World War II

War worker housing 1946In the fall of 1941, Sakaeru Susumi and her sister Lillian were the only Japanese-American children at Cooper. Lillian was in sixth grade, and Sakaeru, called Grace, was in third grade. Their brother Arthur had already graduated and gone on to West Seattle High School.

The Susumis lived in the back of their floristry shop on Spokane Street in a building owned by Bethlehem Steel. Because the street was the major road from Seattle to West Seattle, their shop was called Highway Florists. Besides flowers, they sold cigarettes and tobacco, candy and ice cream. The streetcar line loomed above the street. On a boring day, Grace would count the cars of one color—the blue cars or the black cars–that would go by on Spokane Street.

The children’s friends were mainly Caucasian. Besides picking blackberries together, they would slide down empty coal chutes in cardboard boxes, unbeknownst to their parents, of course.

Grace’s father had suffered a heart attack and couldn’t work full bore. “He would take me out to the Sound, to go fishing off the railroad bridge. We would dig pile-worms when the tide was out,” to use them as bait. They caught shiners, which Grace hated, but along with eggs from neighborhood chickens, the fish were a source of protein.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December, the Susumi’s life changed rapidly. Grace’s best friend threw rocks at her on the playground at Cooper. Someone slashed her purple coat with a fur collar, a collar Grace’s mother had carefully crafted from her own old coat. The principal or a teacher began walking Grace and Lillian to and from school.

The family had just bought a new car, their pride and joy, and Arthur and his father had built a garage for it. When Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in February, 1942, the family prepared to leave the neighborhood and the car. A man from the FBI came to make sure they didn’t have Japanese knives or books, “to make sure we weren’t spies, I guess, or doing something for Japan.” Her father sat in a chair and broke all of his Japanese music records in half before they could be confiscated. The Susumis left other belongings with family friends and closed the floristry shop.

Some of Grace’s classmates were unaware of what was happening. A boy who often walked home with Grace left with his usual Friday greeting, “I’ll see you Monday.”

“No you won’t,” Grace replied; “because I’m going to a prison camp.” With others from King County, the family was sent first to live in stables at “Camp Harmony” on the Puyallup fairgrounds. Amid the mud around the animal-stall housing and the sight of a ferris wheel in the distance, Grace remembers a ball that went over the barbed wire fence. “If you go after that ball, I’ll shoot,” a guard told her. After the families boarded trains for Minidoka in Idaho, students remember a teacher at Cooper had them write letters to a Japanese-American girl at the internment camps.

As the Susumis left, Fred Hansen’s family moved to Seattle from South Dakota in 1942, attracted by work in the defense industries. Fred’s entire family came, including his mother’s fourteen brothers and sisters and their families. At first they lived at his grandmother’s house in North Seattle. They practiced something called “hot-bedding.” When the ones who were working the graveyard shifts returned home in the morning, they would trade beds with the guys, aunts and cousins who worked the day shifts.

A year later, “my father found a vacancy at the temporary housing projects that had been built for the wartime here …in Delridge.” Scrambling to meet the demand for housing created by the influx of workers, the Seattle Housing Authority and the federal government hastily constructed 442 units of housing in 70 buildings wherever there was vacant space in Delridge. The buildings included a child care center and a community building, many on the playfield and park across from the school.

Fred has vivid memories of the first day he walked into third grade at Cooper. “…when I came into the class, the teacher brought me in and I looked at the blackboard. They were doing cursive writing already and I started to cry! I thought ‘Oh, no!’ I was so nervous because I didn’t know how to write cursive!” The teacher assured him he would do fine, and Hansen quickly made friends, mainly from “the projects.”

Besides the large numbers of migrants from the Midwest, many African-Americans were drawn from the southern United States to the jobs in the Pacific Northwest. The family of guitarist Jimi Hendrix lived in the Delridge projects for a while when he was a baby. Fred Hansen’s next-door neighbors were black; and there were small numbers of Native Americans and African-American students in his grade at Cooper. Before that, “we really didn’t have any people of color to speak of,” Sharon Ackerlund recalls. Darla Fox remembers admiring the jump-rope abilities of the black girls on the playground.

