California: Tule Lake Unit, Part of WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument

celery tule
Internees transplanting celery at Tule Lake, 1942 or 1943

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USW36-786

As a consequence of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ subsequent declaration of war against Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This order authorized the US military to incarcerate Japanese Americans and those of Japanese descent living in the West. The Federal Government assembled over 120,000 people hailing from as far south as Arizona to the furthest reaches of the northwest into ten internment camps. The largest and most historically significant of these camps was the Tule Lake Segregation Center.

Tule Lake Segregation Center was the only internment camp designated as a “segregation center.” Tule Lake housed over 18,000 internees, many of whom were considered “disloyal” due to attempts to protest their incarceration and internment. For this reason, Tule Lake was a hotbed of political resistance and a profound example of the Japanese Americans’ struggle to protect themselves and their families. Still standing today are over 50 buildings and structures that exemplify the difficult life at the segregation camp. Preserving the Tule Lake Unit in the National Park System as part of the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument helps ensure that events such as what occurred there will not happen again.

Under the authority of the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, the Federal Government set out to to drain the Tule Lake area to create new farmland. The project began in 1920, but was not truly effective until merged with the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps(CCC) initiative. The CCC settled in what the CCC called Camp Tulelake, part of the National Park Service’s Tule Lake Unit. The reclamation project was successful in putting over 3,500 acres of land under cultivation. The CCC was also responsible for constructing a 300-foot wall around the remaining lake, thus preserving what is now designated a National Wildlife Refuge. During World War II, Japanese American internees replaced the CCC as workers.

Isolated in northern California, the Tule Lake area is remote and self-sustained by farming, which made the area fit the War Relocation Authority’s (WRA) ideal model for a relocation camp. Set on over 7,400 acres, the Tule Lake complex included the typical infrastructure of a normal American town with a post office, high school, hospital, cemetery, several factory and warehouse buildings, two sewage treatment plants, and over 3,500 acres of irrigated farmland made available by the efforts of the CCC. During the Tule Lake Segregation Center’s tenure, roughly four years, nearly 1,500 babies were born and over 300 people died. At its peak capacity, Tule Lake was the temporary home to more than 18,000 internees and 1,200 soldiers. To accommodate these individuals the camp had 1,036 barrack dorms, 518 latrines, and 144 administrative and support buildings. Today, over 50 of these buildings still stand, including the original Stockade (or “prison within a prison”), the WRA Motor Pool, the Post Engineer’s Yard and Motor Pool, over 1800 feet of the chain link, barbwire-topped “man-proof” fence, and a small part of the Military Police Compound.

In the summer of 1943, Tule Lake Relocation Center received a designation from the War Relocation Authority that set it apart from the other nine Japanese American internment camps in a dramatic fashion. The WRA determined that it needed a specific location for those deemed “disloyals,” otherwise known as a segregation camp.

As a relocation center, Tule Lake had six guard towers, but by the end of its transformation into a segregation center, it had 28 towers supported by eight tanks and a copious number of machine guns. Tule Lake’s population underwent a dramatic alteration as well. To make room for the intake of more “disloyals,” those deemed loyal were asked to relocate. Approximately 6000 internees did move out, but another 4000 loyals decided they did not want to move again. This created a unique combination of “old Tuleans,” who knew the administration and had often suffered at its hands, with disloyals. In this politically charged atmosphere, it did not take very long for internees to test the newly formed segregation camp’s authority.

On October 15, 1943, a truck carrying agricultural workers across the relocation center tipped over resulting in the death of one internee. After the discovery that his widow’s benefits only amounted to two-thirds of the monthly rate of $16, and that the truck driver was underage, the internees became incensed at the failure of the camp’s administration. Without proper approval, they held an elaborate impromptu funeral in the deceased’s honor; ten days later, the agricultural workers went on strike. The workers quickly formed a negotiating committee, Daihyo Sha Kai, and sent their envoy to meet with Director Raymond Best to resolve the issues. Best’s cordial attitude left the workers feeling confident, but just two days after the meeting, the administration announced the firing of all agricultural workers and brought in strikebreakers from other internment camps. After several outbreaks of violence, Director Best declared martial law resulting in the arrest of 250 internees, including many of the Daihyo Sha Kai leaders. Those who were arrested were housed in the newly constructed Stockade.

The Stockade was an area of 250 by 350 feet, enclosed with fences and four guard towers. Contained within were four barracks, a mess hall, and a latrine. This “prison within a prison” completely shut off the main “troublemakers” from the rest of the population. All outer fences had wooden boards covering them (which have since been removed), so that internees could not communicate with those outside of the Stockade. Today, one cell building still stands. Littered with graffiti, including names, dates, poems, and drawings, the cell walls bear witness to the inmates’ struggles during one of the saddest chapters of American history.

Finally closed in March of 1946, seven months after the end of World War II, Tule Lake Segregation Center housed the largest number of internees and had the most dynamic political atmosphere of any Japanese American internment camp; its life also extended beyond any other. Returning the site to its original purpose just two months after the segregation camp closed, the Tulelake Growers Association began to work the land again utilizing the discarded remnants of the camp to house migrant laborers.

In 1975, the State of California registered Tule Lake as a California State Historic Landmark, thereby recognizing its historic significance. In 1979, an elaborate monument was erected adjacent to the highway entrance and in front of the Stockade commemorating those who suffered while at Tule Lake. In 1982, the Federal Government admitted that prejudice, wartime hysteria, and politics all contributed to the relocation, and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided redress to the Japanese Americans who suffered internment. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush formally apologized on behalf of the United States. By Presidential Proclamation in December 2008, the Tule Lake Segregation Center and Camp Tulelake, the Civilian Conservation Corps campsite, became the Tule Lake Unit within the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

Tule Lake Segregation Center and Camp Tulelake, part of the Tule Lake Unit of the National Park System, are located in Modoc County, California about 10 miles southeast of the Town of Tulelake and 35 miles southeast of Klamath Falls, Oregon, the largest town in the vicinity. The temporary visitor center for the Tule Lake Unit is located at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds Museum, 800 Main Street in Tulelake, CA. The temporary visitor center is open Thursday - Sunday from 8:30am to 5:00pm, but not staffed from Labor Day to Memorial Day. For more information about off-season tours, please call 530-667-8119 or refer to the Tule Lake Unit Off-Season Program. For additional information, visit the National Park Service Tule Lake Unit website or call (530) 664-4015.

Last updated: August 10, 2023