Camp Harmony (Puyallup Assembly Center), 1942

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 10/07/2008
  • Essay 8748

The Puyallup Assembly Center, better known by the euphemism Camp Harmony, a name coined by an Army public-relations officer during construction in 1942, was situated at the Western Washington fairgrounds in the heart of Puyallup, located in Pierce County. 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). A key figure in these events was James Sakamoto (1903-1955), a newspaper publisher and a founder of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).

Forced Exile

On March 30, 1942, 257 Nikkei residents of Bainbridge Island, Washington, walked onto a cross-sound ferry under military guard, then boarded a train in Seattle bound for the Manzanar Reception Center in California’s Owens Valley, 200 miles east of Los Angeles. This transport began the forced exile of 92,000 Japanese Americans and their immigrant elders directly from their homes in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona into temporary barbed-wire facilities known as “assembly centers.”  There they remained for approximately 100 days until their transfer to permanent “relocation centers” located in remote regions of the American West and Arkansas.

The Army’s task of evicting and housing 92,000 men, women, and children was daunting.  In early March 1942, planners from the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), headquartered in San Francisco, appropriated 15 operational public facilities at fairground, racetrack, and livestock pavilion sites, each providing sufficient acreage and infrastructure necessary to assemble the centers quickly.  Located near city limits with significant Nikkei populations, 12 new sites were developed in California and one each in Arizona, Oregon, and Washington.  Built for temporary occupancy, the centers offered few amenities and meager social services.  Inmates would eat in mess halls and sleep in noisy barracks while enjoying little privacy throughout their captivity.

The Puyallup Assembly Center, better known as the euphemism Camp Harmony, a name coined by an Army public-relations officer during construction, was situated at the Western Washington fairgrounds in the heart of Puyallup.  The center also included three adjoining parking lots, thus creating four separate areas cut off from one another by city streets.  Although this arrangement complicated the work of administrators charged with inter-area movements, it was the only way 7,500 people from Seattle and the rural areas surrounding Tacoma could be warehoused at a location in the state.

Sakamoto's Role

The Army had help from leaders in the Seattle Nikkei community in bringing the forced eviction to fruition.  Shortly after Pearl Harbor, 39-year old Jimmie Sakamoto, editor of the all-English-language Japanese American Courier and an outspoken personality known both within and without the Japanese community, organized friends and other trusted Nisei to respond to the national emergency and growing negative attitudes toward the Japanese community. 

Later, in April 1942 as the forced exile approached, Army planners requested that Sakamoto’s Emergency Defense Council help with the impending evacuation and form an administrative body at the Puyallup Assembly Center to help with day-to-day activities and serve as an interface between the inmates and administration. 

Sakamoto’s undemocratic process of hand-picking his associates, combined with the perception within the Japanese community that he and his group were accommodationists, created unresolved tensions with fellow inmates and led to unfortunate consequences during the incarceration experience at Camp Harmony.

Preparing for Exile

As the Army’s forced evacuation from the Puget Sound region approached, Nikkei communities in the area prepared for their exile.  Advertisements appeared in Seattle and Tacoma area newspapers, and readers soon learned there were bargains to be had:

  • JAPANESE evacuation necessitates immediate sale 55-room brick hotel.  Best linens, furnishings: steam heat, steady tenants.
  • 1936 DESOTO sedan. Attached overdrive, gas-saver transmission; four new tires. Evacuation forces sale.

Problems for Nikkei farm operators in the Kent valley, the White River Valley, and the Puyallup River Valley, and elsewhere often proved complex.  Long-term leases had to be transferred, expensive farm machinery disposed of or stored by sympathetic neighbors.  Until the last minute, the government pressured growers to plant for the 1942 season, equating continued production to a measure of national loyalty: Soon crop neglect or damage was elevated to an act of sabotage.

The eviction operation went smoothly in part because of civil control stations the Wartime Civil Control Administration set up in community halls, school gymnasiums, and other public places near Nikkei centers.  Six stations were set up throughout Seattle’s central area, with a seventh in Puyallup.  There government personnel registered families, provided pre-induction medical screenings, and helped arrange for storage or sale of properties.  Five-digit identification numbers assigned there relegated family units to anonymity: the Itois of Seattle -- family 10710; the Unos -- family 10936.

On each appointed evacuation day, families arrived at pre-arranged gathering points dragging their personal belongings.  The gathering area at 8th Avenue and Lane Street near the heart of Seattle’s Japantown was located in the city’s red-light district.  Shosuke Sasaki remembered baggage lining both sides of the street and Nikkei standing in a chilling spring drizzle awaiting the order to board buses.  Among them his sister and her two infant children. The door of a brothel opened, and the madam invited the three into her parlor to wait out the rain, an act of kindness recalled with emotion a half century later.

