Eatonville native returns home with stories of WWII internment camps

The scream of a train whistle in the night. A hint of fresh air in an otherwise stifling hot rail car. A memory of awakening to snow drifting through a drafty window and onto the bed.

These are the childhood recollections that stayed with David Sakura after his family and other Japanese-Americans from Eatonville were sent to an internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho, during World War II.

It was 1942, and he was 6 years old.

This week, Sakura, now 79, returned to his hometown for a series of presentations on his family’s wartime experience, one that was shared by more than 100,000 others of Japanese ancestry. More than 60 percent of them, like Sakura and his family, were U.S. citizens.

But the country was gripped by wartime hysteria after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. So the federal government established camps to detain people of Japanese heritage living near the West Coast, where the nation feared another Japanese attack. One camp was set up at the Puyallup Fairgrounds.

Sakura is speaking this week to students at Eatonville High School, and to some younger students. On Friday night, he’ll give a talk that’s open to the public.

A biochemist-turned-investment banker, Sakura is retired and living in New Hampshire. He frequently speaks to school children, offering his perspective on a tragic episode in U.S. history. This is his first time speaking in Eatonville.

The Japanese community in the Mount Rainier foothills town during the war was small, possibly about 150 people, but thriving. Most men worked at the Eatonville Lumber Co. mill, and the families lived on the grounds. Sakura’s father was born in Seattle to Japanese immigrants.

Sakura’s uncle, Kenny, was recruited to Eatonville to play for the company baseball team. It came with the perk of a mill job, and the rest of the Sakura family soon followed.

David Sakura was born at a Seattle hospital, but Eatonville was his earliest home. He remembers the Japanese community there as tight-knit, but active participants in the larger community as well. Two aunts graduated from Eatonville High School, and one was valedictorian. There was a Japanese bath house, and a house where tofu was made.

“This community was very welcoming to the Japanese,” Sakura said.

During his presentation, Sakura will show clips from home movies of him riding his tricycle and sharing an ice cream with his dad, Chet, and his dog, Puggy.

The dog was a wedding gift to Sakura’s mother from his father. The water spaniel was an integral part of the family, accompanying the Sakuras on outings to the beach and on picnics.

But in May of 1942, when the order to relocate was announced, David and his two younger brothers had to leave Puggy behind.

“We didn’t have much time to prepare,” Sakura said. Families were only allowed to take what they could carry in their suitcases. The Sakuras gave away many belongings and put others in storage.

They found a home for Puggy with an Eatonville family. Sakura doesn’t remember their name. But he remembers hearing what happened to his dog after he left Eatonville.

“He would sit on the front lawn, waiting for us to come back,” he said. “But we never did come back. They said Puggy died of a broken heart.”

The Japanese families from Eatonville were taken first to a temporary camp at the fairgrounds in Puyallup, called Camp Harmony. They stayed there for the summer, then in the fall boarded a train for the 800-mile trip to Idaho.

Sakura’s dad became something of an official correspondent, sending letters back to the local newspaper, the Eatonville Dispatch, about life in the camps. And like hundreds of other men from Minidoka, he joined the Army. He was put to work as a translator, monitoring radio communications from the Japanese military.

Because his father’s knowledge of the Japanese language was limited, the Army sent him to language school to brush up. Sakura’s uncles also signed up for the Army, including one who saw combat with the storied 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy.

Sakura remembers his mother trying to maintain some semblance of normal family life at Minidoka. She would take her boys out of the barracks, through the sagebrush to the edge of camp, where they would picnic under the shade of the guard tower.

Sakura said his parents never spoke of the family’s two years in internment.

“Like many of their generation, they didn’t want to talk about it. They wanted to put it behind them,” he said.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Sakura found a letter written by his dad, acknowledging the hard times his mother faced raising her three boys alone while he was away serving the country that had incarcerated his family.

Sakura said he believes there are plenty of lessons for today’s young people in what happened all those years ago.

“It is a story of overcoming adversity under extreme circumstances,” he said. “It demonstrates how fragile democracy can be, and how quickly one can be denied their civil liberties as protected under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”