Forbidden Diary

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On December 5, 1941, Natalie Crouler, an American housewife living in the Philippines, started a chatty letter to her mother in Boston: the children ‘s cat had died, and she described the tearful funeral. But the letter was never mailed. Within three chaotic weeks, the Crouter family were prisoners of the Japanese, trying to adjust to an internment that was to last more than three years.

The Crouters—Natalie, her husband Jerry, an American who had an insurance business in the Philippines, and their two children, June, aged twelve, and Bede (Fred), aged ten—were luckier than many Americans interned by the Japanese during World War II. For most of their imprisonment, they were at Camp Holmes, a place of great beauty and clean, healthy air, high in the mountains of Luzon, where the internees were allowed to govern themselves within set limits. At first, food was not a critical problem. With gifts from the outside, and what money they had managed to hang on to, the internees were able to supplement the camp diet. But crowding, lack of privacy, and perverse social regulations were onerous. For instance, “commingling” was forbidden. Although families could eat and visit together, men and women were housed separately.

Natalie ‘s aborted letter to her mother turned into a diary that she kept daily throughout the mounting hardships of their internment. To keep such a record—her notes, she called it—was an offense punishable by death, but she persisted, convinced that the diary was preserving her sanity. She wrote in a microscopic script on small scraps of paper—flaps of envelopes, margins of book pages—then wrapped bundles of her scraps in plastic cut from an old raincoat, and hid them in the family food supplies, once coating them in butter, at other times burying them in sugar or beans. The diary became her most precious possession.

Both its survival and quality are astonishing. Natalie Crouler was not a professional writer, but writing entirely for herself, her children, and the children she hoped they’d have, she left an unforgettable record—vivid, honest, and compassionate—of what life was like in an internment camp, for captives and captors alike. Edited by Lynn Z. Bloom, The Internment Diary of Natalie Crouter , from which the following article is excerpted, will be published by Burt Franklin & Company. This book is the second volume of their American Women’s Diary Series.

Dec. 27,1941—The Japanese army took over. They woke us at 11:30 P.M. and kept us standing in one small, crowded room until 2:30 A.M. checking off each one over and over. Finally, they herded us all onto the second story, where we all slept on the wooden floor all night. Mrs. Saleeby was allowed a mattress because of her age. About a dozen of us put our heads on it all around her, our bodies stemming out like rays of the sun. Many did not have blankets, and it was a firetrap. The Japanese officers came about every half hour with heavy clumping boots and sharp staccato talk, would look in, stare at us like zoo animals, then go away. A machine gun was trained on us at the front door.

Dec. 29, 1941—Weak on mattress. Got up to wash, then collapsed. Seemed to have no middle and my head felt queer. They called us all onto the tennis court and told us that if we did what we were told that the Japanese soldier was kind. We must give up all guns or tell where any were hidden. They had already taken all scissors, nail files, and pointed objects the night before. They seemed as frightened as we. They divided the men into one group, children and older women into another, and younger women into a third, and told us we were to walk in these groups to Camp John Hay. We were to carry blankets or what baggage we could. What we left behind might be taken by truck afterward.

The internees have been taken to Camp Holmes, Baguio, Luzon.

Mar. 4, 1942—Annoyances are inevitable in such close proximity and scarcity. One woman who usually loves children hopes not to see any for months after she gets out. Communism or socialism will fail if they disregard privacy. Crowding does not produce efficiency and economy. It wastes too much energy and does not make allowance for relaxation and rest. Men can have barracks if they want them—but give them the children and changing diapers on the floor, lifting constantly, cry, cry, cry, and they’ll change it in a hurry. If it is to be close communal living in the future, I’ll join a real revolution.

Mar. 6, 1942—Tokyo radio says they have never interned or held any prisoners in occupied countries!

Mar. 8, 1942—We are not starving but we thoroughly crave accustomed food. There is a definite unbalance to our diet besides the fact of only two meals a day. We lack enough proteins, sugar, and fat. The children have rice, syrup, and a drink of hot water for breakfast; adults the same, plus weak coffee without milk or sugar. Strawberry jam on a piece of bread for lunch but no soup or tea; a radish for the adults and a piece of O’Racca candy for the children. Gifts from the outside have satisfied my cravings for the moment, but I’m still mad for a twenty-four-hour soak in hot water, in a tub, alone—no fire buckets, no three others splashing cold shower in the small enclosure, all standing on one leg to dress.