People

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Sacha Pfeiffer

 

Sacha Pfeiffer was part of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 for exposing the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of clergy sex abuse. The story behind the reporting was made into the 2015 Oscar-winning film, Spotlight. This interview with Pfeiffer is from a February 2017 community conversation about the importance of asking difficult questions, even when the answers threaten the fabric of close-knit communities.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, May 17, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, May 21, at 4:00 pm.

 

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Transcript

 

My job has given me an incredibly joyful and meaningful life. I get paid to ask questions for a living. How much fun is that? It’s always interesting. You get access to all sorts of worlds. And I’ve also learned, because of some of the work we’ve done, that on a very good day, you can also do incredible positive change. And so, I hope tonight, part of what we can do is celebrate journalism. Because as all of you know, if you’ve paid attention to the news, it’s a very perilous time for the journalism world. You know, the newspaper industry has had financially catastrophic sort of turn of events in recent years, essentially a collapsed business model that it’s still trying to figure out how to replace. And at the same time, we have a political climate now in which the press is sort of portrayed as the enemy.

 

Sasha Pfeiffer was one of five journalists on The Boston Globe’s elite investigative team called Spotlight. That’s also the title of the Academy Award-winning film about the reporters’ shocking findings with a transformational outcome. The Spotlight team never could have predicted that they would expose an almost unimaginable conspiracy that reached far beyond Boston’s Roman Catholic Diocese. Their pursuit of clergy sex abuse was controversial. But the newspaper built its case on the weight of evidence. The power of truth telling in our conversation with Sacha Pfeiffer, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. For this edition of Long Story Short, we’ll take you to a special event in Honolulu organized by the Hawai‘i Leadership Forum before an audience. Our guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Glove journalist, Sacha Pfeiffer, who was played in the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight by actress Rachel McAdams. As part of an investigative team, Pfeiffer interviewed men in Boston who told of being sexually abused as children, sometimes for years, by Roman Catholic priests. What emerged was a pervasive Church culture that tolerated, and even protected child molesters. And not only in Boston. Sacha Pfeiffer joined us for a conversation about truth telling, and truth to power journalism.

 

How’s the cake?

 

It’s pretty good. You saving yours?

 

Nah. I can never eat those things. They kind of oppress me.

 

I know. From Washington?

 

Yeah.

 

Very interesting.

 

I’m not asking you to. All I’m asking is, who’s behind it. M-hm. Okay; I get it. You don’t want to talk. No, Dad, I’m not mad, I’m hungry. I’ve been talking here so long, I didn’t eat lunch. So, I’m gonna go get something to eat, and that’ll give you an hour to decide whether you want to be on the right side of this, or read about it like everybody else. Bye, Dad.

 

You think Cahill has something?

 

Maybe. I just don’t think the story is for us.

 

Ben likes it.

 

Yeah, it’s not bad. It’s just not Spotlight.

 

What’s just not Spotlight?

 

The PD numbers.

 

The numbers.

 

Oh. You got Cahill to talk?

 

No, but I will.

 

Good.

 

You did your investigative reporting on the Spotlight team on clergy sex abuse in the most Catholic city in the country, by percentage.

 

M-hm.

 

And I think most all of the reporters involved were lapsed Catholics.

 

M-hm.

 

You were also a Protestant, and I think you lapsed there too. And much was made in the Spotlight movie about the outsider coming in, the Jewish guy running the paper and saying, You guys need to explore that.

 

Yeah.

 

Could you talk a little bit about that?

 

Yeah; this is in reference to Marty Baron, who was the editor of The Globe when I was there, and who is now the executive editor of The Washington Post, a paper that’s doing some of the most dynamic work in the country right now. And, yeah. And Marty is a tremendous, tremendous leader. He’s an exceptional leader, he’s a very gift editor. He has this incredibly pure moral compass, which I really love about Marty. The movie makes a lot of Marty having been Jewish. I think they took a little fictional license there. I mean, I think, yes, they wanted to portray sort of the outsider. But I think what Marty showed is that sometimes when you bring a set of fresh eyes to something, it makes an enormous difference. I mean, we began our project because there had been a priest named John Geoghan who had a long history of abusing kids, and there were many lawsuits filed against him. All those cases had been sealed in the court. The Church asked the court to seal the cases, the court did. Marty came to town from the Miami Herald, and he said, Why are these cases sealed? And there was this uncomfortable silence in this news meeting, because all of us were so used to just accepting that those files are sealed, we can’t access them, that we hadn’t questioned it. So, Marty told the Spotlight team, Go find out what you can. And at the same time, he asked The Globe’s lawyers to try to unseal those files, which they successfully did after several months. So, I think again, fresh eyes can make a difference in coming to a place that’s been used to the same thing for a long time.

 

I’m sure you knew when you started poking around, and you started going to press, that you would become targets. Who are these people? What’s the vendetta about?

