THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Lucile Colyer’s account of WWII’s impact on her Nikkei friends

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bioline_Greg RobinsonIn a “Great Unknown” column earlier this year, I spoke about Sam Constantino Jr.’s 1946 novel “Tale of the Twain.” The book is a complex narrative that takes place in both Japan and the United States. It includes a section, set on the prewar West Coast, that portrays the condition of Issei and Nisei as seen through the eyes of an outside white reporter. Then, in a later section, the novel references the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans via simulated news reports. 

An even more unorthodox literary work that references the wartime confinement, published the same year as Constantino’s book, is Lucile Colyer’s “Thy Neighbor.” This slim volume in blank verse, punctuated by a pair of prose letters, is a small-scale spiritual autobiography of a middle-aged white Californian that describes the impact of the war on the author and her newfound Japanese and Japanese American friends.

Little information is publicly available on the author. What is known is that she was born Hazel Lucile Nickerson (her second name sometimes listed as “Lucille”) in Bellevue, Mich. in 1890, the daughter of Lycurgus and Mary Nickerson. Sometime before 1917 she moved to Los Angeles, where she married Robert Arthur Colyer, 15 years her senior. The 1920 census lists them as living in Los Angeles, with three children of Robert’s. Soon after, Hazel became a schoolteacher in Echo Park. The 1930 census lists them as living in mid-Wilshire. Robert is a secretary at a steel products business, while Hazel is a public school teacher. By 1940 Robert is listed as the owner of the steel products business, while Hazel is still listed as a schoolteacher.

Colyer’s wartime story, which would be recounted in “Thy Neighbor,” begins in mid-1940 as Mrs. Colyer and her husband board an NYK ocean liner, the Asama Maru, for a trip to Japan. During the voyage her husband dies of a sudden illness (according to the official record, Mr. Colyer died of a heart attack while shipboard for Japan on July 5 1940), and Mrs. Colyer is left alone and grief stricken. Mrs. Colyer is befriended by Nanjo San, the ship’s purser. After the boat lands in Yokohama, she is escorted to Tokyo and installed in the Imperial Hotel, then taken up by a circle of American and Japanese who show her the sights of Tokyo. Nanjo San brings her on a trip to Kamakura. She nevertheless decides that she must leave Japan and return home for her son and friends. While on the sad voyage home with her husband’s ashes, she is befriended by Alice Grew, the wife of U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew.

After arriving back in Los Angeles, the author starts life as a widow. She spends Christmas 1940 with her son John, who is home from college, survives a perilous bout of pneumonia in the new year, and welcomes Nanjo San on a trip to Los Angeles in mid-1941, taking him to see the Ice Capades and the “Earl Carroll Revue.” After the stopover, the U.S. government freezes Japanese assets and the Asamu Maru, en route to Honolulu, does not arrive. The author is worried about her friend’s whereabouts, and even travels to San Francisco to check with the NYK office. Finally, news arrives that the ship, refused entry to Honolulu, has sailed on safely to Japan. The author decides that she would like a Japanese companion, and through the circle of wives of NYK officials, meets a young woman, Shizue, whom the author brings to Los Angeles to live with her. Soon after, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brings war, as the author describes:

At two in the afternoon

I have listened to this news…

I see Shizue—

She had gone to her home 

For the weekend—

Rushing up the pathway…

She throws her arms around me

We stand there silently

In close embrace.

And then she softly speaks to me

Her voice so full of tears—

“I could hardly wait to get here

When I head the terrible news:

I knew you needed me.”

The moment with Shizue ends the book’s first section. The second section examines the plight of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, as the rights of Nisei are curtailed and then they are sent off to hastily constructed camps: “Places that are desolate/and bare/and dreary/Where none has lived before.” The author is outraged and horrified:

America, my precious country,

Must we condone

Injustice

In the sacred name of duty?…

They are sent from their homes

And confined…

Without trial, convicted. Their crime?

They are Americans

Whose parents were

Born in Japan.”

The author makes a break in the verse to include a letter from Shizue, whom she explains was one of the volunteers to arrive early at Manzanar. In the letter, Shizue speaks about helping give vaccinations for epidemic disease — and suffering after she got one herself and voices some of her fears and uncertainties for the future. (Opposite this section is a Manzanar camp scene done in gouache by the book’s illustrator, Rose Anne Doyle, with people arriving at tarpaper barracks in an area surrounded by mountains.) The author determines to do what she can for the Nisei, by writing people and doing shopping for them. Later she also becomes a Red Cross “gray lady,” serving as a hospital volunteer. 

The last half of the book covers the rest of the war years. The author mentions her hope that the war can be wound up, and her worries for her son, who is in the Army, and for her beloved Nanjo San. She mentions that at the end of the war she is again inspired to take action on behalf of Japanese Americans:

The camps are closing…

Nisei and their parents

Returning home

Returning by the thousands

Without a place to go..

In hastily constructed hostels

They are housed

About the city…

I help a few get work.

I store some things for others

I contact sympathetic friends 

To see what can be done…

There seems so little I can do…

The final pages cover the author’s trip to Brazil after the end of the war, and her return to her peaceful life in Los Angeles with her son, his wife and Shizue (until her marriage).

At the end, her joy is complete when she learns that Nanjo San is safe and well, living in the new Japan.

“Thy Neighbor” appeared late in 1946, under the imprint of the Willing Publishing Company of Los Angeles, a small publisher known for religious-themed books. It carried endorsements by Dr. Albert W. Palmer, President Emeritus of The Chicago Theological Seminary, and by Joseph C. Grew, former U.S. ambassador to Japan, who described it as “very beautiful and intensely moving.” Grew, a wartime defender of Japanese Americans, was presumably motivated as well by the author’s forceful treatment of the situation of Japanese Americans. Other than an article in the Pacific Citizen, its appearance does not seem to have sparked significant attention. 

Hazel Lucile Colyer lived in Los Angeles in the years after World War II. In 1949, she married Daniel Custer (aka Ceuster). She does not seem to have written any further books or published any poems. Hazel L. Custer died in San Diego in 1971.

Lucile Colyer’s slim verse memoir about her wartime experience seems not to have sold many copies or captured much media attention, the book reminds us again of the small group of non-Japanese on the West Coast who offered support for Japanese Americans, and their dedication to democratic ideals.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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