The Infamous Attack That Spawned Airman IDs

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Clockwise from left: Smoke engulfs the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor; and samples of airman ID cards from the World War II and Korean War years. (Photos: Wikipedia, eBay)

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor turned today into “a date which will live in infamy.” The world war that followed reshaped the realities of aviation in many lasting ways, but one temporary yet significant change has been largely forgotten.

The Civil Aeronautics Administration started requiring civilian airmen to carry passport-style identification cards, and it investigated the national loyalty of more than 200,000 people with related airman certificates. The FAA’s predecessor agency also briefly denied ID cards to all Japanese and restricted the ability of “naturalized citizens of enemy alien descent” to get them.

The new policies became a point of ongoing discussion among the agency, its parent Commerce Department, the War Department, and the Justice Department and FBI. The CAA periodically received requests to waive the rules, and the government softened them as the war progressed. The requirement for airman IDs ended in 1945.

Flying privileges for the ‘friendly’

The CAA had contemplated changes to its process for certifying airmen in the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Multiple factors fueled the idea, including reports of people taking the airman certification test for others and “criminal organizations” forging certificates, but the overriding concern was that airmen could get certified to pursue “subversive activities.”

The uneasiness was great enough that Richard Elwell, head of the General Inspection Division, said the CAA should immediately require airmen to provide fingerprints “in view of the present emergency conditions.” The Aeronautical Advisory Council proposed the recertification of all airmen — 182,000 of them as of June 30, 1941, including 66,000 pilots and 97,500 students.

A.S. Koch, the CAA’s director of safety regulation, said those moves would unnecessarily inconvenience “conscientious certificate holders,” as well as the mere 46 employees of the Certificate Section. He added that recertification “definitely would not have the desired effect, in that persons who are going to engage in subversive activities are going to be very little hampered by the technicalities of proper certification.”

But the deaths of 2,403 American sailors, marines, soldiers and civilians at Pearl Harbor suddenly changed the dynamics of the debate. At the War Department’s request, the CAA revoked all civilian pilot certificates the day after the attack. Two days later, the Civil Aeronautics Board voted to require all airmen to carry ID cards that included their photographs, fingerprints and signatures. The policy took effect Jan. 8, 1942.

The agency worked with local radio stations and newspapers to publicize the new requirements and with local law enforcement to fingerprint airmen in the presence of CAA inspectors. To get certificates, airmen had to provide proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, a notarized statement of naturalization, or a certified statement from an ambassador or consul that they were “friendly aliens.” They also had to prove that they were “loyal to the United States and in sympathy with its policies and objectives.”

For many airmen, the ID cards were intended to serve as evidence of citizenship and positive proof of identity. “This is one of the most important tasks that we have undertaken,” Administrator Donald Connolly wrote in a detailed memorandum to the CAA’s regions, “and it is imperative that every safeguard be taken and absolute accuracy attained.”

The changes initially applied only to pilots, but the CAA quickly moved to expand the requirements to all civil aviation personnel, including air traffic controllers, mechanics, aircraft dispatchers and ground instructors. “This extension … will be of great aid in preventing possible subversive activities which might be detrimental to the war effort,” acting CAA Administrator Charles Stanton wrote to the Civil Aeronautics Board.

Singling out the Japanese

The CAA contributed to the war effort in other ways. Its responsibilities included training pilots for military service, building airbases and installing communications equipment around the world for military use, and taking over terminal air traffic control at airports designated by the military. But the policy changes related to airman certifications and IDs were different in that they occurred against the backdrop of another development that is now seen as a stain on America’s history — the confinement of Japanese-Americans in internment camps.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order giving that power to the War Department on Feb. 19, 1942. On the next day, Stanton sought the War Department’s input on the CAA’s idea of expanding airman ID cards to all people involved in civil aviation. War Department Adjutant General William Dick called the proposal “highly desirable.”

The War Department shaped the CAA’s approach from the beginning, first raising the concerns about civilian aircraft being used for subversive activities, and it continued to do so. When the CAA identified four categories of people who it might refuse for airman ID cards, for example, the War Department proposed changes and the CAA accepted them.

