Letters offer glimpse of life at WWII internment

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DENVER -- Some letters arriving from Japanese-American internment camps during World War II were very specific, asking for a certain brand of bath powder, cold cream or cough drops -- but only the red ones.

Others were just desperate for anything from the outside world. "Please don't send back my check. Send me anything," said one letter sent from a California camp on April 19, 1943.

The letters, discovered in Denver recently during renovations at a former pharmacy owned by Japanese-Americans, provide a glimpse into life in some of the 10 camps where 110,000 West Coast people of Japanese ancestry, including U.S. citizens, were forced to live during the war. The letters were written in English and in Japanese, expressing the mundane needs and wants of everyday life, such as medicine as well as condoms, cosmetics and candy.

About 250 letters and postcards, along with war-time advertisements and catalogs, came tumbling out of the wall at a historic brick building on the outskirts of downtown. The reason they were in the wall and how they got there are a mystery, particularly because other documents were out in the open.

The letters haven't been reviewed by experts, though the couple who found them have contacted the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles to gauge interest in the missives.

It wasn't unusual for internees to order items from mail-order catalogs or from the many companies that placed ads in camp newspapers, selling everything from T-shirts to soy sauce, said Alisa Lynch, chief of interpretation at the Manzanar National Historic Site, which was the location of a camp south of Independence, Calif. She said they earned as much as $19 a month doing jobs at camps, and some were able to bring money with them when they were interned.

The building where the documents were discovered had been vacant for seven years when Alissa and Mitch Williams bought it in 2010. The T.K. Pharmacy was originally owned by Thomas Kobayashi, a native Coloradan of Japanese descent, but during the war it was run by his brother-in-law, Yutaka "Tak" Terasaki, who died in 2004, according to his younger brother, Sam Terasaki of Denver.

Sam Terasaki was in the service then and doesn't remember his brother talking about taking orders from internment camps. He said his brother may have gotten involved because of his longtime participation in the Japanese American Citizens' League, a national group dedicated to protecting Japanese-Americans' civil rights. He said his brother's wife worked as a secretary to Gov. Ralph Carr, who took the politically unpopular stand of welcoming Japanese-Americans to the state.

Some writers noted seeing ads for the pharmacy. One letter from a man who said he arrived at the Poston, Ariz., camp "half dead" addressed his letter directly to "Tak" and asked for chocolate.

The other camps from which the letters came included Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Gila River in Arizona and others in McGehee, Ark.; Topaz, Utah; and Granada, Colo. Japanese-Americans who lived in Colorado and elsewhere in the interior West weren't interned.

The relatively small but stable Japanese-American community that began taking hold in Colorado in the 1880s provided a support network for those forcibly moved from California to the state camp, state historian Bill Convery said. Internees at that camp were able to leave with permission and could visit Denver as well as a fish market near the camp that had been opened by two men of Japanese ancestry. It was relocated to Denver after the war.

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