Ethics Hero Emeritus: Bob Fletcher (1911-2013)

Bob Fletcher

So many heroic citizens perform their exemplary ethical acts in near obscurity, never receiving widespread recognition or praise, never seeking it, and never missing it either. These are the best role models of all, but we learn about only a tiny percentage of them.

One such exemplar we learned about when he died this week is Bob Fletcher, a former government agriculture inspector who changed the course of his life to help his neighbors, who were in the midst of being abused and betrayed by their country.

In one of the darkest moments in U.S. history, the government of  President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 by arresting 120,000 loyal American citizens of Japanese descent and confining them to internment camps. Through his work inspecting fruit crops, Fletcher knew many of the Japanese-Americans who suddenly found themselves prisoners, farmers who had worked the land around his hometown of Florin, California since the 1890s and before. One of those farmers, Al Tsukamoto, approached Fletcher in desperation with a proposal, asking him to manage his farm as well as the farms of two similarly imprisoned friends, keeping the farms operating and paying  taxes, mortgages and other bills until the Japanese-Americans were released. In return, Tsukamoto said, Fletcher could keep all the profits.

The New York Times obituary notes that Fletcher and Tsukamoto had not been close friends, and Fletcher had no experience growing the crops involved. Nevertheless, he quit his job and took on the challenge of running three farms to help out near strangers. Many of those interned during the war, especially farmers, were ruined financially, because they could not pay their bills or earn a living. But those victims of fear and the U.S. betrayal of its core values didn’t have Bob Fletcher looking out for them.

He worked  90 acres on the three farms for three years, toiling 18-hour days. He kept the farms operating, and paid the bills of all three families. In order that the Tsukamotos, the Okamotos and the Nittas would have some money to rebuild their lives when they returned, Fletcher kept only half of the profits for himself. When the Tsukamotos returned to their farm in 1945, they discovered money in the bank account deposited by Bob Fletcher, and a freshly cleaned home.

The persecution of the Japanese Americans didn’t end with the war, and Fletcher continued to do his part to fight it. “I did know a few of them pretty well and never did agree with the evacuation,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 2010. “They were the same as anybody else. It was obvious they had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor.”  Tsukamoto found that some merchants in Florin would refuse to sell him provisions; when that happened, Bob Fletcher would buy them for him. Bob got his share of snubs and personal attacks for helping his Japanese-American neighbors during and after the war. He refused to let the abuse stop him from doing the right thing.

That is the essence of ethics heroes like Bob Fletcher. Doing the right thing is no big deal to them. He didn’t seek honors for doing what he thought any fair and caring individual would and should do for others. The Golden Rule came naturally to him. How does someone get that way, I wonder? If only we could bottle that innate ethical impulse and sell it.

The Times obituary concludes:

“He was never much for celebrating his role in the war, and he noted that other Florin residents had helped their Japanese neighbors. “I don’t know about courage,” he said in 2010 as Florin was preparing to honor him in a ceremony. “It took a devil of a lot of work.”

Good job, Bob Fletcher.

Good life.


Pointer: Scott Jacobs

Facts and Graphic: New York Times

17 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Bob Fletcher (1911-2013)

  1. The man’s wife ranks right along with him…

    When the Tsukamotos returned in 1945, they found that Mr. Fletcher had left them money in the bank and that his new wife, Teresa, had cleaned the Tsukamotos’ house in preparation for their return. She had chosen to join her husband in the bunkhouse instead of accepting the Tsukamotos’ offer to live in the family’s house.

    “Teresa’s response was, ‘It’s the Tsukamotos’ house,’ ” recalled Marielle Tsukamoto, who was 5 when she and her family were sent to the Jerome center.

  2. Wow. How times change. These days, after being a hero for 12 hours on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or TV news, Bob Fletchers (Bobs Fletcher?)would be arrested and detained indefinitely at Gitmo. Maybe his wife too.

  3. Wonderful story.. For some reason it reminded me of another ethical couple, German Businessman John Rabe and Dora Rabe, living in Nanking in the 1930s. He helped establish a Nanking Safety Zone, which was credited in help saving over 200,000 Chinese civilian lives. He also kept over 600 refugees on his property and held off Japanese soldiers.

    His life was much shorter.. Now he and his wife are resting in a place of honor in Nanjing, and their home is a museum.

    Let’s hope that we honor Mr. Fletcher and his wife in some way.

  4. Oscar Schindler tops the list, and the internemen issue wasn’t as simple as some think, but bravo to Bob all the same. Oh, and Eeyoure, I think you are mixing apples and oranges. I don’t think anyone who has helped the falsely accused has been thrown into Guantanamo.

    • No, it was simple. It was wrong. And as has just been revealed, the evidence submitted to the Supreme Court was fabricated and fraudulent. There was no true threat, and no more reason to doubt the loyalty of these Americans than any others. This alone bumps FDR down, way down, on my great Presidents list. A massive betrayal of core values. “Pre-crime.”

      • Sorry, I don’t agree. BUT, James Dunnigan wrote it better than I could in his book Victory at Sea, World War II in the Pacific. There’s a VERY eye-opening article in it about the internments that boils down to it not being enough to remember history, one must also remember the details.

