Impact Travel: The Japanese-American Internment Camps of WWII are probably the most troubling part of contemporary California history. I’ve written about Ansel Adams in Yosemite who took pictures of the internment camps, which were promptly confiscated by the FBI. I’ve also interviewed Mr. Tohru Isube at the Japanese American National Museum about his removal from Southern California as a teenager and his experience at the internment camps. But the real understanding of these camps happens when you visit their remote locations.

At Tulelake in the northwest corner of California, the terrain is flat and treeless. Winters are long and cold. It’s eerily far from civilization, close to what the Native Americans called ‘the land of burnt out fires,’ or currently Lava Beds National Park. Evidence of the War Relocation Center is scant, with some restoration efforts having begun in 2008, in particular with the establishment of the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

The Brief History

The history of the War Relocation Camps begin in 1942, following President Roosevelt’s authorization for the U.S. Army to remove almost 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast (two-thirds were American citizens). That same year, construction began on the Tule Lake War Relocation Center. It was one of ten remote War Relocation Centers where Japanese Americans had to reside during the war. The other relocation center in California was Manzanar at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevadas.

The Japanese Americans who were carted out of their homes, first went to assembly centers (also known as temporary incarceration camps) in Santa Anita, Stockton, Salinas, Pinedale and many more. These camps were located at fairgrounds and racetracks and maintained by the U.S. Army. There, everybody had to fill out a loyalty questionnaire given by the federal government. One question asked draft-age men if they were willing to serve in the armed forces. Another asked if they would “swear unqualified allegiance to the United States” and “forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government.” If anyone of Japanese descent answered anything but “yes,” they were branded as “disloyal” and relocated to Tule Lake.

Why would someone choose not to answer or to answer ‘no’ during WWII? According to a New York Times article, Japanese immigrants were not allowed to become American citizens until 1952, so they feared forswearing allegiance to Japan because it could render them completely stateless.

At Tulelake, prisoners were forced to spend their days as farm hands. But they didn’t always take their incarceration passively. On October 15, 1943 a truck transporting agricultural workers overturned and killed one person. The detainees blamed the War Relocation Authority for the accident, especially since the driver was underage. Ten days later the agricultural workers went on strike. By November 1st, the U.S. Army assumed control of Tule Lake and the camp residents held mass demonstrations.

The Camp Layout

The camp was designed to house 12,000 people, but by 1943 it became overpopulated, reaching 18,789 detainees.

The War Relocation Center had 74 residential blocks and each block had 14 barracks (20 by 100 feet). About 300 people resided in one block.

Each couple was allotted 200 square feet, but many families, no matter their size, were housed in small rooms about 20 feet by 20 feet. Each block had communal bathrooms, showers and laundry rooms, as well as a communal mess hall. Each room had a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a coal burning stove and cots. An outdoor faucet provided water for each barrack.

Italian and German Detainees

Interestingly, in 1944 Tulelake was converted into a prisoner of war camp. 150 Italian POWs remodeled the space to accommodate 800 German POWs who worked as farm hands in the onion and potato fields. While during WWII, Italians and Germans were also forcibly taken to internment camps, the government did not have an en masse expulsion program at the same level of the Japanese Americans.

Small Town Tulelake Remains

After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Western Defense Command revoked all restrictions against Japanese Americans. By March 1946 the Tule Lake War Relocation Center was closed along with the other ten relocation centers. The barracks were recycled and moved, used as staff quarters for the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge. Another building was converted into a muskrat skinning shed. Once a massive compound, absolutely none of it remains today.

The farming community still exists alongside the rustic two-street town of Tulelake.. The legacy of the camp, however, is remembered every year when the Tule Lake Committee hosts a pilgrimage to the site.


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