Saturday, November 02, 2013

WWII: Assembly Center at Puyallup

While innocently browsing vintage postcards on eBay, Ol' Myrt here discovered the idyllic Puyallup, Washington she knew as a young girl visiting Grandma Myrtle in the late 1950s was the site of an "assembly center" for up to 8,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. What a difference a decade makes.

While I know of the large population of residents with Japanese ancestors in the Pacific Northwest, and about the forced removal of US citizens to such "camps", I hadn't realized Puyallup figured prominently in this dark history of the state of Washington. I decided to learn more.

Back in November 2006, I reported on my reading of LOOKING LIKE THE ENEMY by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald relating experiences of her Japanese-American family #19788's imprisonment at internment camps during World War II. Mary and her brother Yonechi were born in the US to Japanese immigrant parents who came to the US with the hope of a better life. 

Mary's idyllic childhood on her family's Vashon Island raspberry farm abruptly ends as thousands of innocent Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent in filthy, half broken-down rail cars to live in barbed-wire camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She writes "As a carefree teenager about to be thrown in the chaos and devastation of Word War II, I had no idea how these Japanese values would sustain me and my family and give us strength to endure.", Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History reports "The assembly center was a temporary facility into which Japanese Americans, known as Nikkei, were forced to gather beginning in March 1942, following U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's (1882-1945) Executive Order 9066, which set into motion the expulsion of 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast. The mass expulsion forced some 7,500 people from Seattle and the rural areas around Tacoma into the assembly center, where they remained in crowded conditions until their transfer to permanent "relocation centers" (inland prison camps)."

Camp Harmony (Puyallup Assembly Center), 1942 Essay 8748

Interview with a unidentified Japanese American woman about the Puyallup Assembly Center. Interviewer: Anne O. Freed. Interview date: 17 April 1943. Transcribed at the University of Washington Library site. The Interviewee was described as follows:  "Miss D. is a very mature, responsible individual, probably in her late twenties. She comes from Seattle. Previous to evacuation she was a secretary in the public school system. She was given a good deal of responsibility for Japanese problems in one of the schools. She speaks, reads, and writes the Japanese language quite well and frequently acted as interpreter for the principal." (1)

  • "There were two latrines in Area B. They had automatic flush toilets, 12 in each unit. There were no partitions and the people objected to this. Neither were there any partitions between the showers. Areas A and D did not have enough hot water and the residents had to be given special permission to use Areas B and C showers. In order to prevent athlete's foot, people wore wooded clogs to the showers."
  • "People brought hot plates with them although they were not supposed to. Visitors would bring food to them, but if the sentries discovered this, the food would be confiscated. At first food could be sent through the mail and was not examined. Later this was changed."
  • "Each section of the Assembly Center was fenced off and in this way the people were unable to circulate throughout the Assembly Center. They were confined to their own areas. On special occasions they could obtain permission to visit a friend or relative in another area. The fences were made of barbed wire, and sentries were posted at each entrance. Much resentment was voiced by the residents against this."
The National Park Service hosts an online book titled Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites by J. Burton, M. Farrell, F., Lord and R. Lord. Chapter 16 features additional aerial views of the Puyallup Assembly Center, and the cover of the oddly-named "Souvenier Edition" of the Camp Harmony Newsletter. Seriously?

As we discover tragic stories in our family histories, we feel to honor those who endured. We must tell the stories as objectively as possible, using eyewitness reports and documents created at the time of the events wherever possible. The courage of our ancestors lives on as we share this information with their descendants, and more importantly as we resolve to lead kinder lives, respecting all with whom we have the privilege to meet.

We cannot erase the past, but we can create a healthier, happier future for our children.

(1) Puyallup Assembly Center. IN: Records of the War Relocation Authority, 1942-1946: Field Basic Documentation located at the National Archives, Washington, D.C . Reel 1. Alexandria, Va.: Chadwyck-Healy, Inc., 1991.[Private voluntary interview with Miss D. concerning Puyallup Assembly Center, held on 4/17/1943. Interview by Anne O. Freed. Unless otherwise noted all remarks made by the interviewee.]

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
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  1. Wow! Having spent a fare amount of time at the Puyallup fairgrounds with 4-H projects at the state fair, your posts was quite an attention grabber. We knew this dark chapter of our nation's history occurred in our backyard somewhere. Thank you for the link and resources to learn more.

  2. My Dad grew up here. The last time he saw one of his good friends was at Camp Harmony. He was away at school in Seattle when the Japanese in the area were rounded up.