As nation remembers Pearl Harbor attack, historian recalls local detention center

As the nation commemorates the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Friday, local history enthusiasts are focused on a little piece of history near the Crescenta Valley where thousands of individuals of Japanese Americans were held for months following the devastating attack in 1941.

What is now Verdugo Hills Golf Course was once the La Tuna Civilian Conservation Corps camp before it was converted to a detention station for thousands on their way to internment camps in Montana, North Dakota and New Mexico.

Recently released records at the National Archives and Records Center at Laguna Niguel acknowledged the existence of the camp for the first time, but local historian Lloyd Hitt has been researching the station for years.

And early next year, the Los Angeles Planning and Land Use Management Committee is expected to discuss a motion submitted by City Councilman Richard Alcaron that the site be designated a historic and cultural monument.

From the camp’s opening until it closed in late 1943, roughly 2,560 people were processed, Hitt said.

Up to about 300 people could be detained at the station — a barbed-wire enclosure with lights, seven barracks, an infirmary, mess hall and office buildings, Hitt said. There, armed guards processed individuals considered “enemy aliens” who had been taken into custody by the FBI on Dec. 16, 1941 — the same day the detention camp started operating.

According to information Hitt has compiled, 75% of detainees were of Japanese descent, with Italians and Germans mostly filling out the rest of the count.

The FBI, he said, were mostly concerned about the Japanese fisherman because they felt they “knew our coast too well.”

The camp’s director, Merrill Scott, was personally against the forced detention, and so ran the facility with fairness in mind, Hitt said.

“He really felt bad about the whole situation,” Hitt said. “He stated outright that he could send these people home on Friday night and they’d all come back there Monday morning without worrying about any of them. They were just that kind of people, the Japanese.”

But with that option out of his hands, Scott set up a “democratic process” in the camp, Hitt said.

The barracks all had a designated leader and somebody was in charge of the mess hall. There was also an abundance of space for gardening.

The overwhelming majority of the camp’s detainee population — 95% — was male, but some of the women who were there taught Japanese language, writing and culture, Hitt said.

Family members were allowed to visit on Sundays, but had to stand 10 feet away from the fence, according to Hitt.

By one account, there were more than 1,700 visitors at the camp on Sundays. Children who knew both English and Japanese often served as interpreters so English-speaking witnesses would know what was being said. Visitations typically lasted just about two minutes.

A Quaker minister and pacifist from Pasadena named Herbert Nicholson became a friend to many detainees, often driving family members to the weekly visits.

He also would move detainees’ belongings into storage or bring them to the camp as requested. Perhaps his most somber duty was carrying the ashes of deceased detainees and taking them to any destination the survivors requested, Hitt said.

The stay at the camp was never long. Every time the population reached between 200 and 300 detainees, they were loaded into railroad cars and shipped off to an internment camp.

“The windows were blacked out. They had guards in each car,” Hitt said. “And they just kept going until they got to the camp."


Follow Mark Kellam on Twitter: @LAMarkKellam

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