“That cannot be!”
Grace Eto Shibata recalls her father saying as he came in for lunch on the Eto farm in Los Osos on Dec. 7, 1941.
Fifteen-year- old Grace was setting the table for lunch and listening to music on the family radio. The broadcast was interrupted to announce that the forces of the Japanese Empire had attacked Pearl Harbor.
Grace’s mother, Take, didn’t understand English, but her father, Tameji, immediately understood the significance of the news.
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Although he was not permitted to become a U.S. citizen until 1952, immigrant rancher Tameji Eto brought agricultural improvements to the Los Osos Valley, where he settled at the end of the First World War.
After Eto established his farm in the then distant precincts of the Los Osos Valley in 1919, he had difficulty in maintaining communication with his business connections in Pismo Beach. He needed a telephone link.
Unfortunately, the phone company in San Luis Obispo felt that it could not justify a lengthy line to serve few customers. Eto organized the Los Osos Mutual Telephone Co. with a subscription of 800 shares at $100 each. Later, this company was bought out by the Bell System. In a similar way, he worked with the Valley Electrical Co. to bring electricity to the farms of the Los Osos Valley. The VEC was later acquired by PG& E.
Eto’s service to the community at large was largely ignored in the strongly anti-Asian environment of the 1930s. His service to the Japanese-American community was not.
Eto worked to organize the Southern Central Japanese Agricultural Association to protect the price of produce for the smaller farmers.
He led in the creation of Japanese language schools to educate the Nisei in their ancestral language. This addressed the fear that the U.S. might someday deport people of Japanese ancestry. American-born Japanese would be at a severe disadvantage, lacking language skills in a very nationalistic Japan.
Eto was also instrumental in founding the first Buddhist Temple on French Road near the present Madonna Inn property. The Temple was moved to Ontario Road in the Avila Valley in the 1960s.
As tensions rose between Japan and the United States, Eto was identified by agencies like the FBI as a leader of the Issei community. The Issei were born in Japan and under existing U.S. law could never become a citizen of the United States. The 2014 memoir by Eto’ s granddaughter, Naomi Shibata Denny, of her mother’s life, titled “Bend with the Wind,” documents that on Dec. 5, 1941, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover recommended that Eto be taken into “custodial detention in the event of a national emergency.”
At about 10 p.m. Dec. 7, SLO County Sheriff Murray Hathway and two other officials came to the Eto Farm and asked that Eto accompany them into town. They suggested he might want to bring his overcoat.
The Eto family had no information about his whereabouts. Later, he told them that he was taken to the Santa Barbara County Jail and then to the Tuna Canyon Detention Station in Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon.
The Detention Station was created in a former Civilian Conservation Corps encampment by installing 12-foot- high barbed-wire fences, guard posts and floodlights to house targeted individuals like Eto.
A special exhibit commemorates that center, “Only the Oaks Remain: The Story of Tuna Canyon Detention Station,” will be on view until May 27 at the Santa Barbara History Museum. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.Tuesday through Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
While many detainees remained at Tuna Canyon through 1943, Eto was sent to Fort Missoula, Montana, Fort Sill, Oklahom, Camp Livingston, Louisiana and Santa Fe, New Mexico, before being allowed to rejoin his family in Ontario, Oregon in November 1943.
In February 1943, he was allowed to visit with his wife Take, his daughter Susy and her husband, Leo Kikuchi, and their son Ronnie. Kikuchi, with Eto’ s approval, had joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and died fighting in Italy in November 1943.