A Frozen Sadness

Tule Lake and the History of the American Concentration Camp

A Frozen Sadness

Shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, the United States government forcibly relocated more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans to a series of expansive internment camps dotted throughout the most remote corners of the American wilderness. Of these camps, none were as fortified or as grim as the one at Tule Lake, in Northern California. Journalist Kyle Deas explores what remains of the camp and speaks to survivors about the importance of protecting the site’s future as a National Historic Monument.

In the northern-most reaches of California, almost at the Oregon border, surrounded by the volcanic rock formations and outcroppings of the high desert, is a vast flat patch of land. Until the early 1900s, there was a lake here, but today, a century of dedicated irrigation has drained most of the water away, and only a fertile loam remains. A nearby bluff, Castle Rock, looms to the south. Farms dominate the landscape, and where there are no farms the vegetation consists only of a few sparse sagebrush and tules. The summers are hot and the winters long and cold. The nearest city of any notable size is Klamath Falls, thirty-five miles to the north; otherwise, there is very little civilization for a hundred miles in any direction.

This is Tule Lake, and for a brief period between 1942 and 1946, it was the site of the largest and most troubled of the incarceration centers in which Americans of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned during World War II1. These days, though, there isn’t much evidence left that the camp was ever here.

“Careful of the barbed wire,” says Angela Sutton, picking her way gingerly over a low fence that has collapsed into the dirt. Sutton is the Education Coordinator for the Tule Lake Unit National Monument, and on a sunny but cold day in early March, she was taking me on a tour of what remained of the incarceration center.

She led me to a rectangular concrete foundation sunken into the soil. It had a few tufts of sagebrush growing around the edges, a few pieces of rebar sticking up from where a wall had once been, and an orderly row of pipe holes down either side. “This structure housed the latrine for both men and women,” said Sutton. She pointed to the holes. “So these were where the showers were, and there would have been a wall between the two sides right here.”

The view from the latrine foundation. The field in the foreground would have contained almost a thousand barracks and made up most of the detainee’s living area. Photo by Kyle Deas.
The view from the latrine foundation. The field in the foreground would have contained almost a thousand barracks and made up most of the detainees’ living area. Photo by Kyle Deas.

She fished in her pocket and pulled out a map. “We’re standing right here,” she said, pointing to a spot on the map. To the right of her index finger, in the shadow of her hand, were thousands of rectangular buildings, tidily organized into a series of increasingly larger squares.

“The barracks stretched out in front of us,” she said. “This fence here –” she traced an exterior fence on the map “– would have cut southward about where those trees are.” She pointed to a distant copse. “And over here,” she wheeled around, “where those grain silos are, that’s where the baseball field would have been.” I squinted into the cold wind and tried to imagine that at one point over 18,000 people had lived in the field in front of me, crowded into over a thousand rudimentary barracks, encircled by a six-foot-tall fence topped with barbed-wire and dotted with armed guard towers.

As I was trying to conjure the mental image, a white pickup truck drove slowly into my field of vision and pulled off the road a few hundred feet from where we were standing. A man got out and walked along a row of weeds, setting them on fire with a propane torch. A column of black smoke rose into the air and started to drift toward us.

“Around here, it’s usually cheaper to burn things than to mow them,” said Sutton, in response to my puzzled expression. “Let’s head over to the jail before we get smoked out.” We walked back to the road, leaving the remains of the latrine — shattered and half-sunk in the ancient lakebed — behind.

The Tule Lake Segregation Center’s isolation is not an accident or quirk of fate, and neither is the scarcity of surviving buildings or landmarks. Rather, these are the inevitable results of deliberate choices made during the construction and dissolution of the incarceration centers. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19th, 1942, amid a wave of anti-Japanese hysteria. The order was startlingly broad: it authorized the Secretary of War to designate any area from which any person could be removed if the Secretary (or any of his military commanders) decided it was necessary. In reality, though, the order was only ever interpreted to justify the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, the majority of whom were either issei (first-generation immigrants who were still Japanese citizens) or nisei (second-generation American citizens of Japanese ancestry).

