American farmer Bob Fletcher (1911–2013) was an agricultural inspector in northern California who quit his job at the start of World War II to maintain the farms of three Japanese-American families evacuated to internment camps by the U.S. government. Fletcher believed that the internment program was wrong, and he managed the farms until the war was over and the families returned in 1946. The three families had told him to keep any earnings he made during that time; Fletcher only kept half and put the remainder in the bank for the farms’ owners.
Robert “Bob” Fletcher was working as an agricultural inspector in northern California when word came that Japanese-American citizens on the West Coast would be required to move temporarily to internment camps. World War II was raging and Japan had allied itself with Germany, prompting fears that people of Japanese descent would be loyal to their former home country. At the request of a Japanese farmer in his area, Fletcher agreed to caretake the man's farm, as well as two other farms in the area, until the families were allowed to return. The farmers offered him the use of their houses, as well as their farms’ profits; Fletcher chose instead to stay in farm laborer's quarters, and he banked the profits, returning half to the farmers when they returned. Given that most Japanese-Americans in internment camps lost their homes and livelihood due to their imprisonment, this was an extraordinarily gracious act.
After the Japanese sent bombers over Hawai'i's military installation at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. The U.S. military had already aided the Allied powers (France, Poland, Great Britain, and others) in disrupting the efforts of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers (Japan, Italy, and temporarily Russia), but the government of Japan was also exercising imperial strength, invading other countries and courting conflict. The bombing of U.S. naval ships at Pearl Harbor, an overt act of aggression against an unallied power, was the last straw. On December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Declaration of War on the Empire of Japan; four days later, with a similar declaration of war on Germany, the United States officially joined the Allied powers.
In 1941, white people of European descent were the majority population of the United States. On the West Coast, however, large groups of Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian people had settled, both in major cities and in rural, agricultural areas. Some Asian immigrants had been farming in California since the late 19th century. After war was declared with Japan, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering the forced relocation of persons of Japanese descent to internment centers far from the coast. During the next few months, over 110,000 Japanese-Americans were forced from their homes and sent to internment camps, some as far away as Arkansas. This act turned neighbor against neighbor, as many white people worried about the loyalty of Asian neighbors and friends, even viewing them as the enemy. While a groundswell of fear sparked discrimination and violence, some Americans went out of their way to assist their Japanese-American neighbors.
Bob Fletcher was born in San Francisco, California, on July 26, 1911, and he grew up on a farm in Brentwood, California, in Contra Costa County, not far from the great central valley to the east. He earned a degree in agriculture at Davis College (which later became the University of California at Davis) and for many years managed a peach orchard in the northern part of the state. A single man who was dedicated to his job, Fletcher eventually hired on with the state as an agricultural inspector, a job that required traveling around the rural areas of California. Over his next few months as an inspector, he met lots of working farmers, including many who had immigrated from Japan.
Fletcher was concerned when he learned that Japanese farmers in his region would be sent away for the duration of the war. When the Tsukamoto family approached him to ask that he caretake their grape ranch in Florin, near Sacramento, he gave it serious thought. The offer included the use of the Tsukamotos’ home and all the profits from the crop, net of farm costs, mortgage, and taxes. Two other families, the Okamotos and Nittas, made similar offers. Fletcher decided to quit his job and manage all three farms. Suddenly, he needed to learn about tokay flame grapes, which was not a familiar crop, and how to farm 90 acres. He also attracted the disapproval of white farmers in the area, many of whom believed that their Japanese neighbors should lose their property as punishment for being un-American. Although Fletcher was shot while standing near in the Tsukamoto's barn one day, he shouldered the responsibility for the farms and went about his work.
In planning to relocate many thousands of families in preparation for internment, government authorities divided the Florin area into four quadrants, based on a main road and railroad line that crisscrossed the area. Japanese families in each quadrant were sent to different camps, thereby reducing familiarity among those incarcerated. In later years, when attitudes changed and the long work of reconciliation and reparation began for the internment program, the government would atone for its actions. In 1988 U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which authorized cash reparations to the many Japanese that, unlike the Tsukamotos, Okamotos, and Nittas, had their property taken by unscrupulous neighbors.
Single-handedly farming three farms meant 18-hour days and endless work. Fletcher saw his task to be one of caretaking, so instead of living in the Tsukamotos' home, he lived in the bunkhouse meant for migrant workers. He soon he had help from his new wife, Theresa Cassieri, who agreed that they were visitors and should save the main house for its owners' return. When the family was released from internment at the close of the war in 1945, Theresa Fletcher gave it a thorough cleaning to welcome them home.
In the fall of 1945, the Tsukamoto, Okamoto, and Nitta families gratefully returned to their farms and found money in the bank. The Fletchers purchased a tract of land in the area and started a cattle and hay business. Continuing his civil service, Fletcher would also serve on the local water district board and joined the volunteer fire department. He and his wife continued to help their Japanese friends, who continued to be discriminated against by some area locals. For example, if a local business told Mr. Okamoto that a part he was required was out of stock and not expected to be in stock any time soon, Fletcher was happy to request the same part and usually found it readily available.
Fletcher was honored for his service in later years, although he was quick to point out that other area residents had also come to the aid of Japanese neighbors. He did admit, according to the Sacramento Bee, that it had been “a devil of a lot of work!” He died in Sacramento, California, on May 23, 2013, aged 101. His obituary ran in the New York Times and the Washington Post as well as Japanese-language newspapers and Sacramento-area press.
Tokey, Beth, Corydon Smith, and Charles Davis, editors, Diversity and Design: Understanding Hidden Consequences, Routledge, 2016.
California History Action, summer, 2006, Tara Siegel, “Taking a Stand: Actions toward Japanese-Americans in World War II,” pp. 8–11.
New York Times, June 6, 2013, William Yardley, “Bob Fletcher Dies at 101; Helped Japanese-Americans,” p. A24.
Rafu Shimpu Los Angeles Daily Japanese News, http://www.rafu.com/ (June 7, 2013), Gerald Yamada, “In Memory of Robert Fletcher, Friend of the JA Community,” p. A24.❑