 

Because Boson is so Catholic, we were worried that we might be picketed, or there would be protests. We got none of that. And I think that part of why that didn’t happen is that, you know, we were able to get into the Arch Diocese of Boston’s file cabinets. We were able to access all of their clergy personnel records. So, these weren’t stories based on anonymous sources; these were record by the Church itself. And I think that when a project is that bulletproof, it makes it hard to blame the messenger.

 

I guess it was Mr. Baron who had the idea of, Don’t go after individual priests because we’ve heard of individual priests for so long; go after how the Church institution treated the priests. And you showed evidence of passing priests. They call it passing the trash, or mobile molesters, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

 

Yeah. I mean, this was Marty’s mantra. Is that, you know, for years, The Globe and other publications had written stories about priests that abused children. We were looking not simply at that, but about Church officials who cover up for priests who abused children, who systematically would get reports, and then shift priests to other places. And in the pre-internet era, if you sent someone thirty miles north of Boston, the people who lived thirty miles south of Boston would lose that person. You wouldn’t know where they went. So, that was our goal the whole time, is to focus on the system.

 

I know what you must be thinking. Like, why would I ever do that to some creepy guy who’s thirty years older than me? But what we have to understand is that this is the first time in my life that someone told me that it was okay to be gay.

 

Mm.

 

And it was a priest. I’m sorry; I knew I was gonna do this. Oh, I’m sorry.

 

Don’t be sorry. It’s okay. Joe, it’s okay.

 

Of course, there is a church right there, and a playground.

 

Joe, did you ever try and tell anyone?

 

Like who; a priest?

 

You know, often reporters are doing stories as a team, they get really excited about nailing an interview, or catching someone in a lie, and you see high-fives. But this is not the kind of series that would produce that kind of rejoicing.

 

No. I mean, it was pretty sombering. And, you know, we had some very dad, intense conversations with adult men who, when they were adolescents or children, had been abused by priest. And again, very intense, very emotional. But, you know, you also become angry, because you realize someone has been damaged at a formative time in their life, and it’s hard to recover from that. And I think anger is a motivational tool, and that’s what it was for us.

 

The most haunting moment in the film to me—and when you get a chance to ask questions, please mention yours if it’s appropriate—I think it was Father Paquin. And I think you knocked on his door, and he told you, I was just fooling around.

 

Hi, there. I’m looking for Ronald Paquin.

 

Yes?

 

You’re Father Paquin?

 

Yes, that’s right.

 

I’m Sacha Pfeiffer from The Boston Globe.

 

Okay.

 

Could I ask you a few questions?

 

Go ahead; yes.

 

We spoke to several men who knew you when they were boys at St. John the Baptist in Haverhill. They told us you molested them. Is that true?

 

Sure; I fooled around. But I never felt gratified, myself.

 

Right. But you admit to molesting boys at St. John the Baptist?

 

Yes, yes. But as I said, I never got any pleasure from it. That’s important to understand.

 

Right.

 

Yeah. You know, a lot of people have asked whether I thought that priest had dementia. And I don’t think so. I think you really just saw this twisted rationalization for why they did what they did. I think for me, the biggest unanswered question is the why. I mean, there are many theories about why it happened, but that’s a really hard one to answer.

 

And you devoted some of your coverage to why.

 

Oh, we did. I mean, we ended up writing for about a year and a half about this issue. And we didn’t just write about priests who abused children; we basically followed the story as it tentacled. So, we looked at why did this happen, was it because the lady wasn’t very involved, was it because women couldn’t be priests, if women had been more involved would this not have happened. As the Arch Diocese of Boston began settling a lot of cases, it hurt the Church financially. So, we wrote about the Church being on the brink of bankruptcy, the Cardinal resigned eventually. So, it became a daily beat, essentially. You know, when I joined the Spotlight team, Spotlight had been known for basically doing a story or two a year, maybe. They came in at nine, and they left at five, which is very rare in the newspaper world. And someone had said to me, Enjoy your early retirement. Which I thought was funny. But my experience with Spotlight was nothing like retirement, because basically, once that story broke, it became a daily beat, a competitive beat, where national newspapers were following it. So, it was very intense.

 

This event is called The Transformative Power of Truth Telling. What kinds of results did you see from this one and a half or two-year investigation?

 

You know, I think this will sound so basic. But in way, the gigantic lesson of this project was the importance of questioning authority. Part of why this happened is that the Catholic Church in Boston had so much deference that people looked the other way; they stopped asking questions. My grandmother, who’s depicted in the movie, was so devout.

 

 

Sacha, can I have a drink of water?

 

Yeah; sure, Nana. Yeah.

 

And I remember that when the story came out, she said to me, I can’t believe this happened, because we all though the priests were little gods. And I remember thinking, And that’s why it happened. Because when you think someone is a god, you’re not going to ask tough questions, and even if you suspect that something’s not right you might look the other way. So, I think it’s an important reminder to all of us for why we need to ask very difficult questions of people in high places.

