Thursday, August 31, 2017

Señor Botello at Olvera Street

Olvera Street has been a colorful destination for downtown office workers, locals, and out-of-town visitors since it opened on Easter Sunday of 1930.

This postcard translates a quaint, bucolic scene that Christine Sterling envisioned.

Notice City Hall looming in the background.
Courtesy of Seaver Center for Western History Research
Since the founding, Olvera Street has generated mixed opinions.  Notably in recent years, Dr. William Estrada's Los Angeles Plaza, a Sacred and Contested Space (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2008) and KCET's "Olvera Street:  a Fabrication of L.A.'s Mexican Heritage" by Alvaro Parra have offered insightful historical analyses of the Street.

Tourism companies promoted the place of course.  Commercial photographers angled their cameras and framed the Spanish dancers, their guitars, sombreros, burros and the marketplace.  Adelbert Bartlett was one of those photographers.  Based in Santa Monica, a lot of his work was focused on the southern California lifestyle, according to the UCLA library that maintains his collection.

The Seaver Center at the Natural History Museum also holds a small number of his photographs, such as the one below.  A picture is worth a thousand words but not in this case.  Who was this man in the photo?


Mexican American Police Officers
Thomas Botello was identified on the back of the photo as a pioneer of Los Angeles, native of the Plaza district, shown drying gourds at the Avila House.  The photo lacks a date, but Bartlett may possibly have taken this around 1929 prior to the opening of "Olvera Street".  Courtesy of the Seaver Center

Adelbert Bartlett often photographed crumbling adobe buildings along with their aged inhabitants.  The good thing is that he often provided identification of names and places. 

For this blog post Thomas Botello's life has been pieced together from census records, city directories and the many available newspaper accounts despite discrepancies in dates and details.  Name variations included Thomas F., Thomas T., Tomás, and Tommy.

His Mexican American Heritage

Thomas, along with his brothers and a sister, as well as their mother, were born in California.  The mother, Concepciona, was born about 1832 according to the 1870 census, but it appears that all the children were born in the decade or so following the state's admission into the Union in 1850.

Thomas was a nephew to Narciso Botello (about 1813-1889) who appeared in historical accounts:  Narciso came north to Alta California in the Mexican colonial period.  Internet sources state he was Chief of Staff to General Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma.  He then became a member of the L.A. municipal council called the Ayuntamiento, and he again sat on the Common Council during the new American era.  Narciso compiled several manuscripts on daily life in Mexican Los Angeles, and today historians rely on these works as a window to the 1830s and 1840s.

Narciso's great great grandnephew, Stanley E. Botello (1921-2015), told contemporary Narciso manuscript translator, Brent C. Dickerson, that Narciso's two brothers Pedro Ysais Botello and Jose Refugio Botello both married the two daughters of a Lieutenant Jose Maria Ramirez - the daughters were Maria Concepcion Eligia and Maria Ygnacia respectively.  Both couples' marriages took place in Los Angeles.

Pedro & Concepcion supposedly married in December, 1858.  Presuming Thomas was the third child of this couple, his date of birth mentioned in his obituary placed his birth before the parents' marriage.

His Career in Law Enforcement

Thomas' obituary published June 27, 1935 began with the headline Veteran Peace Officer's Funeral Will Be Today:  "In point of continuous service he was the oldest detective in the United States, having served from 1878 to 1930.  He was a native of Los Angeles, born here June 29, 1858.  As a youth he joined the Southern Pacific detective forces and soon became special agent in Mexico for the Wells, Fargo Company.  He also served as Los Angeles county deputy sheriff through several administrations, as police officer under four chiefs, deputy United States Marshal and at the time of his death was special deputy Sheriff."


Portrait from Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1906
If he indeed found work as a policeman in 1878, he was about 20 years old.  The police force had matured in the growing city stung by rioting in 1871 (resulting in the mob violence and murder of Chinese residents - news that took national attention away from the ongoing Great Chicago Fire.)

