Tulelake, Modoc County, California April 15, 1942

On this date in 1942, in a remote, under­developed recla­ma­tion dis­trict roughly 35 miles south­east of Klamath Falls, Oregon, and about 10 miles from the town of Tule­lake (or Newell), the federal govern­ment began con­struc­tion of the Tule Lake Relo­ca­tion Center for persons of Japa­nese ances­try forci­bly “evacu­ated” from the U.S. West Coast. Shortly there­after the first Japa­nese Ameri­cans from hastily erected assembly centers (actu­ally tran­sit camps) in Port­land, Oregon, and Puyal­lup, Wash­ing­ton, arrived to help set up the relo­ca­tion center. In the weeks ahead Japa­nese Ameri­can assembly centers in Cali­for­nia’s Mary­ville, Pine­dale, Pomona, Sacra­mento, and Salinas emptied their “evacu­ees,” as the internees or incar­cerees were then known, into the Tule Lake Relo­ca­tion Center; a number were sent directly to Tule Lake from cities in the southern San Joaquin Valley, the large agricultural valley running down the center of the state.

The deportation of U.S.-born Japanese Americans and Japa­nese nationals regardless of age to remote cor­ners of the coun­try was based not on what these people had done or ever would do to put the nation’s secu­rity at risk but on who they were: mem­bers of a race in Asia with whom the United States was at war. Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt’s Febru­ary 19, 1942, Exec­u­tive Order 9066 (it really was FDR’s to own, as most of the presi­dent’s advisers had not argued for any­thing so trag­ically encom­passing) swept up two-thirds of the coun­try’s Japa­nese “non-aliens” (the war­time term for Amer­i­can cit­izens of Japa­nese descent by birth) plus the remaining Japa­nese nationals residing in Cali­for­nia, western Oregon and Wash­ing­ton, and southern Ari­zona, the so-called “Exclu­sion Area” offi­cially known as Mili­tary Areas 1 and 2. So Tule Lake, along with nine other per­ma­nent camps managed by the civilian-run War Relo­ca­tion Author­ity (WRA), was used to intern “for the dura­tion” (a con­ven­iently vague span of time) close to a tenth of the almost 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry who might conceivably pose a danger.

In early 1943 the War Department, in an effort to recruit volun­teers from WRA camps for an all-Nisei (second-gen­er­a­tion Japa­nese) com­bat unit, created an ill-con­ceived ques­tion­naire for internees 17 and older to deter­mine their “loyalty.” Two ques­tions, one con­cerning poten­tial ser­vice in the U.S. armed forces (Ques­tion 27), the other (Ques­tion 28) con­cerning for­swearing alle­giance to Japan and swearing unqual­i­fied alle­giance to the U.S. (while locked up, no less!), caused much anxiety and agonizing. What if indi­vidual family mem­bers answered differ­ently? Would mem­bers be separated? Par­tic­u­larly Issei (Japa­nese nationals), who by law were barred from becoming nat­u­ralized Americans, feared answering “Yes” to the second ques­tion. Might they become state­less persons? Many internees (42 percent at Tule Lake) were so upset and insulted by the two ques­tions that they answered “No-No” to both or point-blank resisted filling out the compulsory questionnaire.

Because the largest proportion of internees whom the govern­ment now con­sid­ered “dis­loyal” was at Tule Lake, the WRA con­verted the camp into a maxi­mum secu­rity segre­ga­tion facil­ity. By the fall of 1943, 6,500 “loyal” Tuleans who had answered “Yes-Yes” were trans­ferred to other camps, and about 12,000 “No-Nos” (so-called “recal­ci­trants”) and resisters (“incor­ri­gible agi­ta­tors”) with their fami­lies arrived from the other nine WRA camps. The new­comers joined 6,000 Tulean “No-Nos,” resisters, and “loyals” (4,000) who chose to stay. A camp built for 10,000 now had to accom­mo­date 18,700 internees—pri­soners who were watched over by the largest, most sub­stantial military police presence (1,200 soldiers and 8 tanks) of any WRA camp.

World War II Japanese Internment: The Example of Tule Lake Relocation/Segregation Center

Japanese American internment: Tule Lake Relocation/Segregation Center

Above: Run by the War Relocation Authority, a U.S. civilian agency, Tule Lake Relo­ca­tion Center (from August 1943, Tule Lake Segre­ga­tion Center) encom­passed 7,400 acres/­30 sq. km, of which 3,500 acres/­14 sq. km of the former lake bed were under culti­va­tion in 1941. At an ele­va­tion of 4,000 ft/­1,219 m, the high-desert summers were hot and dusty, the winters long and cold. Natural vege­ta­tion con­sisted of sparse grass, tules (bul­rushes), and sage­brush. No trees. Several tens of thou­sands of people of Japa­nese her­i­tage passed through Tule Lake until it closed on March 20, 1946, the last (at one point, the largest and argu­a­bly the most con­tro­ver­sial) of the 10 WRA camps to shut down. The entire Japa­nese Amer­i­can deten­tion and relo­ca­tion pro­gram was justi­fied at the time as a “mili­tary neces­sity.” Forty years later the U.S. govern­ment con­ceded that the pro­gram was based on racial bias rather than on any real threat to the nation’s security.