Shock and Crowding

New Camp Harmony arrivals faced strangers in unaccustomed close quarters, sharing communal realities of mess halls, latrines, shower rooms, and the barracks, themselves.  Late at night was no exception, for open spaces between walls and ceilings amplified sounds that ricocheted through the entire darkened barrack.  Insomniacs endured snoring, coughing, whispering, arguing, crying, pacing, and sounds of lovemaking. 

As rain fell on the tarpaper roofs at Puyallup during the drenching 1942 Pacific Northwest spring, water trickled down low angled slopes through cracks and onto blankets, clothes, and faces.  Such misery informed the early experience of the King and Pierce county Nikkei as they endured the shock of their sudden loss of freedom. 

Nevertheless, Camp Harmony inmates built a semblance of community.  Sakamoto’s cadre of Nisei (American-born to Japanese immigrants) volunteers, coordinating their activities with the center manager’s instructions, organized work, recreational, and educational activities.  Many went to work, most to the mess halls, with others employing specialized skills as clerks, organizers, and medical aides. Nisei teachers and volunteers guided young charges through “vacation school,” while other volunteers set up a rotating inter-area library with books donated by the Seattle Public Library.  Workers’ payroll ranged from $8 per month for unskilled labor to $16 for professionals. In 2008 dollars, overworked physicians earned a meager $212 per month.

Other workers organized recreational activities to help stave off boredom and boost morale: boxing, kendo, sumo, basketball, horseshoe pitching.  Softball leagues provoked instant inter-area rivalries reminiscent of the region’s popular Courier Leagues that dominated the prewar years.  Women formed knitting, sewing, and crochet groups, and older men set up go and shogi tournaments.  Dance-crazy young people headed for the recreation hall to swing to the recorded sounds of Glen Miller. 

Getting Through the Day

Yet for most people, absent distractions provided by employment and volunteerism, time passed slowly.  Tamako Inouye remembered the summer boredom she and friends experienced at the Camp Harmony:

"There was this space between the barracks.  When it was really hot everybody would go to one side of this lane, lean against the building, and just sit there.  And later on in the day when the sun changed its course we’d go to the other side" (Inouye interview). 

As helpful as Sakamoto and his “Japanese Administration” were in helping inmates occupy their time and maintain morale, the group’s heavy-handedness in carrying out center regulations, such as a ban on Japanese language books and music and setting up a self-government antagonized the inmates and alarmed administrators.  As a result, mid-way through the ordeal at Camp Harmony, the Wartime Civil Control Administration banished members of Sakamoto’s group to other centers and reduced the group’s status to an advisory council stripped of power.  Worse, self-government was banished at all the assembly centers.

For the most part, getting through the day took on greater importance than self governance.  Although physically isolated from their former communities, Camp Harmony inmates accessed news and world events through AM band radio broadcasts and mail subscriptions to English language newspapers.  In addition, the center produced a mimeographed newsletter known as the Camp Harmony-Newsletter published by Nikkei editorial and production staff.  All issues were distributed free.  The center manager communicated his regulations and directives, while editor Dick Takeuchi reported center-wide happenings, such as births and deaths, ball scores, and Sunday church schedules.  Content was censored, frustrating Takeuchi and his colleagues everywhere.  The editor of the Manzanar Free Press noted privately that only the subscription fee for his publication was free.

With no access to telephone or freedom to move about, letter writing provided the sole means of communication with the outside world.  Although the newsletter was heavily censored, first-class mail passed freely.  The Puyallup city post office provided civil service employees to sell stamps, money orders, and handle registered mail, while inmates were put on the WCCA payroll at $8 per month to sort incoming mail and provide “home” delivery to the barracks.

Health and Sanitation

Early incompetence by Army planners led to occupancy of the assembly centers before installation of refrigeration and other safe food storage equipment.  Initially, inmates ate army rations designed for troops in the field.  Fortunately short lived, the canned meat, vegetable, and fruit diet, lacking in ethnic sensitivity, soon gave way to fresh and more palatable fare.  However, healthful sanitary conditions evolved more slowly, resulting in public health threats everywhere.

Outbreaks of diarrhea plagued most assembly centers because of inexperienced workers and improper oversight.  In early May, spoiled Vienna sausages caused a severe flare-up among the Puyallup inmates.  Symptoms emerged after curfew, and the commotion led to near panic by sentries in the guard towers.  Flashlights helping light the way, with all public stalls occupied pinpoints of light moved erratically in the darkness.  Fearing an insurrection, sentries manned the spotlights and called for reinforcements.  But with order soon restored, tragedy was averted, and the epidemic passed quickly.  Given crowded and unsanitary conditions at most assembly centers, that more frequent, if not serious, outbreaks of gastroenteritis did not take place is surprising.

