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Tessaku

Digger Sasaki - Part 1

Agnes and Dick Sasaki

“They had soldiers and jeeps with machine guns, you know, patrolling the camps. It was kind of exciting in a way.” 

-- Digger Sasaki

Digger Sasaki has a peculiar moniker, one that has fully replaced his given name and dates back to high school. “In high school, I played football. And you know when you practice, you have to push a sled to strengthen your legs. When people push, everybody says, “dig, dig, dig,” you know. And then one day the coach said to everybody, “Dick here is the smallest fella on the team but I think he’s the best digger.” So ever since then it stuck with me since high school days.

Digger and his wife Agnes sat with me for an afternoon at the Oakland Buddhist Church. As Digger’s hearing isn’t what it used to be, Agnes assisted with the interview and filled in details to his stories. His memories of camp were of teenagers playing, dodging the army trucks, trapping rattlesnakes outside of the camp.

Tule Lake concentration camp (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

* * * * *

Tell me a bit about your childhood and where you grew up.

Digger Sasaki (DS): Where I was born, and I was raised until I was seven, is a small place called Enumclaw, Washington. And that’s about 20 miles east of Auburn. And it’s on the way to Rainier Mountain. They had this Japanese community there and there was a sawmill and a pond, actually all these Japanese worked at the sawmill and some worked building railroad tracks so they could bring the lumber from the forest to the sawmill. Roughly there was maybe about eight families there and then they had a separate barracks for bachelors. I remember growing up there ’til I was seven.

Because your father was working in the sawmill?

DS: Yes, right. He worked at the sawmill. And my mother she was the cook for all the bachelors that were there. So she had to get up real early in the morning, and cook and feed these bachelors. So I felt neglected. [laughs] No, no.

So you lived there for how long?

DS: Well let’s see. I remember at the pond, a lot of the older kids would swim to the logs and stuff. And some of the younger kids would climb on the back of the older kids and get a ride to the log and back. And one time I got on this fellow’s [back] and for some reason he just couldn’t make it any further I guess, so I fell off and I could see the bubbles going up. The next thing I knew they were rolling me over a barrel, because I had so much water.

Agnes Sasaki (AS): Yeah, so you almost drowned.

DS: Yeah so. I remember that part of it anyway. And at that camp there weren’t too many young people, my age. Maybe there were two others, about my age. Then once I turned seven, we moved to Auburn, Washington.

And was it because of jobs changing?

DS: Well, my grandparents had a laundry in Auburn but they got too old. So my mother went to run the laundry then once she started the parents passed away so she was running the laundry by herself. And my father still worked at the sawmill so they were parted during the week. So from seven years old ’til I went to camp, we spent that time in Auburn.

Do you remember having a fairly comfortable childhood? 

DS: We weren’t rich, that’s for sure. My mom had to work hard and so did my dad, too so. They managed.

Were they born in the U.S.?

DS: No, they’re both from Hiroshima.

Do you remember the day you heard about Pearl Harbor? Do you remember what the feeling was like?

DS:  Yeah, December 7th. It was the big news on the newspapers. In fact I was helping my caucasian friend selling papers on the street. It really didn’t hit me as bad, I, you know, I just knew that Pearl Harbor was bombed but that connection, with Japanese that much, really didn’t hit me.

Do you remember if your parents were worried or thinking something could happen?

DS: Well, they were worried because of the discrimination. Because it was bad enough as it was before the war so with the war starting you know, they were more concerned.

Do you remember anything specific that happened?

DS: Well, a lot of times they would call them “Japs” and so forth, yeah. Their English wasn’t that good, so a lot of times they won’t understand what the caucasian people were saying. I remember the FBI coming to the house and store and checking everything out. In fact they confiscated certain items and in fact they even took my toy samurai sword.

I’m sure you were pretty upset about that.

DS: Yeah, oh yeah.

That’s traumatizing, to have people come in and raid your house. 

DS: Yeah. But as far as school, I didn’t really feel any discrimination at that time. But uh, like at school when we had lunch, all the Japanese fellows would eat together, so. But a lot of my caucasian friends didn’t seem to bother me because of the war at that time. I guess it was just too early to realize what’s taking place. Plus we were young, you know.

I was 11 years old when I left Auburn. When we had to relocate we had to go to Pinedale Assembly Center. One thing kind of did touch my heart is when we left Auburn, we boarded a train. And my teacher brought the class to send me off. So, that was really nice.

Were you the only Japanese in the class?

DS: Yes, right.

AS: Now I remember that because when we went on the first Tule Lake pilgrimage, he had never told me this and the bus people were just talking. I forgot about that, that was so touching.

