Remembering some forgotten WWII heroes

The following is an excerpt from Creek With No Name by Ken and Kris Bilderback. All rights reserved.

By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, many of Gaston’s Japanese-Americans were Sansei, or second-generation American-born citizens, and some of them were among the first to enlist in the American war effort. The eldest son of the Hashimoto family was one of the first in line, Marge recalls, and went off to fight against the Japanese Army in the Far East. Unfortunately, this all-American young man had the constitution of someone raised in the moderate climate of Oregon, not in the jungles of the Far East, and he died in service to his country, succumbing to one of the tropical diseases that proved to be as deadly as the bullets of Japanese army rifles. Gaston’s Peter and Jim Furukawa also were among the first patriots to enlist, and they were lucky enough to survive fighting for the country they loved.

Creek With No NameBut Gaston was more than just a center of Japanese culture. It also happened to be the center of “the Pacific Coast forest belt” that internment was meant to protect. While each of Gaston’s Japanese-Americans had a distinct personality to those who knew them here, whether it was for being an expert farmer, prolific athlete, troublemaker or just good friend, to most Americans they all just looked the same. They looked like potential terrorists embedded near the cherished Stimson Mill and the forests that fed the war effort.

The Oregonian editor,” Ellen Eisenberg wrote in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, “argued that it was impossible to separate the loyal from the disloyal and therefore all Japanese-Americans had to be ‘moved in the interest of national security.’” Soon Congress agreed and ordered the “evacuation” of anyone of Japanese descent, including almost a quarter of Gaston’s population. Eisenberg notes the Oregonian’s editorial board explored the treatment of Japanese-Americans and “compared it favorably to the treatment of ‘civilian enemy nationals’ by Nazi Germany.” Continue reading

Gaston Schools history, Part III: The little district that could

The Gaston Public School District doesn’t seem to have an official birthday, although the elementary and high school districts merged officially on May 31, 1968, offering a potential date.

The district’s obituary has been written several times (click here for earlier history), always prematurely. About all that is certain is that Gaston always has been, and continues to be, the little district that finds a way to survive.

In our last installment, Gaston had survived several votes that could have merged the district into Forest Grove; in fact some of the votes actually enlarged the Gaston district. But as the 1970s began, the Gaston school budget crisis persisted. Continue reading

That time a President died in Oregon … the tale of a psychic ghost

The following is an excerpt from Creek With No Name: How the West Was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon, Copyright 2011, Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved:

Creek With No NameLouis Rader was the subject of many stories in The Oregonian after his arrest, but the basis of his story is revealed in the cascading headlines on the very first article, which appeared on the doorsteps of Portlanders on the morning of June 27, 1923. The story involved a planned visit to Portland by President Warren G. Harding, and the main headline blared: “Farmer Threatens Life of President.” The first subhead elaborated on the evidence against him: “Rancher of Gaston Arrested for Writing Letter.”

On the surface, a letter threatening the life of a President about to visit the area sounds pretty damning. Upon closer inspection, however, the letter seems more a statement of confusion than confession. The letter was written to the Portland Chamber of Commerce and contains this threat, or possible threat: “Now friends this nice morning I have a hunch here it is President Harding will be called this month on a Fryday to a high court where he will give account to the above mention.” Continue reading

Give up? Not in Coach K’s gym.

This is an excerpt from Creek With No Name: How the West was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon, Copyright 2011, Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved.

In rural Oregon towns, high school sometimes seems like little more than a roadblock on the way to a job in the fields or forests. Knowing how to operate a chain saw or prime a pump can seem more important than knowing how to parse a sentence or figure a prime number.

But when the curriculum fails to hold a student’s attention, it’s often extracurricular activities that do the trick.

Sometimes it’s music. For many years John Harris taught band at Gaston High School. Students followed the baton in Harris’s hand in school and often after school as well, joining the volunteer fire department, where Harris volunteered for many years. When not fighting fires, Harris led the department’s band, which performed in parades and community events throughout western Oregon. Many of Harris’s protégés found their way on to college, while others devoted their lives to the fire service. Continue reading

The story of a fish, and a murder

Our saga of Howard Tong begins after he caught a fish at the Oregon Coast in 1939. It ends in murder in 1972. Along the way, it includes a tangled web of tragedy, lawsuits, mystery, and insanity.

Actually, let’s back up a few years and begin our story in 1931 at Oregon State University, where fraternity boy Howard Tong proposed to his college sweetheart, Gwendolyn Morgan. Within a year, they welcomed a daughter, Carolyn, joined a year later by another baby, Delores.

Howard and Gwen Tong, 1939.

Howard and Gwen Tong, 1939.

Howard’s teaching career blossomed despite the Great Depression, and by 1938 he was principal of the high school in Gaston, but life was not all rosy in the Tong house on Second Street, near the school. Public school teachers didn’t make much in small-town Oregon. With a salary of a little more than $1,000 a year, and with only about $500 in assets, the young family was burdened with $3,300 of debt, and filed for bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy would prove to be the least of the Tongs’ problems in 1938, however, as 5-year-old Delores died.

Howard got back on his feet quickly however, and in 1940 found a better-paying job elsewhere. Then, as World War II raged, Carolyn got a baby brother, John. Things once again looked bright for the Tongs, but then once again tragedy struck, as John died at just 8 months old. Continue reading

War hits home in Washington County

There was a time when the Civil War meant more in Washington County than water-cooler arguments about whether the Ducks or Beavers will win the big in-state rivalry.

