Japanese Americans protest wall planned at WWII internment camp near California border

Portraits: Japanese internment camp survivors and relatives

Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. in 2015 created "Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit," a photo exhibition drawing upon Kitagake's portraits of Japanese internment camp survivors and their descendants. It was shown in the Californi
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Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. in 2015 created "Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit," a photo exhibition drawing upon Kitagake's portraits of Japanese internment camp survivors and their descendants. It was shown in the Californi

A three-mile, 8-foot-high barbed-wire fence planned around a rural airport on the site of the old Tule Lake War Relocation Center has spawned a national protest by hundreds of Japanese Americans who say it would taint the place where many of their families were locked up during World War II.

The new barbed wire fence stirs memories of pain, shame and anger among the descendants of the more than 20,000 Japanese Americans – about two-thirds of them U.S. citizens – imprisoned in the high desert five hours north of Sacramento after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Tule Lake is considered the most brutal of the 10 “internment camps” where the U.S. government sent 120,000 Japanese Americans, most for the duration of the war, said Barbara Takei, 69, whose mother was sent there along with her family.

“The fence is a desecration of a site we feel is spiritual, a site where people go to mourn, a site that is for remembrance,” said Takei, CFO of the Tule Lake Committee, which is leading the protest. “With the fence, we will be shut out from where our families lived and permanently reminded of the racism and hostility that put us there in the first place.”

Takei, one of the leaders of a successful internet campaign in 2015 to keep Rago, a New Jersey auction house, from selling artifacts made in the camps, said the proposed fence has generated a fresh “outpouring of rage because it’s so resonant of President Trump’s’ desire to build a wall to keep out unwanted people.”

Modoc County plans to build the fence around an airport that for decades has sat on the site of the old camp barracks that were removed after the war, cut in half and turned into housing for returning Word War II veterans.

The proposed fence would encircle the Tulelake Municipal Airport next to the town of Newell, said Modoc County Road Commissioner Mitch Crosby, who is accepting public comment until 5 p.m. Oct. 10 at his office at 202 West Fourth St. Crosby’s office has already received hundreds of emails and letters opposing the fence, and Takei said she has a mailing list of more than 4,000 interested parties and has launched a Facebook page, Stop The Fence At Tule Lake www.facebook.com/SaveTuleLake/.

But both the county and airport operator Nick Macy say the fence – which would be partially paid for with federal funds after an environmental impact report is completed – is needed to keep animals off the single runway. “A wildlife hazard evaluation of the airport found that mule deer are regularly crossing the runway, increasing the risk of collision between aircraft and deer.”

Macy said his dad, Paul Macy, a World War II Air Force veteran, established Macy’s Flying Service in 1965 and his family has operated the airport ever since. Macy said he has been asking the county to build a fence around the airport since 2004.

“This is a public airport and we need the fence for safety,” said Macy, 61. “We have documented cows, horses, deer, coyotes, badgers, jack rabbits and dogs from Newell on the airport. Not only do we need to protect the public that comes here, we need to protect the people that work for me.”

So far, there have been no collisions between aircraft and animals, Macy said, “but we’ve been extremely lucky. The sad thing is because it’s such a contentious issue, do we wait for somebody to get killed or hurt because we don’t have a fence?”

Macy, who employs 30 to 35 people and is one of the largest private employers in Modoc County, said he provides agricultural services to more than 900 family farms that use small planes – once known as crop dusters – to spray potatoes, onions, wheat, barley, alfalfa, peppermint, spinach and other crops. The airport is also used to divert planes from Klamath Falls, Ore., when that city’s airport is fogged in, and for helicopters on emergency rescue operations.

Gerry Byrne, chairperson of the Modoc County Board of Supervisors, said the earliest the fence could be built is October 2019, since the county won’t be ready to apply for Federal Aviation Administration funding until October of next year. At a recent public meeting on the fence, nearly all of the 40 to 50 people who attended supported the fence, Byrne said. “The airport is extremely important to the county and the local economy, and the Modoc Indian Nation supports the county’s decision,” she said.

The Tule Lake Committee has filed two lawsuits against Modoc County asking for the airport to be moved off the “Tule Lake Segregation Center,” the name the National Park Service uses to describe thee old camp designated as a National Historic Landmark. Every two years, the committee helps organize a pilgrimage to the site, and the suit claims the fence “would substantially close the site to the public” and cause “immediate, severe and irreparable harm” to concerned citizens who want to visit.

One of the lawsuits asks for a full California Environmental Quality Act review prior to fence construction. “We’re doing that right now,” said county counsel Margaret Long.


Controversial fence

The proposed fence would encircle the Tulelake Municipal Airport, which was built decades ago on the site of a World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans.
Map of airport and former relocation camp 

Tule Lake has been known by many different names: internment camp, relocation camp, segregation camp, and the names preferred by Takei and many other Japanese Americans: concentration camp or incarceration camp.

The camp, which opened May 27, 1942, and closed March 20, 1946, was the largest and most controversial of the 10 relocation camps. In 1943, the government administered a “loyalty” oath asking Japanese Americans two questions: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered? Will you swear unqualified allegiances to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?”

Many Japanese Americans signed that oath. But others refused, citing the civil rights violations represented by the internment camps. That earned them the nickname “no-no boys” and got them sent to Tule Lake as so-called “disloyals.” Tule Lake became the only camp transformed into a maximum-security center under martial law and Army occupation, the lawsuit said.

Macy, who has gone through two years of conflict resolution with Takei and others, empathizes with those who were incarcerated at Tule Lake. For the first 22 years of his life, he and his family lived in one of the barracks removed from the camp, then moved into another dwelling that had been part of the camp’s ice house used for butchering pigs and chickens.

“When the Japanese talk about how cold, dusty and nasty the barracks were, I agree,” he said. When Japanese Americans have wanted to visit, “we never turn them away,” and when the pilgrimage takes place, Macy said he tries to limit the number of planes flying in and out.

“We’ve been here for 65 years and now people are coming in here and saying this belongs to us, you have to leave,” Macy said. “I think what happened to the Japanese in 1942, we’re back in the same boat, the tables have turned on us, we don’t have any money or political muscle to fight this in the courts. The sad thing is none of the Japanese live here, they don’t pay taxes here and their kids don’t live here.”

But Takei says that doesn’t change the fact that the camp represents a critical piece of American history. She noted that an underground hiding place has been excavated at the camp at Manzanar, in Inyo County, and wonders if similar bunkers are under the airport at Tule Lake. “People want to be able to walk on the old residential areas where people lived. At Manzanar you can figure out where your family was and that’s what we want here.”

Patrick Taylor, a National Park Service ranger who conducts tours of Tule Lake by appointment, said beyond the old jail building, there’s nothing left of the structures except some of the foundations. Using the original numbered grid, “we can get pretty close to the actual barracks and where a lot of the buildings were using satellite imagery,” he said. To schedule a tour, call 530-667-8113.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

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