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Debate Over Reparations Triggers Memories

October 04, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Passions ran high on both sides of the issue when the House debated reparations.

During his turn at the microphone, Rep. Samuel Stratton (D-N.Y.) exclaimed, "Remember Pearl Harbor? That was not hysteria. That was war!"

Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) talked about how his father had been taken prisoner by the Japanese on Wake Island, leaving 17 children struggling to survive back home.

"Would we now ask our government or the Japanese government to satisfy these injustices with a money settlement? Never!" said Packard, who was strongly opposed to the money issue but not to the apology.

Packard shared this story with his House colleagues:

"I was raised in a family of 17 children. My father was a simple carpenter and farmer. We were a very poor family. In 1941, we were about to lose our small farm in Idaho. It was decided my father would accept a job working for a government contractor to build an air base on Wake Island in the Pacific.

"The contract read that workers would be paid from the time they left San Francisco until the time they returned. The contract, of course, didn't anticipate war. Wake Island, as many of you know, was bombed the same day as Pearl Harbor. The island fell 15 days later and Dad, along with 1,500 other workers, was taken prisoner. I was 10 at the time and was 15 when he was released at the end of the war.

A 'Token Settlement'

"No money came for two years. Finally Congress passed a bill that paid $100 a month to the families of prisoners. That didn't even make the payment on the farm, much less feed and clothe the family. At the end of the war there was no back pay, only a token settlement of the contract."

A sizable money settlement, Packard said, "would demean a time when our family learned to work together, pull together and pray together. Money cannot buy the lesson of that experience. That was the beginning of a typical American success story. Our Japanese (-American) friends don't need it (the $20,000 reparation). Many will not accept it. Our budget can not afford it."

Five-term Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Sacramento), who was evacuated to the Tule Lake, Calif., camp when he was 6 months old, had this reaction:

"Ron is a wonderful person, a very fair individual. I understood what he was saying. We all have an obligation to die for our country. But one thing we don't have is a responsibility to be incarcerated, to be interned without due process. Maybe in the Soviet Union, but not in this country.

Apology Not Enough

"You know why the $20,000 was essential to the passage of the bill? A mere apology isn't enough."

On Sept. 17, the House voted in favor of the cash reparation, 237 to 162.

"I don't know if there was a vote that had more emotion, at least in my years in Congress" is how Matsui summed it up.

To avoid conflicts of interest, members of Congress do not vote for or against a bill that could directly result in their deriving some financial benefit, but they often vote "present" to show they were there at the time of the vote and interested in the proceedings.

Rep. Norman Mineta (D-San Jose) voted "present" on the bill, saying that "I have not yet decided whether to take the compensation that is part of this bill." He is considering using the money to endow a chair at a California university.

Matsui said he took a different approach, waiving his right to accept the money, because he wanted to be on record as voting for the measure.

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