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Margarette Murakami and her family were relocated from their home in Sebastopol and imprisoned at the Granada Relocation Center in Colorado during World War II from 1942 to 1945. The prison was often referred to as Camp Amache. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

How Pearl Harbor brought sorrow to Sonoma County’s Japanese community

First- and second-generation immigrants considered themselves American. The U.S. government sent them to a Colorado prison.

A few years ago, Margarette Murakami went to an event that memorialized the Holocaust and other examples of ethnic persecution.

A black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall drew her in. It portrayed a young girl during World War II, pale and delicate.

Murakami thought it was Anne Frank.

“That’s me,” came a voice from behind her.

Murakami turned to find a much older version of the girl in the picture. They introduced themselves and talked, and the woman told Murakami she had survived a Nazi concentration camp.

“Gee, you went through so much worse than us,” Murakami told her.

“But what about that train ride?” the woman replied. It was a question that took Murakami by surprise.

“You went through the same thing,” the woman continued. “They put you on a train, and you didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Murakami was 12 years old when she climbed onto that train in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square in May 1942.

Like those rounded up in wartime Germany, the 120,000 Americans of Japanese heritage who were targeted after the bombing of the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii 80 years ago had no idea where they were going, or what might happen to their homes and orchards, or when — or if — they’d ever return.

Evacuation Day — May 15, 1942 — at Railroad Square in Santa Rosa. Japanese families in Sonoma County would be expelled first to a makeshift detention facility in Merced, then on to Amache in Colorado. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)
Evacuation Day — May 15, 1942 — at Railroad Square in Santa Rosa. Japanese families in Sonoma County would be expelled first to a makeshift detention facility in Merced, then on to Amache in Colorado. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)

About 750 of those people were living in Sonoma County on Dec. 7, 1941.

Murakami, whose last name was Masuoka at the time, was in the car with her family that morning, headed out to get a Sunday newspaper in Sebastopol, when they heard a radio bulletin announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“It was a shock, naturally, to hear something like that,” said Murakami, who is now 91 and lives in a home on a gravel road between Santa Rosa and Forestville.

While the attack was a shock, it was not necessarily a surprise.

Japan had entered World War II on the side of the Axis forces, while the United States was firmly aligned with the Allies. Tensions had been rising in the war’s Pacific Theater for months, as had anti-Japanese hostility on the American West Coast.

FILE - In this Dec. 7, 1941, file photo, smoke rises from the battleship USS Arizona as it sinks during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 7, 1941, file photo, smoke rises from the battleship USS Arizona as it sinks during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (AP Photo, File)

After Pearl Harbor, where 2,403 U.S. personnel died, trouble began immediately for local families of Japanese heritage.

Some locals reported rocks being thrown at their cars. Santa Rosa residents of Chinese descent began wearing ribbons that read, “I am not Japanese!”

“When I went back to work on Monday, the owner was already there with a termination check,” a local man named Shiro Nakano told The Press Democrat in 1991 on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

“He said, ‘I have to let you go because we’re not the same side anymore.’ He didn’t stop to think that I was an American citizen, born and raised in Los Angeles.”

Within days, restrictions had been placed upon Japanese households. Everyone had to be home by 5 p.m. No lights after dark. No travel outside a 5-mile radius.

It was a jarring turn for Sonoma County’s families, many of whom were tightly ingrained in community life here. At least 48 farms in the county were under Japanese ownership, according to a 1942 government survey. Many more first- and second-generation immigrants labored for wages in apple orchards, hops fields and egg farms.

“He said, ‘I have to let you go because we’re not the same side anymore.’ He didn’t stop to think that I was an American citizen, born and raised in Los Angeles.”

They attended local churches and enrolled their kids in local schools.

Their outsider status hit home, though, when the FBI — supported by city and county law enforcement — began rounding up prominent Japanese business and cultural leaders. Most would soon be reunited with their families, but some were sent to Justice Department internment camps for prolonged confinement.

The authorities also began searching Japanese-occupied houses. They confiscated guns, ammunition, communication devices and other material they believed could be used against a country at war.