Throughout early 1942, the main responsibilities of the forced relocation process fell to General John DeWitt, the commander of the Western Defense Forces, who had been a strong proponent of forced removal in the lead-up to the executive order. DeWitt would continue to defend forced relocation throughout the war, which led to his infamous quote that “a Jap is a Jap.”

To some extent, though, DeWitt was merely echoing the anti-Japanese sentiment that prevailed throughout the country at that time. There had long been codified policies of racial discrimination against Asian-Americans in California, and in the weeks after Pearl Harbor was bombed, seemingly everyone embraced the idea of forced relocation, including California State Attorney General (and future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court) Earl Warren.

On the other side of the country, Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi was standing before the House of Representatives and saying things like, “this is a race war, as far as the Pacific side of the conflict is concerned,” and “the White man’s civilization has come into conflict with Japanese barbarism, and one of them must be destroyed.”2

Exclusion orders were posted in San Francisco directing the removal of persons of Japanese ancestry.
Exclusion orders were posted in San Francisco directing the removal of persons of Japanese ancestry

In March 1942, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) was formed with the express mission of removing and incarcerating the 120,000 persons of Japanese descent living on the west coast. Their first order of business was removing all these people to temporary detention centers, which were usually haphazardly converted racetracks or fairgrounds. The second task was figuring out where to put all of them for the indefinite future.

The WRA drew up a list of 300 sites that fit the bill. The criteria were that the site had to be on farmable public land, close to railroad and transportation lines and isolated from the coast and from population centers. The comfort of the detainees was not one of the factors taken into consideration. Eventually, they whittled that list down to the ten locations where War Relocation Camps would be built: Rohwer and Jerome, in the alluvial floodplains of Arkansas; Gila River and Poston, in the deserts of Arizona; Manzanar, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas; Topaz, Heart Mountain, Granada and Minidoka, in the plains of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho; and Tule Lake, in the high desert near the California-Oregon border.

“I am for the immediate removal of the Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior,” wrote Henry McLemore, a syndicated newspaper columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, in early 1942. “I don’t mean a nice part of the interior, either. Herd ‘em up, pack ’em off, and give them the inside room of the badlands. Let ‘em be pinched, hurt, hungry, and dead up against it.” McLemore had essentially outlined the War Relocation Authority’s defining purpose, and having identified the inside rooms of the badlands, the WRA proceeded to comply with the rest of his wishes.

Construction started at Tule Lake in early April of 1942, and a month later, the first detainees arrived from detention centers in Oregon. They lived at a nearby Civilian Conservation Camp until the main site had enough barracks to house them. The barracks were ramshackle things, “so cheap that frankly if [they] stand for the duration, we are going to be lucky,” said Milton Eisenhower, younger brother of Dwight and the first director of the War Relocation Authority. He was speaking to a Senate appropriations committee during his brief tenure as head of the WRA. Eisenhower would resign after only ninety days in the post, citing disagreements with the scope and circumstances of the forced removal program.

Work commences in 1942 on the construction of barrack homes for evacuees of Japanese ancestry on the site selected for this War Relocation Authority center. Photo by Albers Clem.
Work commences in 1942 on the construction of barrack homes for evacuees of Japanese ancestry on the site selected for this War Relocation Authority center. Photo by Albers Clem.

Each barrack contained six apartments, and each apartment housed four people. The partitions between apartments had gaps at the floors and ceilings and a wrought iron stove for warmth. Each block consisted of nine barracks and a recreational building, which could serve as a church or meeting place. The latrines — like the one whose foundation I saw — ran down the middle of each block of barracks. They were communal, had no partitions between toilets or showers and rarely had hot water.