The CAA also agreed not to issue airman ID cards to any applicants who raised suspicions in field offices without the War Department, Office of Naval Intelligence and FBI reviewing those cases. Such applicants could not get ID cards unless one of those entities provided an “affirmative report” that they posed no danger, and naturalized citizens of enemy alien descent needed “conclusive proof” of their U.S. loyalty.

The discussion eventually turned to Japanese who worked, or wanted to work, in U.S. civilian aviation. In June 1942, an executive order prohibited “any Japanese, American-born or otherwise,” from getting airman ID cards. A month later, the CAA ordered the recall of cards that already had been issued to Japanese.

This led to occasional requests for exceptions to the rule, including one by an airline president that made its way to Stanton. He denied the request in a July 10 letter: “It is realized that this policy will work hardship in some cases such as the one you present, but the imperative necessity of assuring internal security does not permit any exception.”

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CAA Administrator Charles Stanton (left) and War Secretary Henry Stimson played key roles in the discussion about airman IDs. (Photos: Smithsonian Institution, Wikipedia)

The decision to deny airman ID cards to all Japanese also raised questions about exactly who qualifies as Japanese in the government’s eyes. Commerce Secretary Jesse Jones put that question to Stimson in a letter about Robert Saibara, a captain in the U.S. Army Signal Corps who had one Japanese parent. He was flying for the Army using its ID card, but the CAA wasn’t sure whether it could issue him a civilian airman ID.

Stimson urged the CAA to treat all Army officers, including those of Japanese ancestry, the same. He further recommended that “no person be considered a person of Japanese ancestry for the purpose of the issuance of an American identification card unless he is more than one-half of Japanese blood or one parent was an alien Japanese.”

The hard line softens
The government softened its stance on Japanese airmen in the spring of 1943. In a March 29 letter copied to the Commerce secretary, War Relocation Authority Director Dillon Myer urged Stimson to support a policy that treated all airmen the same, regardless of ancestry. He noted that many Japanese in internment camps had volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army.

Myer said the federal government should “set an example by treating persons of Japanese ancestry upon the same basis as other Americans are treated, and by refusing to indulge in presumptions that discriminate against persons of Japanese ancestry as a class.”

Weeks later, the government revised its policy, allowing Japanese to get airman ID cards if they were naturalized citizens who had never been to Japan and if they completed a “personnel security questionnaire” to determine U.S. loyalty. The CAA distributed the questionnaires, and the War Relocation Authority and provost marshal general reviewed them.

Pilots of Japanese ancestry were not the only ones impacted by the close scrutiny. Italian-born Corrado Fiorentino, who was forced out of the Italian Air Force in 1938 because of his Jewish heritage, earned a U.S. pilot certificate in 1939. As a flight instructor in California, he trained U.S. pilots for service in Great Britain’s Royal Air Force.

But like all civilian pilots, Fiorentino’s certificate was suspended after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because of his Italian ancestry, the CAA refused to reinstate it or issue him an airman’s ID card. He temporarily lost his job at the Mira Loma Flight Academy as a result.

The Army later made arrangements for Fiorentino to teach pilots at the academy, and the Civil Aeronautics Board endorsed that decision. Fiorentino cited that experience when he submitted a new request for an airman’s ID card, and in a letter to Stimson, Civil Aeronautics Board Chairman L. Welch Pogue said Fiorentino seemed “extremely well-qualified as a flight instructor. But Stimson declined to act on his appeal or two others by pilots born in Germany.

It took the end of the war to bring an end to airman ID cards. Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, and by the middle of that month, notices of the CAA rescinding the policy began appearing in newspapers across the country.

The CAA revived airman IDs during the Korean War. Pilots with cards from World War II were able to use them as proof of citizenship to get the new cards.

This story originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website on Dec. 7, 2017. It has been reprinted with permission.

West Virginia native. Homeschool and adoption advocate. Drone pilot at Airscape Photography. Views here are mine alone.

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