Shiokichi Sugiyama’s alien registration card. Sugiyama lived in Santa Rosa, and many of his descendants currently live in Sonoma County. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)
Shiokichi Sugiyama’s alien registration card. Sugiyama lived in Santa Rosa, and many of his descendants currently live in Sonoma County. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)

Murakami’s family had willingly turned over their prohibited goods. But the FBI found two items it deemed alarming: One loose shotgun shell, and a photo of Peter Masuoka and a friend taken at a critical infrastructure site. It was a tourist snapshot from Hoover Dam.

The hammer would drop on Feb. 19, 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, directing Japanese American residents in all of California and parts of Washington, Oregon and Arizona to prepare for compulsory relocation.

“They put you on a train, and you didn’t know what was going to happen.”

The incarceration facilities built by the United States during World War II were not the Nazi death camps, by any means.

But they were armed prisons, remote and desolate sites created to isolate people who overwhelmingly considered themselves loyal Americans. Most, in fact, were American citizens, born in this country — like Murakami.

In mid-May 1942, residents of Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties reported to Santa Rosa’s railroad depot, effectively ending whatever sense of security they had been clinging to.

Local Japanese families gather at Railroad Square in Santa Rosa on May 15, 1942, for “Evacuation Day.” They would board train cars for Merced, where they would spend four months at a temporary detention facility. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)
Local Japanese families gather at Railroad Square in Santa Rosa on May 15, 1942, for “Evacuation Day.” They would board train cars for Merced, where they would spend four months at a temporary detention facility. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)

Their first destination was a sweltering, hastily constructed assembly center in Merced, where they would spend four months.

Most were then transferred to a prison camp near Granada, Colorado, on a wind-scoured prairie close to the Kansas border. When the train approached Granada, guards instructed passengers to pull down their window shades, so as not to inflame white citizens.

Jim Murakami, Margarette’s future husband, was in high school when his family was dispatched to Granada. The night they arrived, their son Alan said, was the first time Jim saw his mother cry. She wept because, for the first time as a mother, she was unable to cook a family meal.

They ate government hot dogs.

The “relocation center” — a disfavored term now, as it could imply a voluntary move — was popularly known as Camp Amache.

A letter from a 19-year-old Sonoma County resident conveyed the harsh setting.

“Here, there are all kinds of deadly insects and snakes. By that I mean there are rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions, and centipedes.”

“The weather here at Granada is the funniest kind of weather I have ever met up with,” Kazuo Ito wrote on Sept. 14, 1942, to Lea Perry, who had offered to take care of the family’s property in Sebastopol.

“The day time everything is quiet, but during the night, the wind blows like everything and due to the fact that soil is very sandy here, you could hardly step outside and face it. Also during the evenings, the sky will cloud up and will lightning and thunder quite frequently.”

Oh, and the fauna.

“Here, there are all kinds of deadly insects and snakes,” Ito reported. “By that I mean there are rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions, and centipedes. Since I have been here, we killed 2 scorpions and our neighbor killed a rattler 36 inches long with 7 rattles just last evening.”

Left to right, Janet Kubochi, Anna Sugiyama, Hopper Yamamoto, Norma Hamamoto and Kimi Hamamoto standing in front of the Block 12F barracks. All of them were from Sonoma County. All lived in 12F, one of 29 blocks of Army-style barracks at Amache. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)
Left to right, Janet Kubochi, Anna Sugiyama, Hopper Yamamoto, Norma Hamamoto and Kimi Hamamoto standing in front of the Block 12F barracks. All of them were from Sonoma County. All lived in 12F, one of 29 blocks of Army-style barracks at Amache. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)

At its peak, Amache had a population of 7,318 people, crammed into 29 barracks within an area 1 mile square. It was the 10th-largest city in Colorado during World War II.

Yet, it was the smallest of America’s war relocation centers. It also stood apart in other ways. Colorado’s governor, Ralph Carr, was alone among his Western counterparts in opposing Japanese incarceration, and the treatment at Amache was generally considered more humane.

