For witnesses, a long memory of internment camps

On Dec. 7, 1941, Ruth Haines Purkaple was the executive director of the University YWCA. Her group shared space with the YMCA in Eagleson Hall, so it was not surprising that one of the Y’s male student officers would tell her about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Everyone’s life was going to be different—especially the student who delivered the bad news, Gordon Hirabayashi.

His friends describe “Gordie” Hirabayashi as full of life—a rascal with a sense of humor who liked to push the limits. Purkaple says he was part of the whole Y scene, a place that tried to create an international community. “We believed in one world of peace. We weren’t pacifistic, but we were sympathetic,” she recalls today from her home in Colorado.

In that environment, Hirabayashi was increasingly idealistic, joining other Y members who became conscientious objectors and Quakers. In 1942, when the federal government banned all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, Purkaple wasn’t surprised that Gordie decided to resist. “We supported him when he stood up against the evacuation. We were all for him,” she says.

All Japanese Americans were banished to the camps, so once Hirabayashi turned himself in, he was completely dependent on his white friends. They were the ones who visited him in jail, raised money for his defense fund and attended his trial. His defense committee included the executive director of the YMCA, a former state senator, the manager of the University Book Store, “U” District business leaders and members of the local Quaker meetings.

Why were parts of the wartime Seattle community so supportive of a Japanese American student? “The evacuation was grossly unfair. Among the Nisei, everybody we knew was loyal. The whole thing was wrong,” says Purkaple.

But that sense of outrage is “long gone,” she laments. Now in her 90s, Purkaple says her niece recently asked her if she knew anything about the internments. “Knew anything! I visited the Japanese Americans in the camps,” she exclaimed. She went to the “assembly center” at the Puyallup fairgrounds many times, she told her niece, “an ugly place with no grass. It was depressing, absolutely.”

Her niece’s question did not surprise her. “I don’t think the majority of Americans are aware of the internment camps,” Purkaple says. “Some have learned about it in school, but it’s still pretty unknown.”

Which is why she spent more than an hour on the phone with me, describing what it was like to witness the imprisonment of 120,000 people just because of their ethnic heritage. “Gordie is a hero,” she says. “He challenged us to see what was really happening. He made us all feel a bit guilty that we didn’t stand up and do more.” But Purkaple is a hero too. She helped many UW students transfer to other colleges away from the West Coast before the “evacuation” order. The UW was able to place 58 before the deadline came to report to the camps.

Looking back after 64 years, she says if there is one lesson to take away, it is to be aware. “Look behind the door. Don’t take things at face value.”