By Martha Nakagawa
(Note—Tule Lake is spelled with two words when referring to the WRA camp, but one word, “Tulelake” when referring to the city or the CCC camp.)
Before the draft resistance movement started in the 10 War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps during World War II, a different kind of protest occurred at Tule Lake.
The year was 1943. The War Department and the WRA had just issued two separate but similar loyalty questionnaires that were poorly worded. The War Department’s goal was to identify alleged “loyal” Nisei males in hopes of drafting them. The WRA’s goal was to release the alleged “loyals” from the camps. The War Department form was given to Nisei men and was titled, “Statement of United States Citizens of Japanese Ancestry,” DDS Form 304-A. Answering this form was voluntary. The WRA form was given to everyone and titled, “Application for Leave Clearance,” Form WRA-126. Answering this was compulsory.
Brothers Mamoru “Mori” and Jim Tanimoto lived in Block 42 in Tule Lake. They, separately, came to the conclusion that they were not going to answer the questionnaire.
“My reason for not answering was because I didn’t do anything to be put into Tule Lake,” said younger brother Jim. “I never broke any laws. I was never tried for anything. I wasn’t guilty of anything. I told them send me home. Then I’ll sign your papers. I will be a ‘yes, yes.’ I will serve and do whatever I can to support the United States government because I’m an American citizen.”
Older brother Mori did not answer the questionnaire because he felt the camp in general was a violation of their constitutional rights.
Relations between the inmates and the administration rapidly deteriorated when the administration failed to adequately provide information to basic questions posed to them such as why the inmates had to register and what they were registering for.
Tensions continued to mount when the project director announced via the camp newspaper, the Tulean Dispatch, that those who interfered with registration would be fined up to $10,000 and/or imprisoned up to 20 years under the Espionage Act. The Tule Lake administration followed the announcement by making an example of Block 42, which had a high number of Nisei men refusing to register.
“They (WRA) came back time and time and time again, trying to make us sign, but we said, ‘No, we won’t sign,’” said Mori. “Then, for this, the Army came and arrested us.”
Younger brother Jim continued Mori’s thoughts. “After we refused to answer, then one evening a bunch of soldiers, carrying rifles and bayonets, surrounded our block,” said Jim. “It was after dinner and we were coming out of the mess hall. One soldier sorted us into groups. Once the mess hall was empty, he said, ‘Okay, you guys count off one, two, one two.’”
About 35 Nisei men from Block 42 were rounded up on the evening of Feb. 21, 1943. The Tanimoto brothers’ group was sent to the Klamath Falls jail and the second group ended up at the Alturas jail. Both groups were held in jail for about seven days with no charges, no hearing or trial.
Meanwhile, Tule Lake became a bedlam of activity. The public arrest of the Block 42 men terrified some Tuleans into registering, while it galvanized others to become more defiant. Although the inmate-organized Planning Board and Community Council urged the Tule Lake administration to release the Block 42 men and proposed new registration procedures, the administration took a hard line and refused to compromise.
After about a week later, the two groups were reunited at an old Civilian Conservation Corp camp named Camp Tulelake, located 10 miles from the Tule Lake WRA camp.
According to Angela Sutton with the National Park Service, Camp Tulelake had been built in 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt established various programs to lift the country out of the Great Depression.
“The purpose of the CCC camp was pretty much to boost the economy and to get men, ages 17-25, into jobs and some vocational training,” said Sutton.
“The projects that they worked on were on National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and state park sites. At Camp Tulelake, their main job was to work with Fish and Wildlife, and building and creating the Klamath Reclamation water project.
“The men were paid $1 a day, which wasn’t a high wage, but it also included all the room, board, medical, education and everything else, so you wanted to be in the CCC back in those days, because others might be paying $1 a day but they didn’t include all the extras.”
Once the war broke out, most of the CCC employees signed up for the military and Camp Tulelake was closed, said Sutton. However, when the government built the Tule Lake WRA/Segregation camp nearby, Camp Tulelake was utilized to house Japanese Americans. The first Japanese American group was the Block 42 men.
“One day at the jail, they tell us they’re going to move us over to the CCC camp,” said Jim. “When we came here (to Camp Tulelake), I think the other group from Alturas arrived about the same time, so the Block 42 young men were together again. Then our truck driver says, ‘Your guards aren’t here yet so don’t run away.’ He says we should clean up the mess hall and the barracks because we’re going to use them that night so we started to do that.
“Eventually, the guards showed up. We had done quite a bit of cleaning by then. But once they showed up, everything came to a halt. We couldn’t even go to the bathroom without their permission.”
The Block 42 men were held at Camp Tulelake for about a month. During that time, the Tanimoto brothers recalled one fearful incident.
“We was sleeping one night and the soldiers come charging through the barrack,” said Jim. “They says, ‘Get your ass out of bed. Get outside!’ This is the middle of the night. When we got out there, we lined up. It was pitch black. All of a sudden, they put on flood lights. We could see that there were about eight or 10 soldiers on one side of a machine gun and 10 or so soldiers on the other side. The soldiers were loading their rifles, and we’re only about 15 yards apart. It was very close between my chest and the end of the rifle barrel. My thought at that time was that this is a firing squad. This is going to be our end.”
