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Tule Lake Segregation Center
Tulelake, California
View of the Tule Lake Segregation Center circa 1942 or 1943 from the top of a nearby hill The Tule Lake Segregation Center, 1942 or 1943
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Tule Lake War Relocation Center, redesignated in 1943 as the Tule Lake Segregation Center, is partially preserved in the Tule Lake Unit of the National Park Service's WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, outside of Tulelake, California in the town of Newell. Tule Lake was the largest and longest in use of the ten War Relocation Authority (WRA) centers built by the federal government to house Japanese Americans forcibly removed from the West Coast of the United States during World War II. In 1943, Tule Lake was converted to a maximum security segregation center. Tule Lake had the most guard towers of any of the relocation centers, the largest number of military police, and was the only facility to contain a jail and stockade.

After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, leading to the United States' entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The Order authorized the establishment of military areas encompassing most of the West Coast of the United States, "from which any or all persons may be excluded." This allowed for the removal of people of Japanese ancestry from these areas including Americans of Japanese descent. Although the President and the War Department contended at the time that the forced removal was necessary for military reasons, in 1982 the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians found that to be false. The commission's report, Personal Justice Denied, states that rather than military necessity, "The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act and apologized to people of Japanese ancestry, saying "here, we admit a wrong." The Act authorized redress of $20,000 to any Japanese American who had been incarcerated during World War II.

In March 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102, which established the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the federal agency responsible for the construction and administration of confinement centers throughout the United States. The U.S. military supported Executive Order 9066 by assembling and transporting some 110,000 Japanese Americans to ten inland War Relocation Centers across the nation to be incarcerated.

Isolated in northern California, the Tule Lake area is remote and is sustained by farming. Under the authority of the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, the federal government drained Tule Lake to create viable farmland. The project began in 1920, but was not truly effective until merged with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. The CCC was successful in putting over 3,500 acres of land under cultivation. They were also responsible for constructing a 300-foot wall around the remaining lake, preserving an area that is now designated a National Wildlife Refuge. Because of this, the WRA deemed it to be an ideal setting for a relocation center.

Historic photograph of Tule Lake farm workers kneeling down in farm field crop rows while transplanting celery Tule Lake workers transplanting celery
Courtesy of the National Archives
and Records Administration

Construction of the Tule Lake Relocation Center began on April 15, 1942, and the first incarcerees arrived on May 25, 1942. Located on over 7,400 acres, the center included a post office, high school, hospital, cemetery, several factory and warehouse buildings, two sewage treatment plants, and over 3,500 acres of irrigated farmland. At its peak capacity, the center was home to more than 18,000 incarcerees and 1,200 soldiers. To accommodate all of these individuals, Tule Lake had 1,036 barrack dorms, 518 latrines, and 144 administrative and support buildings.

From the beginning, the incarcerees at Tule Lake fought for their rights. Several protests took place in the first six months of the center's opening including a strike by incarcerees working as farm laborers in August over the lack of promised goods and salaries , a packing shed workers' strike in September, and in October a mess hall strike to protest inadequate food.

In 1943, controversies over a WRA questionnaire led to the conversion of Tule Lake into a maximum security segregation center. In order to determine the loyalty of adult incarcerees in the ten relocation centers who were seeking to work or go to school outside of the centers, the WRA issued a poorly worded questionnaire called the "Application for Indefinite Leave Clearance." The application, which became known as the "loyalty questionnaire," was intended to streamline the process of granting long-term leave to incarcerees. It was originally designed by the U.S. military to determine the loyalty of draft-age males, and was not initially modified by the WRA for relocation center incarcerees. In particular, questions number 27 and 28, referred to as the "loyalty questions," asked about incarcerees' willingness to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces on combat duty, to swear allegiance to the United States, and to give up any allegiance to the Emperor of Japan or a foreign government. Both questions caused confusion, concern, and resentment. They did not take into account the fact that incarcerees were not just draft-age men, but also women and the elderly who could not serve in combat, Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) who were barred by law from becoming U.S. citizens and would be left stateless, and American citizens who had never sworn loyalty to Japan or her Emperor. In addition, young male incarcerees were concerned that answering "yes" to the question about serving in the military would be tantamount to volunteering without assurances that their rights as American citizens would be restored after their service. For many and varied reasons including confusion about the meaning of the questions, an incomplete understanding of the consequences of a negative answer, a protest at being asked the questions in the first place, or, as in the case of the incarcerees at Tule Lake, coercion and a refusal by the relocation center's administration to answer questions about the application, a portion of incarcerees answered "no" to questions 27 and 28. Those who gave "no" answers were branded "disloyal" by the federal government.

In addition, many of the incarcerees at Tule Lake were considered "disloyal" because of their attempts to protest their incarceration and internment. Several dozen young men in one cell block refused to answer the questionnaire by an arbitrary deadline despite threats of large fines and up to 20 years of imprisonment. They were arrested by the military police and incarcerated in local jails before being removed to Camp Tulelake. Over a two-month period more than 100 additional protestors were arrested at the relocation center and imprisoned at Camp Tulelake

Protest demonstration by incarcerees at Tule Lake
Photograph by Robert H. Ross
Courtesy of the National Park Service

In July of 1943, the WRA announced a plan to "separate loyal from disloyal internees [incarcerees] in all ten relocation centers to bring harmony and to hasten the process of resettlement of loyal citizens and law-abiding aliens." Because Tule Lake had the highest percentage of either unanswered loyalty questionnaires or "no" responses to the loyalty questions-42 percent as compared to 10 percent at other relocation centers-it was selected for conversion into a segregation center. As a relocation center, Tule Lake had six guard towers, but after its conversion, the number grew to 28 guard towers supported by a large number of machine guns. At night, searchlights from the guard towers would follow incarcerees when they went to the communal latrines. Additional troops were assigned to Tule Lake, including eight tanks and a lighted 7-foot-high chain link "man-proof" fence, topped with barbed wire, was added around the center's perimeter. A new, more secure entrance and a larger Military Police Compound were built at the center and fences and guard towers were constructed around the center's outlying farm fields.

