Verne Austin

Name Verne Austin
Born February 22 1894
Died March 31 1968
Birth Location Winslow, Arizona

Lieutenant Colonel Verne Austin (1894–1968) was an army officer responsible for the army presence at Tule Lake from November 4, 1943, until February 12, 1945. During his time at Tule Lake, Lt. Col. Austin oversaw the militarization of the camp through the creation of a stockade and deployment of tanks within the camp, leading to unrest and violence within the camp and mass renunciations of U.S. citizenship.

Early Career

Verne Austin was born on February 22, 1894, in Winslow, Arizona, and grew up in Bakersfield, California. After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1917, he established himself as a career army officer, earning the rank of 2nd lieutenant in the First Cavalry in 1917 and receiving a promotion to first lieutenant while in France during World War I. Austin would complete his wartime service in 1920 with the rank of captain and maintained a position as a major in the U.S. Army Cavalry reserve in 1928.

Verne Austin was called back into the military in June 1941. Following U.S. entry into the war, Major Austin took charge of the security of petroleum facilities under the Ninth Service Command at Fort Douglas, Utah, from February 1942 until August 1943. On August 4th, 1943, Austin was promoted to lieutenant colonel and three weeks later assumed duty as head of the 752nd Military Police. [1] On September 2nd, Austin and the 752nd were stationed at Camp Tulelake , a former CCC camp next to the Tule Lake concentration camp that was used as a site for detaining Japanese American "troublemakers" along with German prisoners of war. From September to November 1943, Austin's duties comprised of guard duty.

Tule Lake

Following the start of a strike resulting from the death of a farm worker on October 15th, 1943, Tule Lake Director Raymond Best had "loyal" incarcerees brought in to break the strike, resulting in further unrest and threats made against Best. [2] On November 4th, Best called on Austin to intervene. Austin then declared martial law over the camp, establishing a perimeter around the administrative area, stationing tanks in the camp, and using tear gas to break up the crowd. [3]

After establishing martial law, Lt. Col. Austin addressed the confined over a PA system to their barracks, stating the army would "lay down the law." During the following months, Austin ordered systematic raids on barracks in search of evidence of subversive activity and names of "pressure group" members, and ordered scout cars with machine guns to patrol the camp daily. A Negotiating Committee was sent to Austin by the Daihyo Sha Kai—the community's elected leaders—to communicate the sentiments of the camp. Austin, however, refused to negotiate with them because he believed the Negotiating Committee did not represent the interests of the people. [4] Still, Austin, his subordinates, and War Relocation Authority (WRA) officials conducted regular meetings with block leaders throughout the camp to pressure the community to hand over members of "pressure groups," or individuals responsible for subversive activity. In December 1943, Austin ordered a mass arrest of 200 members of the Daihyo Sha Kai. To house his arrested suspects, Austin had the army construct a stockade comprised of an existing few blocks and an infirmary sealed off from the camp. [5] Holding up to over four hundred detainees during its eight-month existence, Austin ensured that life within the stockade was miserable: food was limited to bread and water, and families were not allowed to visit detained loved ones. [6] In responses to their maltreatment and the ambiguity of their detention, detainees organized two hunger strikes within the stockade over the course of the year, both being broken with the intervention of Austin's men. [7]

Anti-Japanese Hearst newspapers sensationalized rumors of events at Tule Lake, and praised Austin's intervention, stating the army would treat the "disloyal" justly. California Representative Clair Engle used the intervention to present a bill to the Dies Committee for establishing permanent army control over the camp, leading to an investigation into the work of the WRA.

On February 21, 1944, LIFE Magazine sent photographer Carl Mydans to photograph life at Tule Lake following its sensationalization by the Dies Committee in Congress. Over the course of the week, Mydans interviewed Austin and segregees within the camp, and enjoyed the week as a guest of Austin at parties with officers from the camp. On March 20, his article appeared in LIFE Magazine and profiled Austin as part of his article. Austin was portrayed as a military officer who could bring the rule of law back to the camp by detaining the "pressure boys." The article, and Mydan's photographs, sought to portray the camp as both as hospitable while necessary due to disloyal subjects like the "pressure boys." The choice of Mydans by LIFE was intentional—Mydans had just returned to the United States on the SS Gripsholm from his imprisonment in an internment camp in Japan, an experience Mydans used to belittle the harsh treatment at Tule Lake and present the segregees as non-Americans. Following his visit, Mydans developed a friendship with Austin, and corresponded regularly. [8]

Since the beginning, tensions existed between Austin and Best over management of the camp, with Austin accused of being a fascist by WRA administrators and Best accused of being too soft. According to reports from the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study , the initial source of this tension was due to indecision on the part of the army and the lack of a clear plan. When asked to formulate a policy regarding detainment of the stockade, Austin did not submit a formal policy until April 6, 1944, five months after the stockade had been built. This, and the inability of WRA administrators to work during army control, left Best and his workers frustrated. [9] After a period of normalization, Austin agreed to Best's request to withdraw the army from the stockade and limit army activities to guarding the camp perimeter on May 23, 1944. [10] Tensions spiked again the next day on May 24, 1944, when a sentry shot a segregee, Shoichi Okamoto, near the entrance of camp following an argument. The sentry, Private Bernard Goe, was immediately arrested and later court-martialed by Austin, but received an acquittal for his crime. WWI veteran Joe Kurihara later described the acquittal as "this is America, hypocritical America." [11] As a result of Austin's shelving of the issue and increased control over the camp by fascist inmate groups, anti-army sentiment rose among WRA employees and segregees. With those in camp expressing little to no confidence towards inmate police who were viewed as collaborators, incidents of murder and rape rose in camp, and by mid-July the state of the camp was quiet, but "terror-stricken." [12] Disputes between Best and Austin were reignited again over the rising chaos. On July 6, 1944, a report was made stating that Austin told WRA officials in San Francisco that Best was not doing a good job, and that this conversation was leaked to Best. [13] Over the course of the year, Best made attempts to keep the army at arm's length from the WRA administrators by having them stationed outside the wire, limiting contact between soldiers and segregees, and having the camp's Internal Security reign in control.