 

And I’m sure some journalists in here remember there were calls in Hawaii to newsrooms, where it would be somebody who didn’t identify himself, he seemed very much in pain, maybe stuttered, and he would say, I was abused by a priest. He would say the priest’s name, but he didn’t want to say the timeframe, and he said there were no witnesses, and he didn’t tell anyone at the time, and no, he didn’t talk to the police, he didn’t speak to a lawyer. And he didn’t want his name used. So, what are you gonna do with that? So, it really required a different approach. And of course, later, as these boys grew up, they did seek out lawyers; some of them.

 

Yeah. You know, the movie makes clear that probably The Globe could have done these stories earlier than it did. But I think in a way, it ended up beneficial that we waited ‘til we did. Because first of all, it was the very beginning of the internet era, so our stories went online, and instead of being read only by people who got The Globe delivered to their doorstep, they were read by people all over the country. So, our phones began ringing off the hook with people from Washington State, Texas, Maine, Florida, saying you know, I was also abused by Father Paquin, I was also abused by Father Birminghan. So, confirmation came from around the country. And I think that Boston was more ready to accept a story like this. I’m not sure if we had written these stories in the 60s, or 70s, or even 80s, when the deference was still so high, that they could have accepted it, and maybe The Globe would have been picketed and protested. But I think the city was ready.

 

Was there corporate pressure? Okay, enough of the series, enough about the Catholic Church?

 

No, you know, there was one editor who, after we had been writing for a few months, felt like, Is this enough? But he basically was overruled, and several months after that, Cardinal Law resigned. Which I think showed you that we were right to keep up with it. But no, other than that, I would say no pressure. I think that we recognized the story had to be done.

 

What’s up?

 

Another time, Jim. There are cover-up stories on seventy priests. But the boss isn’t gonna run it unless I get confirmation from your side.

 

Are you out of your mind?

 

Come on. This is our town, Jimmy. Everybody knew something was going on, and no one did a thing. We’ve got to put an end to it.

 

Don’t tell me what I gotta do. Yeah, I helped defend these scumbags, but that’s my job, Robby. I was doing my job.

 

Yeah. You and everyone else.

 

I think we were all conscious that this was gonna take a toll of sorts on our family members, potentially. But it didn’t make us feel that we couldn’t do it. My mom, who’s also very Catholic—I think I told you this earlier. She wanted to be a nun, but at the time, convents were cloistered, so once you went in, you could only come out about three times or so. And her mother begged her not to do it, not to become a nun. And so, I remember that my mom, I didn’t hear from her for a while after our stories began to be published. And I think that my mom had to make peace with the fact that her daughter had played a role in something that was damaging to this institution she loved, even though I think she recognized that that story had to be told.

 

When reporters start on a story like this, they have a pretty good idea of at least how it’s gonna start. Did it take you to places you didn’t expect?

 

Oh, yeah. I mean, I don’t think any of us ever imagined it could possibly be at this scale. I mean, early on, we realized there may be as many as seven priests, and that seemed shocking to us. And then, in a few weeks, we realized the number was probably twenty. And then, by the time we published, we knew it was seventy. And then, we quickly learned that actually, it was hundreds. So, I think we went into this having absolutely no idea what we would find.

 

What did you find when you asked the question, Why? Why so much molestation?

 

Well, I mean, I think that there are so many theories for that. But I think that what I believe played a role is that, at least back in the 50s, and 60s, and 70s, boys who were gonna become priests actually went to pre-seminary. So, sometimes, you went to priest school, essentially, as early as age twelve. And I think that you’re at this formative stage in your adolescence in terms of your sexuality, and I think everything became sort of stunted in a way. There was a psychotherapist who was depicted in the movie who talked about … that it was sort of a version of arrested development. And I think you end up having these very immature priests who weren’t sure how to have relationships, and I think it expressed itself in an incredibly tragic way.

 

What did you see of the victims? I mean, after they were grown up, and they’d been in adult life for some time, what were they like?

 

You know, I think all of us know that sexual abuse is one of the most terrible things that can happen to someone, and if it’s also by a leader person and authority like a priest, it’s even more damaging. And so, I think that it’s hard to ever recover from that. And we saw that.

 

And these boys were pretty sure that other people knew that they were being taken to a rector’s office or a church office. It was a pattern, but nobody spoke up for them.

 

Yeah. Or sometimes, people did speak up, and they weren’t believed. Their parents may not believe them. And that, I think, compounded the tragedy. So, it was a culture of secrecy.

 

Hi.

 

Hi.

 

I’m Sacha Pfeiffer from The Boston Globe.

 

Yeah; what do you want?

 

I’d like to speak with Thomas Kennedy.

 

He doesn’t live here anymore.

 

Do you know where he lives? Sir, I’d just like to ask a few—

 

Sacha Pfeiffer, Boston Globe.

 

Oh, yeah. Hi.

 

Hi. Thank you. Anything else you can recall?

 

No.

 

No. But I got a cousin in Quincy; she saw him on the street a few years later.

 

The bishop came over the house. He said nothing like this had ever happened before, and he asked us not press charges.

 

And what did your mother do?

 

My mother? She put out fricking cookies.