Tule Lake's population underwent a dramatic change as well. To make room for the arrival of segregants from other relocation centers, those Tule lake incarcerees deemed "loyal" were removed to other centers. Approximately 6,000 incarcerees transferred to other centers, but another 4,000 chose to stay at Tule Lake. This created a unique combination of "old Tuleans," and new segregants. In this politically charged atmosphere, it did not take very long for the segregants to test the newly formed segregation center's authority.

On October 15, 1943, a truck carrying agricultural workers across the segregation center tipped over, resulting in the death of one incarceree. After it was discovered that his widow's benefits only amounted to two-thirds of his monthly pay of $16, and that the truck driver was underage, the incarcerees became angry. Without prior approval, they held a funeral in the deceased's honor; ten days later, agricultural workers went on strike for safer working conditions and other improvements. They quickly formed a negotiating committee, Daihyo Sha Kai, and sent their envoy to meet with the center's Director, Raymond Best, to resolve their complaints. 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 workers from other WRA centers. These new workers, who were housed at Camp Tulelake a few miles northwest of the segregation center, did not know that they were breaking a strike. Their presence and the fact they were paid ten times the standard wage added to the discontent.

After several outbreaks of violence in which the military police used jeeps mounted with machine guns and tear gas to disperse the crowds, Director Best declared martial law. The military police took over control of Tule Lake from the WRA resulting in the arrest of over 250 incarcerees, including many of the Daihyo Sha Kai leaders. Those who were arrested were housed in the newly constructed stockade. The Stockade was an area 250 by 350 feet, enclosed with fences and four guard towers. Contained within the Stockade were four barracks, a mess hall, and a latrine. This "prison within a prison" completely isolated the incarcerees on the inside from the rest of the segregation center's population. All of the Stockade's outer fences had wooden boards covering them, so that those on the inside could not communicate with anyone on the outside.

The arrests and unrest continued until over 350 dissident leaders were confined in the Stockade. In early January of 1944, the other Tule Lake incarcerees voted to end the protest. Director Best lifted martial law, however, unrest continued. In May, an incarceree was shot and killed during an altercation with a guard and in June, the general manager of the Business Enterprise Association was murdered.

Tule Lake Segregation Center
Photograph by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, Flickr, 2011

Tule Lake Segregation Center closed on March 20, 1946, seven months after the end of World War II making it the longest in use of the ten relocation centers. Two months later the military police compound and one ward of the incarceree residential area were leased to the Tulelake Growers Association who began to work the farmland and utilize the buildings to house migrant laborers. Some of the buildings and land were distributed to veteran homesteaders and some were kept by the Bureau of Reclamation, while other buildings were held for later use by government agencies and non-profit groups. In 1963, the military police compound area was turned into a housing subdivision.

In 1975, the State of California registered Tule Lake as a California State Historic Landmark, thereby recognizing its historic significance. In 1979, a monument was erected next to the highway entrance in front of the Stockade commemorating those who had suffered while incarcerated at Tule Lake. In 1983, the federal government admitted that prejudice, wartime hysteria, and politics all contributed to the unjust wartime incarceration and civil liberties violations. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided redress to Japanese Americans incarcerated during the war. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush formally apologized on behalf of the United States. By Presidential Proclamation in December of 2008, the Tule Lake Segregation Center and Camp Tulelake, the CCC campsite, became the Tule Lake Unit of the National Park Service's WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

Today, visitors may explore both the Tule Lake Segregation Center and Camp Tulelake. Several buildings still stand at both sites including the Center's WRA Motor Pool, Post Engineer's Yard, and Jail whose walls contain graffiti, including names, dates, poems, and drawings. There is also over 1,800 feet of chain link fence at the Center, a small part of the Military Police Compound, and barbed wire-topped "man-proof" fence. The Camp has multiple buildings including a barracks which is being restored. The Park Visitor Center is located at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds Museum in the town of Tulelake. Ranger-led tours of both Tule Lake Segregation Center and Camp Tulelake are offered seasonally.

Plan your visit

Tule Lake Segregation Center is part of the Tule Lake Unit of the National Park Service's WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument and is a National Historic Landmark. The site is located in Newell in Modoc County, California 10 miles southeast of Tulelake, CA and 35 miles southeast of Klamath Falls, Oregon. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The Tule Lake Unit Visitor Center is located at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds Museum, 800 Main Street, Tulelake, CA. The Visitor Center is open and staffed Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day from 8:30am to 5:00pm. From Labor Day to Memorial Day the Visitor Center is unstaffed, but open Monday to Friday from 9:30am to 4:30pm. Ranger-led tours of Tule Lake Segregation Center and Camp Tulelake are offered seasonally. For more information, visit the Tule Lake Unit website or call either 530-260-0537 or 530-667-8119.

Tule Lake Segregation Center is featured in the National Park Service Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures Travel Itinerary and the National Historic Landmark Theme Study Japanese Americans in World War II. Components of the Tule Lake Unit have been documented by the National Park Service’s  Historic American Buildings Survey, including: the Tule Lake Project Jail, Camp Tulelake, Camp Tulelake Mess Hall, and Camp Tulelake Shop Storage Building.

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