Life

“We Saw the Enemy Before Pearl Harbor Did”

Meet Eleanor Tom Jaynes, 91, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, and was born in Wahiawa, Hawaii.

Eleanor Tom Jaynes.
Eleanor Tom Jaynes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo from Eleanor Tom Jaynes.

Having met so many 80-plus-year-olds in possession of a bottomless well of stories and life advice, we present the series “Interview With an Old Person”—which is, well, exactly what it sounds like. To nominate yourself or an elderly person in your life, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Christina Cauterucci: What’s your very first memory?

Eleanor Tom Jaynes: I was born in Hawaii—in Wahiawa, on Oahu. My memories are of being from a large family, and a happy family, and a crazy family. I have three brothers and seven sisters, and you know what it’s like to have seven girls: They all talk. I’m usually the quiet one.

My daddy owned a grocery store. And since the six girls [were the oldest], they ended up being the boys in the family‚ they ended up doing a lot of the work that Daddy would expect the sons to do. I was the third girl.

Being from Hawaii during the war, we were there during Pearl Harbor when I was 14. People don’t really know that the Japanese came into our part of the island, the center part, before they came into Pearl Harbor. We saw the enemy before Pearl Harbor did. As soon as the war hit Pearl Harbor, we were all put under military law. We didn’t have rations like they did in the U.S. Our rations were mostly on gasoline. We didn’t have to worry about sugar, because we raised our own sugar on the island anyway.

An old black-and-white family photo.
Eleanor Tom Jaynes’ family.
Eleanor Tom Jaynes.

What was that day like for you, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor?

When they were coming across the middle of the island, we had no protection. We saw Japanese planes come in, and my daddy said, “There’s something wrong. Those aren’t American planes.” So he ran out to the window to look at the planes, and he saw the big Japanese thing on the plane. And he said, “We are being attacked.” And so we went to look out the window, and the Japanese pilot going by waved to us. There was a kamikaze. And they weren’t making any noise then because they didn’t want to alert people that they had come in the back way.

When we realized what was happening, we put the radio on. They told us to hurry up, that there was an attack and that we needed to quickly find something to pin on ourselves with our name and our address so they would know who we were in case we were lost or bombed. And that was scary, to think that we had to be protected, that something could happen to us. That night, the military told us to black out our windows and stay inside, not to turn lights on at night at all if we could, just use our flashlights, but not to use them very much. And they said always be prepared to run. But that was stupid, because where can you run in the island?

What was it like after that? How did people try to recover and move on?

As soon as the bombs came, schools all were closed, because there were a lot of Japanese people living on the island then. But for the people living in Hawaii, we were not so afraid of Japanese, because they were the ones we grew up with. I’m not Japanese—I’m from a Chinese background. But most of my girlfriends and friends on the island then were Japanese. The Japanese people really wanted to help fight for America because they were born and raised in Hawaii, and they really were Hawaiian.

What did you do for fun in Hawaii when you were growing up?

You know, it’s sunny all the time. We were outside playing all the time. One funny thing—we roller-skated, but we come from a large family. So one pair of roller skates, you have to divide it with everyone.

We went to public school and were all required to learn to speak English. We’d go to school in the morning. And then after that, you rush home, change your clothes or change your books, because you’re not finished school yet. We were required by the government to go to public school and to learn English, but we were required by our parents to go to language school. There was Japanese school, and they all had to wear a uniform. And then the Chinese school had Chinese children with a different uniform. And they did have language school for Koreans, and I know they even had a few Hawaiian schools, because when my grandmother first came to Hawaii in the late 1800s, she had to learn to speak Hawaiian, because most people spoke Hawaiian then.

When did you come to the mainland U.S.?

I wanted to go to college, and I needed to get money. In high school, every time I worked in the store or helped Daddy in the restaurant, everything I earned, I saved my money. And then I had to work two years after I graduated from high school to make enough money so I could go to college [on the mainland]. I saved enough money from working in a public library. The fun thing was, I came to the U.S. with four Japanese girls. I was the only Chinese girl, but it was much more dangerous for them, right after the war, to leave. We all scattered: Two went to a Methodist school in Missouri, I went to a Presbyterian school in Tennessee, one girl went to Kansas, and the other one went to a design school in New York.

Everybody said to me, how did you choose Tusculum, in Tennessee? What, are you going to be a hillbilly? When I was working in the public library, this girl from Poughkeepsie, New York, happened to be in Hawaii the last year I worked in the library. She told me, “Why don’t you try Tusculum? You would love it.” I had no idea where it was. I came by boat to California, and it took me days to get from California to Tennessee on the train.

Had you ever been to the mainland U.S. before?

