After many years, Eatonville citizens reunite with former classmate, an interned Japanese American

Eatonville residents rush to greet Bill and Ruth Akiyoshi (right and middle) after the parade had ended. Bill grew up in Eatonvill but never returned to live there again after he was interned during WWII.

Eatonville residents rush to greet Bill and Ruth Akiyoshi (right and middle) after the parade had ended. Bill grew up in Eatonvill but never returned to live there again after he was interned during WWII. (Photos by Vivian Miezianko/NWAW)

By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly

On the morning of Saturday, Oct. 17, Eatonville, Wash., celebrated its centenary with a parade.

Among the riders were Japanese American couple William (Bill) and Ruth Akiyoshi of Whittier, Calif. On the doors of their car were two placards that said, “Welcome Home, Bill Akiyoshi.”

The town of Eatonville

Eatonville is located 32 miles south of Tacoma. Its population is about 2,000.

It was platted in 1897 by T.C. Van Eaton. The town grew in tandem with the logging industry. The Tacoma Eastern Railroad came in 1902, and in 1909, Eatonville was incorporated.

It further grew when the Eatonville Lumber Company built a large sawmill.

Bill Akiyoshi (left) catches up with former eighth grade classmate Arvy Toms.

Bill Akiyoshi (left) catches up with former eighth grade classmate Arvy Toms.

The Japanese American community before WWII

In an article written in 1974 in the Eatonville Dispatch, Dixie Walter mentioned a couple of stories about the Japanese settlement in Eatonville. One story states that the Japanese were brought there in the early 1900s by the manager of the Eatonville Lumber Co. Another story states that many Japanese were hired by the Tacoma Eastern Railroad when the line was constructed through Eatonville. Some of them later found work in the mill, and in time, the Japanese population grew.

The people of Japanese ancestry in Eatonville were close to one another. Adults worked in the mill, while children attended schools and participated in activities such as basketball and baseball. However, people of Japanese ancestry were moved to internment camps by federal order in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Bill Akiyoshi and his wife, Ruth, rode in the parade at Eatonville’s centenary. Their car said, “Welcome Home, Our Japanese Neighbors.”

Bill Akiyoshi and his wife, Ruth, rode in the parade at Eatonville’s centenary. Their car said, “Welcome Home, Our Japanese Neighbors.”

The story of Bill Akiyoshi

Bill Akiyoshi and his three sisters were born in Eatonville. In May 1942, all people of Japanese ancestry in Eatonville were evacuated from their homes to the internment camp at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. The Akiyoshi family arrived at Puyallup about 10 days later than the others because one of Bill’s sisters contracted measles. He was 14 years old at the time.

According to an article in the Eatonville Dispatch in August 1942, there were more than 100 Japanese from Eatonville among those interned at the Puyallup camp. During the internment, Akiyoshi missed his classmates and other residents of Eatonville. “You remembered your friends when you were born in a little town,” Akiyoshi said. His younger brother was born at the Puyallup camp.

“We went to school together from kindergarten to eighth grade,” said Arvy Toms, one of Akiyoshi’s former classmates from Eatonville who welcomed and reunited with him at the parade. Toms even remembered that Akiyoshi attended Japanese school after regular school.

In August and September 1942, the Japanese at the Puyallup camp, including Akiyoshi’s family, were moved to the Minidoka relocation center near Eden, Ida.

Akiyoshi said that life in camp was more difficult for the parents. “There were thousands of families,” he said. “Children played basketball and baseball together. … Being with friends was good for young people.” The seven Akiyoshi family members lived together in one room.

Bill Akiyoshi and his wife, Ruth, have a reunion with Bill’s former classmates.

Bill Akiyoshi and his wife, Ruth, have a reunion with Bill’s former classmates.

Bill Akiyoshi tends to downplay the hardship. “It was inconvenient,” he said of the living quarters, “sharing the bathroom and shower with many people. … But we each learned to wash our clothes [and] take care of younger siblings. There was really no choice.”

After spending about a year and a half in camp, the government permitted interned families’ relatives in the interior states to sponsor families to leave the camp. Akiyoshi’s family moved to Denver where he had relatives, though many others stayed interned until the war ended. No former Eatonville Japanese residents came back to their hometown.

Akiyoshi volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1946. After being discharged, he returned to Denver and soon moved to California, working at minimum wage while going to college. He met his wife, Ruth, through a friend, and they were married in 1951. Graduating from college, he worked as a bookkeeper for a firm, and by the time he left the firm 30 years later, he had become its president. He and Ruth have one son and two grandchildren.

Akiyoshi has kept in touch with some friends from Eatonville.

So how does Bill feel visiting his hometown on its centenary? He smiled graciously, “I’m fortunate enough to be asked to ride at the parade. It’s great to be among old friends. Many friends have passed away. … We are fortunate.” ♦

The Eatonville centennial parade was held on Oct. 17. For more information on the town and its history, visit www.eatonvillecentennial.com. For more information on Bill Akiyoshi’s story, visit www.eatonvillenews.net/interimfrontpage2.html.

Vivian Miezianko can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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