It took more than 70 years for Cho Shimizu to return to the Puyallup fairgrounds.
Growing up, his mother couldn’t take him — the memories were too much.
“My mother never did want to go to the fairgrounds because the smell of the cow manure and things like that really ate into her,” said Shimizu, now 81 and living in Puyallup.
Shimizu’s mother, along with Shimizu and his 11 family members, were some of the 7,500 Japanese people held at the American internment camp known as the Puyallup Assembly Center — nicknamed Camp Harmony — in 1942.
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The Puyallup Assembly Center was the only Japanese internment camp in Washington state, held at the Puyallup fairgrounds, now known as the Washington State Fairgrounds.
Shimizu and Elsie Taniguchi, 82, are members of the Puyallup Valley Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and were held at the camp in their youth. They spoke about their experiences at a South Hill Historical Society meeting on Tuesday.
They were joined by chapter president Eileen Yamada Lamphere, whose mother was held at the center. Lamphere said it’s important for Shimizu and Taniguchi’s stories to be heard by young people.
“It’s kind of up to (children) now, to carry this story forward and make sure that no other community member is discriminated against or looked upon as the enemy,” she said.
Life before camp
The Puyallup Assembly Center was started after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing Japanese relocation on the West Coast in February 1942.
“The Japanese families in the whole Pacific, greater Puget Sound area were unprepared for this particular declaration,” Lamphere said. “There had been a period of hysteria, some suspicion of Japanese people, but the executive order was truly unexpected because it gave the military the authority to remove any person of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens.”
At the time, Shimizu and Taniguchi were living on farms in the Puyallup and Fife areas. Japanese farms sold a majority of their produce to the Pike Place Market in Seattle.
“In the Fife-Puyallup area there were some successful berry farms,” Lamphere said. “That’s one thing that the Japanese knew, was how to grow berries. They did that in Japan, they brought the knowledge back, and it still remains a successful business.”
The executive order halted their work. The Japanese people were given 72 hours to settle their affairs and sell or give away anything they couldn’t carry with them to camp.
Taniguchi, now a Normandy Park resident, remembered coming home from Fife Elementary School and her mother telling her they had to leave in 72 hours. Taniguchi told her mother she would bring her favorite doll and blanket and her new kitten named Fluffy.
“Mother said, ‘I don’t think they’re going to allow any animals at the Puyallup fairgrounds.’ I said, ‘Who’s going to take care of it?’ And my mother promised she’d buy enough food for the kitten to be fed. She did, thinking it was just going to be a few weeks and we’d be back,” Taniguchi said. “I didn’t see the kitten for three and a half years and never saw it again. So as a child, that was really heartbreaking.”
Families had to bring their own bed sheets and eating utensils — but no knives or chopsticks, which could be seen as weapons.
“My mother used old bedsheets to stock up all the clothes, and we’d carry it to the fairgrounds,” Shimizu said. “It was just basically the very valuables.”
Life at camp
The Puyallup Assembly Center was hastily built in March 1942, with earliest Japanese residents arriving April 27.
The main part of the camp was located where the grandstands currently stand at the Puyallup fairgrounds. Near the roller coaster was the hospital and administration buildings. The Japanese live in barracks on what are now known as the Red, Gold and Blue parking lots.
The spring of 1942 was cold, wet and muddy. It was hard to dry clothes after they were washed.
To use the bathroom or take showers, residents had to leave their rooms. To access different parts of the camp, such as the hospital, residents had to obtain signed papers and were personally escorted by armed soldiers everywhere they went.
“Supposedly, they were supposed to be protecting us,” Taniguchi said. “In reality, they were there to stop us from escaping.”
Families who had lived on farms weren’t getting the fresh vegetables and fruits they were used to eating. They were given canned foods, like sardines.
“The food itself was pretty bad at the beginning, and they realized that it wasn’t fit for human beings to eat,” Shimizu said. “We just weren’t used to that type of food, so for a while there, we were just all getting sick.”
Each family unit had a stove, cots, a single light bulb and windows without curtains. The mattresses were thin, so they stuffed them with straw, unused by the horses and cows. Some units hadn’t been finished, leaving a two-foot gap near the ceiling. Horse stalls were converted into rooms for bachelors and couples. For Shimizu’s 12-person family, it was a tight fit.
“We had to find beds to stack on top of the other beds to make it bunk beds,” Shimizu said. “Eventually the Health Department realized there were rules about how many people could live in a certain area, so they had to give us another room to stay in.”
Separated from one another, family structures crumbled.
“We were used to eating as a family,” Taniguchi said. “Once you destroy that family structure, it’s really hard to come back to when we (left camp) three and a half years later.”
After the war ended and the Japanese were released from camp, Taniguchi’s family returned home. With her father working in Boise as a mechanic, they were able to pay to keep their farm.
Others weren’t so lucky.
“We didn’t have a home to go back to, and when we left the Puyallup Assembly we left all our stuff behind and we never saw it after that,” Shimizu said. “It was kind of sad because we had to really start all over again and we really didn’t have a place to go after the war was over.”
Both Taniguchi and Shimizu remained in the Washington area. Both of them returned to the Puyallup fairgrounds last year for the 75th remembrance of the Puyallup Assembly Center, Shimizu for the first time with his daughter.
“For many of them, it was a sad awakening for them because they hadn’t been back,” Lamphere said. “Because of their age, many of them were brought to the remembrance by sons, daughters, grandchildren and that was the first time they ever told them that they had lived on the fairgrounds.”
The survivors want to keep their stories alive. The Puyallup Valley Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League recently created a movie called “The Silent Fair” that documents the chapter in history. Lamphere said she’s working to get curriculum into local schools.
“We always challenge our kids to acknowledge the injustice that you see, understand it and do something to right it,” she said.