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How an Airport Fence Has Sparked a Debate Over Honoring Victims of Japanese Internment

In Tulelake, California, a municipal airport was built on the site of a former internment camp, and now it is at the center of a serious debate over preserving the historical significance of the land.
Members of the Japanese-American Mochida family awaiting re-location to a camp, Hayward, California.

Members of the Japanese-American Mochida family awaiting re-location to a camp, Hayward, California.

The Tulelake Municipal Airport is a single runway and one small hangar—just over half a square mile in all. Flat land stretches around the airport for miles: Lush green farmland unfurls north toward the Oregon border—about 13 miles away—dotted with homesteads that tend to the surrounding land. Brown loamy soil yawns out to the east, and, 50 miles to the west, Mount Shasta's snowy cap is just visible on a clear day.

At just over 8,800 residents, Modoc County, which is home to the airport, is one of the most sparsely populated counties in the United States. But it wasn't always this way. The airport lies directly on top of the piece of land where nearly 30,000 people of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens, lived when they were unjustly incarcerated between 1942 and 1946, at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. In the years since, some have come to call it by what many scholars say is a more accurate name: the Tule Lake Concentration Camp.

The airport is owned by the City of Tulelake, a quick eight miles away, and it is a key player in the county's economy. But the future of the land has come into question as activists urge the county to respect its tragic past. Last September, Modoc County proposed to replace the small, dilapidated fence around the airport to keep wildlife from stumbling onto the runway. If built, the new fence would be eight-feet tall, three-miles long, and topped with barbed wire. Proponents feel that this is an essential safety feature for the airport. Opponents believe that the fence would keep future generations from accessing the site, learning about their heritage, and studying the country's history. These opposing views have sparked debate about how to best honor the tragedy of the camps while reconciling with the community that has grown up in Tule Lake's imprint.

"If that fence goes up, it would bisect the historic segregation center area ... ruin the viewshed, and keep us from being able to visit the sites where we actually lived," said Satsuki Ina, who is a member of the Tule Lake Committee, a Japanese-American civil rights organization based in the Bay Area. Ina was born at Tule Lake in 1944 after her parents were transferred there from the Topaz War Relocation Center in the Utah desert.

Like all the sites of the 10 incarceration camps that were built on U.S. soil, Tule Lake was largely ignored in the years following World War II. Under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan, each person who was incarcerated was granted $20,000 in restitution. Later, Congress established the Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program, which authorized up to $38 million to identify, research, protect, and repair the historic confinement sites. (This grant was recently imperiled by President Donald Trump's budget, and narrowly escaped being cut after community uproar). Aside from these actions, conversation about what happened in the camps has been largely among the people who were held there and their ancestors.

The History of the Camps, the Land, and the Monument

In short, the incarceration camps were established under President Franklin Roosevelt in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the resulting U.S. entrance into World War II. All the camps held people of Japanese ancestry—many of whom were naturalized citizens or born in the U.S.—who were forcibly incarcerated without due process, ostensibly to prevent espionage. Tule Lake was the largest camp, and over the years its population swelled. In 1943 Tule Lake became the only maximum-security segregation camp. Prisoners were transferred there from other camps around the country after the American government accused them of being "disloyal." Although it was built to accommodate 10,000 people, the Tule Lake sites held 18,789 prisoners at their peak. Today, the incarceration camps are considered one of the most atrocious civil rights violations of the 20th century.

In 2008, President George W. Bush proclaimed three sections of the Tule Lake site a national monument, officially named the "World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Tule Lake Unit." The first section is Camp Tule Lake, a 38-acre area which was originally built to be part of the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps initiative, but was later used as an additional isolation center for people of Japanese ancestry, and after that as a prisoner-of-war camp, largely for Italian and German officers. Some 10 miles southeast of Camp Tule Lake lies the second section, a large, 1,100-acre peninsula known as "Castle Rock," which visitors can obtain a permit to climb and absorb the true scope of the site, which spanned a full 918 acres. It is outlined below by the maroon dotted line.


Adjacent to Castle Rock, the National Park Service manages the third section, 37 acres of the Tule Lake Segregation Center (the small green "L" shape outlined in red in the image above, in Newell). The Segregation Center encompasses the old stockade, and a few administrative buildings. However, during incarceration, the Segregation Center also encompassed a hospital, a high school, a post office, a cemetery, 144 administrative support buildings, two sewage treatment plants, 518 latrines, and 1,036 barrack dorms. The remains of many of these buildings, and the land on which they stood, is not part of the national park site. Today, the airport's runway bisects the area where the barracks once were.

