Preservation sought for internment camps |

Preservation sought for internment camps

GRANADA, Colo. (AP) ” Bob Fuchigami was 12 years old when he and his family were told to leave their 20-acre farm in northern California. The peach trees that his immigrant parents had planted were about to yield their first big crop.

It was May 1942, five months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Fuchigami and his parents and siblings were among more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans ordered to report to internment camps. The Fuchigamis ended up at one in dusty southeastern Colorado.

He and his family, like many others held in the camps during World War II, never returned to their previous lives and were left with only memories. And the 10 camps themselves, quickly dismantled at the end of the war, also became memories.

Now, the National Park Service is asking former internees like Fuchigami how it can preserve what is left of the camps and the stories they hold. The Service stands to get $38 million to help cities and groups develop educational programs.

“There was a kind of a rush to cover up that piece of history and maybe not deal with it,” said National Park Service historian Kara Miyagishima.

Congress has approved spending the money, but it remains to be appropriated. Advocates hope to see the money in the coming year. Among them is Fuchigami, now 77, who wants to ensure that no one forgets.

“I just want to make sure it doesn’t happen to other people,” said Fuchigami, who has amassed a collection of thousands of photographs and documents from that chapter in his life.

A young Fuchigami and his family had about a week to pack what they could. His parents leased their land. Fuchigami set his pet rabbits free, left his dog and said goodbye to his friends.

The Fuchigamis were moved to the county fairgrounds in Merced, Calif., before being sent to a relocation center being hastily built in southeastern Colorado, a landscape of prickly pear cactus and sagebrush prone to dust storms.

For three years they lived in a barrack in what came to be called Camp Amache, surrounded by barbed wire and six guard towers just outside Granada.

“We were put in simply because we were of Japanese ancestry, and that didn’t make any sense at all either because we were at war with Germany, we were at war with Italy and we were at war with Japan,” said Fuchigami, a retired college professor.

An order by President Franklin Roosevelt cleared the way for the evacuation of all Japanese-Americans from parts of Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona. In 1988, Congress apologized for the evacuation.

About 2,000 people moved to Colorado voluntarily before the evacuation at the governor’s invitation. They and other Japanese-Americans already in Colorado weren’t interned but were subject to curfews and travel restrictions.

Camp Amache quickly became Colorado’s 10th-largest city, its 7,000 internees nearly all from California ” farming families from the north and professionals and white-collar workers from Los Angeles. Two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens.

Most adults had jobs, earning from $12 a month to $19 for professionals such as doctors ” less than an Army private’s wages. The internees included Disney cartoonists Chris Ishii and Tom Okamoto, Stanford University professor Yamato Ichihashi, and Chiyoko “Pat” Suzuki, who became a singer and Broadway performer. The mother of ice-skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi was born there.

Farmers grew alfalfa, corn and wheat, and they introduced crops including tea and Chinese cabbage. Businessmen opened a co-op store with a $2,500 investment from internees, and residents printed their own newspaper, checked by censors. The camp’s high school auditorium held graduations, as well as funerals.

Nearly 1,000 men and women from Amache would serve in the military, including Fuchigami’s brothers. Thirty-two people refused to serve and were imprisoned, then pardoned after the war.

Fuchigami and his family arrived in Colorado in September, while the camp was still being built. Fuchigami and his brothers raided wood piles to build a partition to give their parents and sisters some privacy. The boys built shelves and crude chairs for the room they shared ” lit by a single bulb and heated by a coal stove.

Fuchigami went to school, got into his first snowball fight and went on Boy Scout hikes, but always with a feeling that someone must have done something wrong for so many families to give up their homes, their land.

Fuchigami’s father, Heita, worked as a farm supervisor and nearly died after being knocked off a truck. His mother, Tokuye, suffered a stroke after opening a trunk sent from home that was supposed to contain kimonos and keepsakes. It arrived empty, with the lock broken.

He and his family never returned to their farm; a teacher who had leased the land bought them out after the 1942 harvest. After the war, the couple ran a grocery store in Greeley, Colo., then moved to San Jose, Calif., where Fuchigami’s father was a supermarket janitor.

Like his brothers, Fuchigami went to go to college on the G.I. Bill after serving in the Navy during the Korean War. He became a schoolteacher and earned a doctorate in special education.

Today, a white stone memorial commemorates fallen service members and the 120 people who died at the camp. The cemetery is an island of green at the edge of the camp center. Only nine graves remain; families removed the remains of most loved ones after the camp closed.

The camp center, bought by Granada for its water, is considered one of the best preserved, even though the towers, fences and buildings are gone. A grid of gravel roads and building foundations remains, and many cottonwood and Chinese elm trees planted by internees ring the old barrack sites.

Granada High School students operate a museum at the old city hall and display treasures by appointment. There’s a collection of videotaped interviews they’ve conducted with internees, and they collect donations in an old popcorn tin resting on a folding chair.

High school teacher John Hopper, who leads this effort, hopes the Park Service program will help pay for a camp visitor’s center and erect five original barracks.

“I think it’s important for this country to understand the mistakes that we’ve made,” Hopper said.

Fuchigami said his camp experience and the discrimination he faced after the war made him value freedom and education.

These days, he lives comfortably in the foothills outside Denver with floor-to-ceiling views of pine trees. But whenever he heads down to the city, he passes Red Rocks Park and sees barracks used by the workers who built its dramatic outdoor amphitheater. Each time, the barracks remind him of his years at Amache and how grateful he is to be free.

“I was born in America, raised in America, always will be an American,” he said.

Support Local Journalism