Mary Matsuda Gruenewald was 17 when she and her family were forced to leave their 10-acre strawberry farm on Vashon Island where she grew up.
The date was May 16, 1942. The family of four knew the evacuation was coming, but had no clue where they would be taken.
Each family member had two suitcases for clothing and essential belongings. Her mother — a Japanese native like her husband — filled one suitcase with dishes and cookware.
Gruenewald, now 92 and living in Seattle, remembers tears streaming down her face as she looked back at the family home — her dog and cat on the porch — and wondered whether she would ever return.
Armed soldiers escorted the evacuees as they boarded military trucks and ferries en route to a hot and crowded train with the windows painted over.
The family was sent to the Pinedale and Tule Lake camps in California before ending up at Minidoka camp in Idaho.
From the Vashon Island docks, a group of white people shouted obscenities and racial epithets at the evacuees.
“I realized then how much as a people we were hated,” Gruenewald, who was born in the United States, said in an interview last week. “It was a real scary time.”
In one of her suitcases, she hid a small radio that ended up becoming a priceless luxury inside the bare-bones barracks.
“That radio was the one thing that really helped us keep track of what was going on and what was being anticipated,” she said. “We turned it on really soft so nobody else could hear.”
Even inside the camps, evacuees were divided politically. Gruenewald said there was conflict between many of the pro-Japan evacuees from California and the “milder and more considerate” evacuees from the Pacific Northwest.
These differences led to fighting inside the camps — and eventually outside the camps as well.
In particular, adult evacuees were given a “loyalty questionnaire” with two key questions: Would the individual serve in the American armed forces and would the person swear allegiance to the United States while renouncing allegiance to Japan.
Gruenewald’s family answered “yes,” which led to her joining the Cadet Nurse Corps and working in an Iowa hospital while her brother, Yoneichi, ended up joining the Army and serving in Italy.
Their parents remained at the Minidoka camp until September 1945. When the family returned home to their farm, Yoneichi took over and grew strawberries for nearly four decades.
Those who answered “no” on the questionnaire were categorized as “disloyal” and interned at Tule Lake. The questionnaire was polarizing among Japanese Americans — a divide that still exists among some residents, she said.
When comparing her experience to today’s political climate related to the U.S. presidential election, Gruenewald believes human relationships have the power to overcome such differences.
“There are things that transcend loyalties that are created artificially,” she said.
Gruenewald wrote a book, “Looking Like the Enemy,” about her experience. She said she has made amends with not just with evacuees who said no on the loyalty questionnaire, but also with her country.
And despite the despair and emotions that occupied much of Gruenewald’s life, the U.S. government’s eventual apology and compensation for evacuees were welcome gestures.
“I was grateful the nation could be big enough to say, ‘We made a mistake,’ ” she said. “That was the thing that really healed my heart.”