Last week I had the rare opportunity to take a private tour of the Tule Lake Segregation Center with someone who probably knows it better than anyone, i.e., Tule Lake Committee President Hiroshi Shimizu.

I’ve been on the long eight-plus-hour trip to Klamath Falls, Oregon, by plane and bus for the Tule Lake Pilgrimage since way back in 1994 (when I first met Hiroshi) and was even at the last Tule Lake Pilgrimage in 2019. However, for my recent trip I was thrilled to fly directly via Medford, Oregon, a mere 90-minute drive to and from pilgrimage headquarters at the Oregon Institute of Technology. This time, instead of the stuffy OIT dorm rooms and communal bathrooms, I got to stay in a large private air-conditioned room at the Shiloh Inn, which left no doubt in my mind that I am indeed a spoiled Sansei.

I know I’ve written about how essential communal pilgrimages are in providing shared time to bond with other pilgrims and get personal and poignant insights from our knowledgeable first-hand witnesses (who sadly are rapidly disappearing). However, seeing the site without 400 people milling around was nice in a different refreshing and eye-opening way.

Don’t get me wrong. I like getting together for an extended time with other Nikkei more than anyone. As an example, on my very first trip to Heart Mountain some 25 years ago, I got to hear stories from Nisei sharing memories of camp — often for the first time ever — an experience I can honestly say changed my life. Or as another spoiled Sansei put it, that’s when this spoiled Sansei became a born-again Sansei.

Still, the nice part of going it alone (with my knowledgeable guide and astute navigator/cameraperson along) was the chance to see things and go places not normally on the typical bus tour given as part of the traditional pilgrimage. Lucky for me, I even got to climb up a prickly hill (with someone a lot younger than me lugging a heavy video camera) to get a view of the site’s iconic Castle Rock from the opposite side than seen on the usual pilgrimage hike. From that vantage point, I really got to see the vastness of the area once covered by hundreds of barracks for the massive and overcrowded high-security center that imprisoned 18,000 people. I saw how the area known as the inmate “colony” was distinctly separate from (and not equal to) the administration area that included the plush recreation building, the large hospital, the infamous stockade, and the Tule Lake jail, the one building still standing that’s unique to all ten camps.

Renovated Tule Lake jail with Castle Rock in the background.

I admit I was looking forward to see the newly renovated jail but even more intent on finding the exact site of the more significant “other” prison, known as the stockade. Its location was recently discovered to be completely different from where the jail stands today. The stockade and the jail, two very distinct prisons-within-the-prison, have over the years been mistakenly identified as being one and the same, or at least in the same location. Although both were used as prisons, the stockade was open for ten months beginning in November 1943, just as segregation was creating turmoil at the camp and martial law declared. Makeshift tents, known as the bullpen, initially constituted the stockade until several barrack-type buildings were added to accommodate the growing number of men once held there, hundreds of them.

It was the infamous place where detainees were held without due process nor rights to a fair hearing. It’s also the horrifying place where Tatsuo Inouye’s “Tule Lake Stockade Diary” is set, three hunger strikes occurred, and men were not allowed any contact with the outside world, most notably with any family members. It was not closed until threats of a lawsuit by attorney Wayne Collins were made following the discovery of its existence by Ernest Besig, head of the Northern California chapter of the ACLU, in 1944.

Besig was able to interview prisoners there under guard until forced to leave, only to find someone had put two sacks of salt in his gas tank while it was parked in the administration area. You don’t have to have a vivid imagination to guess what side that culprit was on.

Several months after the stockade was finally closed in August 1944, the administration began building the structure that remains today, i.e., the Tule Lake jail, which was only open for a few months. The jail was initially built to imprison those who committed petty crimes but soon became the place where so-called “troublemakers” were temporarily housed before being sent to alien immigration detention camps and branded “enemy aliens.” The building that stands at Tule Lake today was recently renovated with funds from the Tule Lake Committee and the National Park Service. Thanks to the restoration, it’s possible to experience first-hand the horrific conditions in the tiny six-cell jail previously seen only in photographs.

For those willing to make the trek to the town of Newell, where the Tule Lake Segregation Center is located (don’t forget that direct flight to Medford), you, too, can visit the site with a private tour guide. The National Park Service recently opened a visitor’s center at the entrance to the site, and I’m told if you call ahead, you can arrange for a park ranger to unlock the gate to the jail and take you inside what has been called the single most important building remaining from the incarceration.

Or, you can register in February for next year’s Tule Lake Pilgrimage (presuming it returns in 2023 after a COVID layoff), go inside the jail with other like minds, and have an unforgettable pilgrimage experience.


Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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