The LAPD was organized in 1877, doing away with the L.A. City Marshall position.  But the police maintained a reputation for corruption and brutality.  Between 1889 and 1900, Chief John M. Glass developed a professional force under his leadership, but when he departed, the officers were often controlled by the politicians in order to control elections.  Progressives, though, voted in the advent of municipal civil service rules for the hiring of officers.

In tracking newspaper articles about Thomas, throughout the 1880s he worked in Los Angeles in various capacities of law enforcement, but he was also a detective of the Southern Pacific Railroad in Mexico.

In 1890 he was still associated with the Southern Pacific.  In preparation for the July 4th parade in L.A., Thomas got the assignment to accompany and oversee a group of Native Americans from Yuma, Arizona, who traveled up on the railway to participate in the parade.  (They disappointed the parade onlookers, as the newspaper expectantly wrote that the group did not each don "a gee string and a strip of red calico."


The group in front of train depot or the Panorama Building, 220 So. Main Street
Courtesy of the Seaver Center
In 1891, he was a detective on the Mexican Central Railway, and by June, the paper announced he was a detective for Wells, Fargo & Co.

Los Angeles Herald, June 2, 1891

By 1900 he was back in Los Angeles, conducting boat patrol around Avalon Island and also working as a Deputy Constable. 

Also about the year 1900 Thomas opened his own detective agency in the Bullard Building located at 156 No. Spring Street.  He operated independently into 1920 according to city directory listings.

Billed as "Thomas T. Botello"
To re-cap, the numerous newspaper articles reported on Thomas' arrests - of a shoplifter; of robbers upon Wells, Fargo; of a couple for murdering a man; of a man in Ventura County for attacking another on the L.A. & Ventura Stage Road; capturing robbers of a Mexican train, mail fraud perpetrators, a counterfeiter of government stamps; the chasing of stage robbers while he was chief of the Wells, Fargo & Co.'s detective force in Mexico.

The paper also reported on his testimony against charges of police corruption against Chinese gamblers; another testimony as a witness involving Democratic voters who were deterred during a local 1887 election; a scuffle he was involved with another bailiff in the U.S. Circuit Court.  Thomas was himself accused of bribing a voter.  He and several fellow officers were arrested for burglary and larceny against Chinese gamblers:  though they had a warrant for arrest, they broke a number of houses, destroyed property but found no evidence of gambling.

Thomas was a member of the Hidalgo Club that planned periodic Mexican Independence Day celebrations.  He was also a vice president of the local Spanish-American Democratic Club.

The 1930 census listed him as unemployed (as he was about 72 years old).  A few city directories between 1928 and 1931 list his occupation as clerk.

Perhaps he picked up some income drying those gourds at the new Olvera Street.


A Volatile Family Life

Thomas married a local girl, Cleofas Boring, at least by 1888 (in the 1883 city directory, he was living at Uncle Narciso's place in East Los Angeles while Miss C. Boring was listed as a dressmaker living at 135 Buena Vista).  She was a few years younger than Thomas, and her bad temperament was recurring news.  In the summer of 1888, she and two others appeared in court for disturbing the peace.  The two defendants were let go, but Cleofas was fined $5.00.

In November of 1891, the couple was living at Cleofas' parents house at 549 Buena Vista.  It was reported in the paper that she stormed into a neighbor's house, brandishing a heavy pitcher.  As she wreaked havoc around a room, she splattered flammable coal oil before she ran out.  The woman neighbor managed to put out the fire before endangering her children and a bedridden old woman.  The Times reported that Cleofas' husband, Tom, ex-Detective of the District Attorney's Office, was away in Mexico City.

The Los Angeles Herald announced March 24, 1895 that the couple filed for guardianship of an illegitimate child of a poor woman who did not have the means to raise and educate him.  The boy was given the name Thomas F. Botello.

The older Thomas' home life was at times tumultuous as when was out accosting criminals.  In January of 1896, a sensational newspaper article reported that "Tommy Botello Shot His Wife in the Leg."  Deputy United States Marshal Thomas claimed it was accidental when a .44 caliber resolver discharged during an argument in their home at 216 Wildardt Street.  The newspaper chronicled that the wife arrived home 11:30 in the evening drunken and belligerent.  In the morning she threatened to tear up a Federal bench warrant that he was supposed to serve that morning, and she lunged at him with scissors, and in the scuffle the gun went off.  Cleofas told an opposite story that in actuality it was her husband who was the long-time abuser.

