NEWELL, Calif. — It's nearly impossible to envision now, scanning the dusty, vacant lots that butt up against California Highway 139. But beginning in the spring of 1942, this was one of the state's largest settlements north of Sacramento.
A community of nearly 20,000 people, it had more than 1,600 buildings spread across 7,400 acres, with vast vegetable fields, a pig farm, a newspaper and a school.
Surrounded by a 10-foot-high barbed wire "man-proof" fence and 28 watchtowers, and guarded by a battalion of soldiers and eight armored tanks, the Tule (pronounced "too-lee") Lake Segregation Center, near the Oregon border, was the nation's largest Japanese-American internment camp and in time became the only one of the 10 in the country that was designated for internees considered security risks.
Most of those internees were known as the "No-No boys," because they had answered "no" to — or refused to answer — a two-part loyalty question that asked internees to renounce the Japanese emperor and agree to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
Little remains at the site today except a barren concrete jail, a weather-battered carpenter's shop and two aging motor pool buildings.
A six-year effort to designate the site a national historic landmark culminated earlier this month with a ceremony at the camp. But former internees, the Modoc County Board of Supervisors and the National Park Service, among others, have been campaigning almost as long for the camp to become a state or national park or be turned over to a nonprofit group.
Proponents of preservation warn that unless action is taken soon, one of the most significant vestiges of World War II-era American history will pass beyond repair as the buildings continue to decay.
"It is viewed as the most important of all the camps, in terms of the story it tells," said Jon Jarvis, the park service's Pacific regional director. "The jail is considered the most important remaining building of all the camps. Everybody recognizes it's time to do something."
Within a few years of the camp's closing, in the summer of 1946, the once-sprawling settlement was dismantled. Some buildings fell victim to weather and time. Much of what remained was scavenged: The jail's metal bars were salvaged for scrap; the internee barracks were cut in half and given to homesteading veterans; and an officers club was converted into a grocery store.
Even the headstones from the camp's cemetery were taken as souvenirs and the cemetery was converted into a landfill.
But some artifacts remain. The water and sewage systems designed and built by the internees are still used by households in Newell. Although many of the camp's original structures are intact, they have been moved and are scattered around the Tule Lake basin. The once-menacing guard towers are used as storage sheds, pump shacks and backyard playhouses.
Park service officials say there are more buildings remaining from Tule Lake than at all of the other internment camps combined.
Today the park service operates two former internment camps: Manzanar, near Bishop, Calif., designated a national historic site in 1992; and Minidoka, near Twin Falls, Idaho, a national monument since 2001.
The campaign to preserve Tule Lake has been complicated by strong local objections to any expanded federal presence in a region where anti-government sentiments have run high recently. A number of residents say they don't object to more protection for the camp, even if that means making it a national park, but they don't want to see an expansion of federal land ownership in the area.
The park service has requested congressional authorization to study Tule Lake's historic and cultural value, the first step in establishing a new park or monument. The county Board of Supervisors has endorsed the request.
Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville), who represents the area, has begun work on a bill authorizing the study, a spokeswoman said last week.
Much of the work that would go into the study was completed during the landmark designation process, according to Jarvis. He said that among the purposes of the study would be gauging community interest in the camp, determining whether local sentiment favors a park and, if so, ascertaining how big it should be and what facilities ought to be included.
Most of the land that made up the camp is divided among about 300 private owners. The 45 acres included within the boundaries of the historic landmark are owned by the California Department of Transportation and the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
Craig Dorman, superintendent of nearby Lava Beds National Monument, favors protection for the Tule Lake camp. He said that despite efforts by Caltrans, some structures are deteriorating and only minimal repairs have been made.
"The destruction and vandalism have been ongoing since the end of the war. The future of this camp rests with the politicians and the people here. This could be a real loss, to our national history and the rich history of this region," he said.