The incident ended with no one getting hurt, but neither of the brothers knew why they had been roused out of bed. It could be speculated that the soldiers did this to scare the men into answering the questionnaire because later informal hearings were held.
“There were several Caucasians, and they handed me this piece of loyalty question paper,” Jim recalled of his hearing. “They says, ‘Will you sign this now?’
And I says, ‘No. The only time I’ll sign this is when I get home to Gridley.’ So he says to me, ‘You guys were influenced by your older brothers or older people.’”
Shortly after the informal hearings, the Block 42 men were returned to Tule Lake. When asked if they had ended up answering the questionnaire, Mori said, “Absolutely not!”
Unbeknownst to the Tuleans, the Tule Lake administration had no legal authority to arrest the Block 42 men. The administration had been informed by the War Department and FBI that refusing to answer the questionnaire was not a violation of the Selective Service Act and did not carry a $10,000 fine and/or 20 years in jail. This information was never made public to the camp inmates, and the administration continued to pressure Tuleans into answering the questionnaire.
The Tule Lake administration’s hardline approach towards the Tuleans contributed towards the administration’s dismal failure in administering the questionnaire properly. According to “The Evacuated People: A Quantitative Description” by the WRA, there were 77,842 inmates eligible to register for the questionnaire from all the 10 WRA camps. Of the 77,842 eligible, 3,254 did not register from all the 10 camps. Of the 3,254 who did not register, 3,218 were from Tule Lake.
Meanwhile, Camp Tulelake was utilized again later that year in 1943.
“When Tule Lake was converted into a segregation center, the farm workers in the camp went on strike, refusing to harvest the crops,” said Sutton.
“So internees from other camps were sent to Tule Lake to break in the harvest because they needed to send the harvest to the other camps. They brought in 243 internees from other camps. And because they were paid higher wages and because Tule Lake was on strike, they said, ‘Well, we’ll house them at Camp Tulelake for your protection.’”
After the Japanese Americans inmates from other camps harvested Tule Lake’s crops, they were returned to their respective camps.
Although the Tule Lake crop was harvested, the nearby City of Tulelake was also facing a farm labor shortage with so many of their people in the Army. As a result, the City of Tulelake petitioned the government for aid, and the government sent 150 Italian prisoners of war. The Italian POWs were used to bring in the harvest and to convert Camp Tulelake into a POW camp that would eventually house 800 German POWs.
“The main function of the 800 German POWs was to work for the local farmers, bringing in the crops, planting crops, anything they needed to keep the community going,” said Sutton. “There were strict rules for the farmers to follow if they were going to have POWs working for them. They had to pick them up right at 8 a.m. They were to bring them back at lunchtime if their farm was close enough. Otherwise, they were to get the mess hall to make them a bag lunch. They were to bring them back here by 5 p.m. every night.
“If they requested nine or less POWs, they didn’t have to have an armed guard with them, so there are all kinds of stories in the Basin, of kids remembering these POWs at the farm, and only being three of them and never seeing an Army, so the thinking was they must never have been a threat because there was never an Army around.
“And there were other rules like they couldn’t be treated to soda and beer and candy or anything that was a wartime kind of treat, but there are also tons of stories of the local farmers’ wives, coming down at lunchtime with a cooler full of soft drinks and beer and a fresh baked pie for them, so their treatment was much different than what it should have been for that time period.”
Currently, there is an effort to preserve the Camp Tulelake campsite. Sutton said the Friends of the Fish and Wildlife Refuge received a grant in 2006, as part of the Preserve America program. The money is enough to rehabilitee a portion of one building.
As for the Tanimoto brothers, Mori was held at Tule Lake until the end of the war, but for reasons unknown to the brothers, Jim was released early. Jim returned home to Gridley, Calif., on Feb. 26, 1944, a year before the war ended.
Jim tried to resume his former farming life in Gridley but it wasn’t easy.
“Gridley is a small community of about 3,000 people,” said Jim. “So you either went to school with their kids or you shopped at their stores or you knew them personally. When we got back, they didn’t want no Japs. And these were your friends. But there was another group there. They were new people so we didn’t know them. They were the conscientious objectors, and they said, ‘Welcome back.’”
One particular incident stuck with Jim. Shortly after his return, Jim bumped into his former high school coach and physical education teacher whom he had had for four years and whom Mori had had as well.
“I walked up to him and extended my hand,” said Jim. “I says to him, ‘I’m home. I haven’t seen you in a long time. How have you been?’ He told me I was on the wrong side, turned his back on me and walked away.”
Years later, the teacher became a peach farmer like the Tanimotos and they met again at an agricultural meeting.
Jim recalled that the man came over to him but he didn’t have the heart to reconcile with him.
“I says to him, ‘Forget it. Get out of my face. I’m not shaking your hand. Get the hell out of here,’” recalled Jim. “Then I turned my back and walked away.
“Several other things like that happened. In Gridley, the feeling isn’t the same no more. Before the war, I could count on my friends, but it’s not like that anymore.
(The Evacuated People: A Quantitative Description by the War Relocation Authority; Years of Infamy by Michi Nishiura Weglyn; Native American Aliens: Disloyalty and the Renunciation of Citizenship by Japanese Americans During World War II by Donald Collins contributed to this article.)