A brief history of Terminal Island, from canneries to convicts

Terminal Island is right down the street from Long Beach, and yet most residents of Long Beach, reluctant to cross the bridge into San Pedro, know little about Terminal Island other than they used to can tuna there and it’s home to a prison of some sort.

And yes, superficially, that pretty well nails it.

But it’s a lot more interesting than a couple of sentences.

For one thing, it’s a peninsula; you don’t need a boat or ferry or even a bridge to get there. And it didn’t pop out of the sea in some cataclysmic geological blast. Terminal Island is, for the most part, man-made.

Along its coast was a port for fishing boats and the tuna industry workers called Fish Harbor (because why beat yourself up trying to think of a more imaginative name). It was used first for the lucrative hauling in of sardines, and later, when sardines were overfished, to the catching and canning of tuna.

Tuna wasn’t an overnight sensation, but the fishermen, nearly all of whom were Japanese drawn down the Palos Verdes Peninsula’s coast from Whites Point where they were chiefly involved with harvesting abalone, had to catch something and, with much marketing effort by early canneries (including ditching the moniker “hog of the sea,” bestowed on tuna in those days because it was thought of as a garbage fish, more suitable for fertilizer than food) tuna eventually caught on, and by the time World War II ended, Terminal Island was the world leader in tuna production.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because the U.S. involvement in World War II, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, also resulted in the destruction of the village of Fish Harbor, a charming and bustling enclave of about 3,000 Japanese people living within walking distance of the canneries.

On Feb. 19, two months after the Pearl Harbor attack and with anti-Japanese sentiment in full roar, those residents were given 48 hours to evacuate their homes and to join others in internment camps.

The Navy razed the village’s 300 homes and shrines and the fishing boats and canneries were staffed by San Pedro’s Slav, Filipino and Mexican communities.

The industry thrived for decades until once again the catch dwindled, along with profit margins and the tuna fishing industry moved across the Pacific and down to Central and South America. Today, Thailand is the leader in tuna production, and Terminal Island’s last cannery closed in 1985.

The federal prison on Terminal Island reemerged in the public’s consciousness this past Tuesday when it was announced that 443 inmates, nearly half of the federal prison’s 1,055 inmates, have the coronavirus, along with 10 staff members. Two inmates have died from COVID-19, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

What remains less known about the prison were some of the more notable inmates there over the decades. It’s a colorful cast of mobsters and other bad guys that could swallow a Martin Scorsese movie in one gulp.

  • Chicago boss Al Capone, America’s favorite mob guy, got caught for the penny-ante crime of tax evasion in 1931, did his time at Alcatraz before he was sent to Terminal Island in 1939 to finish a one-year sentence for a misdemeanor.
  • Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno was the subject of Gay Talese’s Mafia book “Honor Thy Father.” He was also the inspiration for Michael Corleone in Mario Puzo’s best-seller “The Godfather.” The son of Joseph “Joey Bananas” Bonanno, Salvatore also stumbled and was convicted of credit card fraud, serving his sentence from 1968 to 1972 at Terminal Island. Upon his release, his younger brother, Joe Jr., was transferred there to complete his Federal time from 1972 to 1975.
  • Gangster Henry Hill, an associate of the Lucchese crime family in New York, and later a mob informant portrayed by Ray Liotta in the Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” was held at the prison in the ’70s.
  • Rosario “Sal” Gambino, an Italian mobster in the Gambino crime family who, with his brothers, started the Cherry Hill Gambinos gang selling heroin out of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He was sent to Terminal Island to serve a 45-year term after trying to sell heroin to an undercover officer. He was released in 2009.

Other notable inmates at Terminal Island, outside of gangland, include:

  • Jeffrey MacDonald, the frequently lionized ER physician and later director of emergency services at St. Mary Medical Center. He was held twice at Terminal Island. First in 1979 right after he was convicted of murdering his wife and two young daughters at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina in 1970, and then again in 1982 after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of his conviction. He is currently serving three consecutive life sentences in federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland.
  • Charles Manson was a guest at Terminal Island for a couple of his less heinous capers. Manson was imprisoned there in 1956 for stealing a 1951 Mercury, and again in 1966 for attempting to cash a forged U.S. Treasury check.
  • Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor and LSD guru was held at Terminal Island in 1974, at the same time as his later foe, Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, was incarcerated there.
  • Owsley Stanley, the famous LSD chemist and Grateful Dead sound engineer, was held at Terminal Island from 1970 to 1972.
  • And a pair of female jazz singers were kept at Terminal Island, which was coed until 1977. Swing era jazz vocalist Anita O’Day was held at Terminal Island in 1954 for heroin possession, and Flora Purim was incarcerated in 1976 for cocaine possession. While in prison, she worked with music producer Steve Eastwood, who was also being held at Terminal Island, on Purim’s album “Open Your Eyes You Can Fly,” which became known to jazz fans as her “Freedom” album when released in 1976.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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