This story is part of our “Beyond Sacramento” series, where you vote on questions and topics about our region submitted by readers, and The Sacramento Bee explores the winning question for a story.
The topic by Norm Ishimoto that won our latest voting round was: “In Byron, CA, the army used an old hotel there to talk Japanese POWs into revealing vital war secrets. MIS Nisei and bicultural Americans did the work.” Vote in our next round below.
Peeking between yellowing fields in the southern Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, behind barbed-wire fences and “no trespassing” signs, the massive four-story brick building is a shell of its former majesty.
It was once home to the Byron Hot Springs Hotel, “America’s unequal spa,” as proclaimed by a July 1913 ad in The Byron Times.
And in 1940s, it was also the site of an important interrogation center for the U.S. Army and Navy, called Camp Tracy.
What explains the derelict building’s unusual history?
‘Spa of the west’
A hotel was first built on the 160-acre salt springs property in southeastern Contra Costa County in 1889, according to local historian Carol Jensen. A July 1911 advertisement in The Byron Times boasted that “the water and baths of this spa of the west are a panacea for all ills.”
Surrounded by planted palm trees and manicured lawns, the hotel’s mud baths and mineral water drew hundreds of visitors each year, Jensen said. Spending a few days drinking or bathing in the water could purportedly relieve rheumatism, neuritis and stomach troubles, as another ad in the local paper proclaimed in May 1923.
“This was not a local haunt,” she said.
But over the years, the hotel burned down several times. In July 1912, a fire ripped through the property. “All that remains of the handsome and spacious structure being a mass of ashes, the building being a framed structure,” the Contra Costa Gazette reported at the time.
In its place, a third and final Byron Hot Springs Hotel was built with fireproof brick and concrete, the structure that remains today.
It was this building that military officials and POWs would come to occupy, with an Army infantry captain describing it as “nothing distinctive or attractive” – perfect for a highly secretive mission.
In 1941, shortly after the United States entered World War II, the secretary of war approved two interrogation centers for the U.S. Army and Navy, according to declassified military documents.
One was established on the East Coast in Virginia for interrogating primarily European POWs. The other was to be in the West to interrogate mostly Japanese POWs, according to Lt. Col.Alexander Corbin, who wrote “The History of Camp Tracy: Japanese WWII POWs and the Future of Strategic Interrogation.”
Mae Reed, the owner of the Byron Hot Springs Hotel at the time, offered to lease her property to the Army for $250 a year. Her “motives are patriotic,” an official noted in government documents, possibly fueled by the death of a son who died in the last war while serving, Jensen said.
An Army infantry captain described the hotel as the No. 1 choice for the planned West Coast interrogation center.
“There is nothing distinctive or attractive about its appearance. It is merely a four-story box-like structure with various wings,” the captain wrote in a memo. But the building had good bones, was cheap and was close to San Francisco.
Another officer recommended the hotel because the various baths might prove a useful tool for “softening up” Japanese POWs; Hot springs, or onsens, were and continue to be a popular treat in Japan.
By December 1942, the hotel was under the control of the U.S. military and known as Camp Tracy.
Camp Tracy interrogations
The hotel was transformed during its time as the Camp Tracy Interrogation Center. According to Corbin, false ceilings were placed in the rooms and bathrooms, with microphones recording prisoner conversations. Heavy metal doors with special locks were also installed.
The interrogation pairs would be particularly successful because of the “rapport” they were able to build with Japanese POWs, according to Corbin.
“The phenomenon of rapport, created by the Nisei, eased the POW’s resistance to questioning, facilitating the extraction of information, and served as a great advantage in the interrogation process,” he wrote.
The rapport also made torture and other physical coercion methods unnecessary. Physical abuse was never documented by Camp Tracy officials in government documents, nor was it reported by veterans interviewed by Corbin.
“Camp Tracy interrogators found that courtesy and kindness overcame most Japanese reluctance and reticence,” Corbin wrote.
Over the roughly 2 1/2 years of Camp Tracy’s operation, there were nearly 12,000 successful interrogations of more than 3,500 Japanese POWs.
Abandoned Delta oasis
Despite its famous heritage, the goings-on of the camp went largely undetected, according to Corbin.
“While locals in the Byron area knew about Camp Tracy’s existence, they mistakenly believed it was a German and Italian POW camp,” he wrote. “They knew nothing about the Japanese POWs who had been brought to Camp Tracy, and they knew nothing about its interrogation mission.”
In August 1945, just before the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Camp Tracy was deactivated.
Japanese POWs were sent back to Japan, or to the South Pacific region to dismantle military facilities, and the building was stripped.
“This ‘stripping’ of the facilities left the resort in a state of shambles when it was returned to the owner,” Corbin wrote.
The hotel went on to house several new enterprises: a Greek Orthodox monastery, a country club. But financial misfortune plagued the property. A nearby train station was dropped from the main railroad schedule. Over the years, looters and graffiti artists paid calls.
Attempts to restore the property dissipated during the recession, and an affiliate group of the real estate fund Stonecrest Investment Group now owns the land and building.
“Unless you put on 20th century eyes,” it’s hard to spot any markers of the hotel’s past uses, Jensen said.
But some remain: A stone engraved with the words “WHITE SULPHUR,” half tucked behind weeds, still denotes a former springs – capped more than 70 years ago, when the smell was too strong for a camp commander, according to Jensen.