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Ex-Residents Recall Seaside Home

History: Japanese Americans who lived on Terminal Island before World War II dedicate a memorial.

July 06, 2002|ANTHONY McCARTNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whistles still blow across the waters surrounding Terminal Island, but they don't announce the return of the fishing boats. No children remain to play on the island's sandlots.

The routines of the Japanese American residents who had lived on Terminal Island since the late 1800s ended soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

But for Yuki Tatsumi and others who trawled the waters around Terminal Island, or grew up accustomed to the routines of a fishing village, the memories of Fish Harbor remain fond ones, despite the hard times that arrived when war came.

This morning, remaining members of the "Terminal Islanders," a group of former Fish Harbor residents, will dedicate a memorial to their time there. It will recall the fishermen, the women who walked every morning to the canneries and the youngsters who took classes in kendo and judo.

Tatsumi, who was born in 1920, said that most people who lived on the island in the '30s and '40s would be shocked by the place today.

"They won't recognize it," Tatsumi said. "Only the street names are the same."

The canneries are gone. Tuna Street, once the island's "main street" of shops and stores, now has only one restaurant, surrounded by warehouses and shipping businesses.

Across the harbor, sandwiched between a firehouse and a private marina, is the monument.

A pair of men, frozen in bronze, prepare to cast their nets into the blue-green water. Behind them, two panes of glass are etched with a picture of Fish Harbor in 1936. For a viewer standing off to the side, the etching superimposes itself on the current scene, replacing yachts and sailboats with fishing boats and warehouses with the barracks-type housing where the Japanese American fishermen and their families lived.

The monument also features nine black marble panels with inscriptions telling the story of Fish Harbor. Nearby stands a 17-foot torii gate with the words for "good fishing" carved in Japanese characters on its crossbeam.

Tatsumi, the son of an abalone fisherman, was born at Fish Harbor. He learned early how lucrative fishing could be in those days. After high school, he took a bookkeeping job on the island for $75 a month. One day he helped pull in some nets "just for the fun of it" on a relative's fishing boat, and pulled in $75 for the day.

When war broke out with Japan, Tatsumi waited to be drafted as a 1-A private into the U.S. Army. Instead, he was classified as 4C--"enemy alien."

Along with the rest of Fish Harbor's 3,000 Japanese American residents, Tatsumi was ordered to leave his home for an internment camp within 48 hours.

The U.S. Navy later tore down the fishermen's housing and took over the land.

When he was released from camp in 1945, Fish Harbor was gone. He eventually opened a grocery store in Long Beach, which he sold in 1982.

The memorial, he said, started as an idea among about 1,200 former Fish Harbor residents who gathered and formed the "Terminal Islanders" group in 1971.

It wasn't until 1998, when a nonprofit committee had been founded and a $140,000 grant had been secured, that building the memorial seemed possible.

Tatsumi estimated that several hundred people would attend this morning's dedication, including several former residents from around the country.

Only about 600 Terminal Islanders remain. Their desire to "honor our parents for their contributions to the U.S. Japanese fishing industry" hasn't diminished, Tatsumi said.

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