The sudden influx of people and cheap housing disturbed the neighborhood. “As soon as they built those projects,” Patty Schille remembers, “my parents put up a picket fence and I was told to play inside the fence…. Anyone that moved in was perceived as not real welcome. They were new…. If you lived here and you had your own house, then you took care of the place. You cared. Those people that lived in temporary housing, they were not well liked by and large, regardless.”

The housing was substandard, made out of plasterboard and paper. The units were furnished, however, with a wood or coal burning stove in the living room and a wood-burning range. “And you would always have a cord of wood delivered, oh, probably once or twice every two months. I remember that was one of my chores,” said Fred Hansen. “I would always have to go out and stack it because they would dump it in a big pile. So you had to stack it so it would be neat and orderly.”

The icebox was literally an ice box, not a refrigerator. “So you had to order a block of ice and you would put that on top, and it would drain down. There was a pan at the bottom that you would take the water out [of] and dump it.”

Some remember the “war temporaries” positively as a place to start housekeeping. Darla Fox’s sister lived in a one-story building with several units. “Paper thin. They could hear everything through the walls.” Despite this, she was “an immaculate housekeeper…. She was twenty years old and she would have white starched curtains.”

Besides housing, the neighborhood had an influx of defense installations. A barrage balloon battalion was stationed on the playfield, with tethered balloons to protect Boeing airplanes; the balloon cadre practiced marching on Delridge Way. “We used to hear the dirigibles, the blimps, at night. You could hear that little whirring sound when they were going over,” said Fox. “The search lights went on all the time. You’d cover the windows so they would be black. I never quite understood the bucket of water and bucket of sand on the front porch, because one bucket would have done absolutely nothing. But they were always there.” Simon Skalabrin was the Civil Defense person for Youngstown, equipped with a helmet, gas mask, and fire extinguisher. He would go out and make sure each curtain was closed and there was no light showing at night.

Alaska Communications Systems occupied the top of Pigeon Hill. “It was a gorgeous place up there on many acres,” recalls Betty MacWatters. “We had a milkman back in those days, and he had seen Japanese men photographing the city. He went into the station up there and told the operator that worked the radios what happened…. The military was there within two weeks.” Fences went up, guards came. “Then the army came and they put in those big ears that would listen for planes. Anti-aircraft guns went into the woods.” Children walked alongside the fence to get to the school.

The war affected many aspects of daily life. Scarce foodstuffs were rationed. “[I]t was so exciting if Dad came home with sugar,” Sharon Ackerlund recalled. Clear’s Double Bubble was very scarce.  When there was bubble gum at the local stores, Skalabrin’s or Walker’s, “Word passed around and then everybody stood in line,” a big line of little kids. Adults rolled their own cigarettes; shoes and tin for canned goods were rare because of military needs. With the rationing of meat, families found a protein source in fish, pigeons, and rabbits. Oleo substituted for butter. It came in big white chunks with a packet of orange powder to mix in for color. Families grew vegetable gardens called Liberty Gardens. “They [vegetables] weren’t available and it was just something you were supposed to do. It was patriotic” (Ackerlund).
At school, the war “occupied all of our thoughts. Because…we didn’t know if anyone had gotten a message that their father or their uncle, somebody was killed.” Companies donated used paper to the schools, “and we’d use the backs of it…. And they were really frugal with it. I remember we were only allowed to use half a page. We had to fold it and tear it in half…. You just couldn’t waste anything” (Iacolucci). The children bought saving stamps, put on shows to raise money for the Red Cross, went on paper drives and collected metal.

When the war was over, Delma Carpenter said, “the steel mill blew their whistle, and I knew what it was instantly.” They also did it when Roosevelt died, “and I knew, both times, I had a sense of what was really happening…. Both times I was down by the steel mill.”