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The Many Roles of Travel Town: Griffith Park Internment Camp

On Jan 21, 2023

Like a good character actor, Travel Town has played many different roles throughout its existence in Griffith Park. And like any good character actor, it is sometimes tapped to play the good guy and sometimes the bad guy, but in every play or film, its role is critical to the success of the project.

You are all familiar with today’s Travel Town. Located in the northwest section of Griffith Park, it’s full of historic trains. It’s where you take your kids for birthday parties and to ride the train that runs around its perimeter.

Travel Town did not always have such a joyful role.

One of its earliest roles was that of a Prison Farm. From 1917 to 1920, the Los Angeles Police Department operated the camp as a progressive experiment to reduce recidivism. Boys who had fallen out with the law were given training and worked jobs that would give them skills to get a job when they were released and hopefully stay out of trouble. They grew alfalfa to feed the Fire Department horses, but soon horses were being replaced by trucks with engines so there was little need for alfalfa.

During the Depression the barracks from the Prison Farm were used to house men in President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). There were two camps in this area. One was at Travel Town. The other one, located where LA Live Steamers is now, was washed out when the LA River flooded in 1938. The camps could house 500 to 700 men.

The men who worked in the CCC and Work Progress Administration (WPA) programs were responsible for much of the Park infrastructure that you see today. They built miles of trails and roads. A statue “Spirit of the CCC” in Travel Town honors these men.

The federal government had a variety of facilities in the area from 1939 to 1947. The Army Corps of Engineers built a Hydraulic Model Yard on 15 acres where LA Live Steamers is now located. Not part of the war effort, it was to study the flow of water in the LA River in order to design flood control measures.

Tucked in south of the old CCC camp and the Hydraulic Model up against the hill was the 19-acre Camouflage Experimental Laboratory and Yard. The nearby Photo Experimentation Laboratory produced a few Army training films.

Then came World War II and Travel Town took a more sinister role. Even before Pearl Harbor, the FBI had been monitoring certain Japanese that they thought might have seditious leanings — Buddhist priests, Shinto priests, judo teachers, Japanese language teachers.

After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamation 2525 authorizing the arrest and imprisonment of immigrant Japanese considered threats to national security. Some of these individuals were confined in the Griffith Park Internment Camp, which made use of the former CCC camp and its facilities.

The Japanese were not the only ones targeted. Presidential Proclamation 2526 addressed German enemy aliens and Presidential Proclamation 2527 addressed Italian enemy aliens.

One Los Angeles family’s ordeal

Eugen Banzhaf came to America in 1927 as a sales representative for Stahl Union, a large German steel company. He had a Ph.D. in political science and a degree in civil engineering. He brought his lovely bride Emmy to the US in 1929. Later he became an independent sales agent for Stahl Union in Los Angeles.

Eugen dealt primarily with sheet piling used in harbor walls in New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their daughter Sigrid was born in 1937 in Los Feliz. Her parents had applied for US citizenship. During his business trips back to Germany, Eugen had noticed the shocking changes that had taken place. They were reluctant to visit Germany, but grandma really wanted to see her new granddaughter.

War in Europe broke out in 1939 while the Banzhafs were in Germany. Eugen was able to finagle passage to New York on an Italian ship. The liner was packed with refugees frantically fleeing Nazi policies — artists, intellectuals, Jews, homosexuals and businessmen.

As soon as the ship entered international waters, the French boarded the ship and removed all German men, including Eugen, and sent them to a concentration camp in North Africa. German women and children were sent back to Germany. Sigrid saved her mother; Emmy was the sole caregiver of a two-year-old American citizen so she was allowed to stay on the ship.

Upon her return, Emmy immediately contacted a friend who reached out to Senator Alben W. Barkley. Through diplomatic channels Barkley was able to negotiate Eugen’s release a year later.

The family’s joy was not to last. On December 7, 1941 FBI agents arrested Eugen under PP 2526 at his home on N. Edgemont Street. Since steel was a valuable war materiel, he was considered a risk. Eugen was sent first to Terminal Island Federal Prison and later transferred to Tuna Canyon, another former CCC camp, then to the camp at Griffith Park and finally to Stringtown, Oklahoma. His business assets were confiscated and never returned; his personal assets were also confiscated and held in custody by the government.

Emmy was forced to move to an apartment on Vermont Ave. She was unable to get a job because no one would hire a German woman whom they feared might be a saboteur. She was often spat upon on public transportation so Emmy spoke infrequently to hide her German accent.

Eugen was paroled two years later, but the damage had been done. The stress of the entire experience sent Emmy to the hospital a couple of times. With time, Eugen started a new business, and the family was able to return to Los Feliz where Eugen and Emmy lived until their deaths.

The Banzhaf family never discussed their father’s internment. As a grandmother, Sigrid realized that although most Americans were aware of the internment of Japanese Americans en masse, few were aware of the internment of individual Germans and Italians. She wrote the script for a short film, “Black & White” directed by her son Frederick E. O. Toye. The film highlights the effects of the war years on the children and grandchildren of internees.

