By Caitlin HammerA milky glow appeared in the second story window of the white stucco house at 2500 Strand, in Hermosa Beach. Inside, Scotty Littleton lay beneath his sheets reading by dim flashlight. His parents had recently bought an entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and Scotty would often choose a volume at random, uncovering the mysteries of nature and history. The big guns of the antiaircraft batteries along the coast had quieted, leaving the rhythmic creeping of the tide to soothe strained nerves.
© Sept. 2006-2008
- Part I -
© Sept. 2006-2008
- Part I -
The war was still fresh in February 1942, a dubious Christmas package delivered to the American people by President Roosevelt via radio the day after Japanese air fleets attacked Pearl Harbor. Angelenos had caught the war fever on a grand scale. Since January, their challenge to the Japanese replayed nearly every night in mock attacks, when Navy batteries would hurl shells at targets towed by Army planes. To eight year-old Scotty and his neighborhood buddies it was entertainment, like nocturnal clay pigeon shooting or a fireworks show. But it always stopped around Scotty’s bedtime –before 10 o’clock– a little gesture of gratitude for all of the Angelenos who would face another long day at one of the factories, galvanizing the tools of victory.
Scotty turned off the flashlight and hid it under his pillow. It was a school day tomorrow, Wednesday, February 25, but he would wake to a sound more ominous than the rattle of his alarm clock.
Further north, eighty-thousand watts of white light branded “Hollywoodland” into the nightscape above Los Angeles. The 25-foot letters projected the symbol of silver screen glamor and easy riches as far as Terminal Island, in east San Pedro. Most of the Terminal Islanders were Issei fishermen, first-generation Japanese immigrants, whose trawlers moved easily in the familiar Pacific.
Thirty-one year-old Dr. Fred Fujikawa was not one of them. In 1942, he’d lived on Terminal Island for six years, and walked to his office each morning from his house on Seaside Avenue. It was a good practice; the islanders lived simply and had simple problems. Dr. Fujikawa also made house calls to several non-Japanese patients who lived along the coast. If he felt comfortable ministering to people of both cultures, it was because he was Nisei, or second generation Japanese –born in San Francisco, educated in Berkeley and Los Angeles, interned at L.A. General Hospital. All of his patients were doing well, but the comfort level had plunged since that infamous Sunday two months ago.
On December 7, Dr. Fujikawa was loafing around his office, tossing a comment now and again to a friend who sat behind an open newspaper. The radio was on, likely tuned to The World Today, a CBS news show, because at about 10:30 A.M., the announcer thanked Golden Eagle Oil and then an Oahu correspondent relayed news of the attack. Fred’s friend called him closer to the radio and they stood still in disbelief for five or ten minutes until the connection abruptly went dead. As the news sunk in, Dr. Fujikawa grew anxious. His parents, like most Terminal Islanders, were Issei. He may have been all-American in spirit, but he looked Japanese. His confidence as a respected community doctor suddenly meant little; he feared for his family’s safety.
That same Sunday night at 7:00 P.M., the entire West Coast had been blacked out as the Army prepared for another secret attack. On Terminal Island, FBI agents emerged from the darkness, rapping on doors and secreting away all of the Issei fishermen they had marked as dangerous. Community leaders were taken first, their boats confiscated and moved to a government-owned dock. Streetlights went out on Terminal Island every night thereafter and people awaited a knock at their door.
This particular February evening, Dr. Fujikawa groped his way home from the office. Scant moonlight reflected off storefront windows and puddles. He and his wife had dinner and drifted upstairs. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and yet within seventy-two hours not one Japanese Terminal Islander in a community of three thousand would remain.
Thirty miles east of the island, Goldie Wagner was just waking up. Arcadia was a growing suburb of Los Angeles and to Goldie and her milk delivery mates, growth was measured by the gallon. The area around Arcadia had been pastureland for the fifty years Goldie had lived in Southern California; the smell of earth and animal clung to clothes and hair like cigarette smoke.
The Hillcrest Dairy Company was likely one of the small town dairy outfits that saw big opportunity in the new war. Blue collar workers from all over the country hopped off trains at Union Station every day by the thousand, settling into the suburbs that hugged airplane and rubber plants. And if the average Rosie spent her daylight hours popping on rivets, who was going to do the family’s grocery shopping?
Goldie provided the essentials. People would mark the milk they wanted: whole, buttermilk, chocolate; and then there were the extras like cream, cottage cheese, pudding –even eggs. Breakfast just wasn’t the same without her. So when the streetlights suddenly flickered and went out around 2: 45 A.M., Goldie must have sensed the morning stretching out before her. But she had plodded through one war before and must have discovered that consistency was the key. What was more consistent than cold milk at your doorstep? She got on with her route.
It helped to be awake when you were trying to save the city. Maybe Tom Herbert had put in a couple hours of overtime at his day job, or he and his wife had gone to see a late showing of “The Pride of the Yankees.” Whatever the reason, the air raid warden responsible for his Hollywood block had to be roused by his landlord at about five minutes to 3:00 A.M.
While Tom dressed, nearly thirty-three thousand other volunteer wardens swarmed in the streets of Los Angeles. From the rooftops they looked like newly hatched insects still carrying a bit of protective shell on their heads –white fiberglass helmets with a red-and-white striped triangle at front. Armbands cinched their sleeves. They had all been through enough drills to break in their boots and develop a confident gait, but some of the assurance waned under the cold moonlight. There was something different about this morning. Darkness crowded the city, and their job would entail making it darker still. Some wardens had to smash shop windows to douse lights that might invite enemy aircraft.
In the darkness they were vulnerable. Just like new hatchlings, a few would never make it to the local Civil Defense Headquarters. A car killed one warden downtown, and many blacked out intersections made crossing painful for other volunteers. Swarming into the defense offices around the county, they conferred. It’s the real thing, brother, they said to each other. Somethin’s goin’ on for real this time.