 

 

Here, we saw a couple of priests who were named in lawsuits and in accusations. And one molested someone for quite some time, and then mentioned him to someone else, and that person picked it up. It was really hard to hear about.

 

Yeah. After our stories began to run, I got a few calls from people who would say things to the effect of, What was in the water in Boston, why did your priests have these issues? But they were missing the point, which is that in almost every city in which this has been looked into, it happened. And it was just a systematic problem, and if you had the ability to get into the files, you would often find out it happened in every city where there was a major Catholic presence.

 

What is an investigative journalist? Because other reporters who are assigned to other areas of coverage, they do stories. What’s the difference?

 

Yeah. I mean, many people believe, and I think I agree with this, that there really shouldn’t be a distinction between a reporter and an investigative reporter. There are some people whose fulltime job is just to do long-term investigative stories. But really, any beat you have in addition to the daily news and the feature stories you’re looking for, ideally the beat reporter would be looking for investigative stories to do as well. So, there’s no argument that there’s no distinction.

 

You work for a commercial newspaper, and we have nonprofit news folks here. Any thoughts on what business model is best to get journalism that truly matters?

 

No. I mean, I think that is the question that everyone is trying to figure out right now. What is the new business model? I mean, it used to be that if you were a department store and you wanted to advertiser, if you wanted to place a classified ad, you went to your newspaper. That all changed with things like Craigslist; right? So, no one quite has figured out how to replace that business model, but that’s the key, I think, to making the industry survive.

 

One of our attendees has a question, which follows right along. What would you like to see happen to the news, going forward? What would you like to see it evolve into?

 

That’s such a big, broad question. I mean, I just hope the news survives. I hope that people realize that it’s worth paying for. And for those of you who are digital subscribers or print subscribers to a newspaper, thank you. If you’re not, I feel like every time I have a captive audience, I can’t help but give that sales pitch. You know, when you buy a newspaper or you make a contribution to an organized nonprofit like Civil Beat, that’s what pays for the reporters to do what they do. So, I hope that you realize that there’s a direct connection between keeping the news alive and being a subscriber or a donor.

 

Another question from the audience. After your courageous investigation, what have you learned about people? Are we basically good, and if so, what do we make of the evil that people are capable of committing?

 

That’s another one hard to answer. I guess I’d just go back to what I said earlier, which is, we have to always be willing to ask very tough questions of powerful people and powerful institution, and nonprofits, and businesses. You know, tonight, we’re talking about truth telling. And that’s really what I think journalism is. So, we just have to be always willing to question authority and ask tough questions.

 

What are some of the areas that most need sunshine or transparency in truth telling?

 

Government, always. Because I think, unfortunately, what often motivates people to go into government and politics is not a sense of public service, but power and access. So, I think that that makes it very important for us to keep tabs on that. I definitely believe the nonprofit sector is one, because too often, it does get a pass. And obviously businesses. I mean, I think everything.

 

Do journalists take oaths of ethics, like lawyers or doctors, the Hippocratic oath?

 

We don’t officially, but it’s a job that involves an enormous amount of judgment and ethics all the time. What we cover, how we cover it, when we stop covering it. You know, you have people tell you very sensitive information, and we interview children. I mean, there’s an enormous of amount judgment, and that’s why you need to make sure you have reporters with high ethics, and editors with high ethics.

 

The New York Times is using headlines that say, Trump Lies. That’s a policy now. What do you think about that? You know, it’s not your policy, it’s the paper, but what about—

 

I think it has to be case-by-case. But I think sometimes, we have to call things for what they are. And you know, Marty Baron, again, the former Globe reporter now with The Post. You know, President Trump has said that he’s at war with the press. And as Marty said, and it’s beautifully said; We’re not at war, we’re just at work. You know. I mean, that’s …

 

Great line; great line.

 

It is a great line.

 

These are two kind of related questions. What are some of the investigative stories you most admire, and why?

 

I think I admire all of it. I think, you know, when you do investigative reporting, it probably is gonna keep you out of the paper or off the air for a while. And that makes reporters feel uneasy, because you’re judged in part by your productivity. So, you have to hope you have the backing of a strong editor and publisher who recognizes that you may not see your byline for a while, you may not see that person on the air for a while, but hopefully what they deliver will have been worth the time.

 

Here’s another question from an attendee. Given your experience, what do you think warrants deeper investigation in terms of investigative reporting? What’s the contemporary iceberg that we need to go deep and see?

 

I think the past few months have clearly showed us government. I mean, it’s gonna be harder than ever to get information. And the other interesting thing is … I think that there’s also another thing the media is going through is trying to decide, Okay, what is the value of sitting through a presidential briefing? You know, someone has suggested that maybe you send the interns to the briefing, they take down what was said, and really, what the reporters need to do now is do all the tough digging, and have to rely on civil servants to give them information. It’s a very challenging time to be a reporter right now.

 

It is. And we’ve seen in debates and in other live coverage, a reporter will miss a factual mistake by a newsmaker, and then get called on the carpet for it.