Rosie, left, and Mary Taniguchi, of Sebastopol, at the train station in Granada, Colorado. Granada was only two miles from Amache, and Japanese prisoners were sometimes allowed into town. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)
Rosie, left, and Mary Taniguchi, of Sebastopol, at the train station in Granada, Colorado. Granada was only two miles from Amache, and Japanese prisoners were sometimes allowed into town. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)

It was also the only one of America’s 10 wartime camps situated near a town. Granada was just 2 miles away, and it was common for prisoners to gain leave and walk into town for shopping. One store there, Newman Drug Co., foresaw demand and stocked a warehouse full of saké.

Despite the barbed wire and guard towers, Amache functioned like a typical community in many ways.

The camp offered baseball and softball games, sumo matches, dances and talent shows. There were classes in crafts like sewing and woodcarving. Inmates worked as policemen, firefighters, teachers, medical and dental staff, postal workers, blacksmiths and mess hall cooks.

In the fields surrounding the barracks, they raised livestock and grew enough produce (eventually including mung beans and daikon) to feed the camp.

The lengths to which Japanese Americans went to create a sense of normalcy in an environment of deprivation were remarkable.

One of the first thing families at Amache did was dig up cottonwood trees from near the river and replant them as landscaping. On the walls of the Masuoka family’s 20-by-20-foot unit were an American flag and a portrait of Douglas MacArthur.

Margarette Murakami’s sister-in-law, who worked off-site, once sneaked in a kitten for the girl.

The editorial team of the Granada Pioneer, a prisoner-created newspaper that published twice a week at Amache. Most of it was in English, though each issue included a couple pages of Japanese text. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)
The editorial team of the Granada Pioneer, a prisoner-created newspaper that published twice a week at Amache. Most of it was in English, though each issue included a couple pages of Japanese text. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)

Men and women frequently took work outside the camp, and young adults were permitted to enroll in colleges away from the West Coast. Some families left entirely, bound for new lives in the Midwest or Great Lakes region.

Those who remained had to cope with a society turned upside down. It was especially hard on the older Japanese immigrants, the Issei, who were raised in a strictly patriarchal culture. They felt deep shame in being branded disloyal, and in losing their sense of independence and agency within the family structure.

As part of the far-reaching Japanese American Oral History Project, compiled across the Cal State University system over a span of decades, a Santa Rosa native described that void. Michael Ishikawa’s grandfather had run a successful chicken ranch, and he seemed to be on the way to prosperity.

“When he had to give that all up within a matter of a few days, it kind of broke him, in terms of his macho image,” Ishikawa said in 1976. “He had to be viewed as the breadwinner, the head of the family. But when you go to camp, you don’t work. The mother, essentially, has the same rights as the father, and that’s very difficult.”

Santa Rosa resident Harry Sugiyama and a friend at Amache. A total of 953 men and women from the incarceration center volunteered or were drafted for military service, the highest percentage of any camp. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)
Santa Rosa resident Harry Sugiyama and a friend at Amache. A total of 953 men and women from the incarceration center volunteered or were drafted for military service, the highest percentage of any camp. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)

Despite the heaped indignities, a total of 953 men and women from Amache entered military service when given the chance, the highest rate of volunteerism among the incarceration camps.

They became medics, interpreters and soldiers. Most of the latter fought with the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most highly decorated unit of its size in American military history.

Thirty-one Amache fighters died in battle, including three local boys — Leo Kikuchi, Joe Yasuda and Pete Masuoka, a former class president at Analy High School and Margarette Murakami’s older brother.

On Oct. 15, 1945, less than a year after Masuoka’s death in France and two months after the second atomic bomb fell on Japan to herald the end of a gruesome war, the last prisoners left Amache.

Many Japanese families had been unable to pay loans, rents and mortgages during three years of incarceration. All over the West, they lost their houses and businesses.

Sonoma County presented a contrast.

Opinion had been sharply divided on the homefront during the war, with letters to The Press Democrat presenting fervent pro- and anti-Japanese sentiment. But for the most part, white residents (and, in some cases, the feed companies that valued a reliable customer) looked after the properties of their expelled Japanese neighbors.

One example: A friend of the Fujita family — a Realtor and an elder in the Presbyterian church they attended — found a tenant for their 4 acres outside Petaluma and made regular payments to Bank of America on their behalf.