During 1942 and into 1943, life at Tule Lake was the same as in the other nine incarceration centers: circumscribed, dull and uncomfortable, but not without its pleasant aspects. Residents held dances, played baseball and had some amount of freedom to move around. In the winter, some detainees were given permission to leave the fence to go sledding down the side of Castle Rock. And at some point during this period, someone added Japanese characters among the prehistoric carvings at Petroglyph Point — a bulky promontory not far from the camp fence. Life at the camp would change in mid-1943, though, when Tule Lake was converted from a “Relocation Center” to a “Segregation Center”.

A wide view of the Tule Lake Segregation Center after construction was complete. Photo taken in 1942/43.
A wide view of the Tule Lake Segregation Center after construction was complete. Photo taken in 1942/43.

Only after the mass relocation had been carried out and the incarceration centers had been established did the War Relocation Authority begin trying to figure out exactly whom it was imprisoning and where their sympathies lay. The method that it eventually settled on — the infamous “loyalty questionnaire” — was one of the most divisive acts of the entire process of relocation.

The questionnaire had twenty-eight questions, but the final two were the ones the WRA relied on to determine the loyalty of the prisoners:

27. Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
28. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attacks by foreign and domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?

The questions caused an immense amount of confusion and consternation among the detainees. Some thought that answering “yes” to the first was tantamount to enlisting in the Armed Forces. Others answered “no” to the second because they were citizens of Japan, and were afraid that forswearing their allegiance would leave them stateless. And many answered “no” as a form of protest, objecting to the idea that they should have to prove their loyalty to a government that had uprooted and imprisoned them.

Those distinctions, though, were not taken into consideration by the WRA. If a detainee answered “yes” to both questions, the WRA considered him loyal and he would be permitted to apply for release. If a detainee answered “no”, he was automatically deemed disloyal and in need of segregation away from the other detainees. Tule Lake had the highest number of “disloyals”, so it was decided that the camp would be converted to a segregation center. Most — but not all — of the loyal population was moved out, and the center experienced a massive influx of disloyal detainees from the other camps.

Tule Lake became home to an uneasy mix of detainees: those who truly were more loyal to Japan than to the United States; those who answered “yes” to both questions, but had already been living at Tule Lake and hadn’t wanted to move; those who answered “no” in order to stay with their spouses, children or parents; those who answered “no” in order to protest the forced relocation process; and a not-inconsiderable number of children who had no real say in anything that happened to them.

One of those children was the actor and playwright George Takei, whose family was transferred from Rohwer Relocation Camp to Tule Lake based on their answers to the loyalty questionnaire. He described coming to Tule Lake in his autobiography To the Stars:

It was the bleakest opposite of Rohwer. Where the southern Arkansas air was lush and sultry in the summertime, Tule Lake’s higher elevation always made the air sharp and biting, with a cold that in winter could plunge down to a bone-chilling frigidity…The guards were battle-ready troops at full battalion strength. All this bristly armament was positioned to keep imprisoned people who had been goaded into outrage by a government blinded by hysteria.

Another such child was Satsuki Ina, who was born in Tule Lake in 1943. Her parents had been living in San Francisco when the war started, and had been forcibly relocated to Topaz War Relocation Camp in Utah. Along with many others, they were transferred to Tule Lake based on their answers to the loyalty questionnaire.

Satsuki Ina in her home office in Sacramento. Photo by Kyle Deas.
Satsuki Ina in her home office in Sacramento. Photo by Kyle Deas.

“My parents were kibei, which means they were born in the United States, but educated in Japan,” she said. We spoke on a sunny afternoon at her house in a quiet neighborhood of suburban Sacramento. “Their primary language was Japanese, they were part of the Buddhist church. They were very tied to their Japanese culture and tradition. Those were the things that rated my father, in particular, as dangerous.”

“Which was ridiculous, of course.” She smiled a sad smile. “He was this quiet poet. He wasn’t running around spying or sending messages back to the Japanese government.”

After its conversion from a relocation center to a segregation center, Tule Lake would experience protests, riots, strikes, beatings and murders. A considerable contingent of military personnel arrived at the camp in mid-1943, bringing with them no fewer than eight tanks. The camp became overcrowded and there were food shortages. And after a clash between protesters and camp administrators, the camp was put under martial law between November of 1943 and January of 1944, which disrupted most of the recreational activities the detainees had enjoyed during the first year the camp had been open.

