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The Yamaguchi family: A history of selfless service

On the west side of Yamaguchi Park, near the flagpole, a newly installed plaque features photos of four brothers, Japanese Americans born and raised in Pagosa Country. Installed last week, the plaque recognizes the valor and distinguished service the brothers exhibited during World War II.

The brothers, Ernest, Fred, George and Ralph Yamaguchi, all served in the “Go For Broke” regiment — the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The most highly-decorated military unit in the history of the United States Armed Forces (the unit earned the nickname “The Purple Heart Battalion”), the 442nd saw action in both Europe and Asian theatres.

While much of the early history of the brothers (and their sister, Lucy) is lost to time, what is known is that the family was a fixture in Pagosa Country from as far back as the 1920s. Soon after Frank and Haru Yamaguchi moved from the Pacific Northwest to Pagosa Country, the family blossomed. While Frank worked as a bookkeeper at a Japanese American-owned sawmill at Pagosa Junction, Haru set up house and took to raising her five children. Unfortunately, not much is known about the family prior to the war.

However, what is known is that the four brothers enlisted in the Army in the early 1940s. While Japanese-Americans were restricted from military service during the early part of the war (classified “4C” or “enemy alien”), President Franklin D. Roosevelt reversed that order in 1943 after several thousand men of Japanese ancestry, training in the 100th Infantry Battalion, impressed military commanders. Ordering the formation of the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team, an all Japanese American regiment, President Roosevelt famously said, “Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.”

All receiving decorations during their time in the army, the Yamaguchi brothers served bravely and with distinction in a unit that produced no less than 21 Medal of Honor recipients.

Marilyn Yeager, daughter of Lucy Yamaguchi and Bill Cotton, provided most of the information for this story. Recalling life in Pagosa Country in the ’40s and ’50s, Yeager said, “There was some prejudice in Pagosa Springs back then,” but added, “I feel very blessed to have grown up there.”

Indeed, Yeager said that the birth certificates for her mother and uncles listed race as “Yellow.”

“For being in a time when being Japanese was not popular, they still managed to accomplish a great number of things,” Yeager said.

While three of the brothers returned to Pagosa Springs after the war (Fred elected to remain in Chicago) and became fixtures of local area lore, it is the last surviving brother (known fondly by locals as “Guch,” pronounced “gooch”) most old-timers remember.

Having served as a photographer in the army, “Guch was the unofficial photographer for almost all events in Pagosa Springs,” Yeager said.

According to Yeager, “Guch was instrumental in getting the Job Corps and Head Start started in Pagosa Springs.” Yeager also said that it was Guch who started the first teen center in Pagosa Springs, along with organizing teen dances at the local VFW.

Yeager also said, “Guch was instrumental in getting the Vietnam War memorial traveling wall to Pagosa Springs. He was the driving force behind that.”

Ralph “Hoppo” Yamaguchi was the mayor of Pagosa Springs and the first Japanese American mayor elected in the U.S. Hoppo (from “japonés,” the Spanish word for Japanese) served as mayor from the late 1950s into the mid-1960s.

Hoppo, according to Yeager, also had the distinction of owning the first television set in Pagosa Springs, after his brother Fred sent him the set from Chicago.

George Yamaguchi was a pharmacist at Jackisch Drug in Pagosa Springs and Yeager said that, “My first job was working with my uncle as a sales clerk in the pharmacy.”

Lucy volunteered at the First Baptist Church for more than 40 years as the church secretary, married Bill Cotton and had two children: Yeager and Pagosa Springs Town Council member Darrel Cotton.

Despite the obvious devotion to public service by the family, most old-timers will tell you that it was the Yamaguchis’ commitment to helping their fellow Pagosans that continues to mark memories of the family. More than that, the fact that those acts of charity were often done in anonymity seems to make those memories sweeter.

Stories abound regarding boxes of fresh garden vegetables left anonymously on the porch of a needy family during the summer; boxes of food, clothes and other items left at the door for a family in need during the winter months; sidewalks of the infirm shoveled after a storm; bicycles of poor children fixed; and numerous other good deeds done simply because they needed doing, with no eye on recognition or expectation of thanks.

In fact, it was the anonymity of the act that was almost a hallmark of the Yamaguchi family. A common comment among old-timers is that, if no one knew who it was that helped out, you were pretty sure it was a Yamaguchi.

“What really sticks out in my mind is how giving they were,” said Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon. “They were always willing to help out. It didn’t matter who it was or what it was, from snow removal to driving someone to the doctor.

“Plus,” Aragon continued, “the emphasis on anonymity was the kicker. You knew it was sincere.

“I feel fortunate to have had the privilege of knowing them.”

It would be impossible to tally the number of lives touched by the Yamaguchis during the last three-quarters of a century. However, with the dedication of Yamaguchi Park and the accompanying plaque, it is hoped that, if future residents of Pagosa Springs don’t know the story of the Yamaguchi family, they will at least carry on the family’s legacy of service — to their community, their country and, especially, their fellow human beings.

jim@pagosasun.com