The Camp by the Lake

Gatepost and fence at entry to Tule Lake Concentration Camp. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The Japanese-Americans, both citizens and immigrants, living in Hood River, Oregon were given seven days’ notice that they were going to be “evacuated” from their homes. They were told to pack their belongings into one bag and assemble at the Union Pacific train station on the morning of May 13, 1942. They had no idea where they were going, how long they would be detained or what would happen to their property and businesses while they were imprisoned.

As it turned out, the trains hauled them first to the Portland Stockyards, where they were confined in squalid conditions, and later to a concentration camp (the FDR administration’s words) at Tule Lake in northern California, about 20 miles south of the Oregon border.  In total, 544 Japanese-Americans were rounded up in the small town of Hood River. Many of the detainees worked in the local orchards. Though they were spared the indignity of having it tattooed on their skin, each detainee was assigned a number, which would become their new identity as far as their captors were concerned.

The 1940 census was used to locate and target Japanese residents and Japanese-American citizens who did not voluntarily show up at “relocation centers”. In the case of Oregon lawyer, Minoru Yasui, who intentionally stayed at his home in Hood River in an attempt to challenge the constitutionality of FDR’s internment order, six armed MPs (take note Tulsi Gabbard) were sent to his house to arrest him and haul him back to Portland in shackles. In an example of how the language of a repressive bureaucracy dehumanizes its victims: during the internment, American citizens of Japanese descent, like Yasui, were referred to as “non-aliens.”

As in Nazi Germany, the Japanese-American detainees were transported from Portland more than 300 miles to Newell, California by freight train. Some of the detainees had actually worked to build that very rail line. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the railroad companies were desperate for a new source of cheap labor and they turned to Japan. Nearly 1/3 of the Japanese immigrants to the US from 1900-1920 were lured by the railroads, who promised them $1 for each day of brutal work. So the Japanese completed the rail networks that a few decades later hauled them away to concentration camps.

Rail tracks leading to Tule Lake Concentration Camp. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

When told they were being shipped to Tule Lake, many of the Americans of Japanese descent were relieved, thinking they were going to be imprisoned near a big lake. Anything would be an improvement over the Portland stockyard, which one detainee described as being kept in a pigpen. They were shocked to find they were to be imprisoned on a dusty and dry lakebed, a man-made environmental disaster area. By 1942, Tule Lake had been drained of nearly 65 percent of its surface area by the Bureau of Reclamation and irrigators, mainly to raise potatoes and sugar beets. The town were the concentration camp was built was named Newell, after the first commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

It is one of the savage ironies of American history that after the round-up and internment of Japanese-Americans In 1942, the West Coast was so short of ag labor that they begin importing field workers from Mexico and many of the young Japanese-American men at Tule Lake where shipped to Montana to perform forced agricultural labor during the fall wheat harvests.

A few months after it opened, Tule Lake was designated a “maximum security” concentration camp for Japanese-Americans of “questionable loyalty”, the number of armed watchtowers went from 6 to 24. The so-called Segregation Center was a prison within a prison, for the confinement of suspected subversives. What did you have to do to have your loyalty questioned? Merely assert your rights as a US citizen, as Minoru Yasui had done.

In early August, I retraced, as closely as I could, their mortifying journey.  If the government wanted to hide evidence of its crimes, then the Feds did a pretty good job because there are very few traces of what it did to these Japanese-Americans, many of them US citizens. I finally found the Tule Lake concentration camp site in the late afternoon. The watch towers and dormitories have all been removed, chopped up and given away as housing to locals. There’s a small airstrip, a crumbing water treatment plant and an old jail. In the end, I followed a tall fence of barbed wire that ran along HWY 139 and found the old entrance to the camp, which was locked. Across the road, where the prison hospital used to be, there was another area behind barbed wire enclosing perhaps 100 tiny blue houses. Some women were hanging laundry on the fence and a few young kids were kicking a soccer ball around in the dirt. I asked a man working on his car, what this area was. He said it was housing for migrant workers. Why they were fenced in? He shrugged. The place had the look and feel of a prison, as if the ghosts of the past had infected the present.