At the southern end of the camp, a squat concrete jail was erected and behind it a wooden stockade was built. The stockade was specifically built to keep prying eyes out: the walls were twelve feet high and it was located in the administrative section of the camp, away from the area where most of the other detainees lived. It was outfitted with its own set of barracks and what were referred to as “punishment tents” — white army tents in which prisoners were given only a cot and two blankets to survive the harsh winter temperatures. For hundreds of detainees, the stockade became a prison within a prison, a place where even the meager comforts of family and shelter were denied.

At one point, Ina’s father, Itaru, was imprisoned in the jail for taking part in a protest — a fact that Ina didn’t know until many years later, when she visited an exhibition on internment at the Smithsonian Museum and came face-to-face with a photograph of her father in the Tule Lake jail.

Satsuki Ina’s father (right) in the Tule Lake jail. Photo by R.H. Ross, 1945.
Satsuki Ina’s father (right) in the Tule Lake jail. Photo by R.H. Ross, 1945.

Like many of the prisoners at Tule Lake, Ina’s parents were deeply disturbed by the relocation experience. “They didn’t have a crisis of loyalty,” she said, “they had a crisis of faith in their government.” In 1944, Congress passed a law allowing American citizens to renounce their citizenship during wartime; the legislation was specifically aimed at the prisoners at Tule Lake. Eventually, almost 5,500 detainees would renounce their American citizenship, either in a genuine desire to repatriate to Japan or as a form of protest against their incarceration. Ina’s parents were among them.

Then the war ended.

The other incarceration centers had been slowly shedding inmates since the “disloyal” population had been segregated to Tule Lake. Even so, closing those camps was no easy task. Many detainees had lost their homes, jobs and businesses and had nowhere to return to. The WRA was no help: they provided only $25 and train fare to each detainee. In the end, many had to be evicted from the barracks they had come to call home.

Tule Lake was open longer than the other camps because so many of the prisoners there had renounced their American citizenship. Some would eventually repatriate to Japan. Others — hearing of the destruction wrought on Japan by famine and war — decided to stay in the United States, and with the assistance of civil rights attorney Wayne Collins, they began the protracted legal process of regaining their American citizenship. Ina’s parents wouldn’t regain theirs until 1957.

Finally, on March 20, 1946, the Tule Lake Segregation Center was closed. Most of the land reverted to the Bureau of Reclamation, which set about erasing any trace that the camp had once stood on the site. Many of the barracks and outlying buildings were in such bad condition that they had to be demolished. Others were sold to local homesteaders for as little as a dollar apiece. And much of the land that the camp had occupied was sold off or leased.

Just five years after the war ended, almost all remnants of the Tule Lake center were gone, and what little remained was left to molder in the wind and the dust.

It took almost thirty years for anyone to organize a return to the site. In 1969, an Asian-American Studies group from the University of California at Davis visited the camp, but it wasn’t until 1974 that the first formal pilgrimage made the journey to Tule Lake. The pilgrims brought sleeping bags and slept at the nearby fairgrounds. Within a few years, the pilgrimages grew from just a handful of people to a group of several hundred that included many former detainees. In 1978, the nonprofit Tule Lake Committee was formed to organize the pilgrimages and raise funds for the preservation of the site.

The pilgrimages happened only sporadically throughout the 1980s, as the Japanese-American community was focused at the time on a campaign for redress and reparations. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which formally apologized for the forced relocation and provided reparations to each detainee; the legislation also concluded that “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” were the primary factors behind the incarceration. After the legislation was passed, the attention of the Japanese-American community returned to the actual sites of incarceration, and the pilgrimages began again as regular, biannual events in 1992.

The early pilgrimages were simply a way for former detainees to revisit the site and discover what still remained there. Over time, though, the pilgrimages became an important way to collect and pass on the memories of detainees. As former detainees grew too old to attend, more and more family members from subsequent generations started attending as a way to understand what their parents and grandparents had gone through.

