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More than 75 years after shutting down, an LA way station for WWII detainees gets its historical marker

Undated photo of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station.
Undated photo of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station.
David Scott/the Scott Family and Little Landers Historical Society

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Growing up in Burbank, Donna Sugimoto would sometimes pass the old Verdugo Hills Golf Course on La Tuna Canyon Road.

It never occurred to her that it was a dark part of her family's history - the place where her grandfather was sent after being taken from his home in Boyle Heights during World War II.

"I didn't know that my grandfather lived here, that he was held here, that he was taken against his will," said Sugimoto, 52, who lives in El Sereno. "I'd pass by here many times throughout my time growing up, when it was a golf course, and I had no idea."

Tuna Canyon Detention Station started housing
Tuna Canyon Detention Station started housing "enemy aliens" the FBI had detained on December 16, 1941. The camp stayed open until October 1943.
David Scott/The Scott Family and Little Landers Historical Society

During the war, the site was home to the Tuna Canyon Detention Station. More than 2,000 immigrants, mostly Japanese but also Italian and German, were held there, before many were sent to be incarcerated long-term in internment camps.

Altogether more than 100,000 people, mostly Japanese immigrants and their families, were held in internment camps by the federal government during the war.

On Thursday, Los Angeles city officials unveiled a new sign at the corner of La Tuna Canyon Road and Tujunga Canyon Boulevard, commemorating the site's history.

The sign stands at the intersection nearest to where the camp stood. On Thursday, Nancy Oda pointed through a rusted chain-link fence toward a grove of old oak trees about a hundred yards from the corner.

Donna Sugimoto, left, and Nancy Oda at the site of the former Tuna Canyon Detention Station, designated a historic-cultural monument by the city of Los Angeles. A sign commemorating the site's history as a detention camp for Japanese, Italian and German immigrants during WWII was unveiled Thursday.
Donna Sugimoto, left, and Nancy Oda at the site of the former Tuna Canyon Detention Station, designated a historic-cultural monument by the city of Los Angeles. A sign commemorating the site's history as a detention camp for Japanese, Italian and German immigrants during WWII was unveiled Thursday.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

"What you see is the beginning of the camp," said Oda, president of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, a group that's fought to have the site recognized. "This road is an old road. They would disembark here, off buses…and basically be checked, for contraband."

The staff of the admissions office at Tuna Canyon Detention Center poses for a photo. From left to right, Ed S. Yoshimura, Eh Shafer, Keuja Nakane and J.E. Gaddeu.
The staff of the admissions office at Tuna Canyon Detention Center poses for a photo. From left to right, Ed S. Yoshimura, Eh Shafer, Keuja Nakane and J.E. Gaddeu.
David Scott/The Scott Family and Little Landers Historical Society

A visitation center stood close to the road, she said, where wives would visit their detained husbands and bring them clothing and toothbrushes.

"If they spoke in Japanese, there is a story that says that a bayonet was put to her throat," she said, "so they spoke English right away." 

For Oda, there's a personal connection to the detainees. She was born in an internment camp at the California-Oregon border, where both her parents were held.

Oda and others want the historic monument to eventually extend to the oak grove, where the buildings actually stood.

But it's not a done deal: A developer who owns the property and planned to build homes there sued the city after it granted the site historic status back in 2013. According to the Los Angeles City Attorney's office, the lawsuit was dismissed, but there are two pending damage claims from the developer, so the case has yet to be resolved. 

Sugimoto is among those who'd like to see more on the site commemorating its history. She said she never got to meet her grandfather. He died while he was still incarcerated, in a camp in Colorado. He was only in his fifties.

"It's very important for people to know that this is a very historical site," she said. "And a reminder of something that should never, ever happen again."

Men sit in the yard of Tuna Canyon Detention Center. The camp housed people from other Axis powers, but the vast majority of the population was Japanese American.
Men sit in the yard of Tuna Canyon Detention Center. The camp housed people from other Axis powers, but the vast majority of the population was Japanese American.
David Scott/The Scott Family and Little Landers Historical Society

For the record: An earlier version of a caption on one of the historical photos incorrectly gave the closure  date of the camp as May 1942. According to Oda, the camp closed in October 1943.