Japanese American internment: Construction underway at Tule Lake, April 1942Japanese American internment: Boarding train for Tule Lake

Left: Construction of primitive, thin-walled wood and tar­paper barrack “apart­ments” has begun at Tule Lake for internees of Japa­nese ancestry. Upon com­ple­tion there were 74 resi­den­tial blocks, each accom­mo­dating approx­i­mately 260 peo­ple. Each block consisted of thir­teen 20‑ft x 100‑ft/­6‑m x 30‑m barracks divided into four-to-six small single-family rooms that took no account of family size. Each drab apart­ment was fur­nished with hard army cots, a pot­bellied stove to heat the space, and one naked light bulb screwed into a cera­mic socket on the end of a long cord hanging from a rafter. The trian­gular-shaped opening above the apartments formed by the rafters and the roof—there were no ceilings—allowed voices and noise to carry through­out the barrack. Photo by Clem Albers, April 23, 1942. Albers was one of three photo­graphers in the WRA Photo­graphy Section, or WRAPS, in 1942–1943. The other two were Francis Stewart and Dorothea Lange.

Right: These displaced Japanese board a Tule Lake-bound train accom­panied by only what they could carry in their two hands. Larger per­sonal items identi­fied by family name and desti­na­tion would be placed in bag­gage cars and unloaded at a siding inside the reloca­tion center’s barbed wire perimeter. Photographer and date unknown.

Japanese American internment: Finger printing at Tule Lake, September 1943Japanese American internment: Internees line up for housing and bedding, Tule Lake, July 1942

Left: Scene in the fingerprinting department at the Tule Lake induc­tion center as an elderly woman has impres­sions made of her fingers on both hands. All Tule Lake internees were com­pelled to be finger­printed and photo­graphed. Photographer Charles Mace, September 25, 1943.

Right: Having just arrived at Tule Lake, these internees are being assigned housing and bedding by staff in one of the four inter­co­nnected admin­is­tration buildings. Photographer Francis Stewart, July 1, 1942.

Japanese American internment: General Store No. 2, Tule Lake, July 1942Japanese American internment: Young people’s dance, Tule Lake, May 1943

Left: The interior of General Store No. 2 at Tule Lake. Photo­grapher Francis Stewart, July 1, 1942. Tule Lake internees had the ser­vices of a large hos­pital (19 barr­acks), a post office, a Bank of America (open two days a week), men’s and women’s hair salons, a news­stand where the center’s bilingual Tulean Dispatch was sold, a funeral parlor and cem­e­tery, and com­munal mess halls cum assembly halls, one per resi­den­tial block (14 barracks). A large stock­ade with 12‑ft/­3.6‑m-high wooden walls and an adja­cent steel-reinforced con­crete jail built to hold 24 per­sons (at one time it held 100) were part of the bleak camp-scape. WPA-run nursery, ele­men­tary, and second­ary schools (always short of qual­i­fied staff), base­ball and soft­ball fields, judo halls, a sumo wrestling pit, and Chris­tian and Bud­dhist churches were further attempts by the WRA and by the internees using their own meager funds to dupli­cate aca­demic insti­tu­tions, social and recre­ational oppor­tu­nities, and spiritual life out­side the 3½‑ft/­3.1‑m-high warning fence and the guarded and lighted 6‑ft/­1.8‑m-high “man-proof” perimeter security fence of chain link and barbed wire.

Right: This Associated Press photograph, dated May 21, 1943, appeared in national news media with the following caption: “Young Japa­nese Hold Dance—Mess hall movies, little theatre acti­vi­ties and jitter-bugging to evac­uee bands are popu­lar forms of enter­tain­ment at the Tule Lake, Cali­for­nia, Japa­nese relo­ca­tion center. Here a block dance is in progress. Note the ‘zoot suit’ pants.”

Japanese American internment: Planting potatoes, Tule Lake, May 1943Japanese American internment: Harvesting spinach, Tule Lake, September 1942

Left: Riding light tractors a crew of internee farmers plant potatoes using semi-automatic-feeding, rotary potato planters on several hun­dred acres of fertile soil reclaimed from old Tule Lake. Associated Press photograph, May 21, 1943.

Right: Harvesting spinach. Tule Lake internees grew other crops: the afore­men­tioned pota­toes, also wheat, oats, rye, barley, onions, carrots, turnips, ruta­bagas, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, and celery. Hogs, chickens, and turkeys were raised and butchered. Carp was caught in irri­ga­tion canals. Never­the­less, mess hall menus leaned heavily on carbo­hy­drates. Excess food­stuffs were shipped to other WRA relo­ca­tion centers. Photographer Francis Stewart, September 8, 1942.

War Relocation Authority Wartime Propaganda Film: “A Challenge to Democracy,” a View Inside U.S. Japanese Internment Camps

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