Larry LaRue: Film highlights Japanese-Americans’ plight during WWII

Staff WriterOctober 14, 2013 

Elsie Taniguchi was part of the Japanese community that made up a third of Fife’s population in 1942, when she and her family were taken from their farm to a detention center at the Puyallup Fairgrounds.

There, surrounded by barbed wire fences and towers with armed guards, 5-year-old Elsie lived for three months, with most of her family, in a horse stall.

“That isn’t Japanese-American history, it’s American history,” said Daniel Russ, a Tacoma attorney and Air Force lieutenant colonel of Japanese-American heritage. That chapter of history went beyond putting all Japanese-Americans in internment camps in 1942. By 1944, young men who resisted the draft on the grounds that they and their families had been declared “enemy aliens” were being sentenced to prison.

On Thursday evening, the Fife Historical Society and Museum will reopen this World War II story with a film, “Conscience and the Constitution.” The documentary will be followed by a discussion led by a panel including filmmaker Frank Abe — and by Elsie Taniguchi.

The documentary was written and directed by Abe, a Seattle journalist, and focuses on the “no-no boys,” young Japanese men who were asked dozens of questions about their loyalties and answered no to two of them.

While thousands of Japanese soldiers fought for the United States in Europe, thousands more were segregated in prison camps for resisting the draft while they and their families were held in detention.

In one camp, California’s Tule Lake, more than 300 Tacoma-area resisters were imprisoned.

“They weren’t traitors; they were patriots, trying to resist what was going on in America,” Russ said. “There were suicides, broken families. After the war, they were stigmatized even within their own communities.”

And then there were the average Japanese-American families like Elsie’s. At the Puyallup Fairgrounds, dubbed “Camp Harmony” by an Army public relations man, the newly interned were stunned by their circumstances.

Records show 7,390 Japanese-Americans were “processed” through Camp Harmony, where they found communal showers and restrooms, barracks without privacy and the constant presence of armed guards.

Some remember Fife and Puyallup public school coaches visiting the camp. Unable to enter, they lobbed basketballs and other sports equipment over the barbed wire fences.

Life there went on. Army statisticians recorded 37 births and 11 deaths at Camp Harmony in August 1942.

Along with two younger brothers and her mother and her grandparents, Elsie was sent from Puyallup to the Minidoka relocation center near Twin Falls, Idaho, that year. Her dad was sent to work in Boise.

She remained at Minidoka until 1945.

“At times, my mother would be allowed to visit my father in Boise, and we would stay with my grandmother,” she said. “My mother never said anything negative about our Caucasian-American neighbors and friends.

“So many families lost their homes, their businesses, their farms while they were interned.”

Elsie’s family kept their farm back in Pierce County, with help.

“Our neighbors kept the farm in our name by selling a piece of our farm equipment each year to pay the taxes,” she said. “Families here in Fife stepped forward when doing so could hurt them.”

Fife History Museum managing director Molly Wilmoth put together this week’s panel discussion. She hopes the turnout will include local high school history students.

“We have displays from the war front and the home front,” she said. “This is the opportunity to learn about that chapter in Fife’s history, and talk to people like Elsie, who lived it.”

if you go

What: “Conscience and the Constitution,” a documentary film followed by panel discussion.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Dacca building next to Fife History Museum, 2820 54th Ave. E, Fife.

Admission: Free.

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638

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