These images are from “A Challenge to Democracy” a propaganda film used to describe the process of relocating Japanese and Japanese-Americans produced by the War Relocation Authority in 1944. You can view this video at

Doing the Puyallup, 1942
By Greg Mizukami | Photos by The US Government

When reading about historical events of the past, it’s natural to feel a sense disconnection. Like viewing a movie or TV show, we can feel a certain amount of empathy with the principals but we know that the events happened to “other people” in “other circumstances” and often in very different time. Over 70 years ago however, in Puyallup, Wash., at the very site of this year’s Pacific Northwest Annual Conference Sessions, history played out with very personal involvement by some of our fellow brothers and sisters in faith. The following is a case in point.

It was a little past noon and Bill was thinking of having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before tackling his trigonometry homework. Scattered clouds threatened an occasional shower but that was to be expected for winter in Fife. By contrast, 2700 miles to the west, the Sunday morning routine was abruptly disturbed by a very different “shower”. There, the idyllic blue skies suddenly erupted with smoke, flame, and shrapnel accompanied with deafening explosions! A surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy eviscerated the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941. War suddenly came calling to a reluctant nation and the devastation was only beginning.

On the mainland, the news spread like wildfire. Reaction and retaliation came with astonishing speed. Within hours, FBI agents had dozens of local men in custody for questioning. No specific reason or charge was given but they all fit a common profile. They were all Japanese. (Some of those held were not reunited with their families for months or even years.) Playing upon long smoldering racial prejudices and public hysteria, the federal government quickly issued a series of proclamations. They stripped all persons of Japanese ancestry living in Western Washington (and other select areas), regardless of citizenship, of their constitutional rights without as much as a single hearing or basic due process. By April 1942, thousands of shocked and bewildered families like Bill’s were systematically herded into hastily constructed lockups euphemistically called “assembly centers”.

Only a few months previous, Bill and his friends had enjoyed attending the Western Washington Fair in Puyallup. The hotdogs, cotton candy, and ice cream were really swell! Knocking down milk bottles with only 3 baseballs proved to be more of a challenge, though. Now, the very same midway and outbuildings looked a lot less festive. Heck, there’re armed soldiers on top of the grandstand! Guards, barbed wire fences, unappetizing chow, and sleeping in a smelly horse barn- can thing get any worse? Sadly, for he and 7,000+ fellow local captives the answer was YES, much worse.

Puyallup Assembly Center. Aerial photograph in Final report, Japanese evacuation from the West coast, 1942. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943, pg. 174.
Puyallup Assembly Center. Aerial photograph in Final report, Japanese evacuation from the West coast, 1942. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943, pg. 174.

Unofficially dubbed “Camp Harmony”, the Puyallup stockade was only a temporary stopover en route to more permanent camps at remote sites far away from home and populated areas. Eventually, the US Army, through the Wartime Civilian Control Authority, orchestrated the removal and incarceration of over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast, all without declaration of martial law or suspension of habeas corpus. The Japanese-American incarceration experience has been documented in great detail and academic interest is currently seeing a renewal. Some of the camp sites are now part of the National Park Service. Pilgrimages and civil rights symposiums are attracting enthusiastic audiences while large segments of the US populous remain unaware of this entire chapter of American history.

This story is only a brief glimpse of one family’s travails viewed from the perspective of a Fife High School senior caught in the maelstrom of World War II; a young man not unlike your son, nephew, or brother. He volunteered from a barbed wire “relocation center” in Idaho to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a racially segregated all Japanese-American unit of the regular U.S. Army. He was killed in action south of the Arno River, Italy on July 12, 1944, just 20 years old. Seven days later, the 442nd RCT liberated the city of Livorno from German occupation. My Uncle Bill was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Victory Medal, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Medal in addition to his Combat Infantryman’s Badge. He is buried with full military honors at Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery, Seattle, Wash.

During the war years, Whitney Memorial UMC, then known as “The Tacoma Japanese Methodist Church”, was closed and used to store some of the personal property of their incarcerated members. The Rev. Seiichi Niwa ministered to his congregation as best he could until he too was taken into custody and sent to a camp in the interior. Imagine the government removing your pastor and closing your church on the basis of race or because your pastor was a potential enemy agent! The Rev. Niwa returned to Tacoma after the war to re-open and operate the church as a hostel to aid those who wished to resettle in their former home town. Only a fraction of the pre-war population returned.

Greg Mizukami is a member of Whitney Memorial United Methodist Church.


Truth & Wholeness: Replacing White Privilege with God’s Promise (D5096)
This DVD produced by United Methodist Communications and the General Commission on Religion and Race features many church leaders discussing racism, the role of white privilege, and how to dismantle and replace white privilege with God’s Promise. It is useful for diversity training, leadership development and mobilizing congregations to engage in anti-racism work based on biblical values of truth, wholeness, and love for all of God’s people.

Reserve this resource now! E-mail Ellen Johanson at


Forged by Fire (D4740)
Forged by Fire, produced by The General Board of Church and Society, is a collection of five stories about groups that have faced (or are facing) marginalization, persecution, or injustice in the United States. Focusing on the Japanese-American’s internment during World War II, the Cherokee’s forced removal and the Trail of Tears, the African-American’s passage to freedom via the Underground Railroad, the Hispanic/Latin struggles on the US/Mexican border and the Pacific Islander’s immigration to the United States, these stories are sprinkled with hope as evidenced by actions and reactions of United Methodists who believe that how we tell a story matters because stories are how we define ourselves.

Reserve this resource now! E-mail Ellen Johanson at

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