosevelt’s visit to Washington state in her newly published book, “Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After.”

Any recording of what Roosevelt told Tacomans appears lost to history. A news report includes excerpts of a question-and-answer session before a group of residents.

“It is silly to say that no one will be afraid,” the first lady said when asked about emergency preparations. “Some of the most courageous people I know have admitted fear. But it is important to play the game and never show fear of anything.”

Cook says the first lady’s speeches to community members usually invoked civic activism.

“She really talked about trooping for democracy, and she believed that every community needed to be organized to make their needs known,” Cook said in a phone interview.

Thousands of Tacomans volunteered for varying aspects of homefront duty within the week, besides the hundreds of others who immediately enlisted in military service.

Some of the immediate changes to the city had lasting effects.

On a request from Fort Lewis command, Cain ordered the shutdown of the 32 brothels operating in city limits, Smith said. They never returned. Federal authorities sent $1.5 million to build 400 homes near South Pine Street and South 35th Street for defense workers, several blocks of which still stand in an otherwise commercial zone near Costco.

And then there’s the scrap of a warship floating off Tyee Marina.

From Tiger to hulk

At 125 feet, the Tiger was small for a fighting ship and remained in Hawaii for the war. Pearl Harbor was its only battle duty. It was decommissioned, sold and converted into a tugboat after the war and would have faded into oblivion unnoticed but for a Puget Sound hobbyist.

Kyle Stubbs, a naval architect who works out of the Bremerton Shipyard, spends his free hours checking into the ships he photographs around Puget Sound. A few years ago, he trained a telephoto lens into Commencement Bay from the Cliff House parking lot atop the bluff. He said he “noticed this old rusted hull sitting down at Tyee Marina,” took a few pictures and checked with a few sources.

All he knew was that the stern said, in flaking white letters, “Polar Merchant Seattle.”

In 2012, he found a photo of her as an active tug and worked backward until he found the ship’s origin at a Coast Guard surplus sale and subsequent renaming.

“With the Coast Guard, once a vessel goes into civilian ownership, if it’s over 5 tons and in U.S. waters, it’s pretty much required to be documented,” Stubbs said by phone.

The ship changed hands between companies in Alaska and on the Columbia River. When its useful life as a work boat was gone, a conversion to a fishing boat was attempted but didn’t work out. At some point — Tyee Marina officials were unable to supply details — it was junked, bought by the marina and lashed up as a breakwater.

“It’s more or less by this point unsalvageable,” Stubbs said.

The East Coast maritime museum Historic Ships in Baltimore has a well-preserved former Coast Guard cutter named the Taney that it calls “the last warship afloat today which saw action” at Pearl Harbor.

Strictly speaking, the Tiger — aka the Polar Merchant, aka a hunk of breakwater barely called anything — is afloat, even if barely so.

Paul Cora, curator of the Historic Ships in Baltimore, said via email that the significance of the Tiger is an “interesting question.” The Taney lasted into the 1960s in military service, well after the Tiger was decommissioned.

Joe Peterson, who runs the maritime museum on the Comanche at Tyee Marina, speaks reverentially of the histories of both vessels.

His father served on the Taney and fired one of the first shots of the war by an American. Souvenirs of the elder Peterson’s war years are on display at the Comanche, right next to a plank pulled off the Tiger’s deck and a placard advertising the availability of smaller chunks for purchase.

Asked if anything else might become of the vessel, he shook his head.

“Everything here for a breakwater is scrap,” Peterson said.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

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