Mary Matsuda Gruenewald (she/her)

By Wendy Liao

A drawing of a Band-Aid with the flag of Japan on it.
“Japan Band-Aid” by Anonymouse.

Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, a resilient and indomitable spirit, has left an indelible mark on history through her unwavering pursuit of education and her inspiring resilience in the face of adversity. Born on January 27, 1925, on Vashon Island in Washington, Gruenewald’s life unfolded against the backdrop of a tumultuous era in the United States history. Her story bears witness to the injustices suffered by Japanese Americans during World War II and her unwavering commitment to breaking down barriers in pursuit of knowledge.

On May 16, 1942, at the tender age of 17, Gruenewald was among the 120,000 Japanese Americans forcibly removed from their homes and interned in relocation camps. Her family was sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, where they endured years of confinement. Gruenewald’s poignant memoir, Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Escape from Japanese-American Internment Camps, published in 2005, provides a harrowing account of her experiences and highlights her courage in the face of adversity.She reminisced about the poignant farewell with her dearest high school companions, as they congregated to bid her farewell saying, “We said careful goodbyes because we didn’t know if we would ever see each other again.”

Despite the oppressive circumstances, Gruenewald remained steadfast in her pursuit of education. She recognized the power of knowledge as a means to rise above prejudice and discrimination. In 1943, she graduated from high school within the confines of Minidoka, determined to overcome the barriers placed before her. Gruenewald’s resilience and tenacity are evident in her words: “I have not lost the desire to go on learning, to continue my education wherever I am.”

After World War II, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald pursued a career in nursing in 1947, channeling her compassion and resilience into healing others. As a nurse, she dedicated herself to providing care and support to those in need, embodying the spirit of empathy and resilience that defined her life.

Years later, in 2017, Gruenewald’s unwavering commitment to education bore fruit when she received an honorary high school diploma at the age of 92. This momentous occasion, highlighted by National Public Radio in a feature article, symbolized the triumph of perseverance over adversity and emphasized the lasting impact of Gruenewald’s experiences on her life.

Gruenewald’s story resonates far beyond her personal journey. It serves as a stark reminder of the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Americans during World War II and the resilience of those who endured such hardships. Her experiences shed light on the historical, political, and social significance of internment and provide valuable lessons for future generations.

Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, a fearless and determined advocate for education, has demonstrated that the pursuit of knowledge is an act of resistance against injustice. Her story serves as a powerful reminder that even in the darkest of times, the human spirit can prevail. By defying adversity, Gruenewald has left an enduring legacy that inspires us all to confront injustice and embrace the transformative power of education.


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