Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, who grew up on Vashon as part of a once vibrant Japanese immigrant farming community, and subsequently wrote and spoke about her experience during that community’s forced removal and internment during World War II, has died at the age of 96.
She died on Feb. 11, at St. Joseph Residence, a long-term care facility of Providence Mount St. Vincent, in Seattle. The cause of death was complications from non-COVID-related pneumonia, said her son, Ray Gruenewald.
In her lifetime, Mary was a health care professional credited with innovations to her field, an activist, an inspiring public speaker and a renowned author.
She was revered by many on Vashon and beyond for her intelligence, courage and insight.
“She was the voice of her generation on Vashon,” said Rita Brogan, who co-curated “Joy and Heartache: Japanese Americans on Vashon,” a 2018-19 exhibition at Vashon Heritage Museum.
Another island friend, Glenda Pearson, described Mary as a public speaker who could “whiplash an audience from cheers to tears and back again to laughter,” as she spoke about her deeply moving life experiences and lessons.
Pearson also credited Mary for lending her strong voice to support local efforts to put Vashon’s historic Mukai Farm and Garden national landmark back in the hands of the public.
Her sister-in-law Miyoko Matsuda, who accompanied Mary on a book tour to Japan, recalled Mary’s ability to inspire youth audiences.
“It was thrilling to hear her talk to different groups and to see the impact and the instant rapport she had with each one,” said Miyoko, who added that Mary not only spoke well but was also a compassionate and careful listener. “She looked straight at you.”
Many of Mary’s most public achievements came after she became a senior citizen. She began to write her memoir, “Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in a Japanese-American Internment Camp,” at the age of 70; the book was published ten years later. A Young Readers edition of the book was published in 2010. In 2013, Mary’s third book, “Becoming Mama-San: 80 Years of Wisdom,” was published.
Also when she was in her 80s, she helped her son plant a forest on her family’s property on Vashon, creating a lasting legacy of life taking root on island soil her parents and brother had once farmed and is now owned by the Vashon Land Trust.
And at the age of 92, she made national news yet again, for finally receiving her Vashon High School diploma at the graduation ceremony for VHS Class of 2017 — a milestone she would have experienced 75 years earlier, had a deeply shameful chapter in US history not upended her life at the age of 16.
Mary was born on Jan. 23, 1925, in Seattle, the daughter of Japanese immigrants Mitsuno and Heisuke Matsuda.
Heisuke had arrived in the United States in 1898, working in sugarcane fields in Hawaii and coal mines in the Klondike and Cle Elum before moving to Seattle. In the early 1920s, he returned to Japan to marry Mitsuno, bringing his bride back to the United States with him. In 1927, the couple moved to Vashon with their American-born children: two-year-old Mary, and her older brother Yoneichi, aged 4.
Mary’s childhood, growing up on her parents’ strawberry farm in a rural community that included more than 100 other Japanese immigrants and their children, was protected and idyllic.
That life came to an abrupt end on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, with the surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Honolulu.
In her book, Mary described how her family, in the aftermath of the attack, burned all of their Japanese possessions — even her dolls — lest her father, a community leader on Vashon, be suspected of being a spy for Japan.
It made no difference. Five months after the attack, on May 16, 1942, the Matsuda family, and all other people of Japanese descent remaining on Vashon were forced to evacuate the island and were moved to inland internment camps in California, Idaho and Wyoming for the next three years.
In all, 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were exiled from their homes due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.
In “Looking Like the Enemy,” Mary recalled the trauma she experienced as she, her family, and 128 other Japanese American neighbors were taken off the island by armed soldiers. Some of her high school friends and neighbors, she wrote, had gathered to wave goodbye as the ferryboat containing the entirety of Vashon’s Japanese community pulled away from the dock.
Life in the camps brought more sorrow, as those incarcerated were segregated according to whether they would sign a loyalty oath to the United States, which included two critical questions: whether they would renounce Japan and if they would serve in the US military if given the chance. This division of families into two groups — the “Yes Yes” group (which the Matsuda family was a part of) and the “No No” group caused sometimes violent clashes in the camps and lingering animosity long after the war was over.
Reconciling that lasting division among her people became a lifelong process for Mary, said her daughter, Martha Matsuda.
In 2006, Martha and her mother attended a reunion of internees at Tule Lake, one of the camps where the Matsuda family lived.
“It took this reunion for her to realize that she had judged the “No No” decision very harshly,” Martha said. “A ‘No No’ family in our break-out group opened their hearts to us with compassion and forgiveness. Many tears were shed between them, which nourished deep healing for our mother. I’m grateful to be a Matsuda because there’s some of her toughness and steadfastness and wisdom in each of us.”
