Japanese Internment Camp

Tulelake, California

The second of the ten camps, the Tulelake Relocation Center, was opened on May 27, 1942, about ten miles from the town of Tulelake, California, and just south of the Oregon border. On a clear day, prisoners could see 14,000-foot Mt. Shasta to the south. Located on a dry lake bed, the winters at Tulelake are long and cold and the summers hot and dry, but the weather is relatively mild compared with the other camp locations.

The first evacuees came from the Portland and Puyallup Assembly Centers to help with the initial set up of the camp, and as the camp grew, more people arrived from Southwestern Oregon, Western Washington and the Sacramento area in California.

Of all the camps, Tulelake was fraught with the most turbulence and conflict. Prisoners held frequent demonstrations and strikes demanding their rights under the U.S. Constitution. At its peak, Tulelake held 18,789 internees within a space designated to hold 15,000. It was the last camp to be closed on March 20, 1946.

In early 1942, the War Department began organizing the Nisei volunteer combat team, and those who had passed a loyalty review could be accepted into military service.

But a series of mismanaged meetings and communications led to a widespread failure in the recruitment of volunteers at Tulelake. Fifty-seven Tuleans joined the U.S. Army, the lowest percentage of all the camps.

The WRA had already been allowing civilian internees (primarily college students and farm workers) to study and work outside the camps when they decided to issue a questionnaire to determine the loyalty of all internees over the age of seventeen.

The misnamed Application for Leave Clearance included two questions from the War Department’s loyalty review, which asked the applicants if they were willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States and whether they would swear unqualified allegiance to the United States, and foreswear allegiance to the Japanese emperor and to any other foreign government.

Although the application neither made little sense to those who were not planning to leave the camps nor were eligible for military service, individuals who answered "no" to the two loyalty questions were considered "disloyal."

Forty-two percent of the internees at Tulelake answered "no-no" to both loyalty questions or did not answer them at all compared with 10 percent at the other centers. Many answered out of resentment and protest rather than allegiance to Japan.

The atmosphere at Tulelake worsened when the WRA decided to segregate the "disloyals" from the "loyals." In one incident, some 35 Nisei teenage boys who had protested and failed to turn in the questionnaire by the deadline were arrested and taken to the Alturas, Modoc County Jail by gunpoint.

Over the next two months more than a hundred additional internees were put in jail. Many whom the WRA considered "loyal" were moved to other camps, although some chose to remain at Tulelake for family reasons or because they did not want to pack up their belongings yet again.

Pressure from pro-Japan organizations was another factor that influenced 7,222 Tuleans to apply for repatriation to Japan. The extremist position of the militant group, Hokoku-Hoshidan, made them a target of the WRA, and its members were moved to internment camps at Santa Fe and Bismark, which were run by the Department of Justice.

Because of the numerous strikes and boycotts Tulelake was considered a trouble spot. By summer of 1943 the Tulelake was converted into a maximum security facility and became the Tulelake Segregation Center.

Martial law was declared and the military police took control of the center from the WRA. Prisoners, including those who had refused to take the loyalty oath or had caused disturbances, were shipped from all the western states and Hawaii.

More incidences occurred culminating in a series of protests in the fall of 1943. During a visit by National Director Dillon Myer on November 1, more than 5,000 men, women and children gathered in a demonstration to protest the filthy and overcrowded living conditions and demand the resignation of project director, Raymond Best. Although it ended peacefully, stories of near-massacre proportions spread, contributing to the already rebellious reputation of the camp.

Several days later after another minor scuffle known as the Food Warehouse disturbance, several internees were detained by the WRA security guards, questioned in an all-night session and brutally beaten. They were released from the Army Stockade after being held for three weeks without trial.

Unrest continued until more than 350 dissident leaders were in the stockade and 1,200 Issei had been sent to the Department of Justice camps. Martial law was lifted on January 15, but tensions still ran high. In the spring of 1944, an evacuee was shot and killed during an altercation with a guard, and the general manager of the Business Enterprise Association was found murdered.

Tulelake had become the largest of the WRA-run centers. Self government, as established in other centers, was not allowed although an advisory council to the administration was formed.

Additional troops and tanks were assigned to Tulelake, and a lighted 6-foot-high chain link fence topped with barbed wire and 19 watch towers surrounded the camp. The stockade at Tulelake was a 250-foot-by-350-foot enclosed area, and the jail was located just to the north.

Residents lived among sixty-six blocks at Tulelake and, as difficult as it was, did their best to maintain a normal day-to-day life. Each block had multi-purpose recreation buildings used for offices, stores, canteens, a beauty parlor, a barber shop, and judo halls. The Christian, Buddhist and Catholic churches held worship services in these buildings. There were three fire stations, an outdoor stage, a funeral parlor and cemetery.

Sports venues included thirty-one baseball fields and a sumo wrestling pit. The community staff organized cultural programs, recreation sports and youth activities. Performances were given by the
Tulelake Symphony and the Downbeats, a popular dance band.

Most students attended Japanese school for half a day and American school for the other half of the day. The school was not completed until February 1944, and it was used for both high school and elementary school classes. It included an auditorium/gym, a shop, a science and crafts building, a library and an administration building.

Approximately 3,000 acres were used for the farm operations known as the "colony." Internees produced barley, potatoes, onions, carrots, grains, rutabagas and other vegetables. Hogs and chickens were also raised.

Tulelake remained open while all the other camps were closed by Christmas of 1944. Most of the Tuleans remained in the U.S., but nearly 4,500 of those who renounced their American citizenship left on ships for Japan in late 1944 and early 1945.

About 2,000 remained in confinement (some until 1947) and were sent to camps in Bismark, Santa Fe, and Crystal City, Texas. In May 1944 the compound was converted into a Prisoner of War camp that housed Italian and German POWs.

Today thousands of prehistoric glyphs as well as numerous World War II-era inscriptions, some with pro-Japanese sentiments, can be seen today on the nearby cliffs of Petroglyph Point, which is part of Lava Beds National Monument. Much of the exterior filming of the 1970s television movie, "Farewell to Manzanar" was shot at Tulelake.

Tulelake is registered as California Historical Landmark No. 850-2. Southwest of the nearby town of Newell, there is a steel cross on a rock promontory of the Peninsula.

The original wood cross was constructed by the evacuees, but the steel cross that stands in its place today was dedicated by the California Japanese Christian Church Federation and honors the 24 ministers that served the camp.