The bizarre international prisoners of Tuna Camp

Next in our series on the history of the land that was once the WWII enemy alien prison “Tuna Camp,” but is now the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, comes the bizarre and bewildering story of the odyssey of the Peruvian Japanese.
With the 1942 decision to remove those of Japanese ancestry from strategic areas of the west coast also came the decision to protect the Panama Canal from those same perceived threats. The US made an agreement with 13 South American countries to “send us your Japanese,” both to remove them from the canal zone and also to provide a pool of “Japanese POWs” for prisoner exchanges with Japan. Peru in particular had a large and prosperous population of Japanese immigrants, most of which had been there since the 1800s.
The government of Peru saw this as a chance to not only create good will with the powerful United States, but to also commandeer some land and successful businesses.
Several thousand Peruvian Japanese were grabbed from their homes without warning, hustled onto US bound cargo ships, and stripped of their passports. The shiploads of confused Peruvians reaching ports in Texas and San Pedro were greeted as illegal aliens and immediately incarcerated, many of them in Tuna Camp.
These were truly men without a country, some speaking only Spanish, with no local contacts, and completely at the mercy of their captors. Tuna Camp in the Crescenta Valley proved a welcome respite for many of them after being confined in the holds of northbound ships. They were fed well, and given a chance to get their bearings. They were next shuffled off to a federal prison at Crystal City, Tex. for the duration.
During the war, about 800 of these Peruvian Japanese were indeed exchanged for American POWs. The rest of this “lost tribe” was left there in Texas when the war ended.
Their future was murky to them at this point. They had no ties to the US. Most of those who tried to return to South America found they had been disowned and weren’t allowed back in. About 1,000 were allowed to go to Japan where they may have had family. Some of them, bewildered and with nowhere else to go, just stayed where they were in prison as late as 1948.
The only cohesive group of them left today springs from a group of 300 who were granted the right to stay in the US when a large produce farm in rural New Jersey needed cheap farm labor and agreed to take them on. These odd pawns of WWII formed a small community that still survives today in Seabrook, N.J. where they have a small museum dedicated to their strange history.
Another strange story involving Tuna Camp is the so-far undocumented tale of a group of Polish women and children who escaped the Nazi slave labor camps in occupied Poland and made their way on foot through war-torn Europe. They walked all the way to India, where they hitchhiked on a ship to Los Angeles and ended up at Tuna Camp. We have nothing on this group other than second-hand info, but for you writers and researchers out there, this is a tale worthy of a novel or screenplay!
There were even a few German citizens who processed through Tuna Camp as well. Many of them were unfortunates just caught on the wrong side of the Atlantic, but a few were more sinister. There had been an active American Nazi Party, called the Bund, in Los Angeles before the war. They had held a few pro-Nazi rallies in the ‘30s at Hindenberg Park, now Crescenta Valley Park. Ironically some of those rally organizers, who saw themselves as a “fifth column” for Germany, now found themselves incarcerated in Tuna Camp, just blocks from their former rally site. They had concrete plans for their takeover which can still be visited today. The ruins of “Murphy Ranch,” their planned fortified headquarters in the Santa Monica Mountains, are now an LA City Park in Rustic Canyon.

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the
Crescenta Valley. Reach him at