EVICTION from Terminal Island


Virginia Swanson and Walter Balderston


In the collective memory of Japanese Americans, Terminal Island, in Los Angeles harbor, occupies a special place – as the first community on the West Coast to be evicted en masse. On Feb. 25, 1942, the U.S. Navy informed the 3,500 residents that they had 48 hours to leave their homes.

It was last and cruelest of several blows. The first came on Dec. 7, 1941, when community and religious leaders were arrested by the FBI. Then Japanese fishermen were forbidden to leave the harbor to fish, curtailing their livelihood. On Feb. 9, all Issei with commercial fishing licenses were arrested, leaving hundreds of families without fathers or husbands. On Feb. 15, residents received a 30-day eviction notice. Ten days later, after a submarine scare, mass eviction was abruptly ordered with 48 hours’ notice. Issei women and their children, unaccustomed to dealing with business matters, struggled to dispose of family property and settle their affairs. The result was total chaos, wholesale abandonment of household goods and equipment, and victimization of the women and children by predatory merchants.
Three religious groups provided shelter for displaced residents: the Terminal Island Japanese Baptist Church and the American Baptists’ Los Angeles City Mission, under the direction of Dr. Ralph Mayberry, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the Jodo Shinshu temples of the Los Angeles area.

The Terminal Island Baptist Church staff included Issei Rev. Kichitaro Yamamoto, Canadian Nisei Jitsuo Morikawa, and Virginia Swanson Yamamoto, a Caucasian missionary married to Rev. Yamamoto. In addition to worship services and Sunday School for 400 children, the church had provided its isolated congregation with boys’ and girls’ clubs, a young people’s group, a nursery school, and Japanese and English language classes. Mrs. Yamamoto describes the eviction:

I heard the rumor that Japanese residents of Terminal Island had to evacuate in 48 hours. I called the Navy Office. The officer said, ‘It’s true. Get the people off the Island in 48 hours.’

We got on the telephone and asked for volunteer help from Japanese and Caucasians. There was much organization to be done. We typed and mimeographed sheets on which the families were to list their furniture, four blanks for each family. We had to divide the names and place them in the different hostels that we hoped were ready by this time. Children came to church to help. We sent them from home to home delivering blankets and tags and giving instructions. The women stayed up all night and packed and the next morning when the trucks came, of course, some families weren’t ready. In some cases we had to pull them from the house crying and rush them off. In some cases the trucks arrived and dumped the people off in the country [at unprepared hostels] after midnight with no lights, no water, no gas – nothing. Before the 48 hours were up, so far as I know, every Japanese was off the Island...

As we stood there, we thought of the wonderful days on the Island and we looked back over the years. We thought of our Sunday School. What about the children? What would happen to them?"

Our work was now finished. The days of the Terminal Island church had come to an end. I turned out the lights and left the door open for the Army, who occupied the building within a few days.

Rev. Julius Goldwater, a Caucasian Jodo Shinshu minister, organized nearby Buddhist temples to open their doors.

Every available classroom was utilized, while hallways and aisles were used to store the baggages [sic]. With inadequate cooking facilities in the churches, life under such limited facilities, coupled with the tension stemming from insecurity, was a chaotic sight.

The AFSC had begun preparing hostels after the 30-day eviction notice. They acquired the use of three Japanese language schools [closed because of the war] in El Monte, Norwalk and East Whittier (Blue Hills), rural areas with Japanese farmers living nearby. A fourth site was the Forsythe Memorial School in Boyle Heights, owned by the Presbyterian Mission Board, which loaned the building and covered taxes and insurance.

Through the dry language of a report by Walter Balderston of the AFSC staff, small kindnesses and large tragedies can be discerned, as well as the daunting logistics involved:

A survey had shown that there were about 300 persons on the Island who had no place to go. About half had been associated with the Baptist mission and went to two language schools under their care. A small number were taken in by the Buddhist temples. The remainder, about 150, went to the four places found by the AFSC.

The typical family consisted of an Issei mother with three or four school-age children. There were [also] boys who had been formerly employed in the fishing industry, as well as a few adult men. The group grew from 70 to 93 within 4 weeks.

Unprepared for the stepped-up schedule, the Forsythe Hostel had practically no equipment before the families moved in. Japanese Churches supplied box meals for the first few days. Later, stoves brought by various families were set up, and meals cooked cooperatively. Many families had brought stocks of food with them, which were added to the common supply. Those with money and goods tended to share with the less fortunate. However, government assistance soon provided a minimum of funds for daily needs.

We arranged for the children to enter nearby schools. They were reluctant – the uncertainties of their position and the prospect of early eviction to yet another unknown destination rendered them restless and impatient of the school routine.
Members of the AFSC staff spent much time trying to straighten out the tangled affairs of the Japanese. One case illustrates the economic loss: the father had been a fisherman and is now interned. The principal financial resource was a large sardine net which originally cost $4500, or a year’s income. The net was carried to another hostel by accident and piled outside, exposed to the weather, and becoming badly rotted. We contacted a cannery, which agreed to buy the net for about $30, about the value of the corks and leads. We took the net to the Island on a borrowed truck and it required more letters and a phone call to get the check in time – 3 days before the family left for Poston.

[When the last group at the hostel left for Poston], the AFSC joined with other church groups in arranging for private volunteers to call at the homes of families who had no transport and to take them and their baggage to the train. At the entrainment, coffee, milk and buns were provided. It took nearly a week of constant work to complete arrangements, but cars, buses and trucks took nearly 700 persons and their baggage to the train in the course of the two mornings. Many of the drivers had left their homes long before dawn to get the Japanese to the station by 6 am.

Walter Balderston and his family subsequently went to Poston, where he worked with the Community Activities program. The Balderstons’ first son was born behind barbed wire. In 1945, the Forsythe Hostel was reopened for returning internees.

Edited by Ken Kaji and Shizue Seigel

Mrs. Yamamoto's story is excerpted from Triumphs of Faith: Stories of Japanese American Christians During WWII. Walter Balderston's report is from the files of the Quaker Center, San Francisco.

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