Past in Present

We’ve Seen What Happens When an Ethnic Group Is Seized by Executive Order

It was in 1942, when Japanese citizens in the Seattle area were sent to internment camps.

By Madeline Ostrander January 19, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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On March 30, 1942, Bainbridge Island residents, allowed to take only what they can carry, march to the ferry that would take them away.

The strawberry plants on Bainbridge Island were in full, early bloom on March 30, 1942, when 22-year-old Kay Sakai Nakao, her parents, and her five siblings had to abandon their fruit farm and carry their suitcases to the Eagledale Ferry Dock. “I wasn’t bitter, but I was sad,” she recalls. “We didn’t know how long we were going to be gone.”

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Kay Sakai Nakao with her son at Idaho’s Minidoka camp, one of two camps where Nakao resided after being forced from her home on Bainbridge.

Two months after the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, pulling the U.S. into World War II, president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the American military to relocate anyone considered a security threat. The Army rounded up West Coast residents with one-sixteenth or more Japanese heritage, no matter what age or background, without evidence or due process. Two hundred twenty-seven Japanese Americans on Bainbridge, some of whom had for decades worked at the lumber mill and established Puget Sound’s first commercial strawberry farms, were the first to be sent away. By ferry, then train and bus, they traveled to Manzanar, a compound in the California desert. Surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, they slept on straw-filled sacks, ate in a mess hall, and bathed in shared showers with no curtains or stalls. Later, most transferred to Minidoka, a camp in south-central Idaho. Sandstorms plagued both camps, and grit and dust crept into their clothing. 

Nakao kept track of her home community through the island newspaper, which published stories about the internment camps alongside local news. In August 1945, she lost her grandmother in Hiroshima when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb there. 

Friends looked after Nakao’s family’s house in their absence, and when she returned, she and her husband, who married while at Minidoka, were warmly welcomed back.

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Internment left much of the Seattle area shuttered, including Jackson Street, which once teemed with Japanese businesses.

In 2011, a National Park Historic Site was erected at the former site in Eagledale. Residents held a candlelight vigil there last December after Donald Trump suggested FDR’s executive order might be a precedent for allowing a ban to keep Muslims from entering the country. 

Nakao found the comment “scary.” Now 97 years old, she frequently shares her story as a cautionary tale. She says, “We talk about it all the time so it won’t happen to anybody anymore. Ever.”

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