Little Tommy, about 10 years old, was reported in August, 1897 to have attempted to run away from their home at 721 Castellar Street.

Their address changed every couple of years.  The 1897 directory also listed them at 1428 Maple Avenue, their longest stay, until 1901.  Throughout their lives, they primarily lived within a mile or so of the plaza, though between 1912 and 1918 their address was in Hawthorne.

Another story in the L.A. Herald August 26, 1898 mentioned that the wife of Thomas F. Botello, ex-U.S. Deputy Marshal, demolished crockery, furniture and broke down doors while intoxicated.  As she heaved a lamp at Thomas, it missed him but hit their little boy.  Police intervened and tried to take her to her parents' house.  She resisted and was charged with disturbing the peace.

Below is a 1916 newspaper photo identifying the naval soldier on the far right as bugler Thomas F. Botello - presumably this was the son.

From the Los Angeles Times
Thomas and Cleofas were still listed together in city directories, the last one being 1934.


A Mysterious Adobe by the Broadway Tunnel

The city relieved its traffic congestion by digging a tunnel through Fort Moore Hill in late 1899.  By 1901 the new tunnel allowed a connection to North Broadway. 

Oddly, a Mexican adobe sitting at one end of the tunnel was spared in the construction (once the home of Cleofas and her parents, Henry Boring and Isabel Acuña).  The extraordinarily wide tunnel underwent repairs in its mid-life including remediation of dampness and mildew until it was closed in 1949 with the coming of the freeway.


April of 1919
In 1919 a newspaper article detailed the sale of the adobe to businessman John Dye.  The news story went on to say that part of the appeal to Dye was the history behind the structure:  it supposedly belonged to the family of Thomas Botello, whose family emigrated en masse in 1849.  Botello was quoted that his grandfather was a General.

Knowing what we know about Botello's background, the story seems to have been fabricated, perhaps in order to make the sale more attractive to Dye.  Botello's parents were already in Los Angeles by 1849 when the U.S. war with Mexico was over.  Actually, the house was probably owned by his wife, Cleofas, whose grandfather was a Lieutenant Ramirez.


April of 1919

The adobe can be seen below, with "Dynamite" billboard above and another billboard along one side of the house, to the left of the tunnel.


Circa 1928 view of the Broadway Tunnel at Sunset Blvd.
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The adobe seen above was described in Marion Parks' article "In Pursuit of Vanished Days, Visits to the Extant Historic Adobe Houses of Los Angeles County" in a publication of the Historical Society of Southern California (1928, vol. 14 no. 1-3).  Parks wrote that the house (at the address 412 Sunset) sat between Justicia Street and Broadway, at Sunset, built in 1864 by Francisco Garcia (who lived to 115!) using adobe bricks made by Francisco Manzo.  The house then became the home of the Borings, the birthplace of daughter Cleofas.

The image below, dated about 1935, is a similar view without the adobe, leaving only the Auto Park.

Courtesy of California Historical Society, USC Libraries




Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Happy 104th Birthday Milton!

Previous blog posts covered Los Angeles artist Milton Quon - in 2012 when his work was exhibited at the Vincent Price Art Museum and then in 2015.


Milton and his wife Peggy (in burgundy jacket) along with family and friends.  Sorry you were cut off Jeffrey!
At his birthday luncheon in Torrance, California, held Sunday August 20th, Milton was charming as ever.  With wife Peggy by his side (who he has known since 1939), they sat leaning snugly into each other throughout the party.

The following day brought something else special when the solar eclipse peaked at 10:21 a.m. PST.  It was "the first in nearly a century to cast the moon's shadow on the entire contiguous United States (the last one was in 1918)" according to Space.com.

