In May of 2012, Gil Truitt wrote an article for his column “Gilnettings” in the Daily Sitka Sentinel. In it, he tells how he witnessed the evacuation of the Japanese population from Sitka in 1941.
“If one is old enough, December 7, 1941, has different meanings and many memories to many individuals. To many, it meant fear but just the opposite to others. Although quite young at the time, those in my generation wondered why the aggressive nation from across the Pacific dared attack us, the richest and strongest nation in the world. We predicted the war would last no longer than a month. That shows how much or how little we know about just about everything.
To those of us in Sitka, etched forever in our memories was the arrest of a Japanese family that ran and operated the local laundry. It was a big establishment, even for that era. To go back just a few hours of that fateful day, the morning started cold and crisp. Although there was much talk of war, the big talk among the youngsters was attending the Sunday matinee in the old Coliseum Theater on Lincoln Street. Capacity crowds attended the matinee “show” (as the movies were called) not only on Sunday but Saturday as well. Needless to say, those matinees were popular.
When the matinee ended and everyone departed the theater, it was surprising to find Lincoln Street covered with tons of new snow. However, the big surprise was witnessing the armed contingent of U.S. Marines escorting the family down Lincoln Street, presumably to the dock shack and then to the Japonski Island Naval Base. We never forgot the sadness and shame on the faces of the family. There was much pity and sorrow from those who witnessed an act that was occurring all over the Pacific Coast and Pacific Northwest. Many years later, citizens from all over the country would regret those shameful acts.”
In the article, Truitt makes reference to the Tanaka family and the City Cafe of Juneau.
The City Cafe in 1938
“The Juneau Empire carried a story recently about the Shonosuke Tanaka family who went through the same experience as the Sitka family mentioned at the head of this column. For sadness and perhaps injustice, the stories for both families were the same: confusion and loneliness. However, the Tanaka family remained loyal to this country and did not talk much about experiences in camps in California, Idaho and other places.
The Tanaka family owned and operated the City Cafe on South Franklin Street. According to the Juneau Empire, the family owned it 35 years before internment and 15 years after. The restaurant was named “Star Cafe” when it was established in 1912. The City Cafe was an institution in the Capital City and was always considered to be a “Working Man’s Restaurant” but was popular with customers from all walks of life: Governors; politicians; tourists; and street people. All that was lost when Shonosuke Tanaka was removed from Juneau. From all reports, the Tanaka family was not “rounded up” on December 7 as was the Sitka family. However, by April 1942 all Japanese Americans were gone.
John Tanaka was a Senior and was scheduled for graduation in the spring of 1942. Since the town was aware of what was happening to those of Japanese descent, JSD scheduled a special graduation for John. A packed Juneau High School gymnasium witnessed the ceremony as a way of showing their respect and love for John. Vern Metcalfe, sportswriter, described the event many years later as emotional, and heart rendering. He put finis on the story with “There was not a dry eye in the packed gymnasium.”
According to the recent article in the Empire, John was well liked and was to be the class valedictorian, but when the ceremony for the Juneau High School Class of 1942 began, where Tanaka would have sat was an empty chair. A.B. Phillips, school superintendent, praised and complimented John, talking about his citizenship, contributions to the school and academic achievements. Years later citizens continued to express gratitude for the act of kindness displayed by the superintendent. The empty chair story was confirmed recently by Marie Darlin, a family friend.
Mary Tanaka Abo was two years old when the family was sent to an internment camp and five years of age when the family returned to Juneau. She has no memories of the internment but knows quite a bit of what occurred from stories from the older family members. Mary and the family did not talk much about the experience of being away from Juneau. When the family returned, the first order of business was to re-open the City Cafe. The family succeeded with the help of the Messerschmidt Bakery and Katsutaro “Slicker” Komatsubura of Petersburg. Shortly after the re-opening, Shonosuke, “Slicker” and Taguchi formed a partnership. Business flourished, much to the surprise of Tanaka who exclaimed, “They all returned!” in reference to all the old customers. A few years later and according to two different sources, the restaurant was given to Sam. He and brother Gim became legends with reputations that stretched from one end of Southeast to the next.
When Sam and Gim retired from the cafe, Sam said by far the best and most favorite customer, barring none, was Governor Bill Egan. And he added, “But that did not stop me from telling him how to run the State!” The cafe was popular with athletic teams around Southeast and Sam always had an answer and remedy for all the reasons for the team losing. If they won, they were told, “You guys are lucky. You lucked out again!” A 1995 Juneau Empire stated, “Gim cooked and Sam was the talk show host.”
The old building was demolished to make way for the rebuilding of that area of South Franklin Street. The institution is gone and the void has not been filled.”