- Historic Sites
A Village Disappeared
On the sixtieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the granddaughter of a Japanese detainee recalls the community he lost and the fight he waged in the Supreme Court to win back the right to earn a living
November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
Sadaichi Asai, a former islander, remembers that “immediately after that infamous day, Terminal Island became literally an enemy territory.” U.S. Navy forces occupied and patrolled the island with fixed bayonets. The FBI initiated widespread arrest of issei leaders and fishermen and searched homes for contraband: radios, cameras, pictures of Japan, even kitchen knives. Some agents conducted their searches with calm professionalism, but others angrily ransacked the rooms while frightened mothers huddled with their young children.
By early February 1942., Terminal Island was a community of women and children, most with no income. Some families had nisei sons, young adults who had worked as fishermen, but their experience was too meager for them to take the boats out without the skilled guidance of the veteran “salts,” most of whom were behind bars. Rumor held that husbands, fathers, and brothers had been executed—or that all Japanese families were to be.
On February 19, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the evacuation of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. Mass relocations into camps began in late March and April, and Terminal Islanders were the first to be evicted. On February 2.5, Navy personnel started posting notices: All Japanese were to be off the island within 48 hours. “The notice never said anything about where to go, or how to go,” my father says. “It just said, ‘Forty-eight hours, get out.’”
Without my grandfather, it was up to my father to move his family’s entire household. Somehow, he managed to locate a house for his mother and siblings on mainland Los Angeles and to move most of their belongings there within the deadline. Other families, too, just managed: Mainland friends and relatives helped, and many non-Japanese church groups—especially the Baptists and Quakers—provided unstinting support.
There were also those who saw the plight of the residents as no more than an opportunity to obtain fishing equipment and furniture at throwaway prices. Many islanders have vivid memories of dealers making infuriatingly cheap offers for valuable possessions—offers that could not be refused, for the alternative was abandonment.
In just two days, Terminal Island became a ghost town. Its inhabitants, scattered throughout the metropolitan area, lived in limbo for several weeks. On April i, they were given the opportunity to move to Manzanar, the first internment camp prepared to take evacuees.
My grandfather was following the characteristic course endured by most issei men picked up in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. After his incarceration in San Diego, authorities moved him to a prison camp administered by the Department of Justice in Fort Missoula, Montana. It was one of several reserved for the “known dangerous,” which included all issei fishermen. He remained there until he was allowed to rejoin his family in Manzanar in 1943. But his family suffered yet another blow. During their temporary stay on the mainland, FBI agents took my grandmother into custody. My father remembers the moment: “There had been rumors that the Terminal Islanders would be evacuated again to someplace inland. To prepare for the move, I thought I’d better get the car in good shape; the trip might be a long one. So, with wrench in hand, I was about to remove the sparkplugs to clean, then someone tapped me on the back. I looked up and noticed a guy in trench coat and Homburg. An FBI man. He asked me where he could find Mrs. Natsu Takahashi. When I heard that, I got so furious I had tears in my eyes.”
Nobody said why she had been detained, and only speculation suggested that it was because of her role as an officer of the parent-teacher organization of the Terminal Island Japanese-language school. Fortunately, my father and his siblings were old enough to fend for themselves, and they traveled to Manzanar without their parents. In the meantime, my grandmother was transferred from the Los Angeles city jail to a religious convent before she was reunited with her family a year later.
The barbed-wire fences that confined the people to the internment camps were no barrier against the government’s efforts to recruit young men as soldiers. One of my uncles served on the highly decorated 442d Regimental Combat Team in Europe and returned with a Purple Heart. “First I volunteered for the Army Air Corps on the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor,” says Mas Hirashima, “but they turned me down. Finally, I went to the Army, and they took me in early 1942.”
My father served in the Army’s Military Intelligence Service as a translator for the war-crimes trials in postwar Japan, where he met my mother, a Japanese citizen, and where I was born. He left 40 years later at retirement from his civilian job with the U.S. Army.
My grandfather and his family returned to Southern California in 1945, hoping to pick up their lives where they had left off. But much had changed. Shortly after the eviction, the Navy occupied East San Pedro, razing homes and shops and confiscating abandoned boats for military purposes. The residential neighborhoods were eliminated, leaving the island part military base, part industrial zone.