A HISTORY TO INFLUENCE THE FUTURE
by Kirby Lindsay
This column originally appeared in the North Seattle Herald-Outlook, and its associated newspapers, on July 1, 2009.
We all have our stories, often clichéd, about high school graduation. It is to be hoped the ones told by Teru Oka Okawa and Billie Riddoch McLaughlin never get repeated.
The two women attended Broadway High School together. Yet McLaughlin attended her formal graduation ceremony, in 1942, with much of her class missing. About 150 students, including Okawa, stood in the pouring rain at a make-up graduation ceremony held at the Puyallup fairground grandstand, while they and their families were imprisoned there in hastily built barracks.
That spring McLaughlin had seen notices posted on telephone poles calling for the evacuation of all people of Japanese descent from the west coast, but “we didn’t really believe it, that they would take American citizens.”
Instead, McLaughlin arrived at school one day to find 30% of the student body – friends including Okawa – had vanished, and the school administration absolutely silent. McLaughlin has counted and in her 1942 yearbook, “57 kids signed from behind barbed wire.”
Now in their eighties, the two women speak vividly of that time. Okawa recalled, at age 16, packing whatever she could carry of her clothes and belongings. She reported, as required, with her three older brothers and their parents to the bus that took them to a temporary relocation camp in Puyallup (for five months) and then by train to Camp Minidoka in Idaho.
Okawa described filling her mattress with straw along with her brothers, and lining beds up along the wall. For Okawa the lack of privacy in the barracks was the worst part. “We couldn’t talk too loud,” she recalled, smiling. She remembered the hot summer and cold winter, and the empty guard towers. At first soldiers patrolled over them, but eventually they went off to fight the war. After all, Okawa laughingly observed, “where could you go out in the desert?”
Okawa hated the inactivity of camp. She valued greatly the visitors that came while they stayed in Puyallup. “It was nice for a change to see someone from outside the camp,” Okawa repeated often.
McLaughlin, and other friends from Broadway, visited and brought packages. They delivered items otherwise unavailable behind the barbed wire including fresh fruit and “female necessities.”
As McLaughlin reported, “we tried to get a ride up in a car.” Otherwise the trip required a bus from Capitol Hill to the downtown bus station to Puyallup. That bus made a turnaround just past the camp, and “we had to hurry to get the bus back, or wait hours,” McLaughlin recalled.
To expedite the visit, the teens developed techniques. The guards knew them, and their mission, so as they reached the barbed wire they “threw oranges over the fence and shouted, ‘get the kids from Broadway’,” McLaughlin described. “We didn’t care who got the bag of supplies,” McLaughlin admitted.
One day McLaughlin ran along the barbed wire, tossing oranges and shouting when she heard “Halt! Halt!” She turned, saw a soldier running at her, his rifle and bayonet extended, and she ran.
Eventually she was caught, detained briefly and later chastened at school by administrators that she thought, as a teen and now, should have known better. Much later McLaughlin learned from Okawa camp administrators had changed the soldiers guarding the camp when they perceived a camaraderie developing between guards and prisoners.
A Happier Ending
That Okawa can smile and laugh about her interment by her government seems hard to believe. Okawa admitted she can smile because her story ended better than most. Yes, her folks lost their business (a dye works), their home and possessions, but her oldest brother, Keith Oka, arranged a job as a commercial artist in Spokane (through his former boss in Seattle).
According to Okawa, they could leave Minidoka when an employer or someone signed them out, but only if they stayed east of the Cascades. They needed someone to vouch that they were good citizens and, although they lost everything in the forced relocation, a promise they would not become a financial burden on the government.
With her older brother employed, Okawa and her family left Minidoka after only 9 months in camp. The Quakers helped many interred, “they got us jobs and an okay from the government,” Okawa observed, but “some people spent four years in camp.”
Change In Plans
Okawa saw absurdity in the evacuation. “What were the folks going to do?” she asked. She never understood, as she looked at her parents and the other adults at the camp, what kind of threat they posed. As Okawa described, “they were all too busy trying to raise a family and make a living.”
“The folks came here so young that they felt American,” Okawa explained. She grew up as an American, and she believes that is one reason she can smile. “The people in the Japanese community took it harder,” she admitted somberly.
Okawa does not recall her parents speaking with anger or bitterness about their forced evacuation. “The folks lost the most,” Okawa admitted, but they made the best of the situation. “They figured it was too bad,” but in 1945 they returned to Seattle, opened another business and rebuilt their lives. As Okawa ultimately observed, “in the war, plans got changed.”
To learn our past, and influence our future, we need to know it. McLaughling co-chairs the Broadway High School Archives, which contains much information about the interred students. Visit the archives at Broadway Performance Hall at 1701 Broadway, Room 301, or call 206/523-8179. For more specific information on this history, check out www.minidoka.org or www.densho.org
©2010 Kirby Lindsay. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.