Why Internment? — Joseph Kosai and the Story of Japanese-Americans During World War II

Interview and Project By Arlene Mihara; blog post written by Erika Wigren

“People misunderstand the question of who we were. The constitutional rights of American citizens were deprived…People still don’t understand we were not the enemy. We were Americans.” — Joseph Kosai.

Joseph Kosai was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1934. He was a Nisei, a first generation Japanese born in the United States.

Just two months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering all Japanese-Americans to evacuate the West Coast. The executive order resulted in the relocation of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps across the United States.

Kosai, who was eight years old at the time, was transported with family members first, to an assembly center in Pinedale, California, then to Tule Lake, where Kosai’s extended family was dispersed and sent to different camps.

“As a child you don’t pay too much attention to the world or national events,” Kosai stated. “I do know that when the war started, my father worked in the sawmill. Also, he owned a hotel business, which my mother operated, here in Tacoma. Shortly after the war started, my father was taken by the FBI to Montana..It was May 10, 1942 when the posters went up. [Stating] the people from Tacoma had to leave [by] May 17 and May 18.”

Kosai, his mother, and younger sister were then sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, where they would remain until May 17, 1945. In total, Kosai and his family spent three years in American internment camps.

Kosai described the camps as small, cramped, and difficult. Many families were forced to share just one room with as many as 8 people. He also explained that the fences surrounding the camps are what made him feel like a prisoner.

“When you look at the fences in camp, if you want to keep someone out of your yard or some property, you’ll find that the fence goes up vertically but then at the top the barbed wire sticks out away from you to the outside. But in camp, it came in to keep us from going out.”

Residents of Block Seven, Minidoka Relocation Center, ID. 1943-1945. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

The adjustment after internment was also difficult for Kosai and his family. His family had owned a hotel in Tacoma before the war, but due to the Alien Land Law his family lost the businesses while interned.

After the war Kosai’s family moved to Ontario, Oregon. Some Japanese-American citizens of were allowed to return to the West Coast beginning in 1945, and the last camp closed in March 1946.

Kosai didn’t return to Washington State until he began college at the University of Washington, Seattle. After attending UW, Kosai served in the Army from 1956 to 1958, and completed his BS in Education with a major in mathematics at Eastern Oregon in 1959. During college, Kosai began to reflect on his time in internment camps and became actively involved in the civil rights movement. His desire to get involved grew after witnessing the segregation of blacks and whites in the South.

In 1964, Kosai became president of the Puyallup Valley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. As president, Kosai helped fight to repeal the Alien Land Law in the State of Washington — the law was finally repealed in 1966.

Kosai said that even after the war, Japanese-Americans faced constant racism and injustice.

“People misunderstand the question of who we were. The constitutional rights of American citizens were deprived…People still don’t understand we were not the enemy. We were Americans. They still think that [because] we’re ethnically Japanese that we are citizens of Japan,” he continued.

Kosai went on to earn his Masters in Education in 1965 from the University of Puget Sound and began a teaching high school in Tacoma in 1959. He continued his career at Tacoma Community College in 1966, and after 23 years at TCC, retired in 1989.

Kosai received awards from the City of Tacoma, Municipal League of Tacoma, the Human Rights Commission, and the town of Takuma, Japan. He died in November of 2008 at the age of 74.

View the complete oral history project: Why Internment? The Story of Japanese-Americans During World War II by Arlene Mihara

Bill Sterud and The Puyallup Land Claims Settlement

Interview and Project By Miguel Douglas; blog post written by Erika Wigren

“It’s been a long journey. We are kind of like catching our breath and moving forward.” — Bill Sterud, Chairman of the Puyallup Tribal Council.

Bill Sterud, Chairman of Puyallup Tribal Council

Bill Sterud has served on the Puyallup Tribal council for over forty years. During those years, Sterud aided in the 1976 takeover of the Cascadia Juvenile Reception and Diagnostic Center, formerly Tacoma’s Cushman Hospital and most notably, represented the Tribe in negotiations that led to the Puyallup Land Claims Settlement.

