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Both Fond, Bitter Memories : Post-War Trailer Park Refugees Plan Reunion

Times Staff Writer

Until he was 16 years old, Mas Wada knew practically nothing of the world outside his trailer camp in Sun Valley, a refuge for Japanese-Americans who had just been released from World War II internment camps.

There were the daily trips to school, during which he was joined by dozens of other Japanese-Americans, and an occasional journey into Burbank to take in a movie. But, Wada said, he felt lost outside the trailer camp, which housed thousands of uprooted Japanese-Americans in the years after World War II, an almost forgotten chapter in San Fernando Valley history.

“I had no conception of what it was like on the outside. I don’t think any of us did,” said Wada, 45, now a successful landscape architect from Arleta.

“We were afraid to go out, afraid of the racial prejudice. Inside the trailer camps, we all became very close.”

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More than 40 years have passed since the Sun Valley trailer park and another one in Burbank were opened to the so-called Nikkeis--anyone of Japanese ancestry born in the United States--who have since moved out and are scattered through Southern California. Memories have faded, and friendships have been lost.

Bittersweet Memories

But the feelings--some fond, some bitter--remain, and those who shared the trailer camp experience are now trying to organize a reunion.

“We’re a vanishing breed,” said Harold Muraoka, one of the organizers of the get-together. “We lived and breathed with each other for a long time and became friends whether we liked it or not. It would be a shame to not see each other again before we die.”

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Tracking down the estimated 5,000 Japanese-Americans who lived in the trailer camps in the Valley from 1945 to 1956 may take some time, reunion organizers said, so they have set aside a date in October, 1987, for the gathering at a Burbank restaurant. Space limitations will allow for only about 500 people, Muraoka said.

“We have a lot of things to reminisce about,” said Wada, who was 6 months old when authorities transported his parents and his 13 brothers and sisters to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz.

Wada’s story is similar to that of most Japanese-Americans who were interned during the war, only about 60,000 of whom are still alive.

Wada, like many of the 120,000 people who spent the war in guarded camps, was allowed to return to the area where he had lived before the war.

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Many had no homes to return to--they were forced to sell them when they were interned--and federal officials were hard-pressed to find housing for the evacuees, said Fred Ross, 76, who was the district officer for the War Relocation Authority in Northern California from 1943 to 1947.

‘It Was an Awful Mess’

“Here were all these people with children, and it was an awful mess,” Ross said in an interview. “The government ordered the internment camps to be emptied in early ’46, and right away we were working against time. The whole philosophy was to not set up a situation like an Indian reservation, so we had a terrible time finding housing for them.”

The government turned at first to religious organizations for help, Ross said. But churches could only accommodate so many, so WRA began using other strategies to find temporary housing, such as leasing vacant property and putting up makeshift dwellings, Ross said.

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3 Southland Facilities

In Southern California three camps were established. One was at the naval barracks in Lomita and two were in trailer camps, in Burbank near the intersection of Hollywood Way and Winona Avenue and in Sun Valley at San Fernando Road and Olina Street, said Carole Hayashino, spokeswoman for the Japanese American Citizens League.

“It was very frightening. We didn’t have any place to go, and we were broke,” said Muraoka, 55, of Northridge, whose family was one of the last to leave the Manzanar internment camp in the Owens Valley in 1945.

Temporary housing for the Nikkeis at the two camps in the Valley consisted of crude trailers that the government sold to the Japanese-Americans for $65 to $110 each, said Sally Hamamoto, 59, of Mission Hills, who spent time in both Valley camps. There were community bathrooms and kitchens within the camps.

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Looking back on the time they spent in the trailer camps, most Japanese-Americans have pleasant memories of the camaraderie and the feel of starting fresh after the wasted years in the internment camps.

Hamamoto, for example, married while living at the trailer camp in Sun Valley about a year after she was released from an internment facility in Colorado. Soon after, she gave birth to her first daughter, Christine, and began raising a family out of the couple’s trailer.

“It was really the first time we were on our own since we’d been put away,” Hamamoto recalled. “People reacted differently. I just decided to do the normal thing. . . . It was a happy time for me.”

But for the older people, parents of those who are organizing the reunion, bitterness and frustration were common.

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‘Very Distressed’

“They were very distressed. They felt like they had lost everything, and there was a lot of fear,” said Tomio Muranaga, 50, of Sun Valley, now a gardener for the Department of Water and Power.

The camps, both of which consisted of about 100 trailers, were kept tidy by the inhabitants, many of whom grew small vegetable gardens outside their dwellings and worked on nearby farms to support their families.

Those calling for the reunion, all of whom were children or teen-agers at the time, said they lived sheltered lives, joining gangs that existed within the camps and rarely straying far from their trailers.

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“We did what all kids did back then--played sports, fooled around with girls, and, after school we’d go to our own trailers and smoke cigarettes and play poker,” said Muraoka, a computer supervisor for the city of Los Angeles. “We’d never go far from the camps and, when we did, we’d only go in large groups.

Racial prejudice “was all around us,” Muraoka said, recalling the taunts and threats that the Nikkeis would encounter in the schools. Fights were common, and often were scheduled after school in open space in the Hansen Dam area.

Sensitive on Terminology

Federal and city officials, who at times visited the trailers, were touchy about how people referred to the camps, often using euphemisms.

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“We’d call them trailer camps and they would always correct us and say, ‘This is not a camp. It is a trailer court,’ like they wanted us to forget about places like Manzanar and Heart Mountain,” the wartime internment camps, Muranaga said with a chuckle.

The trailer camp in Burbank was closed in late 1948 when the government’s lease expired, and many of the residents moved to the camp in Sun Valley, which stayed open until 1956, Muraoka said. By that time, most of the Japanese-Americans had purchased homes nearby or were renting elsewhere.

Today, there is no evidence that either of the camps existed. Commercial buildings have been erected on both sites. Top city housing officials and members of the Burbank Historical Society were unaware that resettlement camps ever existed.

“That doesn’t bother us. They were very real to us,” Muraoka said. “The problem is that we’ve lost contact with so many of them. We need this reunion. We’re looking for the graduates.”

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