Mary’s brother Yoneichi left the camp to serve in the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Unit — a regiment comprised mostly of Japanese American men that became renowned for their bravery in fighting Nazis in Europe. Matsuda Gruenewald described his departure as being one of the saddest days of her life.
“[It is] indelibly printed in my head of what it felt like to have Yoneichi go to fight for the United States that was holding us prisoner in these internment camps,” Mary told island historian Bruce Haulman, in a series of interviews in 2016.
Eventually, Mary too left the camp, to join the US Cadet Nurse Corps. She traveled to Clinton, Iowa for her training, but the war ended before she could serve.
She returned to Seattle but never lived on Vashon again. She visited frequently though, as her parents and brother returned to their land on Vashon after the war, which had been cared for in their absence by one of their workers. Mary and her children worked on the farm for several summers.
Of the 132 Vashon islanders of Japanese ancestry who were either imprisoned or voluntarily exiled themselves from the West Coast during the war, only 40, including the Matsuda family, returned.
Mary was married to Charles Gruenewald on August 10, 1951. The couple had three children, Martha, born in 1954; David, born in 1956; and Ray, born in 1960.
The couple met at meetings of a Methodist college student organization, and later at the College of Puget Sound, where Charles was studying to become a minister and Mary for a career in nursing.
Their interracial marriage was initially met with disapproval by some, on both sides of the family but over the years this was replaced by warm acceptance, said her son David.
Throughout the 1950s, the family moved frequently, as Charles was assigned to churches in various states, eventually returning to Washington for good in 1960. During this time, Mary was a thrifty minister’s wife and household manager. (Charles and Mary were divorced in 1973.)
Her son David recalled her, literally, as a larger-than-life figure in his childhood.
“I remember a stick-figure crayon drawing I drew of our family when I was about 8 years old,” said David. “The setting was the front of our house, dog included, and I had drawn Mom twice the size of the others in the picture.”
He said he had learned many lessons from his mother, including the importance of persistence — something she called “stick-to-itivity.”
When Charles left the ministry in 1966, the family struggled to make ends meet, and Mary returned to nursing in late 1967, working at Group Health Cooperative Hospital in Seattle. By 1970, she had become the nurse manager of the Emergency Room at the hospital.
At Group Health, she conceived of and pioneered that hospital’s Consulting Nurse Service in 1971, creating a telephone care model now used widely by healthcare providers nationwide.
Her son Ray also recalled her courage and tenacity during a Seattle nurses’ strike in 1976.
“She ended up being the gatekeeper of the emergency room, and she had the horrible responsibility of turning people away at the door if there were no beds available,” said Ray. “She said this was the worst experience of her life, even harder than the internment.”
Eventually, the strike ended when the nurses’ union was swayed by strong support from nurses at Group Health, including Mary.
Ray also recalled his mother’s fierce loyalty to the nurses who reported to her and the way she never let male doctors get away with speaking down to or intimidating them.
After her retirement from Group Health in 1992, she volunteered with the Group Health Senior Caucus, recognizing the importance of preventative care and speaking of “wellness” promotion long before it became a buzzword. In 2004, she was named to a delegation that traveled to Washington DC to meet with President George W. Bush about ways to improve the U.S. health care system.
By this time, of course, she had also become a writer, finally ready to share the story of her life. Her urgency to do so increased after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and she saw history repeating itself as Muslim Americans were subjected to the same xenophobia and racism she had faced as a young girl.
“I feel for the Muslims now because I think they’re in the same spot that we were in,” she told an interviewer. “You feel totally helpless, and you don’t know if people will come to your defense. But I still believe in the American way of life – and the strength of that is in the people who live here. One can always hope.”
Mary is survived by her three children, Martha Matsuda, David Gruenewald, and Ray Gruenewald and their families; her grandchildren Stephanie Koetje and Matt Gruenewald, her great-grandchild Aurora Mary Gruenewald; her four nieces, Marlene Fong, Kathryn Nagao, Marguerite Sandico, and Sheila Chan and their families, and her sister-in-law, Miyoko Matsuda, the only remaining member of the Matsuda family who still lives on Vashon.
Mary was predeceased by her parents and her brother, Yoneichi, and her second husband, Jack Aldrich.
Donations may be made in Mary’s memory to Group Health Community Foundation (grouphealthfoundation.org); Japanese American Citizens League (jacl.org); Wesley Foundation (wesleychoice.org); the Vashon Heritage Museum (vashonheritagemuseum.org) and the Vashon Land Trust (vashonlandtrust.org).