Suma Yagi, a great aunt of an Explorer West student, joined Ben Wheeler’s 7th grade American History classes on March 26 to read her poetry and speak of her experiences during the WWII internment of Japanese Americans.
Suma was introduced by her nephew and shared her story through a poem/essay that began with her childhood in the Central District neighborhood of Seattle.
Her parents and siblings had all been born and raised in the United States and considered themselves “bubbles in the melting pot” of America. She reminisced about the times she played the role of a Pilgrim in class plays wearing costumes hand sewed by her mother. Suma had also grown up memorizing sections of the United States Declaration of Independence, such as “all men are created equal,” and painstakingly learning how to properly salute the flag.
When Suma was 14 and a freshman at Garfield High School, war broke out with Japan and President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment with Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This order gave the military the power to exclude people of Japanese ancestry from the entire Pacific coast and put them in internment camps. Suma’s family was given 8 days to pack up and disperse of all of their belongs except what could be fit in a couple of trucks or suitcases. She remembered her family selling their car to someone for $20. They left cherished family photos, pets, and toys behind. Ironically, Suma’s family was transported initially to a camp that was housed on the grounds of the Puyallup Fair where Suma had enjoyed cotton candy and the rides many times in the past. This newly named, “Camp Harmony,” was a changed place with barbed wire and armed guards keeping the 700 people imprisoned.
After four months of living in an 18 by 20 foot room called “Barrack 2B,” Suma’s family was transferred via train and bus to Minidoka in Idaho where they faced internment with 10,000 other people for another three years. Once again, her family was forced to share a tiny room with barely enough room for six beds and a potbelly stove that they heated with coal. Suma shared that it was very difficult as a teenager to adjust to the lack of privacy of group living where she had to use communal bathrooms and often had little space between strangers. There were schools for the children but the supplies and teaching were very inadequate and the students fell way behind in their studies. The food was also very basic and was mostly comprised of canned Vienna sausages. Over time, the interned people found ways to grow their own gardens and finally have some fresh vegetables.
The biggest shock to camp life was when the young Japanese American men were asked to volunteer for military service. Although many were appalled at this request, others thought it was a chance to prove their loyalty. Ultimately, over 300 men, including Suma’s brother, took this chance to wear the US Army uniform and leave the camp. Suma became very sick with asthma due to the extreme weather and dusty conditions at the camp. Because her family had some close friends in Utah who were willing to house them, they were allowed to leave about a year before Minidoka was closed down.
When they finally returned to Seattle, they had to rebuild their lives in an environment of extreme racism. She started back at Garfield High School as a senior and moved on with her life. It was very common for families to never mention their time spent in internment camps. Only when Suma was in her sixties and taking a writing class, did she start to capture and share these stories.
Students Share Questions
Suma finished each classroom session by answering a series of questions. The Explorer West students had been studying WWII and had completed some background reading on the internment. A few of the questions that the students had prepared for her visit:
- What were your favorite things to do at the camp?
- How did you get news of what was going on in the outside when you were in camp?
- Did you make friends in camp?
- Were there any riots or people trying to escape from the camps?
- Who do you consider great leaders in American History?
Thank you to Suma
The Explorer West community respectfully thanks Suma for so graciously sharing her living history with the 7th grade students. Her stories were even more impactful since the students are about the same age that Suma was at the time of the internment camps and many live in neighboring communities.