 

Right. The media critic for The Washington Post is a woman named Margaret Sullivan. She used to be with The New York Times. And I think it was Margaret that wrote recently about how some of the NPR hosts, who are excellent, when they do live interviews, you can have a situation where the person you’re interviewing says something that is incorrect. And even if you’re very prepared for that interview, you may not realize that something incorrect was just said, and it’s almost virtually impossible to correct after it’s been said in that forum. So now, there’s a debate out; should they be doing fewer live interviews, since you don’t have the ability to fact check in time. Because of all the changes happening politically, it’s making the media have to really rethink about it does its job.

 

After sharing the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service with The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, Sacha Pfeiffer left the newspaper in 2008 as the paper struggled financially. For six years, she worked for Boston’s Public Radio Station. At the time of this conversation in 2017, she’s back at The Globe writing about wealth, philanthropy, and nonprofits. Sacha Pfeiffer is a gifted journalist and author who is matter-of-fact about speaking truth to power. We’ve been very fortunate to share an evening with her in Honolulu. Mahalo to the Hawai‘i Leadership Forum for conceiving and organizing this event. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I think they did a …

 

You know, what was really interesting was, most people only get to see these movie stars on the red carpet or in a movies. We got to see them prepare for these roles, and it was really impressive to see the amount of work they did. I mean, they spent time with all of us individually, we spent a lot of time socializing with them. And I realized later, what I thought was socializing was research for them. I mean, we all of a sudden were seeing mannerisms depicted on the screen, and we began to realize all the time they spent with us, they were dissecting, they were observing, they were analyzing.

 

So, they work hard to be as good as they are.

 

[END]

 

 

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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Jimmy Lee

 

Jimmy Lee was only 11 years old on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. Watching from his family’s farm as the bombs dropped, Jimmy couldn’t begin to imagine how his world would change, or what his simple childhood would become after Hawai‘i declared martial law.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, May 10, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, May 14, at 4:00 pm.

 

Jimmy Lee Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

We had no radios or TV, and things like that; we didn’t. But let me tell you; from that moment on, when we were told that this was war, that’s it. My life, I thought, I changed. It was not fun anymore. And I think this is when I got to be a little bit—I think I grew up overnight. And because there was fear; from then on, it was fear. And so, you know, this is really something, you know, for a young kid just changing like that with all this. Never experienced, and it was not fun anymore.

 

Jimmy Lee was eleven years old on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was outside, feeding his family’s pigs, when he heard the planes overhead. He watched from less than a mile away, as they dropped their bombs on ships in Pearl Harbor. Jimmy Lee, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaiʻi’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. James Hoy Sau Lee, better known as Jimmy, was raised on a farm in an area known as Kalauao. Just upland of Pearl Harbor’s east loch, Kalauao was famous in ancient times for its freshwater springs and fishponds. Today, the name is gone, and the land is covered with buildings and roadways, but in 1930 when Jimmy was born, the stream still flowed and supported the family farms in the area.

 

You know, my parents were born here, but their parents were born in China. And of course, my father at the younger age went back to China, and lived there for a short while. But anyway, they came back here and they were rice farmers, long time ago. And then, they gave up rice and got a farm; pigs and cattle, chickens, ducks and things. It’s really not for commercial type, it was just for home use. Well, anyway, that’s what we had there in the little place called Kalauao.

 

Which is where?

 

It’s located between Aiea and Pearl City right now. And I must say it’s no longer on the map anymore.

 

What’s there now?

 

Well, right now, it’s all full of warehouses, apartment buildings, and stores, and commercial area. The whole area has been filled. Even the fishpond that was there before; it’s all filled up, it’s all warehouses there now.

 

So, this is on the Pearl Harbor side of Kamehameha Highway in Aiea side?

 

That’s correct. Yes; that’s right.

 

Oh …

 

And you could never recognize the place before, because it was so rural, our neighbors were not just next door. I mean, they were maybe about half mile away. We were all friends, but you know, that’s what it is; just local rural area.

 

So, your farm was for subsistence.

 

Yes, for subsistence; yes. M-hm.

 

And where did you go to school?

 

I was going to school in Aiea, maybe about mile or two away up on the hillside.

 

You had many siblings.

 

Oh, yes. Well, you see, my father was married to this woman. And of course, she had four kids. And then, when one of the older brothers was born, she died. Through some way, you know, they met my mother, and they got married. And of course, she cared for the four kids like her own, and then, of course, she had six. I’m number six in that family.

 

Birth order is important; right? What does that mean your responsibilities were?

 

Well, me and my brothers, you know, we had to take care of more or less the animals. The rough stuff. You know, and of course, the sisters were there to help my mother, you know, whatever. But we had to take care of the hard stuff, like the cows, milking the cows and feeding the pigs, and picking up garbage, and walking in the pond, catching ducks and chickens, and things like that. My parents were very strict. You had to stay home and do your work; feed the pigs, and you know. And that took up lot of our time during the day. Yes, we had other neighbors. They may have had some pigs or some chickens, but not like we did. And of course, they mind their own business. We were never enemies, but we were all friends, but you know, they had their own little thing. But again, you know, they were not right next door. But we did get together once in a while, more than just to say hello.