So Monday was a workday back at the Natural History Museum.  After viewing the eclipse amongst staff and visitors, Milton was on this blogger's mind - the museum became the new cultural center in the city when its doors opened on July 4th, 1913  - the following month Milton was born, the new Angeleno in the City of the Angels - and by November the city celebrated its new water supply with the opening of the L.A. Aqueduct.  The total solar eclipse in 1918?  Milton was around, and this blogger would like to think he witnessed it.



Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Looking for The Summer of Love in San Francisco, Cal.

A circular fountain outside the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Expo Park near Figueroa & Exposition Boulevard is very much enjoyed by the local pigeons.  At the base is an easy-to-miss marker that points in the direction of San Francisco:




The Summer of Love,  50 Years Later

The country can now reflect back 50 years to the "Summer of Love" (SOL) the counter culture movement's climactic year of 1967 - a convergence to San Francisco of tens of thousands of disenchanted, rebellious, or adventure-seeking youth.  L.A. Times writer Patt Morrison interviewed William Schnabel's time there. 

Countless events  to commemorate the 50th anniversary emanate heavily out of San Francisco, and other cities are also doing their part.

At City Hall, the SF Arts Commission exhibited Jim Marshall photographs of the SOL.  This project was implemented early - on view beginning January 26th and already ended on June 23rd when other city events were barely getting started. 

The California Historical Society, headquartered in San Francisco is holding a photograph exhibition, too:



The city's Museum of African Diaspora offers a deeper examination of the Jimi Hendrix persona and the impact of Black artists.

The most ambitious exhibition to SOL is at the de Young Museum at Golden Gate Park.  More on the exhibition later in this post.

Nearby Marin County and the Bay area cities of Lafayette and Vallejo organized concerts and fairs. 

The big feature was the Monterey International Pop Festival held the exact three days as was in 1967.  A previous post touched on the hippie era of the mid-1960s, a time when this historic music festival transformed unknowns into household names:  Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and others.  The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles opened "Monterey International Pop Festival:  Music, Love & Flowers, 1967" continuing through October, 2017.

Stanford University's music library offered an exhibit of seminal album covers.  The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, paid tribute with an exhibition focused on photography and graphic design of the era.

In London, the Royal Albert Hall organized an ambitious nod to the music legacy of SOL:



Haight-Ashbury

Historian Anthony Ashbolt wrote about SOL in a journal article "Go Ask Alice" (Australasian Journal of American Studies, December 2007).  The abstract offers a clear explanation of the expression "Summer of Love":

"In 1960s historiography today, the expression 'Summer of Love' is used in three senses. It refers generally to the explosion of psychedelic sounds, images and lifestyles in that decade. It is also code for the overall phenomenon of Haight-Ashbury between 1965 and 1968. Specifically, more accurately, it applies to the summer of 1967 in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. While the multiple meanings all carry weight, too often that first general sense of the Summer of Love shields a dialectic hope and despair behind a banner of optimism and dreams. To put it more bluntly, the hippie experiments of the 1960s were full of Utopian promise, while the Summer of Love actually spelled the end of that particular vision in Haight-Ashbury. This is a paradox rarely explored."



A corner at Haight & Ashbury, taken July 5, 2017

More Visuals In & Around the City, Summer, 2017

San Francisco bus shelters along Market Street displayed a series of contemporary art posters featuring personalities from SOL.  This blogger was only able to capture two of them.  It seems befitting that the gritty Market Street behold the posters, for all that the SOL offered, there was the bad - drug overdoses, sexually transmitted diseases, and physical assaults.




The BART advertised the following:


City boosters also offered three additional poster styles:


Japanese retailer Uniqlo celebrates a rainbow experience at their Powell Street store:

Rainbow-color lit stair steps in the interior store.  Photo courtesy of S. Uyeda

Tour companies, restaurants, and retailers around Fisherman's Wharf made a concerted promotional effort:

Note the peace symbol sourdough bread from Boudin's



Souvenirs for the 50th anniversary were few and not easy to find, - a couple of items were selling at stores between Ghirardelli's, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Boudin Bakery:

Tin of San Francisco Chocolate Factory chocolate drops and a relatively expensive commemorative shot glass
Venerable Buena Vista Restaurant offered this postcard and the button below

