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'We lost everything’

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Kittredge resident Robert Fuchigami recalls life in internment camp in southern Colorado

By Barbara Ford

Some people used the words “relocation center” to describe Camp Amache in southeast Colorado, but Kittredge resident Robert Fuchigami calls it what it was to him: a concentration camp.

Today, his memories of the World War II internment center no longer hold Fuchigami captive; he’s made peace with what happened during the war, when thousands of Japanese-Americans were imprisoned by hatred and suspicion. Today, he’s fascinated with the camp’s history, not bound by his memories of the three years his family spent there.

On the road to nowhere

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, issued Executive Order No. 9066, which called for Japanese-Americans from the West Coast to be placed in relocation centers.

The chaos that ensued in the days after the order came down overwhelms the imagination. Internees could take only bedding and linens, toilet articles, extra clothing, and essential personal items. No household goods were allowed. Pets were abandoned. Family histories were left behind.

“The suddenness of all this was incredible,” Fuchigami said. “People were frantic and were saying, ‘What do we do?’ ”

Fuchigami, now 80, said they were given six days to pack a suitcase and march into an uncertain future. Entire households had to be liquidated, and what wasn’t sold was stored or abandoned. Japanese-Americans lost millions of dollars worth of property and businesses, according to Fuchigami. His family left behind a 20-acre farm where they grew fruit and vegetables and lived in a five-bedroom home. His parents were panicked.

“We had no idea how long we’d be gone,” Fuchigami said. “We had no winter clothing … no toys and no bikes.”

Some internees stored their possessions at Buddhist churches, but the items were stolen after they left. Another family stored items in a garage, and it was burned to the ground. Cemeteries were desecrated and headstones were overturned as the climate of fear and enmity grew.

In May 1942, Fuchigami’s family, his father, mother and eight siblings, left Yuba City, Calif. Fuchigami was 12.

The order

The notices were tacked to telephone poles and delivered by mail: The U.S. government decreed that all Japanese-Americans must report to the California State Guard Armory for “relocation.”

“They called us persons of Japanese ancestry,” Fuchigami said. “They didn’t call us citizens — they called us non-aliens.”

According to Fuchigami, 126,947 people of Japanese ancestry then lived in the 48 states. Those in Washington, Oregon and California were moved to temporary “assembly centers” and then sent on to the camps.

Fuchigami said the barbed wire, guard towers and restricted movement spelled out concentration camp to him.

Amache bound

The Fuchigami family initially was sent to the Merced, Calif., fairgrounds and housed with thousands of other evacuees in horse stalls. The family was there from May to September 1942.

Camp Amache, which encompassed 640 acres on the scrubby plain outside Granada, Colo., was hastily constructed in 1942. It had 349 military-style barracks and multiple mess halls, communal latrines, showers and laundry facilities. By the end of that year, there were 7,567 internees at the camp, according to Fuchigami.

Each barracks was 120 feet long and 20 feet wide, with six apartments that housed as many as seven people each. There was no running water or toilets.

Each family was given a number; the Fuchigami family was No. 20480. Each family member was given a letter to denote his or her place in the family order; Robert was letter “I.”

Fuchigami said the weather was a surprise for the Californians.

“In the wintertime it was really cold,” he said. “It got below zero, and you’d wake up in the morning and there would snow on the inside of the windowsill.”

A small coal stove provided the only heat in the barracks.

Making a life away from home

Those in the camps eventually began to make a life there. Children went to school; people learned trades. The internees played baseball and football and held talent competitions, and Fuchigami joined the Boy Scouts.

“People who had never had time to slow down and learn new things finally had the time,” he said. “Even prisoners in jail have time to learn new things.”

He remembers one football game against the team in Holly; the center for the team was future governor Roy Romer. Amache beat Holly 7-0.

Churches, camp newspaper offices and a variety of clubs were all part of Amache life. Fuchigami said one sound from the camp stands out in his memory: the mess hall bells that would ring out three times a day to signal meal times.

Babies were born at the camp, and people died there. The bodies of Japanese-Americans who had enlisted in the U.S. military and died in the war were sent back to the camps and buried there.

In an odd twist, members of the Japan Red Cross sent packages to those in the camps.

Fuchigami said people were allowed the leave the camp only if they passed an FBI check, had approval of the community, and had housing and a job in the nearby town. But after a while, he said, the guards stopped manning the lookout towers, and people from nearby towns would come to the store at Amache to shop.

Belongings from back home began to arrive. His mother received a steamer trunk that had once contained bits of family history, kimonos, pictures and other personal items. When the trunk arrived, the lock had been smashed and the contents were gone.

“It broke her heart,” he said.

He said his mother had a stroke while in the camp, and his father fell off a truck and broke his back, ruining his health for the rest of his life. Fuchigami said his family was destroyed financially and physically.

“My family was basically destroyed in Amache,” he said.

The family lived there from September 1942 to September 1945.

Documenting the ordeal

A simple question asked by a student in Bob Fuchigami’s class launched him on his quest to know more about Amache through adult eyes, rather than through the perspective of a young boy.

Around 1980, people of varying ethnic backgrounds began to ask him to give talks about his experience at Amache, and he did more research to find answers to their questions. The culmination of that work is now in his neat office, which contains maps, neatly rolled and stored, photographs gently placed into clear plastic sleeves, faded camp newspapers and rows of books on the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Through his studies, he has come to think of that era as a strange time in American history.

A report titled “Personal Justice Denied” documents the thinking and events that led to the internment of Japanese-Americans. The congressional report was a basis for legislation that provided compensation to those who spent time in the camps.

Each surviving internee received $20,000 in the early 1990s. Fuchigami said many had died by that time, meaning people like his parents, who lost everything, received nothing.

Liberated but lost

When Fuchigami left the camp, he moved with his family to Greeley.

“We had no place to return to,” he said. “We lost everything.”

Later came a stint in the Navy, and an excellent education, culminating with a doctorate in special education. Fuchigami has spent his life as a special-education teacher and helped create federal programs that benefit special kids. He believes education will prevent injustices like the internment of Japanese-Americans from ever happening again.

“We just knew that something was wrong,” he said. “Our government did something wrong, and we were powerless.”

Contact Barbara Ford at barbara@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1043. Check www.HighTimberTimes.com for updates.