 

And what was your personality like as a boy?

 

You know, my older sister told me that I was a rascal little kid, full of mischief.

 

And you know nothing about this; right?

 

And I know nothing. And, you know, but we’re just playing. I mean, whenever we had spare time, we would do that. And, you know, we had our pigs, and you know, our pigs were our pets. You know, we would jump in and play with the pigs, and things like that, because you know, that was what it was. But we were a bunch of rascals and did a lot of things. When I was eight years old, I broke my leg. And I was in the hospital, in Shriner’s Hospital for six months. Because I would just play, run through the fields, the cane fields, running all over the place, playing with the dog or playing with the cows, you know. Running, running, just running all over the place.

 

Lots of energy.

 

Lots of energy.

 

So, your idea of mischief is just really having tons of energy and running around.

 

That’s right. And again, typical country boy.

 

Did you see a lot of activity at Pearl Harbor? You know, you must have watched the ships. Oh, no, you were a mile away, so you couldn’t see it.

 

Oh, no; no.

 

You could see it?

 

Oh, in the inner side of the harbor, there were so many ships. So many ships anchored in there. And of course, this was closer to my home. As I mentioned, about a mile away, but this was maybe a quarter or half a mile, all anchored there, from what I could remember. There were a lot of ships.

 

On December 7, 1941, Jimmy Lee started the day the same way he began every other morning of his young life, doing chores. It was the last time his life would be so uncomplicated.

 

Your life changed one day when you were just eleven.

 

Oh, yes. Well, I can say it really changed. Well, not for that very moment. Because it was so exciting when everything was happening that it was fun. I never saw anything like that in my life. And although I was feeding the pigs that morning, when I saw all of these things happening, wow, what is it?

 

What did you see?

 

Well, feeding the pigs, and all of a sudden, all at treetop level, here come these planes. I could hear the roar of the planes, with gunfire, canon fire, and looking up, and I saw the bombs on the plane and the big red circle. And so low that you could see the pilot. But as I looked, wow, there were planes all over the place. And curious as I was, I ran down to the railroad track and boy, I tell you, I never saw so much.

 

You ran to the action, rather than away from it.

 

Yes. Down the railroad track, and sat on the railroad track just like sitting on the front row of a theater to watch a show.

 

And didn’t think of calling anybody.

 

Didn’t call; my parents didn’t know where in the world I was. I could see all the way in Wahiawa, over the airport, which is, I could say, at least ten miles. Planes all over the place. And you know, for a youngster, I’d never seen anything like that. All the sounds, the explosions, the planes coming in, the gunfire, the smoke, the fire; it was really a sight. And was I scared? No. I don’t remember ever being scared.

 

Did any of the bombs come close to you?

 

The bombs didn’t come close at all. And in close to our home, there were many ships in the harbor that day. But none of them were being even harmed. But way out there, what I saw near the island, that’s where all the fire and smoke was. But you know, what’s happening to this? Everything was there, not in front of me. And so, you know, there was not a shot or anything like that fired my way. I didn’t feel in danger at all. So, I was just seeing all of those things, the torpedo planes being blown out of the sky, the explosions. I didn’t know that was the Arizona at that time, but you know, the explosions, something I’ll never forget. And yet at the same time, up in the sky, the planes are flying, all the gunfire, none of the planes are shot down. But none of those shrapnel, those shells ever fell on us, either. And that was really a show. And then, the other most exciting, as I mentioned, was the Nevada. I didn’t know that was the Nevada, but that was a ship coming in, burning and smoking. And seeing the dive bombers coming in, dropping the bombs, blowing up on the ship. And the ship don’t sink. And then, here comes the planes coming by strafing, and the ship still don’t sink. It just keeps moving, and it’s burning and smoking, and it finally disappears.

 

Oh …

 

You know what happened. And then, you know, finally … you know, time went by so fast. But it was finally announced that, Hey, we’re at war. Through loudspeakers or something; We’re at war, we’re being bombed by the Japanese, the Japanese troops have landed. And let me tell you, when that happened, that’s when fear came in. Oh, it was not fun anymore. We were so scared. So scared, didn’t know what to do. My parents finally found me, and we got on the jalopy, took off into the hills up in the valley.

 

Just to while time?

 

Just to get away. Yes.

 

Okay.

 

And to hide out in the caves over there. And you know, they had banana fields, and you know, we’re in the caves, we could see the planes up here, we could hear the bombs, we could hear the firing, but we could not see the attack. And then, it was over after a while. A very short while, it was over. There wasn’t any more planes in the sky anymore. So, we went home to get more supplies and everything. We went there, no more planes, the attack was over. But at the same time, all the fire, the flames, the boats. And I think one of the most, I guess, sights that was very sickening to me was seeing the boats going around and around. You know, fireboats, you know, trying to put out the flames. But later, we learned that they were picking up dead bodies and survivors.

