Elmer Shirrell

Name Elmer Shirrell
Born December 14 1889
Died April 21 1978
Birth Location Santa Barbara, California

The first director of Tule Lake and later the head of the War Relocation Authority 's Chicago area resettlement office.

Elmer Lacey Shirrell was born in Santa Barbara, California, on December 14, 1889, the second of four children of Thomas and Emily Shirrell. He graduated from Santa Barbara High School and went on to the University of California, graduating with a bachelor's of letters in jurisprudence in 1914. He was teaching at Bakersfield High School when the U.S. entered World War I; resigning his position, he enlisted and eventually saw action in France and Belgium in 1918. Upon his return, he married Eleanor Jones in 1919, finished his master's degree in 1925, and worked in California based offices of the Federal Board for Vocational Education, the Veteran's Administration, and later, as West Coast representative for Doubleday-Doran Publishing, with a stint teaching political science at the University of Oregon in between. From his long residence in on the West Coast, he was familiar with Japanese Americans and even had one serve under him during World War I. [1]

The fifty-two year old Shirrell took a position with the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and was assigned to Tule Lake , arriving on around May 10, 1942, as the acting project director. He was thus in place when the first inmates began to arrive at the end of the month. Apparently expecting to be named the permanent director of Tule Lake, he was surprised to learn that Christopher E. Rachford was going to brought in as the director. Rachford arrived on June 16, but stayed for less than a week before being dispatched to Heart Mountain , where he became that camp's first director. Shirrell was officially named Tule Lake's project director on July 8 and remained in that position until December 1942. [2]

Shirrell's tenure at Tule Lake was a stormy one that was filled with unrest, much of it due to factors beyond his control. After a relatively calm first couple of months, an August strike of inmate farm workers began a series of high profile disputes including an October mess hall strike, a revolt of furniture factor workers, and many conflicts between inmates over recreation, control of the camp newspaper, and the role of the co-op, among others. While he aligned himself with "liberal" staff members who were more sympathetic to the inmates— Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study fieldworker Tamotsu Shibutani described him as "one of the few Caucasians respected in the colony" in a 1943 report—he was also blamed by many inmates for long delays in the payment of inmate wages and clothing allowances and for backing an unpopular steward in the mess hall dispute. Shirrell also faced opposition from other white WRA staff who felt that he was too "soft" in addressing inmate protests. His WRA bosses seemed to agree with this assessment, and he was informed in early December that he was to be replaced as director. He stayed on to introduce his successor, Harvey Coverly, to inmate leaders on December 30. [3]

Upon leaving Tule Lake, Shirrell become the head of the WRA's first field office, established in Chicago on January 4, 1943. In his new position, Shirrell supervised offices in several midwestern states, encouraging inmates to leave camp and assisting them with finding jobs and housing. When he was asked to transfer to the Kansas City office in January 1944, he resigned from the WRA and took a position to remain in Chicago with the Curtiss Candy Company, one of the most frequent employers of Nisei in the area. He also served on the board of the Japanese American Service Committee . As Curtiss's employment manager, he would hire many Nisei to work for the company. He remained with Curtiss until retiring in 1956 at age 65. Upon retirement, he planned to move back to Santa Barbara. He died in Santa Barbara at the age of 88 on April 21, 1978. [4]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

Cates, Rita Takahashi. "Comparative Administration and Management of Five War Relocation Authority Camps: America's Incarceration of Persons of Japanese Descent during World War II." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1980.


  1. "Elmer Lacey Shirrell," Western Journal of Education 27.6 (June 1921), 9, accessed on January 10, 2014 at http://books.google.com/books?id=_HovAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA29&lpg=PA29&dq=Elmer+shirrell+santa+barbara&source=bl&ots=EtVulpeC-g&sig=XRhgBWiJzjNfRXF0ByfuPCO-F2c&hl=en&sa=X&ei=LU_PUuSeHIzvoASawIHwBg&ved=0CEQQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=Elmer%20shirrell%20santa%20barbara&f=false ; Harold S. Jacoby, Tule Lake: From Relocation to Segregation (Grass Valley, Calif.: Comstock Bonanza Press, 1996), 94; Tulean Dispatch , July 8, 1942, p. 1; Manzanar Free Press , Aug. 7, 1943, p. 2; Pacific Citizen , May 6, 1960, 8; Shotaro Frank Miyamoto, "Chapter II: General Policy of the War Relocation Authority," The Tule Lake Report, Nov. 30, 1944, p. 15, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Call No. BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder R 20.65:1, accessed on July 18, 2019 at https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/k6vd6z4z/?brand=oac4 .
  2. Diary, Mrs. Elmer Shirrell [Eleanor Jones Shirrell], May 14 and 22, and June 16 and 22, 1942, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement, A Digital Archive (JAERDA), The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder R 25.10:1**, accessed on July 20, 2020 at http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/jarda/ucb/text/cubanc6714_b268r25_0010_1.pdf ; Tule Lake Information Bulletin , May 27, 1942, p.1; Tulean Dispatch , June 18, 1942, p. 1; Tulean Dispatch , June 24, 1942, p. 3; Tulean Dispatch , July 8, 1942, p. 1.
  3. See sections on "Personnel" and "Unrest" in Tule Lake article in Sites of Shame for more on the events of the fall. Rita Takahashi Cates, "Comparative Administration and Management of Five War Relocation Authority Camps: America's Incarceration of Persons of Japanese Descent during World War II" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1980), 275–76, 279; Tamotsu Shibutani, "The History of First Six Months in the Tule Lake Project," July 21, 1943, p. 59, JAERDA, BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder R 21.07:4, accessed on July 21,2020 at https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/k6mc8zqt/?brand=oac4 ; Shirrell diary, Dec. 2 and 4, 1942; Harvey M. Coverley, Weekly Report, Week Ending Jan. 1, 1943, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records (JAERR), Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder R1.15:1, accessed on July 21, 2020 at https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/k6bz6d80/?brand=oac4 .
  4. Jacoby, Tule Lake , p. 94; Pacific Citizen , January 14, 1943, p. 1; Letter, Elmer Shirrell to Dorothy Thomas, January 27, 1944, in "Miscellaneous" documents, BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder W 1.45:3, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, downloaded at http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/28722/bk001310n8c/ on May 14, 2014; George Morimitsu, "It's a Community Affair at Curtiss," Scene Magazine , May 1951, 24–27; Pacific Citizen , Nov. 23, 1956, p. 3; Pacific Citizen , Jan. 5–12, 1979, 8.

Last updated Jan. 16, 2024, 1:14 a.m..