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.