 

Oh, I see.

 

You know, seeing something like that, and it’s something that you’ll always remember. And of course, all of that, the explosions going by. You know, when I saw one of the ships on the other side of the island, the first one to get hit; wow, what is this? But again, always thought it was a game. But it looked so real. And I can tell you honestly, I watched these torpedo planes come in, dropping their torpedoes, and of course, not knowing what it was. It was the Oklahoma that was being hit. But what was most exciting was when the planes came in and was hit by gunfire, seeing the flames coming out, the smoke, and it blows up in the sky. I was cheering. I remember jumping up and down. Wow, they shot down another plane. Not knowing what it was. But it was impressive, you know, for a young kid. But let me tell you, from that moment on, when we were told that this was war, that’s it. My life, I thought, I changed. It was not fun anymore.

 

On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, the Territorial Government of Hawaiʻi surrendered its authority to the U.S. military. The new military governor issued laws that severely restricted the freedom of residents of Hawaiʻi, instituting blackouts, curfews, and food and gas rationing. Soldiers enforced the restrictions.

 

When we came back down, there were soldiers all over the place. And this is when, later on we came under martial law, when the military was under control. And that’s where they told us, You folks will obey, you will follow our rules. And so, this is what it is, so we were scared of them. You know, these young soldiers, things like that. And I, for one, was scared of the military. But at the same time, we were very happy; we felt safe with them. You know, I can tell you that military really shaped me up. Because, you know, I was arrested so many times for doing things wrong, which to me, I mean, it’s nothing wrong at all, because I’ve been doing this all the time. Like going into the water, catching crabs, catching fish, and digging clams. Because that’s our food. But when martial law came, you could not step into the water.

 

Pearl Harbor.

 

That’s right; Pearl Harbor. And for myself, I know, I’ve been in there, I got arrested many, many times for violating, for trespassing. But because I was a little youngster, they let me go. But don’t do it again. Yes, okay. So, they turned their back. We were in there, we had to eat. That’s it. But martial law was very strict, and we lived in fear. You know, it was about three years that we had that. But I’m gonna tell you, I think the one that scared the daylights out of me, and I still remember this. You know, my job was to milk the cows in the morning. Hey, you know, we had to eat, so we had to milk the cows. And we had curfews. And cows don’t believe in curfews.

 

You know, I remember taking the cow out of the bushes that one morning before curfew time, and you know, you’re walking through the bushes and you hear a noise. And you know, a soldier met me with a bayonet.

 

Wow.

 

Sticking at my throat. Boy, I tell you. A tall soldier, and I think I was maybe only two or three feet high, with a cow, with a rope. And a soldier to meet you with a rifle, with a bayonet sticking at your throat. That young soldier told me he was so scared; he didn’t know whether I was friend or foe. And I looked different. You know. And he was so scared. And at the same time, he said, you know, with all the talk about the Japanese troops, and he thought I was one of them.

 

M-hm. So, he was sort of apologizing to you.

 

Well, yes, in a way. And I said, but you know, they’re small, but they’re not that small.

 

You said that, as a kid?

 

That’s right. I tell you, I remember saying that. And you know, maybe not exactly, you know, but basically that’s what it is. But I was so scared. But you know, he got to be our friends. And you know, because you know, their camp was right next to our property. But later on, when we got to know him and, you know, as the war progressed, they kinda looked the other way. You know. But that was very interesting. But that’s something I will never forget. You know, as an eleven-year-old kid, with a bayonet sticking at his throat.

 

Wow.

 

But you know, with the soldiers over there, we felt safe. And then at the same time, you know, they kinda let us into the camp. They knew who we were, and they could trust us. They knew we were not enemies or anything. So, they kinda bend backwards a little bit for us. And you know, for myself, I really liked the soldiers after a while. You know, and they were real nice to us.   And you know, that’s what it amounts to.

 

They just happened to be camping right next to you, too.

 

Yes; right next. You see, at one time, they used to have what we call barrage balloons, you know, up in the sky with cables dangling on it to prevent, to deter Japanese planes from diving, you know, from dive bombing. And the whole perimeter of Pearl Harbor used to have that. But that’s what it amounts to.

 

Right.

 

You know, and so this were the little detachments they had. And you know, I can say one of the things that they had was that we used to go out there and dig clams, and crab, and we taught them how to eat. And we had rationing. And they used to have lot of chickens and steaks. You know, and boy, we would kinda envy them. But at the same time, because of our pigs, they let us pick up the garbage from them. And you know, many times in the garbage, we had steak and chickens, wrapped up pretty well.

 

Oh …

 

And boy, I tell you, we ate ‘em. We ate lot of steak and chicken. They couldn’t give it to us outright. I think they hid it in the garbage. But we ate lot of chicken and lot of steak. But we were friends. We were friends.

 

Were they friends with everybody in the area?