Further down the street, Madame Tussauds San Francisco displayed a quintessential psychedelic bus:



A mural inside a Mod Pizza establishment in suburban Daly City pay homage to the Seattle musician whose path to icon was ignited in the Bay area:



At the de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park

Among the plethora of offerings by San Francisco institutions, a major exhibition is ongoing at the de Young.  KQED Arts published a thoughtful critique of the show when it opened in April:

Their leaflet
Mock street signs of the famous intersection are displayed outside of the museum.
Photo courtesy of J. Loverme



Photo courtesy of J. Loverme

Many of the documents and artifacts in the exhibition are from de Young collections - the museum was already acquiring "Summer of Love" materials as early as 1972, if not earlier

Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick with Janis Joplin
The two musicians were first locally known in the Bay Area before their fame broadened

The Doors, an L.A. band, played the Bay Area



Singer Joan Baez and her sisters pictured in an anti-war and anti-draft commentary

Poster for concert fundraiser following the assassination of Reverend King, Jr.

The de Young Museum exhibited photographs in December, 1968 that explored the
African American community in San Francisco as well as Oakland's Black Panther Party

Jerry Garcia and members of the Grateful Dead in their neighborhood
Current Events

A couple of recent events resonate, against and for, respectively, the social activism underlying the Summer of Love from 50 years earlier:

James McCloughan was an Army Medic during the Vietnam War.  He was finally awarded a Medal of Honor at the end of July.  Long overdue, the honor bestowed recognition to his extreme bravery in saving injured soldiers while under active artillery attack in May of 1969.

A new feature film, Detroit, draws renewed attention to the rioting in that city that began July 23, 1967 and lasted until July 28th.  The unrest stemmed from the police arrest of African Americans who were celebrating the return from Vietnam of two friends.  Police brutality and the usual racial tensions escalated into one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.

P.S.

The San Francisco Chronicle issued this commemorative soft-cover publication filled with Jim Marshall photographs.  This blogger's copy arrived in the mail recently.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

1967, the Summer of Love in Hollywood: a View from a Chinese Hand Laundry

California Dreamin' 1967

In May I picked up a pristine copy of Long Beach-born Michelle Phillips' memoir, California Dreamin':  the True Story of the Mamas and the Papas (1986) for a buck at the Friends of Whittier Public Library Bookstore.  By coincidence, I began reading it on and off, and when I got to the pages where Michelle described the Monterey International Pop Festival (June 16-18, 1967), I realized it was now the actual 50th anniversary of the festival.



Hollywood, 1965 - 1968

The lazy summer days in the 1960s often found me relaxing in the rear patio of our Hollywood family business, Tan Shing Chinese Hand Laundry, with a hand-held, silver Jade transistor radio pressed up to an ear.  Fontella Bass' "Rescue Me" (1965) and the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" (1966) received a lot of air play, and the songs offered me, a 10-year old, some early, subconscious advice on relationships.

My father must have bought the laundry business at 7555 W. Sunset Boulevard from Ling Lee in 1965, because by fall I was attending fourth grade at Gardner Street Elementary School a few blocks from the laundry.  (I transferred from Micheltorena Elementary School near Silverlake, a school that Michelle Phillips also attended.)

The Save Our Way Market was at the corner at 7551 Sunset.  My parents toiled twelve hours a day except for Sundays, so they were always around when I returned from school.  A sheltered family life -  the laundry had amenities of a kitchen, eating area and two beds for our long hours staying there until we could return home each night to Silverlake.

We were located near Sierra Bonita Avenue, about six blocks east of Fairfax Avenue.  Occasionally my siblings and I walked to the Thrifty's Drugs at Fairfax to buy comic books.  We did not venture further west towards Sunset Strip.

Us kids on several occasions got to stuff envelopes for one dollar at the photography business next door.  Around the corner on Sierra Bonita we befriended the people who rented a space to assemble movie studio lights.

Some of the laundry customers were character actors.  Once I encountered Alan Hale (the Skipper on Gilligan's Island, the TV show that ended in 1967) at the library on Gardner Street below Sunset.  Actress Stephanie Powers' brother lived nearby, too.  Actress Barbara Eden (star of I Dream of Jeannie) shopped at the Ralph's Market further east on Sunset.