This process holds particular importance for Tule Lake because so many former detainees faced discrimination for being held at the segregation center, even within the Japanese-American community. Coming to grips with segregation — and exploring the manifold reasons for renunciation — have become an increasing focus of the pilgrimages.

Due in large part to the efforts of the Tule Lake Committee, the site was named a National Historic Landmark in 2006, which, for the first time, granted it federal protection. In 2008, it was added to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which is part of the National Park Service. Today, the National Park Service has control over an L-shaped piece of land that includes the remains of the jail and a handful of other original camp buildings in various states of disrepair.

The monument is still in its infancy: it didn’t even have a budget until 2012. As of now, tours are offered only by appointment or on Saturdays in the summertime. If you were a drive-by visitor — not that there are many in this remote part of California — you wouldn’t find much if you pulled off of Highway 139: just a small commemorative plaque, a padlocked parking lot, and in the distance, the ruins of the jail.

At the moment, the site just doesn’t have the resources to educate the casual visitor — it exists more for the pilgrimage and for people who are actively looking to learn more about the relocation experience. In 2014, the National Park Service took 1,200 people on one hundred tours. Sutton estimates that at least 70% of those people had a personal or family connection to the site.

“In some ways, it’s very exciting to have the chance to work on a National Park Site from the ground up,” said Sutton. We were standing outside the jail, shifting from foot to foot and rubbing our hands together to ward off the chill of the wind. “Most of the time, we come in when there’s already something there: a wilderness, a landmark, something. Here, we get to work with the Japanese-American community and the local community to figure out what the perfect Tule Lake Unit site should look like.”

The remains of the Tule Lake jail, with Castle Rock in the background. A temporary roof has been placed over the original concrete structure. Photo by Kyle Deas.
The remains of the Tule Lake jail, with Castle Rock in the background. A temporary roof has been placed over the original concrete structure. Photo by Kyle Deas.

But Sutton did acknowledge the challenges of having so much of the land now under private control. “When the President signs a paper that says, ‘this is a National Park Service site,’ that doesn’t necessarily give us any of the land,” she said. “So we’re left to try to protect this legacy without having control over most of the site where the camp used to be.”

Since the monument site was established in 2008, there has been some tension with the local residents, who were unclear on what exactly this would mean for the land they had lived on for fifty years. “It made a lot of locals nervous,” said Sutton. “They thought we were going to come take their farms away.”

More recently, tensions have flared up over a fence slated to be built around the nearby Tulelake Airport, which occupies a large portion of the land that the incarceration center used to sit on. The fence – eight feet high and topped with barbed wire – would cut directly through the view I had looked out on near the latrine. The Tule Lake Committee alleges that the fence would destroy the historical integrity of the site and has sued the County of Modoc and the City of Tulelake to stop its construction.

Sutton declined to say much about the proposed fence: “We’re really not involved.” But she did speak almost wistfully about the Manzanar National Historic Site, which is located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Southern California and has the most developed visitor facilities of any of the former incarceration camps.

“Manzanar never left public hands,” said Sutton, “The whole site stayed together and was just moved from one government agency to the next. Here at Tule Lake, things are a bit more complicated.” I nodded, thinking back to the man setting fire to the weeds near the latrine foundation.

Sutton took me into the jail, pausing by the door to sort through a pile of flashlights. She found two that worked and handed me one, then took me around the dim concrete structure. The wrought iron doors and bars were stripped and sold at auction in the 1940s, she told me, but the buyer was convinced of their historic importance and stored them in a shed for nearly seventy years. They were recently donated back to the site and will be re-installed at the jail.

The interior of the jail at Tule Lake Segregation Center. Two cells are visible on the left. The original wrought-iron doors and bars were tripped and sold in the 1940s. Photo by Kyle Deas.
The interior of the jail at Tule Lake Segregation Center. Two cells are visible on the left. The original wrought iron doors and bars were stripped and sold in the 1940s. Photo by Kyle Deas.