No, never. Everything, I had to do it on faith. I was not scared, because I was with these four other girls up until Kansas City. Oh, I have to tell you what happened in Kansas City: That’s my first experience of prejudice. I got up on the train, and I wanted to go to bathroom. I asked the bellhop, “I need to go to the bathroom, how do I go? One bathroom says white, one says black.” He looked at me and said he didn’t know, he wasn’t sure. Finally, he said, “Close your eyes and go in the white one.” We didn’t have anything like that in Hawaii.

Did you ever experience any prejudice after the war from people who thought you were Japanese?

Yeah, because they couldn’t tell the difference. One time—I was glad they said it to me and not to the four Japanese girls, because it would have really hurt their feelings. I was riding on the train, and a little boy was looking at me because I was different. And he wanted to come up and talk to me. His mother, she yelled at him and pulled him and said, “Get away, she’s a Jap.”

Did you experience any discrimination in college?

I was very lucky. The soldiers overseas, they’ve been all over the world. So when they came to Tusculum, they were not afraid of me, because they’d been fighting in the war. The people in Tusculum that were very timid were boys who’d not been to war. And being born in Hawaii, I knew how to deal with men.

What do you mean by that, that you knew how to deal with men from being in Hawaii?

Even before the war, we had 25,000 soldiers in our little town. The soldiers join the Army when they’re 17, 18 years old. They know they’re going to war and they may not come back. They know they may die. And they don’t care what they do to the girls in Hawaii. So you need to learn to watch what’s happening. There were a lot of girls that were taken advantage of, so many girls that got pregnant, had children by soldiers who never came back. You learn from very young about men.

What was your favorite age?

Every age has a different story. There are so many stories, you don’t want to pick the best, because they’re all good. Except—this now is not the best time, where you have to depend on somebody. And it’s hard to depend on someone when you were once so independent. Now, some years are not as good as others. Children, they live so far away. Children are gone, they live in Boston, and one in South Carolina.

How many times have you been in love?

One. [Laughs.] With my husband, Hugh.

How did you two meet?

That’s another good story. He was in my French class, and he was also in my history class. We didn’t know each other then, didn’t talk, because he’s a country boy, very timid—he wasn’t like the soldiers. I always thought, “Oh, he’s too smart,” he’s good at French, and I was lousy in French. We didn’t go together until my senior year. He said he saw me on the street one day, walking in the country road close to college. He said he saw, again, that I was different. He wasn’t afraid. He thought I was interesting. But I didn’t see him until senior year, when a friend took me to church and they had a Sunday school game. They were playing touch back, and you were supposed to chase each other around. He would walk slowly so I could catch him. That’s how we met.

Hugh and Eleanor on their wedding day.
Hugh and Eleanor on their wedding day in 1953.
Eleanor Tom Jaynes

He knew it would be difficult, back then, for him to marry an Oriental, because he’s a Tennessee boy, and you know how it was then. For me it was easier, because in Hawaii, everyone’s married to someone of a different race.

Did Hugh’s family approve of your marriage?

At first it was difficult, so no. But then they finally did. They came to the wedding and were part of the wedding. I think it was mostly about his old church, country church—the parents were afraid that people wouldn’t like me. But they did, so that shows you just never know. I have to trust that if I accept them, they will accept me. Once they get to know you and they know that you can speak English, you’re all right.

What were some of your first dates?

He invited me to go to a Chinese restaurant. … And we went to the strawberry festival my senior year. We just kind of grew together. Hugh said he never had trouble talking to me because I am a talker. [Laughs.]

What’s something you do every single day?

I like to read the paper to keep up with what’s going on outside this wall. I do like to work on sudoku. I used to like to do crossword puzzles, but I realize, at this age and stage, my vocabulary has gone down. Before we came [to this retirement home], Hugh and I were involved with the symphony, opera, and plays. Hugh is very good with words. Now, at this stage, he’s lost some of that ability, which is sad.

Do you use the internet?

No. I am dumb and ignorant about anything that’s modern.

Who is your best friend?

Nowadays it would be church people. In Hawaii, one best friend was Jean Teranishi. You know how they always put you in alphabetical order in school? So my last name was Tom, and I sat in front of her. Once, she told me, “Do you know why I always liked you?” It was because she lived in a pineapple camp, and the people who lived in the camp, they were considered lower-class people working out in the field. She said, “You never made fun of me.” Before she died, she told me that. I was so glad she told me.

Eleanor and Hugh, now.
Eleanor and Hugh.
Eleanor Tom Jaynes

What’s something you’ve wanted to pass on to your children?

I don’t know if I succeeded or not, but I really wanted them to love their family. They should always think about their family first. That’s your legacy. Without them you really have nothing. If you love your family, you’re bound to love other people.

What advice would you give your younger self, now?

To be yourself. Be strong in what you believe. And be kind to others. Because if you’re kind to them, they are kind to you.