In July 1943, the Griffith Park Internment Camp was briefly repurposed as a prisoner of war processing station, but because it was used so little, the station was abandoned after less than a month.

Uncovering another family history

Russell Endo, a retired professor of Asian American studies and sociology at the University of Colorado, has been researching the wartime arrest and imprisonment of enemy aliens in Southern California. Some of his work focuses on Griffith Park and on the Tuna Canyon Detention Station in Tujunga, where his grandfather, Heigoro, was held.

Most of the internees at Griffith Park, including Eugen Banzhaf, were transferred from Tuna Canyon. Professor Endo created a 30-minute video for Tadaima, an annual virtual multi-week program about the wartime experiences of Japanese Americans. His video describes what happened to enemy aliens, using as an example the Japanese communities in Santa Barbara County and the Tuna Canyon detention camp.

One of the things conveyed in Professor Endo’s video is the distinction between what happened to enemy aliens and another wartime tragedy with similar characteristics: the later mass incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans, including American citizens, authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt under Executive Order 9066.

Here is one family’s story, recounted from memories by someone who lived through the upheaval

Ten-year-old June Aochi was living with her parents near Hoover St. and Temple St. when the war broke out. Born here, she was a U.S. citizen. Her father, Chujiro Frank Aochi, who came to America in 1899, had a gardening business. Her mother Kei laundered costumes for the Drunkard Theatre in Hollywood. Neither parent was a citizen.

When June’s entire family was rounded up, they were sent to the detention center at the Santa Anita race track where they were housed in stables. Internees there were making camouflage cloth. A fire broke out in the fabric and June remembers everyone running to escape the flames. (We hope the Camouflage Lab in Griffith Park was developing nonflammable fabric!)

Later June’s family was transferred to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas, since there was great fear about having Japanese living close to the Pacific Coast. Her parents put smiles on their faces and said, “We’re going on a train ride. Won’t that be fun?!” They did their best to shield their children from the horror of what was happening to the Japanese.

June’s 16-year-old brother Yas was a “train car monitor” on the Zephyr train. He was allowed to get off at stations and would buy candy and snacks for the other detainees. They ate delicious food in the fancy new Zephyr dining car. In the evening, Yas hung out in the rear of the train with the porters and cooks — all Blacks. They would move furniture out of the way, bring out musical instruments and play music and dance.

Internees were advised to wear brown boots in camp. June didn’t want ugly brown boots; she wanted white majorette boots! When she got to Rohwer, she met Takayo Fischer, also 10 years old, who had asked her mother for a baton. With a book she ordered from Sears Roebuck, Takayo taught herself and June baton twirling. Majorettes were very popular in the camps; June thinks it was a good way to keep girls occupied.

Takayo later went to Hollywood where she played numerous small parts in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End with Johnny Depp. The two women are best friends to this day.

There was a small upside to the camps. In Los Angeles, June spent her Saturdays at Japanese language school. In the camps, it was forbidden to teach Japanese so kids had their Saturdays free to play. Although she loved the free time, she now regrets that she did not learn Japanese.

As the war was coming to an end, some internees were able to leave the camps with $25 and a train ticket if they had a sponsor. But they couldn’t return to their homes on the coast because the government still feared Japanese living on the coast.

American Quakers sponsored June’s sister Kay to go to a beauty school in Michigan. Another Quaker family sponsored Yas to work at a paper factory in Chicago. He had to stand on the train all the way from Arkansas to Chicago because all the “white” seats on the train were full. Ironically, Yas was not allowed to sit in the rear car, which had plenty of empty seats, because it was the segregated car for Blacks.

After the war, the Aochi family went to Denver where father Chujiro and Yas had a Japanese confectionary store. With the Civil Rights Act of 1953, Japanese were finally able to become citizens. The entire family got their citizenship papers in Denver and returned home to Los Angeles more than 10 years after being forced to leave.

Today, June is active in the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo where she is a docent. Duncan Williams, USC Professor of Japanese Religion and Culture, has created a giant book that lists the names of 125,284 Japanese who were incarcerated in 75 sites during World War II. The book is the Ireicho or “record of consoling ancestors.” June speaks to young people to share her experiences in the camp.

Both June and Sigrid hope that by sharing their stories, people will recognize the injustice of incarcerating people solely on the basis of their nationality.

Getting on track

After World War II, Griffith Park resumed and expanded its role as one of the country’s greatest city parks.

The Griffith Park and Southern Railroad at the Riverside Drive entrance to the Park was created for children. The area changed its barracks and POW costume and got ready for its next role as Travel Town, an outdoor railroad museum in 1952.

Next door, model railroad enthusiasts developed LA Live Steamers in 1956. Both facilities have been delighting children ever since. Griffith Park was once again able to star as a place for the people to escape from urban cares.

~Marian Dodge, FoGP Board member

Photo top: Family portraits detail a happy family before WWII. During the war, Eugen was interred in various camps across the country.
A letter from Eugen to his family bears the “Censored” stamp and Emmy receives a letter authorizing her to visit her incarcerated husband.
Bottom images: June Aochi shares stories and photos with Linda Barth.



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