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,” one letter said from a California camp on April 19, 1943.
The letters, discovered recently during renovations at a former Denver pharmacy owned by Japanese-Americans, provide a glimpse into life in some of the 10 camps where 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, including U.S. citizens, from the West Coast were forced to live during the war.
They were written in English and in Japanese, expressing the mundane needs and wants of everyday life, such as medicine, condoms, cosmetics and candy.
About 250 letters and postcards, along with wartime 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 that found them has 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.
They earned up to $19 a month doing jobs at camps and some were able to bring money with them before they were interned, Lynch said.
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 civil rights group.