Mrs. Willis's Class
Elizabeth Bayley Willis taught art, Latin and English at Garfield High School in Seattle. Her students wrote of their experiences in Camp Harmony, and later Minidoka, in letters written between 1942 and 1943.
Through the student's eyes we see camp life and later we can see the growing anger and frustration of one student as he grapples with joining the army.
The letters here are a small selection from the Elizabeth Bayley Willis papers. Names of students have been omitted.
Letter dated May 1, 1942.Elizabeth Bayley Willis Papers. Acc. No. 2583-6, Box 1. UW Libraries Special Collections.
If Kay Sato is still in your class I wish you would tell him that if he is send [sic] here, too, he will find plenty of work to do. About the only things he will need is a change of clothes (his half boots he work while working with the railroad gang would come [in] very handy when it rains), a mirror, some hooks for clothes, nails, hammer, saw, ax or hatchet, toilet articles (toilet paper is furnished), and a few nic-nacs for his own pleasure. Of course he must bring his own bedding, clothes line and clothes pins.
There are 11 "avenues." 2 avenues constitute a block. At the head of each block and between the avenues are located the men's lavatory, women's lavatory, men's bath and women's bath in the order given.
I forgot to add to the things Kay should bring that a wash tub or a bucket to wash his clothes in will come in very, very handy.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection.Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Washington. Letter dated May 14, 1942. Elizabeth Bayley Willis Papers. Acc. No. 2583-6, Box 1. UW Libraries Special Collections.
The camp is divided into four areas, Area A, B, C, and D. The areas are then subdivided into sections. My house number is A-6-46, that is, Area A section 6 apartment 46.
The barracks with their rooms were not what I expected them to be, but they are comfortable enough. It is a framework of wood with shiplap over it. The walls between the rooms don't quite reach the ceiling and if one talks loudly he can be heard at the other end of the barrack. In each room there is a wood stove which takes care of the heating problem, for in the morning and night it gets quite cold. Although the living quarters are close, one can live comfortably.
We've hung curtains and drapes, made our own furniture and have tried to make our room as much as possible like home. Everything is a little crude but it's all right for a little crudeness fits into the picture. It's a place for old clothes and boots because when it rains the streets get muddy and when it becomes hot, you eat a lot of dust, so the boys say.
There are six mess halls and when it's time to eat, we line up outside. By the time the doors open there is a very long line, so the early birds eat first. The food is all right but I think I could stand a little more, and as always, it could be better.
You ought to see some of the signs they have by the doors. Some of them are very funny and would give you a laugh. There was one which was very well suited to the place, "Knot Inn." It's very well suited because the boards have many knots and some times they fall out and leave gaping holes.
The place is entirely surrounded by a barbed wire fence and soldiers watch on towers and march back and forth along the fence. Sometimes we talk to them and they are friendly. I don't mind them watching me and I believe that the others don't mind either. Everyone seems to be contented and have adopted themselves to the change even though many things are lacking.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection.Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Washington. Letter dated May 20, 1942.Elizabeth Bayley Willis Papers. Acc. No. 2583-6, Box 1. UW Libraries Special Collections.
The camp in which I live consists of about 2,900 Japanese. Really, I have not seen so many all together in all my life. There are many cabins which are divided into blocks. Each cabin has a small wood or oil stove, and a bed for each person. The mattresses are filled with straw. The first night was terrible but eventually we got use to the bed.
Unless one has a job it is very boring doing nothing but loaf. As soon as I can I am going to apply for a job.
Letter dated July 7, 1942.Elizabeth Bayley Willis Papers. Acc. No. 2583-6, Box 1. UW Libraries Special Collections.
What I wouldn't give to be back in Seattle next September to continue my studies at Garfield. Many of the boys say this too. Some of them who were not good students and didn't like school even say this. It is my belief that everyone here would like to go back to their normal life.
But recently I've read quite a bit about taking away the U.S. citizenship of the American born Japanese and to deport them after the war. The Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West are trying to do this, and from what I read they are in dead earnest. Our citizenship is very dear to us and I hope this thing never occurs.
Letter dated November 12, 1942.Elizabeth Bayley Willis Papers. Acc. No. 2583-6, Box 1. UW Libraries Special Collections.
Nov. 12, 1942Dear Mrs. Willis,
My work in the beet fields has been finished and I will be on my way back to the Relocation Camp in two days. I have been outside the camp so long that I'll have to get use to camp life all over again. In the paper I am sending you, it says that barbed fences are going up, and that there are eight watch towers. I thought we had left all those inconveniences when we left Camp Harmony in Puyallup but it seems that the old life will be my new again. I just can't see why the government must coop us up after throwing us in the middle of the sage country with nothing but sage brush for miles around. If this is democracy, I think I'd rather be under a stern dictatorship. At least I wouldn't be winding up behind barbed wire fences every time.
Letter dated April 11, 1943.Elizabeth Bayley Willis Papers. Acc. No. 2583-6, Box 1. UW Libraries Special Collections.
Many Isseis are bitter because the American government feels so free about hurting their children and then asking them to volunteer and finally saying that they might be drafted.
Some of the Isseis volunteered in the last war. They were promised their citizenship to this country. They were promised better treatment.
Now these old folks say, what of us now. Have we got our American citizenship? Are we getting better treatment? What of our businesses? Our children are Americans yet they are being kicked around like dogs -- by Americans. The American government made a lot of promises in the last war. It is again making the same promises. The promises of today will be as good as the promises of the last war.
Do you wonder why so many of the first generation feel so bitter, Mrs. Willis?
20 March 1997