The Tule Lake camps were closed in 1946, and, later that year, the Bureau of Reclamation raffled off 86 parcels of land around the former Segregation Center for homesteading. To be eligible for the lottery, one had to have prior farming experience, good health, and a record of serving in the war. More than 2,000 veterans applied. On December 18th, contestants' names were drawn from a pickle jar before an eager crowd, and the winners were broadcast on national radio. A local high school band played patriotic songs in celebration. The new homesteaders were awarded plots of 160 acres or less, and a house to go with them. These houses were made out of the barracks where the incarcerated Japanese Americans lived during the war, which were transported by truck to the newly won farmland. These are the parcels that surround the airport: Many families have been there since an ancestor won the land.

The homesteaders busily farmed and developed the area. The influx of veterans created a need for more schools and churches, which they built from the ground up. The airport was built in 1952 to bolster the agriculture in the area, and it remains a key player in the agricultural economy that sustains the region around it.

A company based at the Tulelake airport, Macy's Flying Service, "is probably the biggest, year-round full-time private employer in the area," said Modoc County District Supervisor, Geri Byrne. "It's critical to the agriculture in the basin."

The Airport, the Fence, and the Push for Preservation

Macy's Flying Service employs between 35 and 40 people who work at the airport, and is primarily used to service some 900 family farms throughout the Klamath Basin, which use small planes to spray their crops. Many of Macy's employees are also licensed agronomists, who advise the growers in the area. On occasion, the airport is used for diverted emergency services planes and helicopters when the nearby Crater Lake-Klamath Regional Airport gets fogged in.

Nick Macy, whose family has owned and operated the flying service since 1964, grew up in a converted barrack. "When the Japanese talk about how cold, dusty, and nasty the barracks were, I agree," he told the Sacramento Bee in October. The airport fence has become so contentious in part, for this reason: Two communities have deep, personal connections to the land. "It is easy for the TLC [Tule Lake Committee] to get 37,000 urban people to sign a petition," one resident wrote in a letter to the editor of a Klamath Basin paper called Herald and News. "Rural Americans are outnumbered."

Over the years, Macy has worked to co-exist with the Tule Lake Committee—which hosts a biennial pilgrimage that brings some 450 people to the site—by trying to make sure that airplanes don't take off or land during memorial services and other ceremonies. He also welcomes visitors who come alone to learn about the history of the land.

But it is known that prisoners of Tule Lake burrowed tunnels under the barracks where they hid during protests, and stored personal belongings in the soil. Academics, as well as members of the Tule Lake Committee, have dreams of eventually relocating the airport, and excavating the land under the runway. Investment in a new fence may be seen as representing commitment to the continuation of the airport, rather than a move toward relinquishing it.

Barbara Takei, the chief financial officer of the Tule Lake Committee, believes that developing a larger section of the former incarceration camp for tourist visits could be a boon for the county's economy: According to the National Park Service's 2017 Visitor Spending Effects report, tourists spent over $5 million at the Tule Lake National Monument and the nearby Lava Beds National Monument in 2017 alone. The report also estimates that these monuments added $3 million to the local economy in 2017, and that over 95 percent of this visitor spending was made by non-local visitors.

The problem is, many say that neither Modoc County, nor the City of Tulelake benefit much from this money. "Most of that benefit is going to the City of Klamath Falls, in Oregon, because it's so close," said Larry Whalon, the superintendent of the two sites. "The City of Tulelake does not have the services to handle [those visitors]."

In 2014, the Tule Lake Committee started fighting Modoc County over the land beneath the airport. Currently, Modoc County is in settlement proceedings over a lawsuit initiated by the Tule Lake Committee, for not complying with the California Environmental Quality Act. The group's actions to halt the fence project—and their goal of eventually moving the airport—is not sitting well with Macy, or the Tulelake community at large.

"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 told the Bee. "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."

But there may be other steps the Tulelake community can take. The City of Tulelake recently started negotiations with the Modoc of Oklahoma—a Native American tribe based in Ottawa County, Oklahoma—that wants to buy the airport. If sold, it is unclear how tribal sovereignty would interfere with the Tule Lake Committee's preservation efforts.

For the Japanese-American members of the Tule Lake Committee, regaining access to the land beneath the airport would be more than another reparation. Instead, the land could serve as testimony to this dark chapter in the country's history for future generations.

In October, Modoc County roads commissioner, Mitch Crosby, received over 5,000 letters from members of the Japanese-American community, urging him to reconsider the fence. "I am committed to not letting any American be treated with the same disrespect as my grandparents were," one of the letters read. "A small way to do this is to have constant reminders of the past, so that we can move forward."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.