It must have been 1967 when all the hippies started hanging out along the boulevard near our laundry.  In a day the neighborhood was completely transformed.  Never before was there this buzz of street activity, but all of the sudden long-haired young men loitered about, often sitting cross-legged on the sidewalks, flashing the "peace" sign to each other with their fingers.  Most noticeable were the young women because they wore extremely short, micro mini-skirts and dresses as they congregated on Sunset.

In Michelle Phillips' book, she describes the scene at the Sunset Strip after the festival ended at Monterey in mid-June of 1967:  "Now and again we would leave the Bel Air house for a drive through the greatest show on earth:  the hippie dream trail of Sunset Strip, where, on weekends, all the folks from the San Fernando Valley and other 'out of towners' would drive through, slowly, at cruising pace, curb-crawling, bumper to bumper, to see 'the freaks', the young and not so young with funny hair, long dresses, cowboy boots, jeans, all sorts of hats, and all sorts of heads under them." 

What I saw near our laundry must have been a spillover of this circus less than half a mile away.  At some point in time a colorful bus began rolling along heading west on Sunset, with its speakers blasting the song "Magic Bus" by The Who.  The bus came by often.  Was it a marketing or a tourist gimmick after the song was released in 1968?

I observed some of the commercialism of the psychedelic 60s:  the storefront next door at 7557 Sunset Boulevard was vacated by photographer Jacques De Langre and took on a new life as a short-lived retail store selling hippie paraphernalia.  The business did not last too long, and maybe it was when they were clearing out their inventory that I scored for free some "mod" 78 rpm record inner-sleeves and maybe even the Lucite ring shown below.



California Dreaming, 1510 - 1770

Scholars attribute a Spanish tale for having inflamed a curiosity among the men who first explored the Pacific Coast - the novel Las Sergas de Esplandián by Spanish writer Garci Rodrigues Ordoñez de Montalvo from around the year 1510.  Passages in the book describe an island called California ruled by Queen Calafia, a spirited, beautiful ruler statuesque in proportion.


Las Sergas de Esplandián - probably a later edition at one time on exhibit in the Lando Hall of California History
at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research)

A Paradise at Monterey

A Basque explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno charted the upper California coast in 1602, naming along the way place-names familiar today - including San Diego, Santa Barbara, Point Concepcion, and Monterey.  He described Monterey as the most desirable port, with the same latitude and climate as Seville, with springs of good water, beautiful lakes covered with ducks and other birds, fertile pastures and meadows for cattle and crops. 

His over-the-top description sparked the imagination of men like Captain Gaspar de Portolá, who in 1769 brought Father Junipero Serra to found the first Spanish mission at San Diego.  No sooner that they arrived that Portolá took off to search for Monterey - arriving there unknowingly, expecting the mythical place portrayed by Vizcaíno.

Disappointed, Portolá ordered Sergeant José Ortega to take another look - Ortega actually discovered the San Francisco bay instead.  Portolá, unimpressed, wrote in his journal that the scouts "found nothing".  He did, however, return to the Monterey vicinity on December 9, 1769, and he erected a wooden cross.  He and his starving men returned to San Diego by January, 1770.  A Spanish ship came in with new provisions and Portolá headed back up to Monterey (meeting Father Serra up there who traveled by ship), where the padre would establish a new headquarter for the Catholic missions, while Portolá set up a presidio to protect the mission.

Monterey was the original capital of California, as well as the religious seat, and it was the destination for the early Spanish settlers in the late 1700s.

Postscript

After I finished sixth grade at Gardner Street Elementary School, a new, pint-size singing sensation, Michael Jackson, came into the school as a sixth grader in 1969.

A new school to attend for me in 1968 was Joseph Le Conte Junior High School on Bronson Avenue.  Notable students were Manuel Padilla, Jr. who portrayed Jai in the Tarzan television show while attending the school, and future actress Rita Wilson.  It is funny that the memory reaching back 50 years can recall those who made names for themselves as celebrity.

