GRANADA • Bob Fuchigami stood in a 20- by 24-foot room with a view of the Colorado prairie. The room was bare, nothing but four walls and a single lightbulb.
As Fuchigami, 89, stood on the room’s brick floor Saturday, his mind returned to a day when it was packed instead of vacant. He saw his mother and father and five brothers and three sisters crammed into two of these rooms during World War II. He saw a bustling room filled with family and cots and homemade furniture.
He returned to the three years he was imprisoned here with his family.
“It was,” he says, “really unreal.”
On Saturday, Fuchigami joined the 2019 Pilgrimage to the Amache Internment Center, 180 miles southeast of Colorado Springs. More than 10,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned at the center from 1942 to 1945. He’s returned many times to the center to visit with friends and seek answers.
Friends are easy to find. Answers are elusive.
In early 1942, Fuchigami was living at the family farm in California, 50 miles north of Sacramento. A bumper crop of peaches was expected. He played baseball. He sprinted through his vast yard with his dog, a mutt named Brownie. He enjoyed his collection of pet rabbits.
Then word arrived that the family would have to depart the farm.
“They said, ‘We’re going on a trip,” Bob remembers. “You don’t know why you’re going. You don’t know where you’re going. You don’t know if you’re ever coming back.”
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed infamous Executive Order 9066 in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The order would force more than 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans to live in prisons scattered across the West and Southwest.
The order gave the Fuchigami family only a few days to gather up a few belongings and depart. Bob left behind most of his clothes and his baseball mitt and Brownie. He opened the cages that held his rabbits and chased them into surrounding fields.
He was 13. Soon, he would be imprisoned by the United States of America at the hastily assembled Amache Internment Center.
“It was a confusing time,” Fuchigami says. “I mean, the basic question is why am I here? I knew my folks had never done anything wrong and nobody I knew or met had done anything wrong.”
He pauses as he remembers the 13-year-old version of himself.
“The question is why are we here.”
He pauses again.
“That question haunted me for basically my lifetime.”
After their release from Amache, the Fuchigamis moved to Greeley to open a grocery store on Fifth Street. Their California farm had been taken from them during the war by a trusted friend. These legal robberies were a common suffering for the Japanese American prisoners.
Bob joined the Navy and later earned a doctorate in education. He spent his career roaming America before settling for years in Evergreen. He now lives with his wife at an assisted living center in Lakewood.
He’s enjoyed a good life. He knows he’s been blessed.
He also knows he was imprisoned for no valid reason.
“There were a whole lot of constitutional questions and they were just ignored by the government, and you just don’t do that to Americans,” he says. “They took away everything.”
Each May, several dozen Japanese Americans join The Pilgrimage to Amache. They meet at the cemetery and honor those buried there. They visit the restored barrack that reveals the deprivation of the prisoners. The barracks included no running water, no means to cook and no privacy. Prisoners ate in mess halls and used community baths and latrines.
On Saturday, Fuchigami met with Tom Ozaki, 83, who also lived at Amache for three years. They talked and laughed about days spent playing marbles with friends.
It was the first time Ozaki had returned to Amache since 1945.
“It’s been on my bucket list,” he says. “And time was growing short.”
For decades, he remembered a barren destination. The week before his return, it rained steadily at Amache for three days.
On his return, Ozaki was greeted by thriving plants and grass.
“It’s just strange to see this place so green,” he says. “It’s not stark like it was before.”
Ozaki wants the truth to be known about Amache. It was viciously cold in the winter and just as viciously hot in the summer. It was barren. It was confusing. Ozaki, like Fuchigami, never understood why the American government sent him here.
Looking out the prairie on Saturday, Ozaki worried other visitors would miss the message of Amache. He worried visitors would see the beautiful empty scene and think, “This is the Garden of Eden.”
He knows better.