Down a gravel road I found a sign behind a locked gate that read: “WW 2 Valor in the Pacific National Monument.” If the Nazis had prevailed in eastern Europe, you have to wonder what they would have called Treblinka.

Park Service sign at Tule Lake Concentration Camp for WW II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

July 09, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 Exposes the Weakness of a Major Theory Used to Justify Capitalism
Ahrar Ahmad
Racism in America: Police Choke-Holds Are Not the Issue
Timothy M. Gill
Electoral Interventions: a Suspiciously Naïve View of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World
Daniel Falcone
Cold War with China and the Thucydides Trap: a Conversation with Richard Falk
Daniel Beaumont
Shrink-Wrapped: Plastic Pollution and the Greatest Economic System Jesus Ever Devised
Prabir Purkayastha
The World Can Show How Pharma Monopolies Aren’t the Only Way to Fight COVID-19
Gary Leupp
“Pinning Down Putin” Biden, the Democrats and the Next War
Howard Lisnoff
The Long Goodbye to Organized Religion
Cesar Chelala
The Dangers of Persecuting Doctors
Mike Garrity – Erik Molvar
Back on the List: A Big Win for Yellowtone Grizzlies and the Endangered Species Act, a Big Loss for Trump and Its Enemies
Purusottam Thakur
With Rhyme and Reasons: Rap Songs for COVID Migrants
Binoy Kampmark
Spiked Concerns: The Melbourne Coronavirus Lockdown
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela is on a Path to Make Colonialism Obsolete
George Ochenski
Where are Our Political Leaders When We Really Need Them?
Dean Baker
Is it Impossible to Envision a World Without Patent Monopolies?
William A. Cohn
Lead the Way: a Call to Youth
July 08, 2020
Laura Carlsen
Lopez Obrador’s Visit to Trump is a Betrayal of the U.S. and Mexican People
Melvin Goodman
Afghanistan: What is to be Done?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
The End of the American Newspaper
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Merits of Medicare for All Have Been Proven by This Pandemic
David Rosen
It’s Now Ghislaine Maxwell’s Turn
Nicolas J S Davies
Key U.S. Ally Indicted for Organ Trade Murder Scheme
Bob Lord
Welcome to Hectobillionaire Land
Laura Flanders
The Great American Lie
John Kendall Hawkins
Van Gogh’s Literary Influences
Marc Norton
Reopening vs. Lockdown is a False Dichotomy
Joel Schlosberg
“All the Credit He Gave Us:” Time to Drop Hamilton’s Economics
CounterPunch News Service
Tribes Defeat Trump Administration and NRA in 9th Circuit on Sacred Grizzly Bear Appeal
John Feffer
The US is Now the Global Public Health Emergency
Nick Licata
Three Books on the 2020 Presidential Election and Their Relevance to the Black Live Matter Protests
Elliot Sperber
The Breonna Taylor Bridge
July 07, 2020
Richard Eskow
The War on Logic: Contradictions and Absurdities in the House’s Military Spending Bill
Daniel Beaumont
Gimme Shelter: the Brief And Strange History of CHOP (AKA CHAZ)
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s War
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Racism May be Blatant, But the Culture He Defends Comes Out of the Civil War and Goes Well Beyond Racial Division
Andrew Stewart
Can We Compare the George Floyd Protests to the Vietnam War Protests? Maybe, But the Analogy is Imperfect
Walden Bello
The Racist Underpinnings of the American Way of War
Nyla Ali Khan
Fallacious Arguments Employed to Justify the Revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s Autonomy and Its Bifurcation
Don Fitz
A Statue of Hatuey
Dean Baker
Unemployment Benefits Should Depend on the Pandemic
Ramzy Baroud – Romana Rubeo
Will the ICC Investigation Bring Justice for Palestine?
Sam Pizzigati
Social Distancing for Mega-Million Fun and Profit
Dave Lindorff
Private: Why the High Dudgeon over Alleged Russian Bounties for Taliban Slaying of US Troops
George Wuerthner
Of Fire and Fish
Binoy Kampmark
Killing Koalas: the Promise of Extinction Down Under