The Puyallup Land Claims Settlement of 1990 established much of what comprises the land that the Puyallup Tribe owns today.

Sterud and other tribal members fought for retaining the legal boundaries of their Tribal reservation and surrounding land, water, and various other resource rights. The negotiations however, received mixed reviews from tribal members.

“Some thought that the negotiations shouldn’t take place, that we just go get what we own, and start removing people from our properties that we had won along the riverbed. So the word ‘sellout’ was thrown at the council for negotiating,” Sterud said.   

After years of negotiation, a settlement package of approximately $162 million in land, fisheries, economic and social development, and the construction of the Blair Navigation Project was introduced. At the time, it was the second-largest land claims settlement in U.S. history.

“I’m actually feeling pretty good about the direction, my fingers are crossed, I don’t take anything for granted because I’ve seen it go. They’ve stolen everything from us before. That’s a whole other story on that…So to this day, it’s been a long journey. We are kind of like catching our breath and moving forward.”


Gary Emmons, Telegrapher for the Northern Pacific Railroad

By Karin Crelling

“I enjoyed every moment I worked, and some people can say: ‘Gosh, you know…I don’t like that job’ and so forth, but I truly enjoyed every second I went to work. I thought that was sort of the neatest thing I could go do and would lament the fact when I didn’t get a call to go to work on a weekend job or something like that because there was no need for my services. So I never did think about it as a job; I just thought it was kind of a neat place to go and interact with all these… all these trains” — Gary Emmons.

Gary Emmons working as a telegrapher for the Northern Pacific Railway in Tacoma, Wa (1962). Photo courtesy of the Emmons family.

Retired AirForce Colonel Gary Emmons talks about his time as a telegraph operator and train dispatcher in the 1960s. His career with the Northern Pacific Railroad started at the age of 16.

During his eight years of employment with the railroad, Gary Emmons witnessed the changes that progress brings with it; not all of them good.

Still Fighting After All These Years: A Puyallup Tribal Member’s Perspective

By Rachael Williamson

“I found it exciting…Going to the protests, going to the fish-ins. It was being in a moment that nobody else will ever be in. This movement will never happen again, and I was involved in it. It was very educational” — Nancy Shippentower-Games.

Nancy Shippentower-Games is a member of the Puyallup Tribe in Washington State. Nancy grew up on the banks of the Nisqually River and Puyallup Rivers and currently resides in Yelm, Washington. Nancy’s family were very active during the fishing wars that took place on both the Nisqually and Puyallup Rivers. Her mother Janet McCloud and her uncle, Billy Frank Jr., are widely recognized activists that fought hard for Northwest Indigenous fishing rights during the battle over salmon in the mid-20th century.

Nancy Shippentower-Games

Nancy remembers vividly the violence, racism and injustices that she and her people suffered as they fought against the states of Washington and Oregon for what was rightfully theirs.

By revisiting the circumstances and propositions set forth in the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, a better understanding of what the Puyallup and Nisqually tribes have been fighting for comes into focus. While the Boldt Decision of 1974 was a turning point for Northwest Tribes, concerns such as climate change, overpopulation, and proposals such as the LNG plant in Tacoma continue to put the salmon runs and Indigenous culture at risk.

After all these years, Nancy continues to fight the battle for her people. Recently, she traveled to Washington D.C. to accept on behalf of her uncle Billy Frank Jr. the Medal of Freedom, presented by President Obama. Nancy also traveled to Standing Rock, where she represented the Puyallup tribe in the peaceful protests for clean water.



