Times Past

‘Oh, it was so cold’: Eto family member recalls going from SLO County to internment camp

Susie and Leo Kukuchi’s 1940 wedding photo.
Susie and Leo Kukuchi’s 1940 wedding photo.

“But oh, it was so cold.” That was our dear friend Susy Eto Bauman’s reaction to her first winter in an internment camp near Lamar, Colorado.

Susie had grown up in the Los Osos Valley. The events of December 1941 changed more than the climate.

In 1940, Susy married Leo Kikuchi, an apple grower from Sebastopol.

The family did most of the work on the farm, so Leo worked long, hard hours. “He was kind, considerate, fun loving, loved to play his saxophone, and was a very serious thinker and a perfect husband.”

Susy and Leo were at her family’s Los Osos ranch on Dec. 7 when they heard of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The next morning, they learned that Susie’s father, Tameji Eto, was arrested by county sheriffs during the night. Hundreds of “leading” Japanese-Americans along the Pacific Coast had been seized.

Susy and Leo had to return to their farm near Sebastopol. There, they received word of Executive Order 9066, the Japanese Evacuation Order.

The Kikuchis were taken to Merced Assembly Center until a relocation camp in Colorado was ready.

‟In Merced it rained so much that our barracks were surrounded by mud. When I tried to go to the mess hall for meals carrying our baby son Ronald in my arms, my shoe would get stuck in the mud. When I tried to take a step, only my stocking foot came out. We fell in the mud and missed our meal!

‟Our ‘outhouse’ only had a split cloth hanging for the door. There was no privacy. Our inner walls didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling, so we could hear every word spoken in the next room.

‟The night before we left for Amache, Colorado, I was exhausted from washing and packing and didn’t hear my screaming son who rolled off the bed onto the rough cement floor. The neighbors thought I was murdering my son!

‟Leo wasn’t there to hear Ronald fall since he was sent to Colorado two weeks earlier to help finish building the camp.

‟We were taken by train with the blinds down to Colorado, taking two whole days. When we arrived at the station, the place was filled with curious people. They’d never seen a Japanese and thought we were barbarians, as the Lamar newspaper wrote.

‟Then we were guided into waiting trucks with guards in front and back of the line. Trucks went flying through the sandy roads to keep from getting stuck. As we were covered with dust, we tried to protect the children with our dresses and closed our eyes.

‟When we arrived at the camp, we were assigned our rooms. There were six rooms to a barrack, and 12 barracks to a block. The only furniture we had were three army cots, one for each of us, and a potbellied coal stove. Sand blew in from under the door, which had an about 1/8 of an inch opening. As the wind blew hard all the time, everything was covered with dust.

‟In the winter, 3 feet of snow fell, and 3-foot icicles hung from the eaves of our barracks. It was beautiful. I hadn’t seen anything like it in California.

‟But oh, it was so cold. As we weren’t used to slick roads, it was terribly difficult to walk. Many of us slipped and fell. One of my dear friends slipped, fell, hit her tailbone and died.”

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a series honoring Susie Eto Kukuchi Bauman, who will be 100 years old in January.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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