        • BTW, just for clarification’s sake, I’m NOT saying it was ok. What I AM saying is that it shouldn’t just be dismissed as a one sentence “it was wrong” issue without looking at it standing in the shoes of the leaders of the times. You may, indeed should, come down on the same side of the fence, but I think the underlying thinking should be acknowledged for what it was.

          • See: “The Conspirator.” After every massive shock to the system—Abe’s assassination, The Wall Street Crash, Pearl Harbor, 9/11—leaders don’t know what’s going down, fear the worst, and make mistakes, sometimes big ones. I believe in cutting them all some slack in terns of historical verdicts, but not in terms of ethical verdicts.

            I think the internment of citizens, however, is the bottom of the barrel, and the perpetrators like Earl Warren, William O. Douglas and FDR get two much slack because of their liberal credentials. If it was Republicans locking up citizens, the equivalents of these three would be treated like Joe McCarthy in the history books.

            • OK, although I’d like to know how you distinguish the two types of verdicts, I’m guessing you start by debunking the (admitted) excuses that “they did the best they could with what they had and knew” and “the needs of the many (ie the nation) outweight the needs of the few (or the fewer in this case).”

              Frankly I never thought that those who write the official history for this nation might have given FDR and the two justices you mention a pass because of their liberal bona fides, although I DID think whatever wrongs they may have committed got glossed over with the excuse that “it was WWII” and therefore standards could be loosened. For the record, FDR loses points with me too, for his non-adherence to the Constitution in a lot of ways. Internment of citizens is admittedly pretty low in the ethics barrel, but I wonder what we’ll say down the line if there are more uses of drones to assassinate citizens with NO due process. BTW, when rating the presidents, do you go strictly on their ethics, or what criteria do you use? The fact of the matter is that some (Carter comes to mind) were at heart decent people but accomplished next to nothing, and others, like LBJ, were fairly slimy people but displayed incredible political skill.

              • History’s verdicts? Both McCarthy and Warren/Black/Douglas/FDR/Fahey were using guilt-by-association and the principle of pre-crime to justify punishing and persecuting those who had done nothing wrong and who threatened to do nothing wrong. One war was a declared war, the other was the Cold War.

                Conservatives see the parallels, and ludicrously attempt to defend BOTH the internments and McCarthy. The proper conclusion is that both left and right are capable of rationalizing core rights away in crisis or perceived crisis.

        • Not sure what it is you disagree about. From Wiki (and elsewhere—this is good info):

          On May 20, 2011, Acting Solicitor General released an unusual statement denouncing one of his of more than 65 years ago, Solicitor General Charles H. Fahy.[7] He accused Mr. Fahy of having “suppressed critical evidence” in the Hirabayashi and Korematsu cases before the Supreme Court during World War II.

          The historical record shows that the allegedly suppressed document, known as the Ringle Report, did not originate within “the Office of Naval Intelligence,” but was written by a junior intelligence officer in the field and was specifically disavowed by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in a letter to the FBI dated February 14, 1942. The letter enclosed a copy of the report, and stated that the report “…does not represent the final and official opinion of the Office of Naval Intelligence.”[8] Only two years after the “internment” did the FCC and FBI officially state they had found no evidence of collaborationist radio transmissions by Japanese Americans being sent from the West Coast, but they did find some evidence of such illicit radio transmissions from Hawaii.[9] Accordingly, it was long felt that any suspicion of “suppression of evidence” by Solicitor General Fahy was ill-advised. Korematsu’s vindication in 1983, however, was a ruling that the internment was fatally flawed.

          Acting Solicitor sergeant Katyal remarked in 2011 that, in the pre-war era of ethnic segregation in public accommodations, which on the West Coast included wide refusal of equal treatment of “Japs,” the Chief’s office was easily prejudiced to disavow the Ringle Report in its 1942 letter. He noted that Fahy’s subordinates had actually alerted Fahy in writing that failing to investigate that report, or at least to disclose its existence in the briefs or argument in the Supreme Court, “might approximate the suppression of evidence.” Thus, Katyal concluded that Mr. Fahy “did not inform the Court that a key set of allegations used to justify the internment” had been doubted, if not fully discredited, within the government’s own agencies.

          Katyal therefore announced his office’s filing of a formal “admission of error” negating the precedent value of the state’s decision the government had thereby won. He reaffirmed the extraordinary duty of the Solicitor General to address the Court with “absolute candor,” due to the “special credence” the Court explicitly grants to his court submissions.

          Fahey was much beloved as a judge, and the legal establishment has gone out of its way to bury this. But it shouldn’t have mattered: dsissenting Justice Murphy saw clearly what was at play here:

          “Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”

          Translation: “It’s wrong.” That ethics alarms should have rung out loud at the start.

    • Oh…as you will see if you visit the Holocaust Museum in DC, Oskar was just the most publicized, but far from the most heroic. He’s midway down a very, very VERY long list.

    • Don’t swallow Hollywood magic.. There were many more individuals who risked more and saved more innocent lives than Schindler.

  5. “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again”.

    Stephen Grellet

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