'I felt lower than the lowest person'

 'I felt lower than the lowest person' »Play Video
Mary Matsuda Gruenwald
SEATTLE -- Executive Order 9066 was signed 70 years ago this month. It authorized the evacuation and incarceration of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

"It was on May 16th that the Army came in and took us to our first assembly center," said Mary Matsuda Gruenwald, who was 17 on that date in 1942. She and her family were taken from their farm on Vashon Island and, like 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, bounced from internment camp to internment camp.

"I felt lower than the lowest person," she said. "I felt like I became a non-person... I pulled in and withdrew."

She wrote a book about the experience, and Wednesday spoke of her life at South Seattle Community College.

She talks about something her mother said long ago, that changed everything.

"We would say, '20 years from now, we may only have memories of how we conducted ourselves during this difficult time,' " Gruenwald said. " 'What kind of memories do you want to have of how we conducted ourselves with dignity and courage during this time of trial?' That just completely lifted me out of my depression and put me into a different place."

Gruenwald is 87 years old now, and there is something strangely missing from her: bitterness, saying she's forgiven the people who made the decisions to start the internment camps.

"Oh, absolutely. In a time of war, there was so much fear," she said. "I feel passionate about the story, about the importance of freedom. And I want people to value what we have here. And I want to shake people who take it all for granted."

In 1944, Gruenwald's brother joined the Army and served in Italy. Gruenwald joined the cadet nurse corps.

Her parents eventually went back to their strawberry farm on Vashon Island and lived out their lives.