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Understanding America's Nostalgia

When Japan entered World War II in 1941, a Japanese-American man from Sunnyside, Washington, felt compelled to serve his country.

The college student enlisted with the U.S. Army in 1943 — in spite of the fact that his parents and siblings were forced into an internment camp by the very country he wanted to serve.

The story of Hiroshi Furukawa — who returned from WWII and continued to serve his community as a family doctor — is one of five biographies of Sunnyside residents included in an upcoming book by UI history Professor Katherine Aiken.

Aiken calls Sunnyside — her hometown located in the Yakima Valley — “a microcosm of America.” Juxtaposed between the biographies of five Sunnyside veterans and their children, “Our Fathers, Our Town” explores the economic and social changes the town experienced in the century before and after WWII, delving into issues of gender, ethnicity and labor.

“I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story of when soldiers returned from the war if I didn’t have pieces of what happened before and if I didn’t show what happened afterward,” Aiken said. “It mushroomed into a much bigger thing than I anticipated.”

It’s a case study of a small American town, from which Aiken extrapolates larger themes.

Finding stories like Furukawa’s was alarming, Aiken said. As she scanned 100 years’ worth of her hometown newspaper on microfilm, Aiken said she was shocked by the details relating to the treatment of Japanese-Americans. At the onset of World War II, the U.S. government forced these American citizens into internment camps. Many saw the action as racially motivated and the people of Sunnyside, as in other parts of the region, stood by and watched, Aiken said.

“That one bothers me,” Aiken said. “I think about that a lot. And  I think there was a big opportunity to right those wrongs when Hispanics came.”

Hispanic migrant workers arrived in Sunnyside after World War II; they began staying more permanently in the 1970s. While they contributed to the success of the area’s agricultural economy, they didn’t receive equal treatment with housing, education or employment — an issue Aiken explores through the story of Charles Schwartz, a merchant marine during WWII who produced grapes for the nearby Welch’s facility and employed migrant labor.

Newly constructed highways during the 1970s also meant people were traveling to larger population centers for commerce. Baby boomers, including the children of veterans that Aiken highlights in her book, left the area. Caroden Hole, who served in a European Theatre tank crew and opened a furniture and hardware store upon returning home from the war, saw his shop go out of business. Suddenly, the small town of Sunnyside was in economic decline.

These changes were dramatic for the WWII generation, who had “built the strongest economy in the world,” according to Aiken, and for the generations that followed.

“A lot of people want to go back to how it was then,” she said. “They want to have job security and feel more in control of their own destiny, rather than part of globalization.”

“Our Fathers, Our Town,” due for publication in 2018, also explores some of the racial components of that nostalgia. Hispanics now constitute the majority of the population in Sunnyside, and Aiken highlights how, despite Hispanic economic contributions, those demographic changes have resulted in conflict.

As a historian, Aiken remains hopeful that society will “get it right.”

“Even though there are times when society does things we’re ashamed of, usually we figure it out,” she said. “We still have a way to go, but we'll get there.”


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