DS: And I corresponded for a little while [with the teacher]. I sent one first because she didn’t know my address or anything. But eventually I quit writing. I remember her name was Miss Louis.

It probably was before people picked up from their parents the prejudice. Do you remember the conversation that your parents had with you about relocating?

DS: There’s that word in Japanese, “shikata ga nai.” So we more or less followed the crowd, you might say. They didn’t seem to talk that much about it.

They just said “You need to pack and we’re going?”

DS: Yeah, because I don’t think they knew themselves. All we knew is we’re supposed to report to a certain spot, area, and we had to take whatever we could carry. And before that, we had to sell whatever things because we couldn’t take to camp. I remember selling my bicycle for just pennies just to be able to get rid of it. And we had our car, we just more or less had to give it away.

So then you were taken to Pinedale. What was your first impression of arriving there?

DS: Well, once we got on a train, all the curtains are pulled down so you couldn’t see out. And I can’t remember exactly how many days it took to get to Pinedale and I remember on the train, they just had chairs, nothing to sleep. So, every once in a while they’ll stop, way on the desert or something, so we could get out and stretch out and get back in the train. But we had no idea where we were or where we were going. And you get back on the train, and train takes off. Eventually we we got into Fresno area and from the train station they put us on some trucks to take us to Pinedale.

And how long were you in Pinedale?

DS: Three months. We got there in May. And you know, living in Washington in our area the climate is nice and on ths cooler side. So once we got to Pinedale and Fresno area, it was really hot. And that’s the first thing my parents complained about because we get there and they assigned us to a certain barrack to stay in and they issue mattress covers, it’s just a bag, and then we had to fill that with hay.

You had to do that yourself.

DS: Yeah. And then they had a steel cot. and then nighttime comes, you go to sleep then wake up in the morning and the bed’s about that much into the ground because of the heat and the weight. It was an asphalt floor. The bed actually sank down into the ground. Yeah.

Do you remember how your parents tried to make you and your parents comfortable or make it a home?

DS: Not really, yeah. Like I said, they just more or less lived with it.

[To Agnes] And where were you?

AS: My dad had a farm in Gilroy. But then they thought that if you want to Reedley, we wouldn’t be sent to camp, so we went there. Reedley is near Fresno. But then from there, we were sent to camp. Everybody thought that everybody went to an assembly center first but I don’t remember that. From what I remember we went from Reedley, straight to Poston, Arizona. And then, I guess some of our family, my mom’s side of the family also must’ve come to Reedley because we were all in Poston together but Salinas people, I forget where they said they went.

How old were you?

AS: I was three. I was three, four, and five. So I thought it was fun, I thought we were moving. I had no clue what was going on. But, as far as I remember, from what my parents said, we don’t recall an assembly center. And then when we came out of camp, my dad lost his farm in Gilroy. I forget if he sold it cheap or somebody just took it or whatever. So we had no place to go back to in Gilroy. And the reason we went back to Reedley, was because his older sister and her husband, their Armenian neighbors, kept their farm for them and worked the farm. And they had their home actually but they had a smaller home, so that’s why we had no place to go to back in Gilroy. So we went from camp to Reedley, lived with them until my mom and dad found a house in Reedley. He became a custodian, elementary school, yeah. So he never did go back to farming.

And what else did your parents do?

AS: On the side he worked at a manufacturing company, Salwasser but that was kind of on the side, he was mainly a custodian. My mom, she was an office receptionist for a doctor. Then I forget if she worked in the hospital for a while.

Did they ever talk about camp?

AS: They were the second, Nisei, his parents [Digger] were Issei. But even the Nisei, that generation, really didn’t say much. That was just how they didn’t talk about it a whole lot.

Yeah I don’t know why our parents didn’t talk about it. Whether it was cultural, I never thought of it. And like I said, moving it was fun. And when I got out, I don’t recall any discrimination or anything and we were back in Reedley, at a country school. But I don’t recall being discrimination against or something.

Part 2 >>

 

*This artice was originally published on Tessaku on October 16, 2016.

 

© 2016 Emiko Tsuchida

arizona assembly centers Auburn california camps laundry pinedale Poston sawmill tule lake Washington World War II

About this series

Tessaku was the name of a short-lived magazine published at the Tule Lake concentration camp during World War II. It also means “barbed wire.” This series brings to light stories of the Japanese American internment, illuminating those that haven’t been told with intimate and honest conversation. Tessaku brings the consequences of racial hysteria to the foreground, as we enter into a cultural and political era where lessons of the past must be remembered.