Perspectives on Tacoma School Desegregation: From Wallflower to Rabble Rouser

By TeyAnjulee Leon

“I was just one of the poor white kids that lived on the Hilltop…I was a freakin’ wallflower and I did not wanna be noticed.” — Laurie Arnold

The child of left leaning social activists, Laurie Arnold grew up during a time of great change in the country and the Tacoma community. Throughout her educational journey, Laurie attended many schools, and the one that remained clearest in her memory was McCarver. Though she did not know it at the time, Laurie attended McCarver the year it became the first magnet school in the country and began the process to help desegregating Tacoma Public Schools.

From Friday Activities and locker room fights to Tacoma Urban League and community organizing, Laurie Arnold remains a fixture in the Hilltop and Tacoma communities always working to protect and improve the place she calls home.


A Right to Live: Ramona Bennett, Puyallup Tribal Indian Activist

Interview and Project By Cecelia La-Pointe Gorman; blog post written by Erika Wigren

 “At one point I was looking at thirty-five years in prison for just standing up and saying the Indians have a right to life…And Indians have a right to live, and we have a right to a reasonable quality of life, and we have a right to a sense of permanence.”  Ramona Bennett.

Ramona Bennett

As a longtime leader for the Puyallup Tribe, Ramona Bennett has always been a force to be reckoned with. From aiding in local fish-ins to the takeover of Tacoma’s Cushman Hospital, Bennett has spent over forty years working on behalf of the Puyallup Tribe and the Pacific Northwest Native American Community.

Bennett began her work in the 1950s in Seattle’s American Indian Women’s Service League. In 1964, she co-founded the Survival of American Indians Association, an organization that helped bring local fish-ins to national prominence.

She also co-founded the Local Indian Child Welfare Act Committee which helped in securing a national Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. Bennett also opened doors for women activists by actively fighting attempts during the 1970s to exclude her from National Tribal Chairmen’s Conferences.

“At one point I was looking at thirty-five years in prison for just standing up and saying the Indians have a right to life,” Bennett said, “And Indians have a right to live, and we have a right to a reasonable quality of life, and we have a right to a sense of permanence.”

Perhaps the most well-known social justice work of Bennett’s was her role in the takeover of both the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building in Washington, DC in 1972 and the 1976 takeover of Tacoma’s Cushman Hospital.

In a 1976 interview with Clara Faser of the Freedom Socialist newspaper in Seattle, Bennett stated “we’ll not be bought off or bribed to become goodie-goodies…And we’ll keep this land and this building too. It’s all ours, and you fight for what’s yours.”

Bennett and other tribe members took control of Cushman Indian Hospital, also known as the Cascadia Juvenile Reception and Diagnostic Center, which once belonged to the Puyallup Tribe.

Hundreds of Native Americans and their supporters held the hospital for seven days until negotiations finally began with the State, ultimately leading to a victory for the Puyallup Tribe. After a week an official agreement between the tribe, the State and the federal government was made, guaranteeing the return of Cascadia to the trusteeship of the United States for use by the Puyallup Tribe as a medical and social welfare center for its people.

In the 1980s, Bennett served as an administrator for the Wa-He-Lut Indian School in Olympia before going on to co-found Rainbow Youth and Family Services, a Tacoma-based non-profit that she still directs today.

Willie Stewart and the Desegregation of Tacoma Public Schools

Oral history and blog post by Katherine L. Jennison

“There would be many black students who would just come to my door and peek just to make sure. A couple of them even wanted to touch my hands to make sure I was real. It was a culture shock for the black students as much as it was a culture shock for me to be in that environment…. Many of the white students had never seen a black teacher” — Willie Stewart.

On the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Tacoma School District took voluntary measures to desegregate a select number of schools with high non-white enrollment. The district superintendent, Dr. Angelo Giaudrone, drew attention to the de facto segregation, and primarily focused on two elementary schools: Stanley Elementary, with a black population of 64 percent and McCarver Elementary, with a black population of 84 percent. In 1963, a subcommittee was formed to analyze and study the de facto segregation and provide recommendations for potential solutions. On July 8, 1966, a plan was announced by the school board for an optional enrollment program that relied on closing McCarver Junior High and to provide limited open enrollment to students affected by the closing.

