By Kresse Armour
Though it’s a close call, few have been more dedicated to preserving at least a piece of Tuna Camp than Lloyd and Marlene Hitt. And Lloyd, who has long led the charge to memorialize the historic site, is getting a little help from a big federal friend. The National Park Service has announced that the site of the former Tuna Canyon Detention Station will receive a $2.8 million grant.
It’s a nice shot in the arm to help preserve the site’s history.
Though the process has been slow, Lloyd said recently, “The Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition is alive and kicking.”
On December 6, 1941, a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp was then in full swing on the property –– one of many facilities to come out of FDR’s New Deal reforms. Several WPA buildings from that same era were constructed at Sunland Park. These, which carry a far more positive legacy, are still standing.
Today there isn’t even a wood splinter left at the site of Tuna Camp. Everything but the dirt on which it stood has been brushed away.
It was on December 7, 1941, that everything changed. Almost overnight the CCC camp was transformed into what was essentially a prison. A place where “alien” enemies of the state would be held. Tuna Camp was just one of many such facilities that would be constructed with high fences, barbed wire and armed guards –– places where Americans were sent by the tens of thousands, arrested and confined without benefit of due process.
Times of war seem to bring on spontaneous and collective bouts of governmental amnesia regarding Constitutional rights. And it was in such a frenzied atmosphere of war hysteria that on Feb. 9, 1942, that FDR signed Executive Order 9066, which doomed thousands of Americans, primarily of Japanese ancestry, to incarceration in American concentration camps.
Much later, in a rare admission of guilt, a national apology would be issued for this monumental injustice. Racism, more than terrorism, had been cited as the root cause of the drastic action taken during WWII. Near the end of his second term, then-President Ronald Reagan would sign into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The act granted reparations of $20,000 to Japanese Americans who had been interned.
Following its demolition, Tuna Camp would be made over again in the 1950s, this time into the Verdugo Hills Golf Course.
The golf course property has since been purchased by a developer, whose plans are to build more than 260 homes on the sprawling acreage.
Those who want to preserve the memory of Tuna Camp are asking only for an acre –– just enough land for a small park. An acre on which live oaks and sycamores grow. Enough land for a historical-cultural monument to remind people –– now and forever –– of the horrors that racism begets.
In 2013, the Los Angeles City Council voted to conserve such an acre and preserve Tuna Camp’s legacy of Japanese-American struggle and ultimate redemption. The council voted unanimously to declare the small plot of land to be a historical-cultural monument. The developer has since filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s designation of the site.
And the battle continues.
Recognizing its role in preserving historic sites and providing information about them to the public, a portion of the Park Service grant will fund a traveling exhibition that tells the story of Tuna Camp. In addition to a diorama, the exhibit will include biographies of camp detainees and interviews with the now grown up children who were also confined in the detention camps.
“The historic significance of this site cannot be overstated,” Lloyd has said. “And preserving the area would be a positive statement that reflects both our community and the families of those whose fathers passed through the Tuna Camp.”