s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

TULELAKE - If you travel to this remote valley to see the Tule Lake Segregation Center, you may be disappointed. Driving down a side road, we didn’t know we were looking at what remains of the camp until we noticed a sign visible through a fence topped with barbed wire.

It turns out we weren’t the first to be surprised. In “Tule Lake Revisited,” authors Barbara Takei and Judy Tachibana begin by asking, “How could it be that a place so huge, with such a major impact on so many lives, has vanished?”

More than 18,700 Americans of Japanese descent were imprisoned here during World War II, but when the camp was closed, most of the 7,400 acres was sold and the barracks given to nearby homesteaders.

Old photos show a sprawling installation with long rows of barracks, more than 1,000 in all.

All that remains today is a scruffy piece of land, a battered structure that was the camp stockade and a monument along Highway 139.

We came here to visit areas of California most people never see, and these empty spaces in the state’s northeast corner surely qualify.

Learning about what the government did here inevitably leads to the question: What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Today, about a thousand people live in this valley shoved up against the Oregon border. Seventy years ago, 18,700 prisoners and 1,200 staff members made the Tule Lake internment camp the second largest California city north of San Francisco. (At the time, Santa Rosa had 12,000 residents.)

In a collection of remembrances called “Only What We Could Carry,” here’s how actor George Takei described life at Tule Lake:

“The guard towers were turrets equipped with machine guns. The outer perimeter was patrolled by a half-dozen tanks and armored Jeeps. The guards were battle-ready troops at full battalion strength. All this bristly armament was positioned to keep imprisoned a people who had been goaded into outrage by a government blinded by hysteria. Half of the 18,000 internees in Camp Tule Lake were children like me.”

At the time of his internment, Takei, later Mr. Sulu on TV’s “Star Trek,” was 6 years old.

The population here included prisoners judged to be disloyal, based on their answers to two questions: Will you volunteer for combat? Will you swear “unqualified allegiance” to the United States. If they answered no, or they refused to answer, they and their families were moved to Tule Lake.

These were people uprooted from their homes, transported hundreds or thousands of miles to live in dehumanizing conditions and left to wonder what would happen to them. Under the circumstances, it might be more remarkable that so many answered affirmatively.

A few miles up the road from the camp site, there now is a small exhibit inside the local history museum at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds. The exhibit includes a tar-papered barrack from the camp and a replica of a guard tower.

On the day we visited, we were the only people there.

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the order designating the remaining 33 acres of the camp as a National Historic Monument. The National Park Service is making plans to create an installation that acknowledges what has become recognized as a shameful moment in American history.

Tule Lake wasn’t the only camp erected in a remote region of California. Four hundred and seventy miles to the south, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were confined at Manzanar. Two thirds of them there were children — including 451 infants who were born there.

At Manzanar, the barracks also were sold, but there remain roads, fragments of the extensive gardens and the iconic cemetery, framed against the backdrop of Mount Williamson, second highest peak in the 48 states. (Manzanar is located on Highway 395 on the back side of the Sierra near Lone Pine.)

There is also a visitors’ center that does a good job retelling how people came to be here and what they did while they were here.

The people imprisoned at Manzanar established schools, built gardens, formed musical groups, organized festivals, staged plays and otherwise worked to create some modicum of normal life.

The government didn’t make it easy. At Manzanar (and Tule Lake, too) thin-walled, drafty barracks were their only protection against weather scorching in summer, bitter cold in winter.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized military commanders to imprison people the commander thought posed a threat to the country. Here’s how the military commander on the West Coast explained his decision to round-up people of Japanese ancestry: “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”

Read that sentence again and discover that you belong to any number of groups that could be rounded up. Since you haven’t done anything, you’re bound to do something in the future.

This is what happens when ignorance and fear take hold.

In their history of Santa Rosa, Gaye LeBaron and Joann Mitchell recount a letter to the editor published two days after Japanese Americans were ordered to appear at the Santa Rosa train depot.

“I believe the day will come,” wrote a man named Erwin Penry, “when most people will consider the indiscriminate forced evacuation of American citizens who happen to be of Japanese lineage as one of the darkest blots on the history of the United States.”

In Sonoma County, an estimated 1,000 residents were detained. Most were sent to Camp Amache in Colorado.

Later, several would join other Japanese Americans in the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated units in World War II. Three of those Sonoma County soldiers of Japanese ancestry died in combat in Italy.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation to pay reparations to the survivors of these camps. Two years later, President, George H.W. Bush would write:

“We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”

At Manzanar, we listened to the recollections of a man confined here as child. He comes back in May ever year to volunteer as a docent because May is when schoolchildren visit.

He was asked if he was angry. No, he said, he was only a child at the time. But as an adult, he is determined to do what he can to make sure this doesn’t happen to other minorities.