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Thursday, 25 June 2009

Summer 1942

By Johna Ferguson

Where are they? Who are those strange people living in my friend’s house? Why didn’t my friends say good-by to me?

I asked these questions that summer when we arrived, after school let out, at our beach house at the southern end of Puget Sound, a remote little bay where my uncle raised Olympia oysters.

For years the Imori family had been the managers of those beds and their two youngest children had been my summer playmates. They taught me to swim, to row a boat and to shuck and eat raw oysters. I was 12 that summer. As a child, the small bay seemed so removed from everything, but I was too young to realize the recent ramifications of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I only knew my friends were suddenly gone and I didn’t understand why.

My mother explained to me that President Roosevelt, February 1942, signed Executive Order #9066 which meant all Japanese living on the west coast, whether they were citizens or not, were to be interned at special camps inland, away from the coastline where there might be Japanese subs that they could contact by wireless. I couldn’t imagine the Imori family receiving or sending messages or doing any kind of sabotage, but all the Japanese were treated the same. She said they were practically herded like cattle onto trains and trucks to be transported away with only a suitcase in hand.

How would the elder parents manage - away from the smells and sounds of a salt water bay, away from their wonderful yet strange vegetable garden, away from their work on the oyster beds and their quiet, almost solitary life style?

Two of the children were then students at the University of Washington and they were yanked out of the university to be sent with their parents to some dry, remote, desert area. But first many had to suffer the indignities of living in converted horse stalls at California or Washington race tracks. I visualized them living in over-crowded areas with armed soldiers and barbed wire surrounding them.

I knew the Japanese had bombed our ships and killed thousands of innocent people at Pearl Harbor, but that was war. Suddenly snatching people from their homes without their belongings and with little warning didn’t seem right to me. Oh how I hated the government that summer.

Now 67 years later, I look back on that family. The mother, who spoke no English, lived a somewhat happy life during internment for she was again surrounded by native speakers, but the father died early on, perhaps from a broken spirit?

One of the sons who taught me to swim became a U.S. Navy pilot serving in the European sector. The youngest son, my really close friend, also joined the U.S. army in forces that served in Africa. Their older sister, I heard eventually, helped to successfully fight for legislation that finally forced our government to apologize for its behavior in the treatment of Japanese living in America at the time, plus making the govt. give a token monetary restitution to each family member who was sent to an internment camp.

But this story is only about one family. There must be thousands of stories about others. May these be a constant reminder to our leaders that we must never forget to regard human dignity and rights when we act against any person or race, be it in war or peace.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Dear Johna, Thank you for a poignant reminder. Though I did not have a personal involvement with internment issues, the reference to Puget Sound brought a lump to my throat since I lived there most of my adult life & I do miss it for many reasons.

My college roommate in 1950-51 was one of those people who had been in the internment camp. She hardly mentioned it, out of pain or shame, I'm not sure, but it would be years till I knew much about it. It was a well-hidden shameful part of our country's past.

My hometown was Colorado Springs and the community of Manitou Springs was a tourist town at the foot of Pikes Peak. A Japanese family owned a curio shop there that sold Japanese imports. I loved to go there and buy little paper umbrellas for my dolls. My Aunt Iva worked for them and one day she went to work to find them gone and the store shuttered. It was a long time before I knew that they had been spirited away in the middle of the night. They were sweet gentle people named Knockeye and I have always wondered what happened to them after the war.

That episode is a blot on our history and shows how fear and paranoia can infect a whole country.

Thank you for the window of the past which is incomprehensible for most of us today. Therefore with things as they are it's important to remember so history doesn't repeat itself.


Dorothy from grammology

Thank you for the reminder. We too lived in Seattle and Dad had many Japanese friends in the community who were shipped off. Hard to imagine yet there are Muslims, Asians, Hispanic peoples, and more, who while not in camps have a hard time at timesdue to the intolerance of others.

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