Actor and comedian Redd Fox opened an opulent Hollywood beauty salon in July, 1975 called Celebrity Beauty Salon and later re-named Redd Foxx Hairstyling Salon.  The storefront he took over was our former laundry.  The salon closed in 1979.

John Denver, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1964 to be a part of the soon-to-be-diminishing folk music scene.  He would go on to become the biggest recording star of the following decade.  He broke millions of hearts when he, the avid aviator, died upon plunging his experimental plane into the Monterey bay in October of 1997.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Ocean Liners: in Times of Peace and War

Asama Maru...Coming to America

Grandpa immigrated to America in 1929 on the maiden voyage of the Japanese liner, Asama Maru.  The $6,000,000 passenger ship carried over 800 persons:  between 222 and 239 first class passengers (accounts vary), 96 persons in second class, and 504 in third class.  It was the first Japan-made diesel engine ship and one of the fastest at the time traveling at 21 knots.  It took a little over 12 days from Asia to California.

Los Angeles Times display ad October 29, 1929
(Image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

This blogger's father's father arrived in San Francisco on October 24, 1929, six days before the crash of the New York Stock Exchange.  He mostly likely traveled from the starting point in Hong Kong on a third class ticket.

The next port call for the Asama Maru was Los Angeles on October 29th, and the anticipated arrival of the ocean liner brought with it economic optimism of closer relations with the Far East.  There was no way to foresee the ship's future:  employed in the Second World War as a "mercy" ship, then as a hell ship and then its sinking by a torpedo in 1944.

On its first time arrival in L.A. the ship was publicly opened to visits by the more than 15,000 people before it set sail back to the Orient on November 1st via San Francisco and Honolulu. 


Los Angeles Times article dated October 28, 1929
(Courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers)


The Asama Maru's interior décor was a blend of western and Oriental rooms.  The ship sailed through the decade of the 1930s.

From 1939 brochure
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, GC-1094)

1936 brochure
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)

1930 ad
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)

1930 ad reverse side with travel agent stamp out of Pasadena, Calif.
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)

March, 1938 sales brochure
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)

March, 1938 sales brochure
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)

March, 1938 sales brochure stamped with still hopeful reminder of upcoming Tokyo Olympics
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)


This 1940 brochure provided a Notice that due to the war in Europe, the Japan-Europe Service route was not in operation
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)


Some History of American Ships on the Pacific Coast

Pacific Mail Steamship Co. operated several side-wheel steamers in the 19th century.  The SS Colorado (1864-1878) inaugurated in 1867 the company's first scheduled service to Hong Kong, with stops in Japan.  According to an anniversary calendar, the Colorado took travelers in search of fabric, tea, and spices.  Chinese migrant workers headed to Gold Mountain (California) made the return voyage.

From APL sesquicentennial calendar 1848-1998 picturing the SS Colorado
(Courtesy of blogger's personal collection)
Pacific Mail Steamship's SS The Great Republic (1867-1878) was among the last of the wooden side-wheelers taking passengers across the Pacific to Japan and later to Hong Kong (9.5 knots speed; 1,450 passengers of which 250 were first class).

Dollar Lines was another enterprise which in the early 1920s counted upon 90 percent of its transpacific passengers from Asia.  In 1925 Dollar Lines bought Pacific Mail Steamship.  During the Gilded Age, it operated luxurious ships boasting fine crystal, china and silverware in its dining rooms, grand pianos in the first class lounges.  By 1931, Dollar's SS President Hoover was the largest U.S. built passenger liner, with a telephone in each stateroom and private baths in first class.  It carried 988 passengers in four classes at a speed of 20 knots.

Air travel during this time was new - passenger flights began in the summer of 1929 by the Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc. (later to be named TWA).

Dollar Steamship Co. became known as American President Lines (APL) in 1938.  During the Second World War, APL managed ships for the War Shipping Administration, including its own APL liners.

Another line, Matson, concentrated on mainland to Hawaii service.  In 1927, its SS Malolo (1927) was the fastest in the Pacific Ocean at 22 knots.  Three other luxury Matson ships built between 1930 and 1932 were SS Mariposa, SS Monterey and SS Lurline.  Once the U.S. joined the war, Matson liners became a part of the war effort.

