View of barracks with Castle Rock in the background, Mar. 20, 1946, Tule Lake concentration camp, California. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (Densho Encyclopedia)
Evacuation of Japanese residents in Chico began in early July of 1942. Evacuees from Butte County were sent to the camp at Tule Lake in Siskiyou County. May Ohmura, who had just completed two years of study at Mills College in Oakland, joined her parents and brother there. They lived together in a one-room “apartment” in a hastily constructed barracks.
May described the camp site as a “desert-like spot with endless dust storms, the place enclosed by barbed wire, gun towers and guards pointing machine guns at the internees.” May found a job as a nurse’s aide in the hospital and her father was given a job hauling coal. Paul enrolled in the camp high school. (McDonald 105-106) Two-thirds of the internees were American citizens, like the Ohmura family.
In February 1943 the U.S. Army sent a recruiting team to sign up Nisei (second-generation Japanese) for the draft. There was a good deal of resistance, with less than half of the military age men willing to register. The questionnaire that was devised to assess the loyalty of Japanese internees contained questions that were confusing, demeaning, and problematic for both citizens and non-citizens. The issue caused a division between the internees who wished to demonstrate their loyalty and those who protested their incarceration and loss of rights.
(For more on the Loyalty Questionnaire, see this article at the Densho Encyclopedia.)
Shigeto Ohmura was vocal in stating his loyalty to the United States, drawing the anger of protestors. In a letter to the DeBeques he described the outbreak of violence against him in the camp.
Letter written January 21, 1945 by Shigeto Ohmura to Robert and Mary Grace DeBeque
We don’t know how to express our appliciation [appreciation] and delight for your kindness and thoughtfulness. How wonderful you are! We feel very proud to have such a friend. We have a lot of friends in Chico but real friend are not many, even among Japanese people. It seems to be good in personally but when they get together to do something come to different.
It was in Feb. of 1943 at Tule Lake Center, W.R.A. [War Relocation Authority] required us registration to find out loyal or disloyal to united states. That time I was put in a hot water. People in the camp were very excited to discuss this registration problem and held mass meeting all over the camp. When they ask me opinion, I express my attitude as an American citizen and maintained what we should do then. Majority express my opinion. One day I received a treating [threatening] poster from these people.
Finally one night our apartment was attacked by armed group of people and our windows and door were broken by them. I did not meet these people and did not open the door. Fortunately, policemen came around as soon as hear the noise, and my family was safe. W.R.A. put a few watchmen after this happened and protected us. It was an awful thing. I din’t have any fear of them but felt so sorry for them instead. I know most of them for good many years and I have been good to them and they are good to me in personally and yet when they get together turned out disposition by the few of agitators. Well, that time I found only one real friend and he was willing to fight to death for us. I really felt wonderful of him.
May Ohmura also described the experience in a letter to Archie McDonald:
What I remember, when I returned from the evening shift at the hospital, via the ambulance, the barrack door was opened quickly and I was told to come quickly. There was a crowd surrounding the building shouting. I remember blowing a whistle hoping this would bring help. I do not recall anyone being injured. (McDonald 107)
May’s whistle was mistaken by the attackers for that of a warden, and the gang fled.
Four Tri-State High School leaders (L to R) Minoru Mochizuki, Shigeo Nakanishi, Yoshimitsu Hada, Paul Ohmura. UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.
The Ohmuras spent a year at Tule Lake, and then were transferred to the Amache camp in Colorado. Later they were released from the internment camp and relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. They never returned to California.
Next: The Ohmura Letter