For more than 30 years, few faces in Juneau, Alaska, were as familiar as that of Shonosuke Tanaka. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the hungry miners, longshoremen and fishermen of the frontier town piled into the greasy spoon owned by Tanaka—who had arrived in the Territory of Alaska’s capital in 1907—to chow down on everything from sourdough pancakes to sweet ands sour spareribs.
Life for the City Cafe’s Japanese-born proprietor suddenly changed, however, in the waning days of 1941 thanks to events nearly 3,000 miles away in another American territory. On December 8, 1941—the day after the “date which will live in infamy”—Congress responded to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by declaring war on Japan. A maelstrom of fear enveloped the United States, and not even a mainstay of a close-knit community such as Tanaka could escape its powerful current. Nothing could save him—not the decades-long sustenance he had provided, not the deep friendships he had forged, not even the free meals he had served up to striking longshoremen during the Great Depression. Just hours after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the declaration of war, FBI agents descended upon Tanaka’s home and took himapan into custody.
“I may not be home for a while,” the 60-year-old restaurant owner told his wife and four children before disappearing into the darkness. Little did the family know how unfortunately true that statement would be. Tanaka was one of 15 Japanese nationals and two German nationals who were incarcerated for several months at Anchorage’s Fort Richardson before being shuffled off to other internment camps scattered throughout the country. In April 1942, the rest of Tanaka’s family was forced to shutter the City Cafe and live in a detention center at a fairgrounds outside Seattle. Not until 1944 was Tanaka reunited with his family behind the barbed wire at Idaho’s Minidoka internment camp.
Following the war, Tanaka returned to Juneau and reopened his restaurant. While the memories of a dark chapter in American history could never fade for the Tanakas and the approximately 120,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans detained in World War II internment camps, remembrances of Fort Richardson’s hastily constructed internment camp quickly faded until a researcher accidentally stumbled upon evidence of its existence seven decades later.
While Morgan Blanchard, a senior project archaeologist with Northern Land Use Research, was conducting research for a project near the military installation—now known as Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson—he found a rare map from 1944 that detailed the location of Alaska’s only internment camp along with two photographs of the facility. Construction of the camp, which included guard towers and arctic tents erected on wooden platforms, began in February 1942 and was completed four months later.
Among the few public mentions of the internment of Japanese nationals at Fort Richardson was a ridiculous Associated Press news brief that made the detention center sound like a five-star resort. According to the article that ran in the Dallas Morning News on January 12, 1942, Seward, Alaska, resident Hideo Hama found his quarters so luxurious that he requested that his wife and two children join him. “Hideo Hama thinks this is a perfectly lovely war,” the newspaper reported. “His petition declared that the food in the camp was so good, the quarters so warm and comfortable and reading and writing materials so plentiful that he would like to have his family enjoy them with him.”
The internment camp’s structures are long gone from the military base, but by researching historical records and aerial photographs Blanchard and his fellow researchers pinpointed its exact location, now partially covered by a parking lot. According to the base’s public affairs department, an archaeological survey of the site uncovered 116 artifacts. “We did turn up barbed wire and fence staples and electrical cabling that we thought could have been associated with the camp itself,” Blanchard told Anchorage television station KTVA.
Through census records and enemy alien cards, the researchers also identified all but one of the 17 individuals, including Tanaka, held against their wills at the short-lived camp. On February 19—the 74th anniversary of Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which ordered the forced relocation of Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to internment camps—the researchers detailed their preliminary findings at a ceremony held at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Japanese-Americans, including two of Tanaka’s daughters, also shared their personal memories of their incarceration.
In total, more than 200 Alaskan residents were detained during World War II. “There were people who had been raised in Native communities and considered themselves to be Native but because they had a Japanese surname, they got arrested and sent to these camps,” Blanchard told KTVA. “So it’s a very unique story for Alaska. Very different from pretty much everywhere else.”
The study, expected to be finalized later this year, will be sent to Alaska’s state historic preservation officer to determine if the site is of historical significance, and the base is considering the erection of a memorial at the location of the former internment camp.