Living behind barbed wire: One Madigan family's story

By Ms. Suzanne Ovel (Army Medicine)June 19, 2017

Living behind barbed wire: One Madigan family's story
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Living behind barbed wire: One Madigan family's story
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Living behind barbed wire: One Madigan family's story
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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- When the evacuation order came through, Yoshiko Fujimoto, her two teenaged sisters and mother -- all living in Tacoma, Wash., at the time -- had to think and move quickly. Her father had passed away just before the war broke out, so it was just the women who were left to determine what they might need to pack and do to prepare for their unknown futures in an internment camp.

That February of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ultimately led to 120,000 Japanese-Americans being forced into 10 internment camps for the duration of World War II.

"They had to pack up whatever they could carry and they were all rounded up down at the Puyallup fairgrounds -- the big grassy area is where most gathered. They were basically bussed or railed to whatever camp that they were selected to go to; in mom's case, it was Tule Lake," said Bill Sugiyama Jr., whose mother Yoshiko and father Bill met at the Tule Lake internment camp in northern California. Years later, in the 1980s, his father would retire as a surgeon from Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma. But in 1942, his dad Bill and his family were on their way from Sacramento, Calif., to internment camps -- also without their father.

"In my dad's case, my grandfather was shipped to a different internment camp because he was a lay Buddhist minister, and had some kind of influence over the congregation so they wanted to keep those people separate," said Sugiyama.

His parents didn't talk about their time at the Tule Lake internment camp when Sugiyama was growing up in the 50s and 60s; as a child, he didn't know to ask. Later, he learned that their years behind barbed wire meant communal living in blocks of tar-papered barracks.

"It was a very hard thing. The accommodations were … shacks, everybody ate as a big group in different shifts, and members of the internment camp actually were the cooks, they grew the vegetables, they were the doctors," said Sugiyama. In fact, Bill (a pre-med student) and Yoshiko (a biology major) met while working at the camp hospital.

Bill got cast as a "no-no boy" -- one of the Japanese-American men who refused to sign a document that simply stated that they disavowed any allegiance to Japan and were patriotic to the United States only. Anger at the racism his family encountered stopped Bill from checking yes.

"What happened in my dad's case, my grandmother became very ill and the care wasn't that great and so she passed away … dad was very bitter about how that all went down, and he wouldn't sign that paper," said Sugiyama. "Because of that, he was on an FBI list; he was blackballed from every medical school in the U.S."

When his mom spoke her mind at a camp meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League, she appeared on a list of her own.

"Mom was a very, very conservative woman. She did everything by the book -- very polite," said Sugiyama. Yet towards the end of the war when the military began drafting Japanese-American internees, Yoshiko spoke up to say that she didn't believe the young men should be compelled to fight for a country that put them behind barbed wire.

"That got to somebody on the outside and she was suddenly put upon a list because it didn't sound patriotic … that actually followed her around through school," said Sugiyama. As a graduate student after the war, Yoshiko received a summons to a hearing because of that list; the family never found out after the trial if she was still in a government file somewhere.

While Yoshiko studied for her masters in biology in Michigan, Bill began medical school in Ohio after an internment camp doctor pulled some strings to circumvent the blackballing. When he wasn't studying, Bill was pursuing Yoshiko from a distance.

"He knew that she was the right one for him, and he was relentless. She finally caved in and married him," said a laughing Sugiyama.

Yoshiko left school early to marry Bill in 1948; the following year, he got his draft notice and reported to the Korean War as an Army surgeon. His 33-year Army career took their growing family from Japan to Germany to Virginia and beyond; their daughter Mitsu came along in 1952 and son Bill Jr. followed three years later.

Growing up as the children of Japanese-American internees left them with a residual need to prove themselves to other Americans.

"I'll tell you this, my generation, it was drilled into them by the parents that you have to be better, you have to try harder -- you have to just be better -- just to be considered equal," Sugiyama said.

His parents, though, felt they could never complain, even as they worked to right the wrongs left over from their internments.

"That whole episode with my dad, it followed him to Vietnam," said Sugiyama, whose dad served as the commander of a busy MASH. With the vapors of his legacy as a "no-no boy" still lingering, Bill sought help from friends from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (a nearly all-Japanese-American WWII combat unit) to finally clear his name.

Ten years later, Bill got his dream sheet wish of retiring at Madigan; Yoshiko wanted to go back to her roots.

"She wanted to settle here because this is what she considered home," said Sugiyama.

The couple stayed in the Puget Sound area, near family and Madigan. "It was always her choice of hospitals to go to … she always wanted Madigan. Same with dad," he said.

When Yoshiko broke her hip in 2008 and was referred for rehab at St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood, Sugiyama mentioned to the staff that his mom earned her degree at the University of Puget Sound but never attended a graduation ceremony.

"When the war broke out, she was not able to participate in the graduation ceremony and they mailed her (the) diploma," he said. As some of the staff were also UPS grads, "they thought how wonderful it would be if they could do it now, and then low and behold we had an invitation to participate in the graduation ceremony in 2009."

More than 60 years after Yoshiko earned her biology degree, after surviving an internment camp, a government trial, and life in the segregated south as a military spouse, she finally received her degree in person. While Bill passed away later in 2009 from cancer, he was there that day to watch his lifelong soulmate be recognized. Yoshiko would survive Bill by nearly eight years, until she passed this February as a patient in Madigan's palliative care unit.

But on that spring day, in front of friends and family, in front of graduates born decades after her, Yoshiko walked across the stage to accept her college degree, and to reclaim her own history.