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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

After the war, some Terminal Islanders scattered to places like Chicago and New Jersey to find jobs. But most eventually came back to Los Angeles.

When they stepped from the ferry onto Terminal Island, they saw their cannery-owned homes had been razed. The Murakami grocery store had been demolished. The few shops left on Tuna Street had been taken over by outsiders.

Terminal Island had been transformed into a massive military base and a much-expanded industrial zone. It had been a force in America's victory over Japan and was now an engine of Los Angeles' burgeoning commercial power. The village was no more.

Few of the islanders took up fishing again. No one had the money to buy a boat.

Yamashita's father, the once-proud captain and owner of a 125-foot tuna clipper with a crew of 14, became the live-in houseman for a wealthy Bel-Air family. His mother worked as their cook.

Yamashita had volunteered in 1944 to serve in the Philippines, once the Army began accepting Japanese Americans again. Later, he was struck by the irony of his military career when he returned in uniform to see his parents during the Korean War--and was forced to use the servants' door.

Finding that few landlords would rent to Japanese Americans, many Terminal Islanders gravitated to a trailer park in Long Beach that had been built for black defense workers. One of the few lines of work available to people of Japanese descent was gardening, and the seafaring men of Terminal Island became famous for their skills with pruning shears.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the Terminal Islanders helped each other find jobs and looked after one another. The Baptist church group met in Murakami's living room in Long Beach.

And the islanders would return time and again to the bulldozed spot where their homes once were. They often dragged along their new spouses and children.

"He wanted me to see where the canneries are," recalls one woman, a non-islander whose husband took her on a pilgrimage after they were married in the 1950s. "To me, it was a bunch of broken down, fishy-smelling buildings. But you'd think he was going home to his Georgia plantation."

Over the years, the islanders began to notice that Issei--the original immigrants--were dying off. The Nisei, the second generation, began worrying that the memories would disappear when they did.

In 1970, Tatsumi and others formed the Terminal Islanders Club. They were shocked at the response. When the group scheduled a picnic, more than 1,000 people showed up.

So they made it an annual event. Twenty years later, it still draws hundreds, bringing the village back to life for a day.

Throngs of toddlers and great-grandmothers roll over the island's bridges onto its sole patch of green, a park owned by the same Navy that once helped evict them. Koi fish banners fly over children's footraces. Old-fashioned Japanese ballads drift over the breakwater and taiko drumming pounds through the air. The smell of grilled mackerel competes with the truck exhaust, and leather-skinned grandfathers swap tales in the pungent argot of their childhoods.

Before they go, the people form a circle, stamping out the bon odori, the lighthearted Dance of the Dead in honor of their ancestors.

The islanders know there's a chance the dance may die with them. So they are determined to pass on to their descendants something more concrete.

Last month, the Terminal Islanders Club put out a call for artifacts--old fishing equipment, photos, a kindergarten handbell--and began raising money for an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum.

Of course, a Downtown museum can't store the evocative stench of fish that the islanders drink in deeply whenever they wander back to Fish Harbor--and its remaining tuna cannery.

Recently, Tatsumi and some friends--all in their 70s--retraced their boyhood steps, tooling around the island in a minivan, popping out to sniff the air and conjure up their old haunts. Their reminiscences were happy ones, as if the terrible end of the village had been forgotten, leaving only the good old days.

"This is where we'd dig holes in the sand dunes," says Masaharu Tanibata at a huge pile of chrome scrap, suddenly remembering one rascally old buddy. "Remember 'Soup' used to charge us a nickel to go in his cave?

"We'd steal bananas from open freight cars," says Tanibata, a retired Hughes Aircraft engineer. "We were bad!"

The men stand at the edge of Fish Harbor, where the remnants of Los Angeles' once-great fishing fleet now share the water with sunken, rotting boats. "This is where I learned to swim," Tatsumi says, "with fishing corks tied around me."

Outside a warehouse, they line up for tacos at a catering van surrounded by truck drivers oblivious to the history of this dusty spot. The old Japanese Americans pull aside the young Latinos, eager to pass on their tales. "We were born here. This used to be our home!" they say. The young men smile briefly at the old men, then push forward to grab their meals.

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