Except for the jail and a surrounding stockade, Tule Lake was similar to other internment compounds, with children attending schools and adults working to keep the camp going. The camp's farmers were so successful that their produce was shipped to other internment sites.
But there were frequent acts of defiance, hunger strikes, demonstrations, fights with camp overseers and an assault on a camp doctor. At one point, martial law was declared.
Tule Lake's reputation as a hotbed of resistance created a heightened atmosphere of mistrust in nearby communities, an uneasiness that residents still recall.
"You have to understand the psychology of the time," said John Bowen, 78, a World War II veteran who grew up on a family farm near the camp. "We didn't know if the Japanese were going to land on the coast at any time. It was sort of a scary situation. We were led to believe that Japanese could not be trusted, because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even though they may be citizens of the U.S., there was every probability they would communicate or sabotage things."
Hiroshi Shimizu, 63, who spent two years at Tule Lake as a child, said efforts by former internees to preserve the camp have been stymied in part by lingering wartime insecurities.
"It's been difficult to make inroads into the community," he said. "Because it was a segregation center, there was almost no contact between the camp and the local people. It's been that way until recently."
Many survivors return to the camps across the nation every two years. After a pilgrimage to Tule Lake a few weeks ago, former internees complained that they were buzzed by a small plane while they were conducting a memorial ceremony at the former cemetery.
During a cultural event the next day at a theater in nearby Klamath Falls, Ore., an anonymous phone caller protested the event, according to a police spokesman, and windows on two of the visitors' tour buses were shot out.
"I am continually amazed at people who have one tiny sore spot and take any chance to rub it to open old wounds," said Bill Quinn, a local historian who lives in Tule Lake.
"I fought the Japanese in the Pacific for 30 months and don't have a liking for them," he said. "But every time the internees come here to share their experiences, I am reminded how great and wonderful these people are."
Many residents said they were mainly concerned about the potential loss of private property should the camp become a park.
John Cross, the general manager of the Newell Potato Co-op, which sits within the grounds of the former camp and uses five former camp buildings, said he had supported the historic landmark status, as long as no private land was appropriated.
"When they wanted to include our buildings, we fought tooth and toenail against having our property listed," Cross said.
Much of the mistrust stems from the 2001 drought, during which the Bureau of Reclamation reduced the allocation of federal irrigation water to farmers in the Klamath Basin to protect two species of endangered fish.
"We have as much distrust of the federal government as the internees did," Cross said. "The federal government came along and shut off all our water here five years ago. There is no way that we want the government's fingers involved with the operation of our business."
But Cindy Wright, who established a museum of local history, said it made no sense to allow the antipathy toward the federal government to spill over to the efforts to protect the camp.
"I am so frustrated with my neighbors," she said. "This community is afraid of people coming in and changing things."
Many here insist they revere their region's history, including the segregation camp era. Some residents have returned camp artifacts, and others have joined efforts to preserve structures.
Mike Bunch, who owns Tule Lake Auto Parts, recalled proudly how his relatives responded after a wooden cross erected by internees was knocked down during a winter storm 30 years ago. Bunch, 48, said his father and grandfather quickly organized a group to restore it.
The men replaced the small marker with a much larger one, welding two 20-foot-long steel pipes together. With four-wheel-drive trucks and a winch, the group hauled the white-painted cross to the original location on a mountain overlooking the camp. Bunch, then a teenager, said he installed a hand-etched brass plaque at the base.
"It was just something that had to be done. Whether it's good history or bad history, it's our history, and that has to be preserved."
WASHINGTON, D. C. — President Bush signed into law [on Dec. 21, 2006] a $38-million grant program to preserve notorious internment camps where Japanese Americans were kept behind barbed wire during World War II.
The money will be administered by the National Park Service to restore and pay for research at 10 camps.
The law is intended to help preserve the camps as reminders of how the United States turned on 120,000 of its citizens in a time of fear.
The sites named in the legislation are in California, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho.