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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #50 (December 13, 2005), page 11.
Internment camp survivor breaks her silence
Looking Like the Enemy:
My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps
By Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, Family #19788
NewSage Press, 2005
Paperback, 227 pages, $13.95
By Dave Johnson
Earlier this year Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, who celebrated her 80th birthday and the publication of a memoir she began to write in her 70s because she decided she was no longer willing to stay within what she calls "the self-imposed barbed-wire fences built around my experiences in the camps."
In Looking Like the Enemy, Gruenewald breaks her silence and shares a personal account of the frightening, grueling years during World War II when her family was wrenched from its idyllic berry farm on Vashon Island, Wash. and interned along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans in concentration camps in the desolate reaches of the western and Rocky Mountain states.
It is a heartbreaking tale of a girl robbed of her tender teenage years, a candid recollection of the struggles internees faced and overcame, a searing indictment of the U.S. government for using war-driven paranoia as an excuse to imprison U.S. citizens, and a poignant remembrance of her Mama-san, Papa-san, and older brother, Yoneichi, during that hellish era.
The story begins in 1927 when Heisuke and Mitsuno Matsuda leased a small berry farm on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle and Tacoma. It was a tranquil, rural existence for this Japanese-American family until December 7, 1941.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, events were set in motion that would tear this life apart. Afraid that Papa-san would be arrested by the FBI as a "spy," the family burned all the books, dolls, and other mementos and treasures linking them to Japan. But it turned out to be a useless tactic.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, directing the Secretary of War to begin an evacuation of Japanese residents from the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts.
Mary-san recalls that confusing, terrifying dislocation when they were herded into a ferry and marched to the docks to board a train that led to an unknown location. She remembers angry men in dirty coveralls holding shotguns, waving their fists, and yelling, "Get outta of here, you God damn Japs." Perhaps one of the most chilling details in her account, also mentioned by others in their memories of the internment, were the train windows "smoked" to block out the view and to keep outsiders from viewing the internees.
After three days, the Matsudas reached Pinedale Assembly Center, eight miles north of Fresno, California. One of 15 centers along the Pacific Coast, it was a hastily built grid of small barracks, mess halls, canteens, and latrines. It is a brutal irony that their new home was essentially a military base for innocent victims of the conflict raging in Asia and Europe.
Next, the family was shipped to Tule Lake in northern California, 26 miles south of Klamath Falls. Here, they spent most of their internment days, finding work, meeting friends, holding each other together through these rugged times and, for Mary and Yoneichi, attending school. She writes that it was difficult to stand in front of the American flag every morning and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
"I stumbled over the words, ‘with liberty and justice for all.’"
Another pledge soon tore the camp apart. As part of an attempt to elicit volunteers to join the army and weed out dissidents, the feds required all internees to sign a questionnaire that asked if they would serve in the military and if they swore unqualified allegiance. It was soon known as the "yes-yes" questionnaire, and young men who rebelled against the oath were called the "no-no" boys.
Gruenewald relates how she and her family debated the pros and cons of how to sign the questionnaire. She then continues her autobiography as it takes her out of the camp and into nursing school. Her brother joins the army and serves valiantly in Europe. Her parents are moved to Minidoka Camp in Idaho and, finally, after the end of the war, they are reunited on Vashon Island to rebuild their shattered lives.
The author had a long career as a nurse, married, had children, and said a sad goodbye to her mother, father, and brother. On New Year’s Day, 2005, Gruenewald’s three grown children examined three jars of spiral and clam shells that she and her mother had collected at Tule Lake, once an inlet of the Pacific. After counting all the shells in the jars, her son announced that there were nearly 120,000. One white, luminous emblem for every American held captive by America.
A registered nurse for over 25 years, Gruenewald established the Consulting Nurse Service within the Group Health Cooperative in 1971, which became a national model for health-care providers. In 2002, she was a delegate representing seniors on behalf of Medicare Plus Choice. She has also written articles on the internment for major newspapers and delivered radio commentaries for NPR station KPLU. And Gruenewald was a consultant to the National Park Service during the establishment of Minidoka Internment Camp as a National Monument. She received an Asian American Living Pioneer Award in 2003.