From left: Kyoko Nancy Oda, Kathy Masaoka, Dr. Sigrid Toye, Paul Kadota, Bacon Sakatani, Tak Hoshizaki and Jimmy Kim unveil a sign that tells the story of the Griffith Park Internment Camp.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

On April 1, 1942, Katsuo Nagai was a typesetter working at The Rafu Shimpo, when he was arrested and sent to L.A. County Jail. The Issei, born in Tokyo, was part of a sweep of Japanese language teachers detained after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Phil Leirness, past president of the Los Angeles Breakfast Club, shared that he leanred the term “makenaide” (don’t give up) from June Aochi Berk, after he told her the story of dancer Yuriko Kikuchi, 103, who was incarcerated during World War II and danced with Martha Graham after the war.

Nagai and at least 101 Japanese eventually were confined at Griffith Park, along with 21 Germans and four Italians, before being sent to other camps.

On April 20, a sign that tells the tragic story of the Griffith Park Internment Camp was dedicated in a plaza in what is today Travel Town. The Los Angeles Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners on April 6 approved the sign as a donation from the Griffith J. Griffith Charitable Foundation and the Los Angeles Parks Foundation.

The stories of Nagai and Ralph Averga, an Italian immigrant who was taken from a boat in San Pedro, are highlighted on the educational sign, which was erected near where the camp once stood.

Approximately 50 people, including veterans and members of the Los Angeles Breakfast Club and the Griffith Park Charitable Trust, attended the dedication.

Two park rangers stood at attention as City Councilmember Nithya Raman reflected on the park and its complex history. At more than 4,210 acres, Griffith Park is one of the largest municipal parks in the U.S.

“Some people were detained for one night, some people were detained for several months, but no matter the length of their stay, the course of their lives was changed forever. They were betrayed by a country that they chose to call their home,” Raman said.

As an Asian immigrant herself, Raman said she was especially proud and grateful for the new sign.

“The story of America is one of learning of being on the wrong side of history and then moving to the right side of history. Confronting our past and moving towards the future … that is what today’s event is about.”

From left: City Councilmember Nithya Raman with Donna Sugimoto, Linda Barth and Kyoko Nancy Oda.

Dr. Russell Endo, retired professor of sociology and Asian American studies at the. University of Colorado, and Linda Barth, Griffith Park archivist, spent the past year piecing together the story of the camp, gathering photographs and documents. They selected Nagai and Averga for the sign.

Barth read a statement on behalf of Endo, who was unable to attend:

“We need to learn from history to avoid repeating mistakes. One step is to shine a light on the vast nationwide network of wartime incarceration sites. The sign that is being unveiled today is a significant addition to this process. It recognizes a site that is important in Los Angeles and U.S. history.”

The Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition was recognized for their efforts in getting the project started.

Kyoko Nancy Oda, president of the coalition, acknowledged the late Lloyd Hitt and Paul Tsuneishi, who started efforts to shed light on the camp at Tuna Canyon in Tujunga and fought for its preservation.

Several family members spoke and shared memories of relatives who had been detained at Griffith Park.

Kathy Masaoka’s grandfather Soshi Kadota was picked up by the FBI sent to Griffith Park before being sent to Bismarck, N.D. and was reunited with his family either at the Tulare Assembly Center or Gila River War Relocation Center. She said she has lived near Griffith Park for decades without knowing her grandfather was imprisoned there, until finding out at a Tuna Canyon luncheon.

“I was part of the movement for redress and reparations and I was at the hearings for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1981 and heard many, many stories of our families about their incarceration. So I knew other people’s stories, but I really didn’t know my own,” Masaoka said.

The site marker tells the stories of two detainees, Katsuo Nagai and Ralph Averga.

Dr. Sigrid Toye’s father, Eugen Banzhaf, was taken from their home on Dec. 7, 1941. She shared memories of her childhood spent in or around Griffith Park and riding the merry-go-round with her father.

“Two men came to the door in dark suits with fedora hats, went through the house, looked everything over, and took my father away. I was in my bedroom and came down. My mom was alone on the couch crying and I said, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ And she said, ‘He’s gone.’”

Toye remembered visiting her father at Tuna Canyon. He was incarcerated for a total of 2½ years at the Tuna Canyon, Griffith Park, and Stringtown, Okla. confinement sites.

“He was a proud man,” she recalled. “I think he didn’t speak of the experience. He told me never to speak of what happened to us during the war because there was so much shame involved in that. And I didn’t say a word until a specific period. Now I’m singing like a bird. But for years and years I didn’t say anything because of the shame involved.”

Toye said that the complicated legacy of Griffith Park shows that every human being has capacity for good or evil.

“In each of us there resides a Mother Teresa or an Adolph Hitler. We must choose. My message is choose well, choose well,” Toye said.

Photos by GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo

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  1. Please put me in touch with the community activists. My grandfather was probably detained there too. He was moved from Terminal Island to Bismarck, ND.