Japanese American Incarceration at Merced Assembly Center, California, Interview
(Yoshimitsu) Bob Fuchigami is a Nisei (second generation) Japanese American, born in 1930 in Marysville, California. His family operated a farm prior to World War II. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he and his family were removed to the Merced Assembly Center, California, and later to the Granada (Amache) incarceration camp, Colorado. He currently resides in Colorado. In this interview excerpt, Fuchigami describes the conditions of the Merced Assembly Center and tells how he contemplated crossing the barbed wire fence. Along with other former detainees, Fuchigami received a presidential apology and partial reparations in the 1980s for being incarcerated without due process of law, solely on the basis of his Japanese ancestry.
BF: Yeah, Merced was like a prison camp, surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers manned by military. I'm sure they had rifles or machine guns or whatever, and they had the jeep patrol come around, around the perimeter of the camp, and they would come fairly often. At night the searchlights were there, and they crisscrossed the camp. It's the first time we ever ate at the. . . there was no toilets in the, no water in the barracks, and they had these buildings where, they called 'em mess halls, where you're fed rations. Communal toilet, latrine areas. And there's dust and dirt all over the place. It was just a fairgrounds that had been converted into a prison camp, and there were about four thousand Japanese Americans put into that particular camp. And there are other, other similar camps up and down the state and also in Oregon and Washington.
RP: You shared a story about looking out the fence and seeing some grapes.
BF: Oh, yeah, we were there about, well, we moved there in May, and of course, by June, the grapes were ripening. And we happened to be, the camp happened to be next to a vineyard. And when the grapes get ripe, there's a distinct smell, and I thought, "Gosh, it wouldn't take much to cross that little road beyond the fence to get the grapes." I mean, you could see them, you could smell them. I know several times that I thought about crawling under the fence and just getting some grapes. But you're sort of trying to time the lights because, but they weren't, they weren't set into a standard pattern, so you couldn't judge where that light was gonna show the next, next point. And I tried, I figured, well, the lights were shining over there and they would be swinging over here and so forth, but they, I could never figure them out. And we were told, "You go beyond that fence, you're gonna get shot." So I guess I just didn't have enough courage to do that, and never tried to get those grapes. And that stayed in my mind for a long time, because later on when, in the years, when we were out of the camps and finally were able to get grapes, it was the time of the Cesar Chavez and his boycott of grapes. And I really honored that; I thought highly of that movement, the Farm Workers Movement, and boycotting grapes. So I was unable to purchase grapes, I mean, I just didn't do it. And I remember talking to some Mexican American friends of mine about that, and one of those guys that, "Oh, I don't, I don't," he says, "I buy grapes." I said, "How do you do that? How can you go in your good conscience, buy grapes?" He said, "Well, I buy non-union grapes." And I thought, "Well, that's still not right. You're undermining the movement." So I didn't until the strike was over, and then I could indulge myself. But that's, that was a very strong memory of grapes.
RP: Wanting the grapes and not quite being able to get them?
BF: I, I relish, I still enjoy buying Thompson seedless.
Bob Fuchigami, interview, May 14, 2008, Denver, Colorado. From Densho Digital Archive, http://www.densho.org/. Interviewer: Richard Potashin, segment 15, denshovh-fbob-01 (accessed October 14, 2009). Annotated by Patricia Kiyono.