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American internment: Survivor shares memories of Camp Amache as fight begins to preserve site

American Internment: the fight to preserve Amache
Posted at 7:00 AM, May 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-01 14:53:41-04

GRANADA, Colo. — As new bipartisan legislation prepares to designate Camp Amache as a national historic site, Amache survivors who spent three years in the internment camp are weighing in on the push to preserve it.

In 1942, Americans of Japanese descent were forced from their homes and into 10 internment camps throughout small towns in the western part of the United States. One was in Granada, Colorado.

It was officially called the Granada Relocation Center and later changed to Camp Amache.

The Americans who were forced to live there say the camp holds painful memories.

“They didn’t tell us where we were going or what kind of conditions we were going to be in,” said 91-year-old Amache survivor Bob Fuchigami. “We didn’t know where we were, except we knew we were in Colorado because they told us.”

Fuchigami grew up in Yuba City, California on a 20-acre fruit and vegetable farm. He was the seventh of eight children.

“We were loyal, patriotic Americans like everybody else, living ordinary lives. Then Pearl Harbor came along, and we were as surprised as anyone,” Fuchigami said.

For a while, life remained the same until Feb. 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, essentially authorizing the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans.

“The explanation they gave us was that it was a 'military necessity.' Well, that’s a vague term, allowing them to do whatever they wanted to do. They gave us six days to get rid of everything we had, and it was hard to do. I mean, you have a lifetime accumulation of things,” Fuchigami said.

He said his father found a local teacher who agreed to take care of the farm.

“He (the teacher) wrote out a lease arrangement, but he put in a clause that said it’s an option to buy,” Fuchigami said. “He exercised the option to buy, and he got everything. He got our home, all the furnishings, he got the land, the farm equipment, tractor, at very low prices.”

Around this same time, Fuchigami turned 12 years old and his family was forced to go to Merced County Fairgrounds in Merced, California.

“They built barracks and if they didn’t have enough room, they used horse stalls. We lived there for about three months and then they moved us in September to Amache,” Fuchigami said.

He said he remembers arriving at night.

“They kept us on the trains because there was no lighting at the camp at that time," he said. "And so it wasn’t until the morning that we looked out and then there were some trucks there. We had to get on the trucks, and it was about a mile from the town of Granada and so what we saw at first was just a whole bunch of barracks.”

Fuchigami said over a period of three years, the more than 7,000 Americans living in Camp Amache did what they could to form a community.

“We built a school. There were some so-called recreation buildings for each block, but it was not a great place to live,” Fuchigami said. “The military said, ‘Well, you’re going to be here for the duration of the war,’ but we had no idea how long the war would be.”

Fuchigami said tragedy struck while living at Amache.

“My mother had a stroke. My father fell off a truck, broke his back," he said. "Those things might have happened had we stayed on the farm, but I’m sure losing everything is part of what happened to my family. They never really recovered."

Current preservation efforts underway

For the past 30 years, John Hopper, the director of the Amache Preservation Society, has worked to preserve stories about Camp Amache.

Not only does he volunteer and run the Amache Museum, Hopper is also the principal of Granada High School, where he teaches his kids about the history of the site.

“When I first started doing this, it was kind of an educational thing. I grew up 60 miles from here. My mother knew and worked with a Japanese American from Amache, so I knew a little bit about it," Hopper said. "I said we’re going to do a project on it — living history of it — and interview people before they’re gone. And it became more than that."

Hopper spends hours each week giving tours of Camp Amache and welcoming visitors to the museum.

He said the history of Amache has become deeply personal for him.

“I became emotionally attached to the individuals and families that were here. And listening to their stories overwhelms me. It’s a part of me,” Hopper said.

Hopper said one fact about Amache that a lot of visitors are shocked to learn is despite losing everything, many who lived at Amache still chose to serve their countries.

“Amache — it was the smallest of all of the 10 internment camps and yet it had the largest volunteerism to the U.S. military,” Hopper said. “The Japanese American units were the most decorated units in WWII. We actually have a medal of honor recipient. We also have 31 men that died fighting for the United States from Amache as well.”

Even after the war, Amache survivors continued to volunteer and serve, including Bob Fuchigami.

After Amache

When Camp Amache closed in 1945, many survivors found themselves in need of a new home. A natural pick for some was the City of Denver, which is located three and half hours away from Granada.

“At the time, Gov. (Ralph) Carr said, 'We shouldn’t be treating people like this. If you can do that to Japanese Americans, who’s to prevent them from doing that to any other person?'” Fuchigami said. “So, people remembered that and so they said Colorado is the one place where we can go.”

Fuchigami said his family decided to make Greeley their home. Shortly after the move, he joined the U.S. Navy.

Fuchigami said he recalls giving a speech to students at Regis University a few years ago where he talked about his time in the Navy.

“I opened it up to questions and there was a Black student in the audience, and he said, 'Why would you go into the Navy after all they did to you?' I said, 'That’s a good question. I’ve been thinking about that… This is my country, this is your country, this is our country and when your country needs you to fight, you answer,'” Fuchigami said. "I said 'I did, probably for the same reasons you did. You fought in Afghanistan for two assignments. What about how your people have been treated in this country? You probably went for the same reason I did. This is our country — yours, mine, everybody in this room.’“

Fuchigami said the country has come a long way in terms of how Americans of all races and backgrounds are treated. But there is still progress to be made, he said.

“We still have a lot of mistreatment going on in this country,” Fuchigami said. “But times have changed and now we’ve got a number of people who have said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to put up with this kind of stuff anymore. If our people are being mistreated, we’re going to raise a voice. We’re going to protest and we’re going to say you did it once but you’re not going to do it again.’”

Fuchigami said now is a time to also begin repairing past harms. His hope is that the country does everything it can to honor those American citizens who had all their earthly belongings taken from them and were imprisoned for years at internment camps on American soil.

The national push to preserve Amache

On April 14, 2021, Democratic Congressman Joe Neguse and Republican Congressman Ken Buck introduced bipartisan legislation that would designate Camp Amache as a national historic site.

Fuchigami testified before a congressional committee to advocate for this. He said in part: “Local high school students at Granada High School watch over the cemetery and help preserve the area, but they cannot stand alone. They need the National Park Service to help ensure this place is protected, preserved, and interpreted for future generations.”