 

They were; they were, in the area. And again, one of the things I do want to mention, though. You know, our neighbors were a little far apart, but when we had martial law, everybody came together to help each other. I didn’t realize we could even do that, but you know, we had to dig bomb shelters. They were out there to help us dig bomb shelters. They made sure that everybody was being cared for. You know, we shared things. I tell you, the community came together and really helped out. And the soldiers were there. And again, they were there as protectors, but then at the same time, you know, they were friends. You know. And so, that’s one of the big things, one of the changes that really got me, is how the community got together. You know, the Hawaiians, the Puerto Ricans one side; the Hawaiians, the Filipinos on this side. They were just great.

 

Jimmy Lee’s boundless energy continued to get him into trouble with the law. His parents came up with a solution.

 

My parents always said that I needed to have discipline. And because I was getting arrested and getting into problems all the time, you know, they sent me to ʻIolani School.

 

That was your prison?

 

Yes.

 

Oh, my goodness.

 

Because it was an all-boys school. You know, all boys.

 

But it was far away.

 

It was far away; yes.

 

And transportation was probably an issue; right?

 

Yeah; it was transportation. But you see, my sister married an alumni from ʻIolani. And through some maybe pull or recommendation, I was able to go to ʻIolani.

 

And did you live in town?

 

Yes; she lived in town, in the Chinatown area. You see.

 

And your parents paid the freight for you to go to ʻIolani?

 

Well, I think because my brother-in-law, you know, he was a photographer. And his father was a minister. I think they footed everything, because my father could not do that.

 

Did they knock that rascal spirit right out of you?

 

It sure did. It sure did, because again I say, martial law was still there. And this is where the teachers—you know, during the years at ʻIolani, it was all boys, and they were strict. You know, and the families that we hadi, the kids were not like me. They were not like me. They were you know, I think little more refined, I think, where I had to behave.

 

They probably never had taken care of pigs or anything.

 

That’s right; they never did.

 

I wonder if your parents, after having seen you arrested by the military, and you would go back and do the same thing again, even though it wasn’t a terrible crime, they probably were afraid that you’d really run afoul of the military.

 

Oh, yes. And you see, when they first sent me out there, my aunt lived next to Oahu Prison. And they were always saying, We’re keeping you close to the prison because you’re gonna end up in there.

 

And yet, when you think about it, you know, your crimes were not terribly serious.

 

That’s right; they were not.

 

Even though martial law ended three years later, Jimmy Lee stayed at ʻIolani, where he graduated and went on to the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa. He was drafted into the Army, and eventually made the civilian branch of the military his career. Throughout much of Jimmy’s life, there was a mystery that he kept trying to solve. On the day of the attack, his best boyhood friend, Toshi Yamamoto, had disappeared.

 

When I came back that morning, December 7th, you know, this was around midday already. And I went and ran out by the plum tree, yelling out, Toshi, Toshi, where are you? There was no answer. I ran under the house where we played Hide-and-Seek. Toshi, where are you? None. I ran up to the house, where I used to sleep. The house was empty. From that day on, December 7th again, never saw him. During all those years when I was in school, even when I was in the military, I used to write little notes. You know, Where are you? Hoping that someday, you know, he would come back, and maybe an old man like me would come up and say, Hey, I’m Toshi. But that never did happen. And when I spoke about him over the radio on December 7, 2012, that’s when his son called and said, You’re talking about my dad. Oh, I tell you, that really struck me. I could not even say a word anymore; I was speechless. When I finally met his son, that’s when the son told me a little bit more about his father. And that they were at gunpoint forced to leave, they lost everything, but they were never imprisoned, and never threatened. You know, and he was allowed to work, and things like that. But you know, one of the things about this for myself, you know, when it started like that, it was not only you know, the feeling, of witnessing the attack, but I lost my friend, my best friend. I asked him, Where is your father? Buried in Kaneohe. So, on December 14th, I went out searching for the grave, and I finally did, sure enough. But I tell you, one of the things I had to do was just that I had to stand over the grave, and that was him. And I tell you, you know, it was raining. I don’t know whether it was rain coming in my eyes or not, but as far as I’m concerned, I had tears in my eyes. Well, I finally had to say, Toshi, after seventy-one years, I finally found you. You know, and so long, and goodbye.

 

At the time of our conversation just before the seventy-fifty anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, Jimmy Lee was getting ready to mark his eighty-sixth birthday. Mahalo to Jimmy, a Kaneʻohe resident, for sharing stories that we hope will live on in commemoration of many lives; lives that were lost, and lives that continued but were changed forever. And mahalo to you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaiʻi and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

His son tell me that his dad worked hard. And one of the most remarkable thing about this is that the son, he’s with the community college in Ewa right now, and he’s never gone back to the old house before. So, on December 20th, I took him and all the grandkids, and sat them down, and told them the story. And the kids, ages nine to fourteen, all wanted to hear the story about what it is. And sitting on the seawall, I was able to point out where their grandpa and I played, in the trap where we used to catch fish. That’s where we used to go out in the mudflats, you know, digging clams and things. And with that, I tell you, I was very, very happy to be doing this.
[END]

 

 


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