In 1960, Willie Stewart was hired by Tacoma School District and assigned to Gault Junior High to teach life science and physical science. Stewart taught at Gault until 1966, when he was promoted to assistant principal. He stayed at Gault for three years until he was hired at Lincoln High School as assistant principal. A year later (1970), he became that first black principal in the Tacoma School District.1.

Willie Stewart c. 1966

According to Stewart, the biggest hesitancy for black families was the loss of historical lineage with their neighborhood school. “I’d have to work with the family, whose school is no longer there, and the principal by convincing them that this was the best program and most viable option for these kids based on where they lived.”

Stewart was often a liaison between the black community and the school district. “When there was a decision to close McCarver…. I was asked to be the person to stand between the school district and the black community to accept their students being bused between their home and different schools throughout the city.” When asked to look back on the effectiveness of the voluntary desegregation plan, Stewart said, “I wish there were have been more African American counselors, but we used everyone we had; we just didn’t have enough. We could have used a two-year education process, rather than one year. Many teachers had never talked to a black student, so those were some of the apprehensions.” Stewart thought the district could also have improved their plan, by having high school regional meetings with schools and the community as well as separate meetings for the black community to help with the transition with the loss of school lineage.

Stewart led the counseling program for two years before stepping down to focus on his duties as principal at Lincoln. In 1972, according to the Tacoma News Tribune, the schools district declared an end to de facto segregation in fifty-eight school buildings; with all buildings at or below the forty-percent threshold for black student enrollment. According to the United States Commission on Civil Rights a decade later, the summer counseling program was pivotal to the success of the voluntary desegregation program in the Tacoma School District.

Finding the Way Back – Philip H. Red Eagle

Oral history and blog post by Jordan Woolston

“I think because I became an artist and a writer and kind of leader, that was in me, it’s always been there…You don’t become a poet because somebody says, ‘Oh you ought to be a poet.’ You become a poet because it’s there.” Philip H. Red Eagle

Philip H. Red Eagle was born in 1945 in Tacoma, Washington. His mother, Marian Steilacoom, of Salish decent, was born near Port Angeles, Washington. Philip’s father, Philip Red Eagle, a member of the Dakota Tribe, was born near the Missouri River on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. Phillip spent the first fourteen years of his life in Tacoma, attending Stanley and McCarver schools before moving to Sitka, Alaska with his family in 1959.

Philip Red Eagle

Philip joined the Navy shortly after graduating from high school, serving in Vietnam for five years from 1969-1973. After Vietnam, Philip returned to Washington and began undergraduate studies at the University of Washington where he earned two bachelor’s degrees.

The return to civilian life after the war affected Philip and he struggled with PTSD and related issues like depression and insomnia. At the time of Philip’s discharge PTSD did not even have a name but emerging studies would prove Philip was not alone. The late and delayed effects of combat exposure in the form of PTSD were a significant source of suffering and disability among veterans in the United States. An estimated 700, 000 Vietnam veterans—almost a quarter of all soldiers sent to Vietnam from 1964 to 1973—required some form of psychological help.

Philip found that art, writing, and taking part in the revival of his culture helped him confront his PTSD. Nearly from the beginning, Philip played an important role in the annual Tribal Canoe Journeys, atradition started in 1989 by Emmett Oliver of the Quinault Nation. A member of the committee planning the State of Washington’s centennial celebration, Oliver organized the Paddle to Seattle to ensure the state’s First Peoples were represented. Philip was asked to take part in the Paddle to Seattle but was unable to attend. Within the next few years, Philip found himself intimately involved in a cultural renaissance that involved multiple generations of a still-growing number of indigenous nations.