For the remainder of the year, Austin's responsibilities shifted towards maintaining outward order for the WRA and as a means of appeasing anti-Japanese Hearst newspapers like the San Francisco Examiner . Additionally, Austin frequently visited with agents from the Border Patrol and FBI, whom regularly visited the camp to arrest and remove renunciants to INS camps.

After Tule Lake

Following his post at Tule Lake, Verne Austin was promoted to colonel and assumed leadership as commandant of the Papago Park Prisoner of War camp in February 1945. His subordinate, Major Hazlett, was named head of the army at Tule Lake until its transfer to the Department of Justice in December 1945. Austin's leadership at Tule Lake was lauded by California papers, which labeled him as a troubleshooter and "hard-riding" officer who reinstated order. For his service at Tule Lake, Major General William Shedd awarded Austin with the Legion of Merit. Following the closure of Papago Park, Austin retired from the army and lived at his ranch near Salt Lake City, Utah. In later years, Austin maintained steady correspondence with fellow soldiers from Tule Lake and Carl Mydans of LIFE Magazine . In the 1960s, Austin retired to Santa Cruz, California, and served in community affairs.

His experiences at Tule Lake, however, left a lasting impression on his life. During his later years, Austin organized his papers and reports in preparation for any lawsuits filed against him by Japanese Americans present during his tenure at Tule Lake. Following the airing of Nisei, The Pride and The Shame on CBS in 1965 and the publication of books like The Spoilage , Austin contacted multiple publications, including the San Francisco Examiner and LIFE Magazine , in order to present his side of the story. As scholars and Japanese Americans began to question the official narratives of the camp, Austin decided to organize his papers into an archive as to present his actions at Tule Lake as just. Two years later in 1967, Austin donated his papers to the University of California, Los Angeles Special Collections, where Joe Grant Masaoka—the brother of JACL leader Mike Masaoka —collected the papers. Verne Austin died on March 30, 1968, in Santa Cruz, California. [14]

Authored by Jonathan van Harmelen , UC Santa Cruz

For More Information

Collins, Donald E. Native American Aliens: Disloyalty and the Renunciation of Citizenship by Japanese Americans During World War II . Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Drinnon, Richard. Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Takei, Barbara. " Legalizing Detention: Segregated Japanese Americans and the Justice Department's Renunciation Program - Part 4 of 9. " DiscoverNikkei , Apr. 5, 2013.

———, and Judy Tachibana. Tule Lake Revisited: A Brief History and Guide to the Tule Lake Concentration Camp Site . Second Edition. San Francisco: Tule Lake Committee, Inc., 2012.

Thomas, Dorothy Swaine, and Richard S. Nishimoto. The Spoilage . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946.

Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976. Updated ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.


  1. "Promotion of Officer, August 1, 1943," Folder 43.1, Verne Austin Papers, UCLA Special Collections.
  2. Richard Drinnon, Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 139.
  3. "Daily Reports at Tule Lake," Folder 43.3, Verne Austin Papers, UCLA Special Collections.
  4. Donald E. Collins, Native American Aliens: Disloyalty and the Renunciation of Citizenship by Japanese Americans During World War II (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985), 46.
  5. Dorothy Swaine Thomas and Richard S. Nishimoto, The Spoilage (Berkeley: University of California Press), 150–51.
  6. Barbara Takei, and Judy Tachibana, Tule Lake Revisited: A Brief History and Guide to the Tule Lake Concentration Camp Site , Second Edition (San Francisco: Tule Lake Committee, Inc., 2012), 29.
  7. Drinnon, Keeper of Concentration Camps , 112.
  8. "Letter from Carl Mydans to Delos Emmons, March 10, 1944," Folder 43.6, Verne Austin Papers, UCLA Special Collections.
  9. Rosalie Hankey, "Part II, Period of Army Rule," p. 61, The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement: A Digital Archive, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder W 1.67, accessed on Apr. 16, 2020 at .
  10. Barbara Takei, "Legalizing Detention: Segregated Japanese Americans and the Justice Department's Renunciation Program - Part 4 of 9," DiscoverNikkei , Apr. 5, 2013, accessed on Apr. 16, 2020 at .
  11. Takei, "Legalizing Detention."
  12. Daily Reports at Tule Lake," Folder 43.3, Verne Austin Papers, UCLA Special Collections.
  13. Daily Reports at Tule Lake," Folder 43.3, Verne Austin Papers, UCLA Special Collections.
  14. "Verne Austin, SC Planning Commissioner, Died Yesterday," Santa Cruz Sentinel , Mar. 31, 1968.

Last updated Dec. 11, 2023, 8:02 p.m..