In the 1860s, the Civil War meant that county residents had to ride off on their own horses with their own rifles to fight the Indian Wars after the regular Army was called back east to wage the War Between the States. The southern mountain men and northern missionaries who settled Washington County didn’t argue about field goals and touchdowns, but rather about slavery.

walkingcoversmallWashington County’s role in the Civil War was minor, but veterans of the war played a major role in the area’s development. Take Gen. Thomas Thorpe, one of the war’s most-decorated heroes; after the war he came to Oregon to be Forest Grove’s school superintendent. Or Francis Bailey, a Confederate veteran who became one of Oregon’s most-famous doctors and mayor of Hillsboro.

Washington County residents have played a major role in every war since, from the Spanish-American War to the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some made international headlines for their courage, while the heroism and sacrifice of others went largely unnoticed.

Also often unnoticed are the incredible changes the conflicts on the battlefront brought to the homefront back in Washington County. World War II hit home in a very personal way, putting the region’s forests in the crosshairs and creating war heroes here at home, including one Cornelius woman who nearly died in a horrific Portland shipyard accident, then returned to build more Liberty Ships after months of grueling rehabilitation.

World War II helped pull Washington County out of the Great Depression, but also derailed efforts to build roads to the Coast. Perhaps its most lasting impact, however, was the racial strife it created in local farms, forests and factories as Japanese-Americans were imprisoned and Mexican farmworkers were enticed to replace them.

Other conflicts don’t get the attention of the Civil War and World War II, but the sacrifices of those on the battlefront and effects back here on the homefront were every bit as profound. Consider, for example, the battle for Manila during the Spanish-American War, the effects of which had many lasting impacts on life in Washington County.

At 6:30 p.m. March 18 at the Washington County Museum, I’ll take a look at how each major American war has affected us here at home, and salute some of the local people who answered the call to duty. General admission is $6. Seniors/children/college/ID $4. Active military and veterans? $3. The event is in downtown Hillsboro, 120 East Main. There’s plenty of parking (no time limit after 5 p.m.) and the museum is convenient to MAX.

A century ago, a broken dam led to broken dreams

The following is an excerpt from Creek With No Name: How the West was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon. Copyright 2011 Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved.

Fueled by his faith in God, Lovegren had been able to create a utopian future for his fellow man that had eluded contemporaries in Gaston and Laurelwood. His bold action had bested Gaston in its secularism and Laurelwood in its search for balance with the world around it.

Lovegren had overcome secularism and the naïve hope for harmony with nature. In three short years he had foreseen the obstacles and he had overcome them. He had overcome every obstacle anyone could throw in the path of a devout, brilliant-but-uneducated child of the American miracle. He had achieved the promise God made to him back in Sweden.

Continue reading

Tears of horror, tears of joy on Christmas 1941

The following is an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove: The Life and Times of the Prettiest Town in Oregon Copyright 2014 Ken Bilderback. All Rights Reserved:

No air raid sirens sounded over Forest Grove less than six weeks later on the night of December 7, 1941, but the next morning the town awoke to the same dreadful news that rocked the rest of the country. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, leaving a horrific death toll among the American military personnel stationed there. The aftermath was chaotic and communication systems failed. Anxious families back on the mainland awaited word on the fate of their loved ones. One such household was the Burki family farm on Spring Hill Road near Gaston. Their son, Frank, was born on the farm and had grown up to play football at Forest Grove High School and then for Pacific University. In November 1941, in the middle of the football season and his freshman year of college, Frank Burki quit school to join the Navy. In less than a month he was stationed at Pearl Harbor. Days before Christmas, the Burki family got the awful news from the Navy. Their son Frank was among those killed on December 7. It had not taken long for this war to hit home in Forest Grove. Christmas was a somber one across town, particularly at the Burki home. Continue reading

My deep thoughts on immigration

My ancestors were not whipped and chained and hauled to America. They did not work the cotton fields that made the United States a world power.

My ancestors did not indenture themselves to come to North America for the “privilege” of being a navvy, to break their backs carving out the railroads that made the United States a superpower. As such, my ancestors never had to retreat from the arsons, whippings, and lynchings that sent many fleeing back home to Asia, their dreams unfulfilled after all of their work was done. Continue reading

Rosie the Riveter? Plain Jane? They put the “her” in “heroic.”

The following is an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove, Copyright 2014 Ken Bilderback:

Just as it had in World War I, the military conducted a census of women willing to do jobs traditionally done by men, including tasks such as welding in Portland’s shipyards, or running saws in Forest Grove’s lumber mills. The government set up a welding school in Forest Grove, and the first class filled quickly.

Margaret Steinbach of Cornelius proved to be an ace student and was the first to be hired at the Swan Island shipyards in Portland. She reported that she loved her job. The city was jolted a few months later, however, when another shipyard worker from Cornelius, Jane Schneider, mother of two small children, was crushed between a crane and the ship she was working on. The first News-Times story reported that while she was in “very critical” condition at Portland’s Emanuel Hospital, she was showing some signs of improvement.

Two weeks later, she had improved enough to return home by ambulance, and eventually she was able to walk again. Her story drove home the fact that women who took physically demanding wartime jobs in the shipyards, which were working at breakneck speed to supply the Navy, were very much in harm’s way.

Jane Schneider’s story also drove home another point: Forest Grove-area women were tough as nails. About two months after being critically injured, she returned to work at the shipyard.