As you ask yourself this question, I’d like to share with you the extraordinary story of Ralph Lazo, who as a 16-year-old in 1942, confronted overt racism on behalf of his friends in a profound act of compassion. His story will touch your heart today.
To understand the impact of what Ralph did, we need to go to December 7th, 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. For 90 minutes, 353 Japanese planes swooped down in waves, as their bombs exploded in bright orange plumes and their machine gun bullets ripped through the air.
Onboard the U.S. ships and along the coast there was chaos as people ran for their lives, while others did their best to fight back in some cases only to be incinerated, drowned or left choking in the acidic black smoke that filled the air.
When the attack was over: 2,403 Americans had been killed and 1,178 were wounded. 18 ships, including five battleships had been sunk and almost all of the 188 U.S. aircraft in Hawaii had been destroyed or damaged.
America was stunned and deeply saddened as the news blanketed the headlines and preempted the radio broadcasts. Americans quickly united and cried out for retaliation against the Japanese.
The next morning, America declared war against Japan and passions against anything Japanese ran very strong, as anti-Japanese hysteria gripped the country. Rumors spread that Japan would attack California next and the large number of Japanese-Americans living there would help them.
Japanese-Americans were shunned, cursed, threatened and abandoned by people they thought were their friends. Even to be seen in public endangered them, and such basic things as going to school or buying groceries subjected them to harassment and possibly much worse.
Many Japanese-Americans were fired from their jobs and police came to their homes and seized anything they thought could be used to assist the Japanese military.
Instead of protecting them, on February 19, 1942 President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order which required those of Japanese heritage to report within 10-days to assembly centers and then off to primitive barbed wired prison camps. Those camps had guards with machine guns posted at watchtowers authorized to shoot anyone who attempted to escape, for “a Jap was a Jap.”
It was mandatory for 120,000 people of Japanese heritage to go. 70% of them were U.S. citizens, 40% of whom were children. The U.S. was at war with Germany and Italy as well but U.S. citizens of German and Italian descent were not treated this way.
Given only 10-days notice, and allowed to bring just a few of their possessions, most people of Japanese heritage were forced to abandon or sell their homes, close their businesses and sell their property at fire-sale prices. For many, a life-time or even generations of hard work was gone.
Seeing this happen to his Japanese heritage friends deeply upset 16-year-old Ralph Lazo. Ralph was of Mexican and Irish heritage and was growing-up in a melting-pot area of Los Angeles that included Japanese, Anglos, Jews, Latinos, Filipinos and Blacks.
Ralph’s mother died when he was a child and his father raised Ralph and his sister Virginia as a single parent. His father worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and was often traveling, and when he was gone, the children sometimes ate at the homes of Japanese-Americans, to whom they grew close.
Ralph’s Japanese heritage friends were among the 10,000 people sent to Manzanar, a bleak prison camp in the desert, 280 miles north of Los Angeles. But a few weeks after they left, he stunned everyone when he joined them.
He told his father he was going to their internment camp and his father assumed this would be for a short visit. But when he learned Ralph was staying in Manzanar, he allowed his son to do so.
In Manzanar, Ralph was the only non-Japanese heritage, non-spouse. “Internment was immoral,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1981 interview. “It was wrong and I couldn’t accept it.”
Ralph did everything he could to make the circumstances as positive as possible. He became a camp cheerleader, enthusiastically organizing holiday parties, sports teams, and a dance band called the Jive Bombers. In 1944, he was elected class president of Manzanar High School.
“We didn’t just sit around and complain,” he told The Times in 1981. “In the summer, the heat was unbearable; in the winter, the sparsely rationed oil didn’t adequately heat the tarpaper-covered pine barracks with knotholes in the floor. The wind would blow so hard, it would toss rocks around.”
Ralph spent 21/2 years in Manzanar until in August, 1944 he was drafted into the Army. Staff Sgt. Lazo served in the campaign to free the Philippines from the Japanese military and was awarded a Bronze Star for combat heroism.
After the war, Ralph got his bachelor’s degree from UCLA and his master’s degree from Cal State Northridge and became a teacher, and later a counselor at Los Angeles Valley College. And true to his principles, he mentored disabled students to help them overcome their physical limitations and he encouraged minority students to graduate from college and to uplift their communities.
And Ralph stayed involved with Japanese-Americans as they sought an apology and reparations from the U.S. government for their personal and financial hardships from the internment. In 1988 President Reagan called the internment a “grave injustice” and signed legislation that authorized reparation payments of $20,000 each to internment survivors.
In 1987, Ralph retired from Valley College and in 1992, Ralph Lazo, the father of three children, and a social activist with a big heart passed away at the age of 67. If you had never heard of him before, it is because he didn’t seek fame and fortune, or even credit for what he did. Instead, he wanted the attention given to the injustice of the forced internment.
But as a person of principle and of compassion Ralph had the courage to act on his beliefs as he made a wonderful difference in the lives of others, and at a time when it was most needed.