This is the third part of a series on the Thomsons, a mixed-race Nikkei family. Today’s installment focuses on the lives of the six hapa Thomson children, and particularly on the eldest son William. As mentioned, the children, who moved to the United States in 1919 with their English father Bernard and their Japanese mother Kei, and then grew up in Alameda in the two decades before World War II. They all went on to successful careers, though in different fields.
Lily (Yuriko), the eldest child, set the pattern for the family. A star student at Alameda High School, Lily was named valedictorian of her class. Rather than attend University of California, for which she was well qualified, she instead elected to attend business school, and in time became a secretary for an importing firm. Her earnings helped support the family through the depths of the Great Depression. Eventually Lily moved to Los Angeles with her new husband, and took work as a legal secretary. Marie, the second daughter, left home at the start of high school and moved in with a young woman attorney, Miss DeReamer, for whom she did housework and cooking. What kind of relationship developed between them is unclear, but certainly when Marie decided to become a nurse, Miss DeReamer paid her tuition, and the two women continued living together. After finishing nursing school, Marie worked as a nurse in San Francisco at St. Francis Hospital, then moved to Indianapolis, married and worked as a nurse there. All four Thomson sons attended UC Berkeley. After college, Joe worked as an insurance underwriter and put himself through law school in the evenings. Bruce, forced to leave school after an attack of tuberculosis, went into business. Tom majored in chemistry at UC Berkeley, and then went on to study for a doctorate.
None of the siblings on the West Coast was confined under Executive Order 9066. They do not even seem to have applied for an exemption; they were simply left undisturbed. Despite their Japanese ancestry, their English name and hapa appearance helped them to pass.
The Pearl Harbor attack and the outbreak of war between Japan and the United States affected family life. None of the siblings on the West Coast was confined under Executive Order 9066. They do not even seem to have applied for an exemption; they were simply left undisturbed. Despite their Japanese ancestry, their English name and hapa appearance helped them to pass. They did find ways to support the American war effort. Brother Joe, in particular, felt the need to demonstrate his loyalty by volunteering for service (his three brothers were barred on health grounds). In June 1942, Joe enlisted in the U.S. Army. He applied for officer Candidate School, but was blackballed because of his Japanese ancestry. Instead he served as a noncom, and was ultimately shipped to the Pacific, where he saw action at Palau and Anguar. At the end of the war, Joe (by then promoted to Warrant Officer) was assigned to Japan. Upon his return to California, he finished law school and set up a practice in Alameda. Bruce, whose health remained frail, worked in manufacturing and real estate. Tom earned a doctorate in Chemistry at Kansas State (presumably his choice was influenced by his eldest brother, who taught there for several years). He later spent a career as professor of chemistry, first in Colorado, later at Arizona State University.
In 1935, he was hired as a lecturer/teaching assistant at UC Davis. He later recounted that the campus was a cosmopolitan community of scholars with no discernable racial prejudice, and for the first time he felt freed from the feelings of inferiority he had developed as a Japanese American.
William Taro Thomson, known as Bill, was initially an indifferent student. From the beginning, however, he was mechanically inclined. At Alameda high school, which had a well-known vocational education program, he not only starred in vocational courses but bought two ancient Model T cars, and hand-overhauled the engines at the school body shop. The Depression struck after William finished high school. Unable to find acceptable work, he decided to continue his studies. Because of his poor academic record, his high school advisors proposed enrolling him at San Mateo Junior College. He soon took a job at the college as a lab assistant, while a friendly Christian minister, Reverend Hall, offered him free lodging in his house. After two years at San Mateo, Bill was accepted as an Engineering student at UC Berkeley, where he received his B.S. in Engineering in 1933, then went on for an MS degree (during this time Bill took a leave to undergo surgery to repair a detached retina, which had likely been caused by hits sustained during boxing, and he regained partial vision in the damaged eye). In 1935, he was hired as a lecturer/teaching assistant at UC Davis. He later recounted that the campus was a cosmopolitan community of scholars with no discernable racial prejudice, and for the first time he felt freed from the feelings of inferiority he had developed as a Japanese American. After a year, however, he was awarded a doctoral fellowship by University of California and returned to Berkeley, where he received his doctorate in 1937.
After graduation, Bill was hired by Kansas State College (as it was then called). He spent four years there as an assistant professor. To supplement his income, during the last year, he spent the summer working at the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle. While at Boeing, he met Tricia Crawford, who worked as a cashier at the company cafeteria. Although William had never had a serious girlfriend before, he asked Tricia on a date, and the two discovered that they got on well. In a different way, Bill’s interest in the Northwest was reflected in a landmark set of papers he produced on the demise of the nearby Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The bridge, which had attracted notoriety for the ways its roadways twisted in the wind (and had thus been dubbed “Galloping Gertie”) had finally shaken itself to pieces during a heavy wind in November 1940. Bill was able to use vibration theory to explain the disaster: the periodic frequency of the winds matched the bridge’s structural frequency, and the winds lashing the bridge brought on turbulence-induced vibration and torsion of the structure. (Bill’s conclusions were later enshrined in a textbook, Theory of Vibrations With Applications, which was widely adopted in engineering courses and went through several editions.)
As 1942 dawned, and Japanese Americans on the West Coast were subjected to mass roundup, Bill began to feel further anxious uncertainty over his Japanese ancestry. His worries were heightened after Bill was proposed by Cornell colleagues as a consultant for an engineering firm in New York City, who declined his services once they discovered his ancestry.
On the strength of his papers, Bill was recruited by the Engineering Department at the elite Cornell University. He began teaching at Cornell in fall 1941. Soon after, war broke out between the United States and Japan. Feeling anxious about the future, Bill left Ithaca at Christmas vacation and drove cross-country to propose to Tricia, who accepted. As 1942 dawned, and Japanese Americans on the West Coast were subjected to mass roundup, Bill began to feel further anxious uncertainty over his Japanese ancestry. His worries were heightened after Bill was proposed by Cornell colleagues as a consultant for an engineering firm in New York City, who declined his services once they discovered his ancestry. As a result, Bill began inquiries as to his citizenship and rights. He wrote to the American Civil Liberties Union for assistance in clarifying or petitioning for American citizenship. In 1943, Bill was hired by Caltech in Pasadena, CA to do war work. He also did war work for the Ryan Aircraft Company.
Although he was comfortable in Wisconsin and by then had two (later three) small children, he was flattered when he was invited to help develop a new engineering college at UCLA. He arrived at UCLA in 1951, and remained nearly twenty years.
After the end of the war, Bill resigned from Cornell and took a job at the University of Wisconsin. After publishing his first two technical books, plus additional articles, he was granted the status of Full Professor. Although he was comfortable in Wisconsin and by then had two (later three) small children, he was flattered when he was invited to help develop a new engineering college at UCLA. He arrived at UCLA in 1951, and remained nearly twenty years. In addition to teaching, he gained extra money by Rand Corporation and other commentators, advising on missile research. In 1957 Bill was awarded a Fulbright at Kyoto University, and went there for a year with his wife and family. He was able to tour the town where had lived as a boy, and even to run into one of his father’s former students. Ultimately he moved on to UC Santa Barbara, where he finished his career. William Tyrrell (at some point he changed his name from Taro) Thomson died in 1998, at the age of 89.
Featured Image by Edward M. Haugh