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Passing Through Airport ObscurityPassing Through Airport Obscurity

Passing Through Airport Obscurity

During his summer travels, Father Raymond de Souza finds his way to San Jose where the airport honours a little-known politician with a story that deserves to be told.

Raymond J. de Souza
4 minute read

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – Summertime is a time for travels, for being on the road, or more accurately, in the air.

Airport names matter to me. In that regard I am happier flying out of Kingston – Norman Rogers airport, named after a distinguished Queen’s University man and minister of war under Mackenzie King – than I am either Toronto (Lester Pearson) or Montreal (Pierre Trudeau). Ottawa gets it right: Macdonald-Cartier.

No country can compete with Poland, as Convivium readers in 2013 might remember what I wrote then:

Poland has a rather more culturally edifying attitude toward its airports. You fly from the political capital, Warsaw, where the airport is named after Fryderyk Chopin, to the royal and religious capital, Krakow, where the airport is named for Pope John Paul II. Very edifying. Or one can travel from Copernicus airport (Wroclaw) to Lech Walesa (Gdansk). A pianist, a saint, a scientist and a champion of freedom. Most edifying. 

Here on the left coast, California offers a rather different account of human achievement, with Bob Hope airport (Burbank), John Wayne (Orange County) and Charles M. Schultz (Sonoma County). But flying into San Jose, I was underwhelmed by Norman Y. Mineta Airport. Another political functionary, I thought. No, it turns out.

Norman Mineta was mayor of San Jose before serving 20 years in Congress. He cashed in by going to work for Lockheed Martin before being appointed secretary of commerce in the waning months of the Clinton administration. The first Asian-American to sit in cabinet, his six months in office were unexpectedly extended when, despite being a lifelong Democrat, he was appointed by George W. Bush to serve as secretary of transportation, which he did for more than five years until 2006. 

The San Jose city council considered naming the airport after Mineta in 2001. The vote took place on September 4, 2001. Seven days later, Mineta would make the most famous decision in the history of transportation authorities, grounding all flights in American airspace on 9/11.

Yet the name on the airport was not about being a medium-ranking cabinet secretary, nor a time-serving congressman, nor even a former mayor who made the bigtime in Washington. It was about honouring an American citizen who had spent the Second World War in a prison camp, imprisoned by the United States of America.

Norman Mineta was born in 1931 in San Jose, a bit late to be part of the “greatest generation” that fought and won the Second World War. Yet he is included in Tom Brokaw’s book of that name because the Mineta family was imprisoned in a Wyoming internment camp in 1942. After Pearl Harbour, Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order for the internment of any Japanese in the United States, even American citizens. Mineta’s father was an immigrant from Japan who had been in San Jose for 40 years.

Mineta’s family returned from internment and resumed their business and civic life as respected citizens in San Jose. In 1971, 30 years after Pearl Harbour, Mineta was elected mayor, the first Japanese-American to be a big city mayor outside of Hawaii. 

Later in Congress, he worked on the legislation that offered an apology to Japanese-Americans who were interned and paid symbolic reparations of $20,000. On the day the bill passed the House of Representatives, Mineta was designated as speaker pro-tempore, so that he could sign the bill on behalf of the House. It was September 17, 1987 – the two hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of the United States.

The greatest generation is thought of as including those who were older and enlisted in wartime such as Richard Nixon (born 1913), Gerald Ford (born 1913), Jimmy Carter (born 1924) and George H. W. Bush (born 1924), all of whom served in the Navy. 

(If you think it is a remarkable coincidence that two pairs of presidents were born in the same year, know that Americans like that sort of thing. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump were all born within ten weeks of each other in the summer of 1946. The greatest generation they were not.)

Mineta belongs to another part of that story. The American experience during World War II was noble and admirable, but not without shadows. The chapter in Brokaw’s book about the racism of the time is entitled “Shame.” People like Norman Mineta and his family believed that the shame was an exception, and not the rule, and got on with continuing to build the country which had treated them so shamefully. 

Airports are places of freedom – notwithstanding the bovine treatment administered by the security officials. The San Jose airport, which serves Silicon Valley, is a place of freedom and the future. That it bears the name of a man who was denied freedom because of where his family came from in the past is both improbable and inspiring. The greatest generation includes not only those who fought and suffered to win, but those who simply suffered and refused to concede. 

The airport could use an improvement. The story of Norman Mineta and his family’s internment is not told anywhere that I could find it. If it is, it is not prominent enough. I know the story because I read a book and care about airport names. The story is sufficiently important that it should not be limited to such an infinitesimally small category of people.

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