Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 2 of 4)

COLUMN ONE : A Paradise Lost, Never Forgotten : For decades, Terminal Island was home to a close-knit community of Japanese Americans. Then came WWII. Today, former residents keep the bittersweet legacy of their village alive.

January 05, 1994|SUSAN MOFFAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the boats came in, the women rushed to work in the canneries, welcoming the fish home before their husbands.

"The whistle would blow at 2 or 3 in the morning," Murakami says. "Each cannery had a different number of whistles, so you'd lie in bed listening for your own. We'd take a bucket, a knife, apron and gloves, and go."

When the fishermen came home, they'd drink and gamble.

When they didn't come home, the wives held a funeral with a photo in place of a body.

With the fathers at sea and the mothers at work, the children practically raised themselves. For them, the island was a small haven where nobody locked their doors, every adult was an "auntie" or "uncle" and every child a co-conspirator in adventure among the sand dunes and boatyards. They'd swim across the channel to San Pedro. They'd swipe wood crates from the canneries and attach them to roller skates to make primitive skateboards.

The Baptist church sponsored kiddie sumo tournaments. The Buddhist temple sponsored the Boy Scouts. They'd play cowboys and Indians--and samurai warriors, using sticks for swords to imitate the silent Japanese movies shown in the fishermen's hall with live narration.

The children went to public school during the day and Japanese school afterward. The parents built a Japanese garden for the public school, and so revered its first principal, Mildred O. Walizer, that they raised money to send her on a trip to Japan and asked that the school be named after her.

Only at New Year's did the island routines come to a halt. Nobody worked for three days, everyone feasted, and the children received toshidama-- New Year's money--and went to the Long Beach Pike amusement park. The fishing crews would visits their captains' houses for toasts with sake. "You'd walk down the street," Murakami recalls, "and hear their songs coming from the houses."

So it was, in late 1941, that the village was preparing for the New Year, stocking up on rice to pound into mochi cakes and starting the ritual year-end housecleaning. But there would be no celebration.

On Dec. 7, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

The islanders heard it on the radio. "Was it around noontime?" Murakami muses. "They said it was war."

"We were playing poker," says Tatsumi. "We all said, 'Pearl Harbor? Where's Pearl Harbor?' "

For months, rumors had been circulating on the mainland that the Japanese village on Terminal Island was a spy colony. The cottages, the reports said, had tall antennas to send information to Japan. The fishermen had detailed maps of the coast. Their muscular physiques showed they were being trained by the Japanese military. The boats had torpedoes. They were planning to sabotage the naval shipyard.

In reality, the antennas were poles for drying fish. The maps were navigational charts they had bought in marine supply stores. There were, it turned out, no torpedoes. After the war, the U.S. government said no cases of sabotage or spying by the fishermen had ever been discovered.

But by then the village was gone.

From the afternoon of Dec. 7 to the early hours of Feb. 8, the community's leaders were spirited from their homes by FBI agents. On Feb. 9, they took away every Japanese native with a fishing license. The village became a huddle of frightened women and children surrounded by soldiers with bayonets. Many believed their men had been executed.

Families burned or tried to hide everything they thought might cause suspicion or be misinterpreted. Kanshi Stanley Yamashita set a match to his precious boyhood collection of magazines on Japanese and American warships. Under the asphalt of today's cargo container yards an archeologist might find pictures of Emperor Hirohito, guns, kimonos, photos, record albums, tea sets, dolls and the other artifacts of Japanese life that the village literally buried.

On Feb. 25, the remaining population was given 48 hours to evacuate. Profiteers descended to buy stoves and radios for next to nothing. The islanders stored or sold what goods they could, but much of the village--boats, nets, furniture, china--was deserted where it was, as if the people might return in time for dinner.

Within months, much of the village re-established itself behind barbed wire in its own corner of the internment camp at Manzanar, in the windy desert of Northern California. Most families were fatherless--the older men were detained in separate camps. For many Terminal Islanders, it was their first chance to spend much time around more assimilated Japanese Americans from all over California.

Those others made fun of the islanders for their rough ways and peculiar language--a crude and colorful mix of English, backcountry Japanese and fishermen's slang. Older brothers told their sisters to stay away from those Terminal Islanders.

"They called us yogores, " says Tatsumi--roughnecks, dirt bags, bums. The Terminal Islanders fought back. They formed one of the toughest baseball teams in the camp, wearing uniforms emblazoned, YOGORES .

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|