Nikkei doctors, nurses, dentists, and pharmacists, themselves inmates, provided most of the health care at Camp Harmony.  Even though the center’s temporary occupancy relegated its medical facilities to infirmary status, Army statisticians recorded for the Puyallup Assembly Center a total of 37 births, 11 deaths, and, in the month of August alone, seven operating room surgeries and 2,260 outpatient treatments. 

Leaving Early

A few fortunate inmates succeeded in leaving Camp Harmony early. As the nation’s farm labor crisis deepened with draft-age workers entering military service or taking on higher paying jobs in the war industry, sugar processors turned to the assembly centers as an untapped labor source.  Recruitment at the Portland and Puyallup Assembly Centers began in mid-May, and soon 72 volunteers from Camp Harmony departed for eastern Oregon and Montana.  By the time the assembly center period ended, nearly 1,600 strong-backed volunteers from half a dozen centers worked the sugar beet fields of the American West.  By November Nikkei farm hands, most of them former Camp Harmony inmates, harvested 25 percent of Idaho’s sugar beet crop, with the state’s farmers expressing their gratitude.  

Nisei college students, their educations at the University of Washington abruptly suspended, had slimmer opportunities to leave the center.  Although the next three years would see more than 4,000 students enter inland colleges and universities, including several hundred from the University of Washington, the student relocation program began modestly in the assembly centers with 360 transfers and just three from Camp Harmony.  The Army opposed student relocation on national security grounds and imposed sufficient restrictions, permitting only a few colleges and universities to participate.  Students had to document their financial resources and undergo cumbersome FBI intelligence checks.  

Freshman Economics major Kenji Okuda had his acceptance letter from Oberlin College in hand for the 1942 fall term.  But even with a statement of his financial resources (a $3,000 trust fund) and multiple testimonies from Caucasian friends attesting to his loyalty, he waited in vain for a travel clearance from San Francisco.  His slot was given to another student, thus delaying his education until the following spring. Most Nisei former UW students prepared their college applications while at the Minidoka Relocation Center.

Moving to Prison Camps

Transfer out of the assembly centers and into the relocation centers began in June 1942 and continued through October.  The first movement to Minidoka occurred on August 9th when 213 volunteers left Camp Harmony to prepare the center for the new arrivals scheduled to arrive in trainloads units of 500 a day.  Wartime demands to move troops on the nation’s rail lines forced the Wartime Civilian Control Administration to use re-commissioned passenger cars, hulks that generated universal complaints from Nikkei passengers and officials, and added to the humiliation of incarceration. Dirty, with inadequate water pressure, faltering air conditioning, and sealed windows preventing air circulation, only the passing landscape provided temporary diversion from the misery.  The transfer to Minidoka required 21 specially requisitioned trains. 

On November 1, 1942, six days after the final transfer of inmates from Santa Anita Assembly Center to the Manzanar Relocation Center, the Army under prior agreement with the War Relocation Authority turned over jurisdiction of 111,000 Japanese Americans.  The assembly center period then came to a close.

Jimmie Sakamoto, who had created such a disruption at Camp Harmony, accompanied his fellow inmates to Minidoka, but never rose to a leadership position.  Alerted ahead of time, administrators at Minidoka barred him from rising above the rank of a block manager.

One silver lining to the difficult assembly center period may be that life in these holding pens prepared inmates for the several years of incarceration that lay ahead.  Sharon (Tanagi) Aburano shared with the author an insight from her own experience:

"I think that was the best adjustment really the Army could give us, to herd us all together to get us used to queuing up in lines and being a bit more patient and learning to get along because we were in such tight quarters.  I think without them knowing, it was the greatest thing to do.  When we went to Minidoka the trauma wasn’t there.”

Sources: Louis Fiset, Camp Harmony: Seattle’s Japanese Americans and the Puyallup Assembly Center (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming 2009); Ads appearing in the classified advertising sections of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times, March 1 through April 30, 1942; Audiotaped interviews, Louis Fiset with Sharon (Tanagi) Aburano, Shosuke Sasaki, Tamako (Inouye) Tokuda, and Kenji Okuda, tapes in possession of Louis Fiset, Seattle; U.S. War Department, Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1943); Roger Daniels, The Decision To Relocate the Japanese Americans (New York: J. P. Lippincott Company, 1975). 

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You