War Ships

Japan joined the Axis powers on September 27, 1940.  Japanese ships were conscripted into war service.  Similarly, when the United States joined Allied forces after December 7, 1941, American ships were adapted as troop carriers, hospital ships and freighters.

Mercy Ships of War

The Asama Maru had a role during the Second World War in the exchange of civilians among countries.  The Gripsholm Exchanges involved the return of citizens behind enemy lines, and the first took place with the Asama Maru in 1942 transporting American diplomats and their families, as well as some South Americans, who had been imprisoned since December 8, 1941.  Another ship, the Italian Conte Verde, simultaneously swept up Americans stranded in China.  The Asama Maru left Yokohama, Japan on June 25th, making further pickups at Hong Kong, Saigon and Singapore, where it met the Conte Verde.  Both ships departed for Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, with all of their lights on, illuminated crosses on the hind deck, and with the word EXCHANGE painted in large letters on the sides, arriving July 23rd. 

Arriving also was the Swedish MS Grispsholm which had carried Japanese nationals from New York and Rio de Janeiro.  The exchange took place on the 24th.  (In comparison to the Asama Maru that was Japan's first diesel-fueled passenger liner, the Grispholm was a 1925 cruise ship and the first diesel-powered one to cross the Atlantic Ocean.)

Asama Maru was sunk by an American submarine USS Atule in the South China Sea on November 1, 1944.

Hell Ships of War

Among the luxury Japanese liners from the era of the 1930s, this blogger finds a brief web mention that the Asama Maru served as a hell ship.  These Japanese ships transported WWII prisoners-of-war from Japan-occupied lands - their intent to ship these POWs to Japan and other occupied territories for slave labor.

Another liner, Nitta Maru, formerly serviced the Japan-Europe passenger route (referenced in a previous image above), was converted during the war and served as a hell ship (documented is the transport of Allied soldiers from Wake Island to Japan in January of 1942).

Many other Japanese military ships served as hell ships, and this blog post serves to bring attention to the Arisan Maru that transported 31st Regiment Infantry Private Charles G. Vargas who hailed from the L.A. area.

(Image courtesy of J. Adame)


The Arisan Maru was a military ship, never a passenger liner, that set out carrying over 1,780 prisoners from Bataan, Philippines on October 11, 1944 destined for Formosa.  The men had already endured several years of hardship, brutality, and torture by the hands of their Japanese counterparts since the fall of the Philippines in 1942.

As the men were crammed onto the ship, they faced starvation, dysentery and continued torture.  Many began dying while the ship detoured for several days before the journey north.  The ship did not bear any signs indicating the transport of American and Allied POWs and other civilian prisoners, and on October 24, 1944 friendly fire torpedoed the ship.  Five soldiers survived, but Private Vargas and the rest all perished .  This was the greatest number of fatalities in a single instance at sea.

Private Vargas is remembered as a young resident of Simons, California, the brick-making company town near Montebello in L.A. County.  His profile in the American Patriots of Latino Heritage website states he was born in Santa Monica (Simons Brick Company had a plant located in Santa Monica, and quite probably Vargas was born there.)  Also listed are his three brothers, the oldest Alexander (born in Simons, 1920), and Charles' two younger brothers, Salvador (born in Santa Monica, 1926) and Ismael (born in Santa Monica, 1928) - the three brothers survived the war.  Out of all the profiles in the Latino Heritage site, this blogger only found a couple of soldiers who died on hell ships, one of which was Private Vargas.

At the war's Pacific Theater, the Death March of Bataan, the prison camps and the hell ships were bleak episodes in humanity, where war produced heinous and atrocious crimes by otherwise civilized men in otherwise peaceful times.  It is a mournful memory even 73 years later.

Grandpa was living in L.A. before he was drafted as a civilian worker following the attack at Pearl Harbor.  He worked in Kaneohe, Oahu.  Found in an old suitcase, he saved what appears to be a memento of his time on the island:

Pillow case souvenir