The San Fernando Valley Aces
by Gerald Fecht
(originally published in the No Ho Arts District Newletter)
Almost gone now are the fleeting memories of that fateful March morning in 1942, when a somber and mysterious parade of vehicles headed northward across the San Fernando Valley. The long line of farm trucks and weathered cars left Griffith Park exactly at dawn, accompanied by worried young military policemen in American Army trucks. Women in veiled hats and their best cloth coats looked fearfully from the windows of the vehicles, while children still confused from their incomplete sleep stared into the first light of the day. From Tuna Canyon more vehicles would join the caravan on its way toward the treacherous Grape Vine pass into California's Central Valley.
Four months before, the forces of Imperial Japan on another fateful dawn, had attacked the American naval fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. And, suddenly generation of Japanese, many of who were American citizens, found themselves unwelcome in the places that once valued those workers for their work ethic and farming skills. On the mainland, especially along the West Coast, Japanese families found themselves aliens in the land they had come to believe was their own.
A century earlier Spanish colonists and missionaries brought fruit trees with them to California, but it wasn't until the coming of the railroads that large scale farming became a reality. Gradually, the owners of the San Fernando Valley's large wheat farms realized that the area's mild climate and natural springs could sustain great orchards to bring fruits to the winter wrapped states of the American Midwest and Eastern seaboard. All then, it would take workers who knew how to plant peaches, plums, apricots, walnuts and table grapes. Youthful, single Japanese workers fit the bill.
Out of the 24,326 Japanese workers brought to California in 1900, only 410 were women. But, it wasn't long before farm workers began to save their meager earnings to find "picture brides" to share their lives in America.
As the 1920s "roared" and the 1930s recoiled into the Great Depression, small family vegetable farms emerged in the Eastern parts of the San Fernando Valley. The city's central produce market's demand for fresh fruits and vegetables grew right along with the population. With a heritage of farming on limited spaces, Japanese-American and emigrant farmers were especially suited for specialized truck-farming.
Through hard work and frugality, Japanese family owned farms prospered. Most of those truck-farmers entered into the mainstream American culture, but others tried to hold on to old world traditions such as the martial arts, Japanese dance and the Buddhist and Shinto faiths. The Japanese Empire's attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 changed most of these farm families' lives forever.
In December of 1941 ordinary Valley residents had more to worry about than the holiday presents that would buy at Rathbun's Department Store. They now spoke in hushed tones about Japan's plans to bomb the air plane factories in Burbank or their homes. Fear of invasion was very real to Californians. By the New Year, politicians were demanding additional protection from the Federal Government. What would be done about the possible sabotage of Japanese living in the West?
The answer - on February 19th, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an order resulting in the ultimate internment of over 120,000 adults and children of Japanese ancestry. Two thirds of those interned were American citizens. Arrests of suspicious Japanese men came quickly, followed by notices to families that they were to pack only personal necessities and report to specific locations within a matter of days. For Japanese families in the San Fernando Valley, that location was at the west end of Griffith Park, at the Los Angeles County drunk farm where Travel Town stands today.
From that sad "assembly center" the long caravan to Manzanar and other concentration camps emerged. Only 54,127 of the Japanese who experienced the internment returned to the West coast after the war. Those who once lived in the San Fernando Valley lost everything.
In the Manzanar camp, Japanese-American boys from Los Angeles created a "Cracker Jack" baseball team called the San Fernando Valley Aces. When the opportunity arose many of those same boys joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team to fight in Europe for their country. No one can deny the loyalty of Japanese-American soldiers who won: 21 Medals of Honor, 53 Distinguished Service Crosses. 580 Silver Star, 4,000 Bronze Stars and 12 French Croix de Guerres.
With the war over, and little recognition of their wartime experiences many Japanese-Americans returned to the San Fernando Valley. With their family farms gone, they took jobs as laborers and gardeners. As soon as they were able, they and their kids enrolled in the Valley's new "junior colleges" (LA Valley and Pierce), and entered upper division universities such as USC and UCLA. Today, Japanese-Americans are among the best educated and financially successful people in our nation. In 1951, they also began to attend to their unique heritage. They opened the San Fernando Valley Japanese-American Community Center, that now serves 18 community organizations and over 1,000 Valley families.
The SFVJACC is located at: 12953 Branford Street in Pacoima.