Sutton pointed out a few pieces of newer graffiti on the walls of the jail. “In the 80s, high school students came here a lot to party, so some of this dates to that time period,” she said. But she showed me a few other inscriptions that were written by Japanese-American prisoners in the jail over seventy years ago. Most were in Japanese, but a few were in English, including one that said: “show me the way to go home.” It was written on the wall of one of the cells, above where a prisoner’s head would have lain; he must have written it while lying on his side, facing the wall, cold and despairing in the barren jail.

Inscription on the wall of a jail cell. “Show me the way to go home.” Photo by Kyle Deas.
Inscription on the wall of a jail cell: “show me the way to go home.” Photo by Kyle Deas.

I stared at the faded pencil inscription on the concrete wall and couldn’t decide whether to be outraged at the neglect Tule Lake had suffered or awed that anything managed to survive at all.

When I asked Sutton about the site’s future, she focused on the bureaucratic steps they would be taking in the short-term. She talked about the general management plan that the Park Service was putting together, how they were crafting a draft based on input from the local and the Japanese-American communities, and how that draft would soon be published and released for another round of feedback.

When I asked the same question to Satsuki Ina, though, her vision was more ambitious. “We want a full-time educational center, dedicated to preserving the memories of the people who lived there,” she said. “We don’t just want a plaque out there in the desert. We want a place where everyone, especially students and academics, can go and hear the oral histories, learn what people went through.”

“This is a piece of history that has been essentially marginalized from the national narrative,” said Ina. “So having a physical site that visually and concretely represents what the experience was like — that’s important.”

“People need to see the vastness of it, need to feel how hot it was, how cold it was, how desolate it was. Having the site preserved makes it undeniable that these injustices actually happened,” added Ina.

A composite image showing the site of the Tule Lake Relocation Center then and now. Image by Kyle Deas.
A composite image showing the site of the Tule Lake Relocation Center then and now. Image by Kyle Deas.

After the first pilgrimage in 1974, thenisei poet and playwright Hiroshi Kashiwagi — who had been incarcerated at the camp — wrote a reflection on the experience, a poem called A Meeting in Tule Lake: “Little remains except what’s trapped in our heads, far back somewhere,” he wrote. “So we must remember it and tell it, we must acknowledge it and tell it.”

Kashiwagi looked around at the crumbling jail, at the empty fields and distant mountains, and urged people to look past the physical structures that had been lost. He urged people to imbue the site with their own meaning — using their memories, their pain, their passion, their stories and their shared connection. For forty years of pilgrimages, people did just that.

And to a large extent, it worked. Today, Tule Lake has custodians — people who have dedicated themselves to preserving those memories. Fundamentally, the legacy of Tule Lake is secure. But today’s challenges — like the proposed fence — combined with the slow grind of bureaucratic progress, prove that this kind of work is never done.

The jail looked forlorn and small in my rearview mirror as I pulled away, and with Kashiwagi’s words echoing in my ears, I drove, under the darkening sky, away from the jail, away from Castle Rock, away from Tule Lake.


1. A note on language: over time, the historical terms relocation camp, evacuation, and internment have fallen out of favor with historians and with the Japanese-American community. Relocation and evacuation are now seen by many to be euphemistic terms that can obscure the harsh reality of what Japanese-Americans experienced, while internment refers specifically to the detention of prisoners-of-war. A consistent alternative has not been settled upon. Some prefer American concentration camp, but others see that term as carrying specific historical implications due to its association with the Holocaust. This story uses incarceration camp, forced removal, and detainee in an attempt to balance accuracy and clarity. The only exceptions are in direct quotes or when referring to official names; for example, Tule Lake War Relocation Camp.

2. Rankin was astoundingly racist. During his twenty years in Congress, he introduced anti-miscegenation bills, accused Albert Einstein of being a communist sympathizer, and repeatedly defended his right to use racial slurs on the house floor.