I want to explore in greater detail what I mentioned in a post awhile back regarding the government’s use of Torrance Municipal Airport, then known as the Lomita Flight Strip, to house Japanese Americans returning from internment camps following World War II.
During the war, the government owned the Lomita Flight Strip, and had been using it for training Army Air Corps pilots. Barracks for trainees had been built on its western end.
The Army left at war’s end and the government gave the site to the city of Torrance, but retained control of the airstrip temporarily.
The return of the more than 110,000 relocated Japanese Americans from internment camps posed a variety of logistical problems for the U.S. government. Houses, land and possessions had been taken from many of them, and some of them were ill.
The agency in charge, the War Relocation Authority, had to find temporary quarters for the internees, more than half of whom were U.S. citizens, while they were attempting to re-assimilate back into society.
The WRA decided, in September 1945, to house about 125 Japanese American internees from about 78 families in the barracks at the flight strip. They were returning from Camp Granada in Colorado, the first internment camp to close. All the camps had been ordered closed by Oct. 15 because of government budget cuts.
The Lomita Flight Strip encampment was the first of 16 regional relocation centers in the greater Los Angeles area to be used for resettlement staging.
Leslie Lahr, commander of the Lomita post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, protested immediately. The VFW felt that all available temporary housing, including the flight strip, should be used for returning U.S. servicemen instead.
Regardless of the objection, the first families moved into the barracks on Oct. 8, 1945. Only families in good health were accepted; those who were ill, aged or indigent were referred to local welfare agencies.
Life in the barracks wasn’t all that different in some ways than life in the camps had been. The grounds were secured at all times by armed guards, for example. But this time, they really were there to protect the former internees from unauthorized visitors.
A San Pedro News Pilot article from Oct. 8, 1945, described the accommodations as follows:
“The flight strip barracks, set aside by the WRA, are essentially unchanged from army quarters. Carpenters have divided the empty barracks into partitioned cubicles. These have been furnished with army cots and mattresses. Cooking will be done army style, with the families eating in mess halls. Washing will be done in a community wash room equipped with hot water boilers and wash trays. It is expected that barracks will be heated with oil stoves.”
For this, the internees had to pay monthly rent, as well as pay for meals.
Over the next few months, families arrived from former internment camps all over the West, including the Colorado River camp near Poston, Arizona; the Tule Lake camp in California, near the Oregon border; and the Hart Mountain camp in Wyoming.
Additional trailers were brought in to handle the overflow at the temporary camp, which grew to more than 1,000 residents by early 1946. About one-third of the residents were children, who were placed in area schools.
Most went to Walteria Elementary at first before being moved to different schools to reduce crowding. Walteria had to hold classes in the auditorium and eventually build two additional classrooms to handle the initial rush of students.
The WRA brought an employment counselor on site to help the able-bodied find work. Some returned to agricultural jobs on South Bay and Palos Verdes Peninsula farms, while others found work as domestics or in local industries.
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Residents of the Lomita Flight Strip temporary camp head to the mess hall for a meal. The camp provided trailer and barracks-type quarters for returnees while they were locating jobs and permanent homes. Photo by Tom Parker, November 1945. (Credit: Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley via Online Archive of California
The numbers of those remaining at the camp began to dwindle during the spring of 1946. The WRA announced it would close the facility by July 1. Many families eventually were moved to the Winona Housing Project trailer camp, at Hollywood Way and Winona Avenue, in Burbank.
The last families left the flight strip barracks on June 28, with some going to on-site training centers at Cal-Sea Food Co. in Harbor City and the rest to flower grower Fred H. King’s farm in Torrance.
With the barracks now empty, James Caldwell, head of the Torrance Area Veterans Service Center, began his fight to allow returning war vets to use the barracks as temporary housing.
After initial resistance from the Torrance City Council, he succeeded. Veterans began moving into the barracks in August 1947, using them as temporary housing until they could find jobs and places to live.
After that, Torrance’s National Guard units occupied the barracks and additional ones trucked in from Fort MacArthur, while they were based at the airport temporarily from 1948 to 1950, before the permanent National Guard armory in Torrance was built.
The often-used buildings finally were removed in favor of new hangars after the city of Torrance took control of airport management on April 1, 1958.
Sources: “Correspondence on Resettlement Assistance,” Department of Social Welfare – War Services Bureau, California State Archives Exhibits; Daily Breeze files; San Pedro News Pilot files; Torrance Herald files; Wikipedia.