An Unharmonious History Revisited

CAMP HARMONY: SEATTLE’S JAPANESE AMERICANS AND THE PUYALLUP ASSEMBLY CENTER

By Louis Fiset (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 232 pp., $25, paperback)

Many readers are probably familiar with Louis Fiset’s previous works, especially “Imprisoned Apart.” He has produced another important work on a subject long ignored perhaps because of the temporary nature of the “Assembly Center,” an experience lasting on average 100 days. The generic assembly center experience, however, is familiar to many on a visually simplistic level encapsulated in descriptions of inmates being housed in newly whitewashed horse stalls at Santa Anita or Tanforan race tracks reeking of manure.

Whatever the reasons, Fiset has produced a highly accessible, insightful, and historically important piece of work on one in Puyallup (a.k.a. “Camp Harmony”) in the state of Washington. This work will no doubt add to our understanding of the past and perhaps refresh memories long ignored or just relegated into the recesses of the mind where we put things we do not want to remember.

Fiset’s use of Army and traditional archival sources, newspapers, and oral histories provides the reader a much deeper understanding of the planning, thinking, and actions that were undertaken in the years and days before and after Dec. 7, 1941, by both military and civilian authorities. Moreover, Fiset’s clear, fast-paced, story-telling narrative style of weaving historical information with personal stories while avoiding trending academic jargon makes this a pleasure to read.

The first chapter creates the all important historical context of the arrival and claiming a sense of place among a diverse ethnic population of what would ultimately become a community of some 7,000 from the Japanese American community in the Seattle area. The second chapter gives the reader a broad overview of the days following Dec. 7, 1941 from personal memories to the larger machinations of local and national governing bodies.

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the study is his snapshot of what life at “Camp Harmony” was like. In addition to highlighting the poor and inadequate medical and heath care system and the disease that were common, Fiset offers insights of how these people with limited choices responded. He writes: “Restrictions… resulted in a new community norm of hoarding and stealing from government scarce lumber scraps and nails…. Rebellious acts manifested in breaking administrative rules…gambling….” “… led some Nisei leaders to exercise old or discover new ways to intimidate others, show favoritism, and curry favor with center administrators.” While these extremes did moderate as conditions improved at Puyallup Assembly Center the irony of the name “Camp Harmony” is not lost here.

This is an important historical work that should be read by all not just because it is the first of its kind to focus on an assembly center but because it might reawaken long ignored or lost memories of a not too distant past of some 100 days in the lives of Japanese Americans during World War II.

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