A Northwest internment story that still stuns the imagination

In "Camp Harmony," Seattle historian Louis Fiset tells how local Japanese Americans were sent to an internment camp, now the grounds for the Puyallup Fair, in the early months of World War II.
Crosscut archive image.

Japanese-American residents line up outside Camp Harmony in 1942.

In "Camp Harmony," Seattle historian Louis Fiset tells how local Japanese Americans were sent to an internment camp, now the grounds for the Puyallup Fair, in the early months of World War II.

On a summer afternoon at the Puyallup Fair, it's hard to believe that our state fairgrounds were a bleak internment camp not so long ago. Thousands of Puget Sound residents, charged with no crimes, had been rounded up and herded behind fences by their own government. The story makes the fears of people who hide from 2010 Census workers, along with the opposition of NRA members to forced weapons registration, seem positively rational.

Seattle historian Louis Fiset, author of Camp Harmony: Seattle's Japanese Americans and the Puyallup Assembly Center, said in an interview last week that what he learned from writing the book had challenged his faith in the justice of his government. “I know now that our lives as American citizens can change on a dime” — and not only from injuries inflicted by external forces. It pains him to recall that after 9/11 our own officials arrested Arab students for interrogation and suspended due process to enable illegal wiretapping. After the start of World War II, all it took was an executive order signed by President Roosevelt, on Feb. 19, 1942, to turn the lives of Seattle's Japanese Americans upside down.

For at least two generations, Seattle's industrious, family-centered society of “Japantown” had for the most part peacefully co-existed with its neighbors. Fiset's book describes how Seattle Japanese responded to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor by forming their own Emergency Defense Council, desiring, as they put it, “to express our loyalty by deeds not words.” They collected $7,300 for Seattle's “Buy a Boeing Bomber” campaign and more than $1,300 for the Red Cross. They bought war bonds and stamps, stitched and knitted clothing to meet various war needs, and wrapped surgical dressings to be sent to Fort Lewis and Fort Lawton.

Such efforts were considered meaningless elsewhere in Seattle, as Camp Harmony makes clear. Post-Intelligencer editors contended that “the real test of the degree of loyalty within the Japanese community … is to be found in the extent to which its members cooperate with the authorities in efforts to locate and round up the enemies of this country” supposedly living among them.

Even the ongoing enlistments of Japanese soldiers in America's armed forces were used to support the idea of incarcerating everyone of Japanese descent. A Seattle Times article, “Seize all West Coast Japs,” argued that since Japanese soldiers fighting for America were willing to sacrifice their lives, Japanese at home should be willing to sacrifice their freedom by volunteering to be imprisoned along with their families. A young Japanese architect who had worked in Seattle before the war expressed the frustrations of many who were later interned: “We're on [America's] side and we want to help. Why won't America let us?”

In mid-April of 1942, residents of Japantown received two weeks' notice that they would be evacuated to a temporary holding pen in Puyallup, an assembly center later dubbed Camp Harmony. It was one of 16 centers the Army ran while permanent internment camps were built throughout the American West. Said Fiset, “Suddenly, just because of your ethnicity, you're behind barbed wire with 7,000 other people. You left everything back in Seattle — your job, your house. Your kids are crying because they had to abandon their pets with nobody to take care of them.” The environmental cues reminding evacuees of their former freedom were particularly cruel. Camp Harmony was located within Puyallup city limits, and so, Fiset said, “standing at the Camp Harmony fence, you looked out at people living their normal lives, just as you had lived your own life a few weeks before. It stuns the imagination.”

Yet Fiset the objective historian has written Camp Harmony dispassionately. There is no need for him to underscore the story’s many ironies, such as the Orwellian nickname of the camp or the many times when government and military authorities were frustrated by the outcomes of their own decisions.

Early on it was believed that moving whole communities intact would foster an atmosphere of calm and possibly even boost morale, so the entire population of Japantown was evacuated at once. But large evacuations required a degree of cooperation from Japanese leaders, which later led to scapegoating and dissension among other members of the community, and the sudden wholesale incarceration of Puget Sound's Japanese farmers and agricultural workers made wartime food shortages worse for all Americans in the region.

Internment procedures were chilling in their efficiency. Each Japanese family received tags with an identification number that all had to wear and affix to their luggage. Japanese living on Bainbridge Island were quietly evacuated first, to California, in efforts to protect the channel leading to the naval shipyards in Bremerton. In order to make room for 8,000 individuals at Camp Harmony, the barracks were designed to allow each person precisely 50 square feet of space. Kitchen space was restricted to camp mess halls that fed 500 individuals at a time, eliminating the ritually important family meals that had held parents and children together. Fearing subversion, authorities isolated community leaders who led too actively and too well, and sent them to separate camps. Civilian Exclusion Orders deliberately lumped Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens together in the phrase “aliens and non-aliens” to mask the violation of the citizens' civil rights.

On a good day Fiset can imagine that Seattle’s citizens might be more willing, now, to band together in wartime and defend fellow citizens from injustices sparked by racial or ethnic differences. “Shortly after 9/11,” he recalled, “a group of neighbors formed a ring around the mosque on 15th Northeast to protect it from people who were coming to wreck it, remember?” Despite his pessimism about public leaders, this historian has moments of faith in ordinary people.


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