As an artist, Philip brings an influential presence to the Canoe Journeys. With help, he has made over 6,500 copper rings that have been used in The Copper Ring Ceremony since 1995. The ceremony calls for no alcohol, no drugs, no violence, and total commitment to the 10 Rules of the Canoe while on journey.  Philip is also the Director of the Carver’s Camp which was formed in 2004 to teach carving to the people of the Canoe Nations. Started with only three carvers, the camp is currently manned by twelve persons, native and non-native, male and female. The Camp is directly descended from The Cedar Tree Institute, which was dedicated to the resurgence, maintenance and support, of Northwest Native culture.  Philip’s presence extends far beyond those involved with the Canoe Journey’s. A publisher and a writer, Philip’s contributions to the Puget Sound’s art community are vast. Philip organized The Raven Chronicles, a Seattle-based nonprofit literary arts magazine, in the early 90s. The organization’s mission is to publish and promote artistic work that embodies the cultural diversity and multitude of viewpoints of writers and artists living in the Pacific Northwest and other regions. Philip’s writings have since been published by various journals, magazines, and newspapers and his book, Red Earth: A Vietnam Warriors Journey, is in its second printing Tom Heidlebaugh, who Philip met in 1992 and was a pivotal actor in the Canoe Journeys program, penned a poetic forward to Philip’s book writing;

When you put this book down, you are able to stand up, to stand for your people, to stand up for that high, sharp-drawn chant coming off the red dawn of the endless plains, coming off the red leaves of late summer, coming off the red earth from which our songs and our healing have always come and to which we are taken back when we have been accepted, by ourselves and our people, back to the circle.

Against the struggles of PTSD, Philip made his life work about bringing people back to the circle. Through his poetry, writings, art, community engagement, and myriad other ways, Philip promotes the revival of and respect of Indigenous cultures. In guiding others, Philip found his own way back.

Launch of Tacoma Community History Project blog

By Justin Wadland

During the Spring Quarter of 2017, Professor Michael Honey taught “Doing Community History,” a class he has been offering in one form or another since the 1990s. This class takes graduate students through the process of creating an oral history project, usually about a person, organization, or significant event in Tacoma or the surrounding South Sound region. At the end of the class, all of these projects are given to the Library and made available through the Tacoma Community History Project, an online collection hosted by the UW Libraries Digital Collections. To date, the students have created over 80 projects that document the history of diverse communities in the region.

I have been involved in the project since 2011, when Dr. Honey approached me with the idea of creating an online collection for the oral history projects. With funding from the Puyallup Tribe, we were able to digitize and provide access to nearly all of the projects that had been created to date. Since then, I have established guidelines for the students so that their oral histories are consistent and more easily made accessible in an online collection. As the UW Office of the Provost recently acknowledged in a write-up about the project, the Tacoma Community History Project represents a unique partnership between instructors, students, and library staff to preserve and share local history.

Screenshot of Tacoma Community History Project homepage

Go to Tacoma Community History Project collection

This past spring, local historian Michael Sullivan proposed we try something new. Drawing from his experience producing an outstanding Tacoma History blog, he suggested that we ask the students to select clips and write short blog posts to introduce their oral history project. I was attracted to the idea because it would expand the reach of the collection. While the collection can be found through Google and the Digital Public Library of America, additional storytelling and interpretation can bring other audiences. I am especially glad we did this because the  recent cohort of students have completed projects on topics that are particularly relevant: the desegregation of Tacoma public schools and the activism of local Native American tribes.

Over the coming weeks, we will be releasing a new blog post each week. Most of the posts will be from the students, but working with this class has made me see the value of curating selections of this collection, so we will also be posting selections from related projects. To kickoff the launch of this blog, I’d like to call attention to these interviews with Murray and Rosa Morgan. Murray Morgan wrote one of the few comprehensive histories of this area, Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Puget Sound. His wife Rosa was a reference librarian at Pacific Lutheran University and she lent her research skills to his writing project. In this interview they explain their lives, careers, and travels:

(Photo of  11th Street (or later called “Murray Morgan” bridge, courtesy Tacoma Public Library.)