A Village Disappeared

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“Nighttime I was lonely and scared,” remembers one-time resident Charlie Hamasaki, “because my father was out fishing, and my mother was working at the cannery. I used to go to the cannery where my mother was working and sleep in the big empty boxes the tin cans came in until my mother finished.”

The canneries were more than employers. My grandfather began his career as a boat skipper in the early 1920s, first with Coast Fishing Company and later with the industry leader, Van Camp Seafood Company. Although he was considered the “fish boss,” the cannery employer actually assumed the majority portion—51 percent—of the financing for his boats, while my grandfather owned the remaining share. The arrangement was customary for every boat skipper who was issei—first-generation Japanese aliens. The canneries also provided rental housing for their fishermen and families. My grandfather and his family of seven lived in one of many identical ramshackle bungalows crowded row upon row into a two-block area.

 

California’s modern fishing industry started in the nineteenth century from a patchwork of immigrant fishers catching salmon, shrimp, abalone, whales, and myriad other sea creatures. The richness of the Pacific coast seemed boundless then, and people from many different seafaring nations transplanted their native customs to California. The Chinese fished shrimp from their junks. The Italians used Mediterranean lampara nets to haul in squid and sardines. When the Japanese fishermen arrived from prefectures like Wakayama and Shizuoka, regions known for their fishing tradition, they also brought their own techniques. One of the most successful was a method for catching tuna.

Schooling fish like tuna are commonly caught today by purse seines, colossal nets that catch more than the target fish. But around 1908, a fisheries scientist from Japan introduced a far more selective technique to Californians: pole, line, and live bait. My grandfather fished this way, as did most tuna fishers, Japanese and otherwise.

His fishing expeditions invariably began with the pursuit of bait. My grandfather and his crew of 12 would sail the Marico , his 105-foot tuna boat, in search of anchovies or sardines somewhere offshore. The fishermen caught the bait fish with nets and scooped them up carefully—they had to remain alive—into bedroom-sized seawater tanks fitted into the stern. From there, the Marico left for the high seas, where, as skipper, it was my grandfather’s job to find the tuna. Sometimes, captains who knew each other exchanged information on the latest sighting, but more often than not experience and sharp instinct were the only guides to the fishing grounds.

Once a school was spotted, six or seven men equipped with resilient bamboo poles took their places on steel walkways attached to the hull near the water line. The chummer ladled live bait into the sea to attract the tuna and drive them into a feeding frenzy. The fishermen had only to dip their lines momentarily before fish would snap at them. Landing the catch required both subtlety and strength—a terrific but perfectly calculated tug on their poles so each fish would be lifted into holds behind. The barbless hooks easily jerked clear, so that in an instant the hook and line were ready for the next catch. An hour of this kind of fishing could bring in as much as 2.0 tons.

All through the 1920s, fish were so abundant and so close to California shores that loading a boat like the Marico to its 140-ton capacity might take no more than a few days. But the Pacific’s resources were not limitless. By the late 19305, my grandfather’s expeditions took him farther away from home—thousands of miles away.

On December 7, 1941, my grandfather was on his way home from the waters off the Galapagos Islands with a boat-load of tuna. He’d been gone for months on this trip and was keenly looking forward to Christmas and New Year’s with his family. On December 13, the Marico was chugging into San Diego Harbor when the U.S. Coast Guard stopped and boarded her. Every crew member with a Japanese face was arrested on the spot and put into the city jail. The nisei, being nativeborn American citizens, were released the next day, but my grandfather and other issei crew remained in custody. In fact, within 48 hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 1,291 isseis were taken into custody. They were community leaders—ministers, teachers, businessmen—and licensed commercial fishermen.

WITH MY GRANDFATHER IN JAIL, IT WAS UP TO MY TO HIS FAMILY’S ENTIRE HOUSEHOLD SOMEHOW, HE MANAGED.

My father was attending a local community college at the time. The day after the bombing—a Monday—he remembers the intense discomfort he experienced as he and fellow nisei students walked into the college stadium to hear President Roosevelt’s official declaration of war against Japan. “I felt so small. It seemed like everyone was staring at us,” he says.

Terminal Island—East San Pedro—was singled out for particularly swift action. After all, its residents were more likely to own boats and shortwave radios than cars and telephones. And it was isolated, solidly Japanese, and close to the naval shipyard also on the island. Rumors abounded and fueled the paranoia: enemy ships near shore, air raids on San Francisco and Los Angeles, spies on fishing boats taking harbor soundings.