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.

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 @JeffreyStClair3