Who was Gwen Coffin?

Gwen Coffin grew up poor in Colorado, made his way through college and law school in Chicago, married a teacher named Gladys, and, in 1941, moved to Wallowa County to buy a newspaper and practice law. He never got around to the law practice, though he did make some law while serving briefly in the Oregon Legislature. He was still going newspaper strong at the Wallowa County Chieftain when I got here in 1971, taking on Johnson and Nixon and the Vietnam War, promoting conservation and wilderness.

Oh—and Gwen was the man Alvin Josephy called, and the Coffin House in Enterprise was the house that Alvin came to on his first trip to see Joseph’s Nez Perce homeland. They ate lunch and Gwen gave Alvin his first tour of Wallowa County. That would have been mid-1950s, shortly after Alvin came upon the Nez Perce story that changed his life–and in turn has changed many others.

Fishtrap lives in the house now. It was purchased with generous help from the Coffin daughters, Nancy Ormandy and Gail Swart, who grew up in it and like all the things that tied their parents and this house to writing and living in Wallowa County (Gladys had become a Fishtrap regular in her 80s!)

This editorial, which appeared in the April 8, 1943 edition of Gwen’s Chieftain, at the height of the Second World War and just 48 years ago next week, says a lot about Gwen Coffin. He supported the war efforts in Europe and the Pacific, but, as you will see, he questioned the conduct of business and government at home….

April 8, 1943

When historians sit down to write the history of the present war we venture a guess that the government’s treatment of the Japanese in this country will come in for some pretty severe criticism. There is very little to be said in favor of what has been done so far.

In the hysteria of the first few weeks after Pearl Harbor the army decided that the presence of thousands of Japanese in the Pacific coast region constituted a threat to the safety of the country and a policy of wholesale deportations to concentration camps was decided upon. No effort was made to determine who were loyal Japanese and who were disloyal or potentially so. All were given short notice to dispose of their homes and their businesses preparatory to being moved to hastily improvised camps where thousands were crowded into barracks with few facilities for maintaining life on anything like a normal basis.

The whole business is foreign to our conception of fair play and orderly process. Had the procedure adopted been necessary the picture of families being torn from their homes and mode of life and sent to distant internment camps would not have been quite so pathetic. But it is highly doubtful whether the policy was ever really necessary.

We have not felt obliged to send German and Italian nationals to concentration camps in wholesale batches, although it would e exceedingly difficult to make out anything like a convincing argument in favor of a more lenient policy toward these people than toward the Japanese. There are no doubt disloyal and traitorous Japanese in this country but probably they represent no greater a proportion of the total Jap population of the U.S. than the proportion of disloyal Italians and Germans in the total population of those tow national groups. It should have been possible to have segregated the Japanese known to be loyal to this country from those who were known to be disloyal or about whom there might be doubts. The loyal Japanese should have been given every chance to contribute toward the successful prosecution of the war instead of being immediately branded as outcasts and thrown in with the know traitors and shipped off to detention camps.

Besides being an undemocratic process the whole business is unsound economically a Senator Chandler of Kentucky has decided in introducing a bill in Congress calling for the release of loyal Japanese form detention camps so that they may return to useful occupations furthering the war effort and cease to be charity wards of the Untied Sates government. Senator Chandler estimates that more than $50,000,000 a year would be saved if this segregation were made. Much of the resentment on the West Coast toward the Japanese was not the outgrowth of the war but arose during peacetime as the Japanese achieved some success and prominence in their pursuits of agriculture and trade. Many employers preferred to see the Japanese remain in the ranks of low paid wage earners. Others were resentful at the sight of Japanese prospering better than many Americans.

It is foreign to our conceptions of democracy, however, to distinguish between peoples on the basis of color or nationality. There should be only one test for the right to share in the opportunities which this country provides and that is the test of belief in our democratic ideals and government, and a willingness to work with other Americans to further those ideals and to support this government.

Gwen Coffin, editor and publisher, Wallowa County Chieftain

(1986 photo of Gwen Coffin, Senator Bob Packwood, and Wallowa County Chamber President Gerry Perrin at Toma’s Restaraunt in Enterprise.)