“How do you put your life in a suitcase and leave?”
That was the question the Japanese-Americans of Juneau had to answer when they were being sent to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho during World War Two.
Karleen Grummett asked the same to the Juneau Empire inside her home on a recent morning in an effort to prompt the imagination on how life changing such an uprooting could be. It’s a question Grummett has learned the answer to after interviewing family, friends and others in Juneau who lived through the incarceration and have opened up about this often underdiscussed period of American history.
Grummett preserved their stories and the community’s response to the Japanese-Americans’ removal in her soon-to-be released book “Quiet Defiance: Alaska’s Empty Chair Story” this First Friday.
Thirty-five Japanese-Americans were taken from Juneau, and even though it was huge event in the town’s history, it wasn’t a well-known one. Grummett said she was about 1-year-old when it happened, so she has no memory of it. As she grew up in Juneau, no one talked about it — neither her parents nor her husband Roger Grummett’s parents. The couple used to go to City Café, run by Sam Taguchi, and never knew that he had been forcibly removed from his home and spent years at Minidoka. Her sister Margie’s childhood friend Mary Tanaka Abo had been taken, but Mary never opened up to Margie until college, Grummett said.
“We were shocked,” she said when they found out.
The research for the book began in 2010, though at the time there were no plans to turn it into a book. The research was an extension of the Empty Chair Project. Grummett and her sister were inspired to begin the Empty Chair Project for the memorial that now sits in Capital Park at a presentation on the Mindoka internment camp. There was a copy of “Minidoka Interlude” a publication made by the former internees, passed around; within it was the list of the 9,000 people placed there.
One of them was Margie’s childhood friend, Mary, and her sister Alice Tanaka Hikido and the rest of her family.
“We were classmates, and we went through high school and everything and we didn’t know anything about this, and we soon found out nobody knew about it,” Grummett said.
In an effort to honor those taken, the Empty Chair Project Committee launched. They researched, fundraised and went through all the needed paperwork to install a memorial in Capital School Park. John Tanaka, who was the valedictorian of his class, had to miss his own graduation due to his incarceration. The school placed an empty chair on stage for him, which inspired the memorial of an empty chair.
Grummett did a lot of research while trying to make the memorial project happen, and it developed into a pamphlet for the dedication ceremony when the chair was finally unveiled to the public.
“As a writer, you like to put faces to names. You want to know who these people are… I decided I needed to know,” she said about her initial research. Along the way she realized that it’s important that everyone know. She still finds people who don’t know about it. With the blessing of Mary and Alice, she expanded her research and began thinking about how to turn it into a book.
She said she felt strongly about writing it, stating she couldn’t foresee anyone else completing the project. “It was so important that it be told and that all the information be in one place so that anyone who wanted to research it would have a resource, at least here locally.”
Grummett had first-hand accounts, such as Marie Darlin who was part of John Tanaka’s graduating class, or Alice Abo who was 8 when she was taken.
“She had a very vivid memory of being taken from here and watching the ship come down the Channel and getting on that truck and going and being taken,” Grummet said about how she was such an invaluable wealth of information for the book. She also learned a lot of information from multiple libraries and from interviews Greg Chaney did for his documentary on the Empty Chair. The process of researching the book took several years, and writing the book was a huge undertaking, with many days spent staying up till midnight to work on the project.
The book opens with an introduction to Juneau during World War Two and the incarceration of Japanese-Americans nationally. Grummett describes what life was like in Juneau for the Japanese prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, then the subsequent fallout which ultimately led to their incarceration. She details their lives at Minidoka and how Juneau welcomed them home upon their release. The next section of the book has several first hand accounts written by the internees, which were also featured at the Empty Chair Exhibit at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum along with photos of artifacts in 2014. The last section Grummett recounts the beginnings of the Empty Chair memorial.
“Besides achieving a little justice for what happened to our friends and neighbors and telling the story of how Juneau responded, I hope it serves as a cautionary tale to educate people about what happened to a group of Americans without due process of law because if we’re not diligent, it could happen again, especially in the current climate of terrorism and the fear it engenders,” she later reflected.
Grummett decided to self-publish the book with funding from a grant by the National Park Service to retain control of the work and be able to streamline the process. Since she didn’t go the traditional printing route through a publishing house, she is able to give many copies away. She said at least a thousand copies are going to be sent to both school and local libraries, museums and other historical organizations; then there are the kits (made up of 10 books per kit) being sent to schools all over the state.
“To me it’s a story of resilience. I don’t know how these people could go through something like that, how anyone could … go through it with the grace that they went through it with. It always touches my heart … I don’t know if I could do it with such dignity.”
Know and Go
Complimentary copies of the book will be given out on First Friday, Oct. 7 from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library, and on Saturday, Oct. 8 from 10:30-noon at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. The book will be sold at the museum at a later date.
• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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