When household patriarch Henry Fujita got work managing a 100-acre ranch near Salt Lake City and secured the family’s release from Amache in 1944, his son Dennis said, other friends drove his car from Petaluma to Utah and took a Greyhound bus home.

One group of local teens even kept watch over Enmanji Buddhist Temple in Sebastopol, taking shifts after several arson attempts.

Several sources interviewed for this story said they don’t have confirmation of a single Sonoma County family that didn’t regain its property after the war.

“It’s possible some explanation for that might be the rural nature of the community, and that other immigrants were involved in that same sort of business — in agriculture,” said Dana Ogo Shew, an oral historian at Sonoma State University’s Anthropological Studies Center who has studied the local Japanese experience extensively.

“There may have been a sense of immigrant unity driving some of that.”

Still, reentry was fraught.

Patriotic needlepoint framed by Eva Sugiyama of Santa Rosa while she lived at Amache. Included is a list of names of the people who helped work on the project. Sugiyama died at 25. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)
Patriotic needlepoint framed by Eva Sugiyama of Santa Rosa while she lived at Amache. Included is a list of names of the people who helped work on the project. Sugiyama died at 25. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University)

“When I came back, we were not wanted!” Kichizo Morita of Sebastopol told a CSU Oral History Project interviewer in 1979. “A Caucasian came to our home and ordered us to get out! I called the police, but they didn’t respond. I told my children to sleep with their clothes on that night since I didn’t know if that crazy man would come back.”

Morita visited the War Relocation Administration office the next day, and the intruder was arrested.

Some challenges were more persistent.

Japanese enterprises had withered during incarceration, and bigotry lingered. Jim Murakami, for instance, wanted to go to college on the GI Bill after serving in the U.S. Army, but his application was denied. He had earned his high school diploma at Amache. The government didn’t accept its own program as accredited.

Even those who bounced back quickly had to deal with the scars of imprisonment. Many elders simply buried the pain. The young people found it harder to forgive.

Mark Hayashi, who lives in Petaluma, thinks of his wife’s family, the Miyanos — now in their fifth generation in Sonoma County. They owned a successful egg ranch outside Petaluma at the time they were incarcerated and returned to it postwar. But the gap was crushing for Cynthia Miyano’s aunt, Lily, who had graduated from Petaluma High School in June 1941.

“It came at a time when she should have been doing career development, going to college,” Hayashi said. “And then she winds up being in this prison for 3½ years. So she never went to college. When she came back, she had to stay in Petaluma to help get the family egg business started again. She told me once she was still kind of bitter about it.”

While some victims of forced expulsion withdrew, others became more vocal. And driven by a growing activism among Japanese Americans, the federal Civil Rights Division created the Office of Redress Administration in 1988.

For the first time, the American government formally apologized for the harm it inflicted on families of Japanese ancestry. Over the subsequent decade, the United States would send $20,000 reparation payments to each of more than 82,000 claimants, a mea culpa with a total price tag of over $1.6 billion.

Ten-month-old Dennis Fujita, son of Henry and Ann Fujita of Petaluma, taking some of his earliest steps in the sandy soil at the Granada War Relocation Center, also known as Camp Amache, in February 1944. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University.)
Ten-month-old Dennis Fujita, son of Henry and Ann Fujita of Petaluma, taking some of his earliest steps in the sandy soil at the Granada War Relocation Center, also known as Camp Amache, in February 1944. (Amache Digital Collection, University Library, Sonoma State University.)

The public acknowledgment of one of our nation’s most atrocious decisions meant a great deal to some Japanese Americans.

Dennis Fujita, one of 412 babies born inside Amache, has cycled through many stages of emotion while reflecting on the era over his 78 years of life.

“I felt a lot of puzzlement when I was growing up, and bitterness maybe. And subdued anger,” said Fujita, who lives in Sebastopol. “How could people be treated so unfairly?”

His position softened over the past decade when he made several trips to Amache, where he stood on the foundation of his first home.

“Seeing these young grad students digging through the dirt, discovering historical artifacts and being excited about the stories behind them, that really helped give me a more positive view of it,” Fujita said.

“Had I been older,” he quickly added, “I may have had a very different view.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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