Ancestors & the Land: 75 years ago

Courtesy of the Point Reyes National Seashore Museum
HISTORY: Local Italian and Japanese families picnic on Limantour Beach in August 1940.  

I first saw the photograph in the book “Point Reyes Peninsula,” by Dewey Livingston and Carola DeRooy. The 1930s image haunted me: Italian and Japanese families enjoying a picnic at Limantour Beach on a day off from their endless farming labors, taking in the sun, sand and surf. My wife, Robin, had given me a copy of the book around the time we moved to West Marin in 2010. I saw the image again during this month’s Geography of Hope exhibit, at Toby’s Gallery. 

When we first arrived here, I found the Asian American and Asian presence glaringly absent, given their ubiquity in the Bay Area. I was one of the conspicuously few resident Asian Americans, a stark contrast to my experience growing up in the Los Angeles area, where I lived, worked and played with people of all backgrounds, including those with whom I shared Japanese ancestral ties.

As time passed, I connected with local people, many of whom were descendants of those who came to Point Reyes in the late 19th and early-20th centuries. The Mendoza, Kehoe, Grossi and Giacomini families, and many other less familiar ones, have been here for generations. 

But the more I learned about the area’s history, the more that 1930s photograph haunted me. Clearly there was a Japanese presence in Point Reyes in the early-20th century, but unlike with other families in the area, none of their descendants apparently remain here today. Here is what my investigation found.

Before World War II, the Kimura, Ban, Miyeda and Kameoka families raised fine crops of peas on the Drakes Head, Muddy Hollow and Laguna areas of the vast Murphy Ranch. The peas were sent to a packing house in Point Reyes Station for shipment to San Francisco and Oakland. As ranch owner Leland Murphy described them, “They were good farmers… We had terrific peas.”

Their neighboring Lavazoli, Colli, Lombardi, Lucchesi and other Italian families raised artichokes, which were described in 1934 by the state’s supervising agricultural inspector as the best in all California. Nearby N Ranch was purchased in 1939 by Edward Heims, a German immigrant, who began raising cows for Grade A milk.

Immediately after the Japanese Imperial Navy’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the F.B.I. began arresting suspected “enemy aliens” of Japanese, German and Italian citizenship across the country. Rumor, hearsay and innuendo led many to be falsely accused and detained. Earlier that year, Mr. Heims, a German of partly Jewish descent, had made a passionate newspaper plea for help stopping rumors that he was a Nazi sympathizer, a spy and a subversive threat to the country.

Ironically, the day after Pearl Harbor, Mr. Heims was arrested and sent to Fort Lincoln, a detention center in Bismarck, N.D. His wife, Hildegarde, and 22 other Japanese and Italians on the peninsula  were arrested in February 1942 and interned. Their property was confiscated, and never returned or compensated for.

In early 1942, Attorney General Francis Biddle began ordering curfews and non-work travel restrictions for all so-called enemy aliens in strategic zones from which they were to vacate by Feb. 24. To comply, many North Bay Italians were forced to move outside the strategic zones, and away from the coast and their U.S. citizen spouses and children.

On Feb. 19, 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing Secretary of War Henry Stimson and military commanders to establish areas within which any or all people could be restricted, or from which they could be removed. In March, Lt. General John L. DeWitt created prohibited and restricted zones all along the West Coast, further justifying the confusion and ensuing nonsense.

In May, on short notice, the Point Reyes Peninsula’s Japanese and Japanese American families were assembled at the corner of Third and B Streets in downtown Santa Rosa and were “evacuated” to cattle and horse barns at the Merced County Fairgrounds, now called the Merced Assembly Center. 

That fall, Italians and Germans not in detention were permitted to return to coastal areas. Local Japanese and Japanese Americans were “relocated” for the duration of the war to the Granada Relocation Center in Amache, Colo. None of those families would return to Point Reyes.

The Limantour Beach picnic photograph no longer haunts me. The Japanese families’ disappearance from Point Reyes shows what happens when cooler heads don’t prevail. The area’s Italian and German citizen family members, along with their U.S. citizen spouses and children, also suffered the consequences and stigma of forced separation and incarceration.

But you don’t hear much about these events in local history. No one wants to talk about a pain so close to home and so difficult to resurrect, even though it was shared by many on the West Coast. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that silence may cause us to once again repeat the mistakes of 75 years ago.


James Okumura is a third-generation Japanese American, a graduate of U.C.L.A. and U.S.C., a retired IT project manager and a resident of Inverness Park.