Tulare (detention facility)

US Gov Name Tulare Assembly Center, California
Facility Type Temporary Assembly Center
Administrative Agency Wartime Civil Control Administration
Location Tulare, California (36.2000 lat, -119.3333 lng)
Date Opened April 20, 1942
Date Closed September 4, 1942
Population Description Held people from California: Los Angeles and Sacramento Counties and the Southern California coast.
General Description Located in the southern San Joaquin Valley of California.
Peak Population 4,978 (1942-08-11)
Exit Destination Gila River
National Park Service Info

Between April 27 and May 14, 1942, about 4,800 Nikkei residents from the coastal counties north of Los Angeles were removed and confined in a temporary detention camp at the outskirts of the city of Tulare (pop. 10,000), Tulare County. Formerly the place of the Tulare-Kings County Fair, halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield, the Japanese Americans spent four months in the makeshift camp before being deported to the Gila River camp in Southern Arizona. The last inmate left on September 4, 1942. The grounds were thereafter occupied by African American soldiers of the 7th Army Corps.

Preparing for Induction

The fairground site started as a small "sales ring" during World War I and subsequently became one of California's most important agricultural fairs. The army leased the site in March 1942 and immediately began converting the fairgrounds to accommodate approximately 5,000 civilians of Japanese ancestry. The compound was about half a mile long and a quarter mile wide. On April 15, the Army Engineers handed over the site to the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA). Construction work continued until May 25, the costs totaling $500,000, approximately $100 per inmate.

In addition to nineteen stalls and sheds, previously used for housing livestock, the army built an additional 152 barracks for housing, feeding and as sanitary facilities. Barracks were uniform in size and appearance, each measuring 20 x 100 feet. The living quarters had eight-foot high plywood partitions dividing the long structures into multiple family compartments. A four-person apartment had 330 square feet, five persons were allotted 390 square feet and six persons 460 square feet. Living space per person was 77 square feet on average, well below the WCCA standards of 200 square feet per couple, but more than in other "assembly centers." The roofs were covered with tar paper, so the heat was even worse inside the barracks. The rooms were empty except for army cots and a single light bulb. Using crates and plywood the inmates build makeshift chairs, tables and shelves. Unlike in Tanforan, Santa Anita , or Puyallup , there were sufficient cotton mattresses for all inmates. Still, as in other temporary detention camps, substandard living conditions and narrow space exacerbated the physical and mental stress.

Ten of the newly built barracks served as kitchens and mess halls, each serving 500 people. With a 150 seat capacity people ate in three shifts, each shift being allowed 20 minutes. Sanitary facilities included eight barracks with showers (the shower-inmate ratio was 1:23), thirteen washing rooms, thirty latrines, and five laundries. Three standard barracks were set aside as hospitals, each equipped with 30 beds. The administrative buildings were located under the bleachers.

The camp was surrounded by a 6.5 foot high fence topped with barbed wire. By the end of May eight watchtowers had been erected. A company of the military police, about 100 soldiers, guarded the perimeter.

Between April 27 and May 14, 1942, 4,800 Japanese Americans arrived at the site. About 600 came from Ventura, 450 from Santa Barbara, 800 from Guadalupe, 400 from Santa Maria, 200 from Arroyo Grande, 1300 from Pasadena and 1,100 from Torrence and Gardena.. 2,700 arrived by bus, 2,000 by train and about 100 by car. The population peaked at 4,978 (August 11-14). Altogether 5,026 Japanese Americans were inducted in the center.

Sanitary Facilities, Mess Halls, Medical Treatment

With one washing room for 200 persons, long lines were a common sight. "If this were designed by the Army engineers, it was certainly a crude job. I expected simple constructions [...] but just ordinary common sense would have made this sort of planning ridiculous," an inmate commented. Many mothers washed their infants in the laundry barracks suspicious of the hygienic conditions in the washing rooms.

The latrines were barely more than "four walls and a roof over the eight holes." An inspection report read: "They are metal trough affairs with automatic flush. However, this trough will not clean properly. Will have to be scrubbed daily. No partitions in women's latrines. No water connection to flush urinals. Recommend here as in other centers, that partitions be placed between seats in women's toilets." Some of these deficiencies were addressed, others not.

Feeding a population, the majority of which were women and children, was a task new to the army. During the first week, "B-rations" were served—food from cans and dehydrated meals that needed no cooking facilities (chili beans, wieners, and corned beef). In the third week of May the diet was changed to garrison rating. The average army budget was 33 cents daily per inmate. When protests abounded and the Santa Anita "food riot" threatened camp peace, the army lifted the allotted food rations. Eventually, the average rate in temporary detention camps was 39 cents per person. In Tulare it started at 28 cents (May), rose to 46 cents in June and went back to 42 cents in July.

The hospital barracks had no medical equipment, no furniture (except the ubiquitous picnic tables and army cots), not even running water. Daytime temperatures in the barracks were between 95 and 109°F. The only thing existing in abundance was medical personnel: By the end of June four MDs, three dentists, two trained nurses, five paramedics, and forty orderlies had volunteered. Lack of medical supplies was the most serious problem, the only medication during the first weeks being aspirin. Fever and digestive problems were the most widespread medical conditions, due to the unbalanced diet and the unfamiliar heat.

Everyday Life in Camp

As in all temporary detention camps, the army attempted to have most of the operations run by the inmates themselves. This lowered the costs, kept the inmates busy and conveyed the image of a self-sustaining community rather than a penitentiary. A third of the persons between 18 and 65 years of age were employed. Of the 1,200 employed, 500 worked in the mess halls and kitchen, 200 in the works and maintenance section (including 28 firemen) and over 100 in the hospitals. The wage scale was $8 per month for unskilled workers, $12 for skilled workers, and $16 for professionals. The average monthly pay for a full-time worker (48 hours per week) was less than $10, a depressing perspective in light of a booming war economy and rising prices for agricultural products. In addition the military employed about 35 civilian Euro-Americans in administrative jobs (at the usual public service pay scale).

Religious freedom was one field in which the army interfered little. The only major restriction was that the camp director had to give permission for Japanese language service. There was a Buddhist priest and two Protestant ministers, plus several visiting ministers. The Protestant Sunday service was held outside and attended by 1,500 Japanese Americans. The Buddhists mobilized 750 followers. Both denominations had a Sunday school and a choir.

Recreational activities, including many different kinds of sports , were enthusiastically organized. According to a survey there were baseball (softball) games watched by 900 spectators daily, followed by sumõ (500), judo (200) and basketball (150). There was an A league containing teams form former home towns (Pasadena, Guadalupe, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Oxnard, Ventura and others) and a B league in which different profession played each other "Brooklyn style". The games started 6 p.m. after the worst heat had abated. 350 inmates, mostly Issei, convened each morning for calisthenics. For the less physically inclined there were go , shogi, and chess classes.

Originally there were eight policemen patrolling within the compound, supported by a volunteer "Center Police Force" of about forty inmates. When the camp director informed the army that "[policing] is turned over almost entirely to the Japanese police force", the WCCA approved another sixteen Caucasian policemen. This brought the ratio one policeman for 200 inmates, as in all temporary detention camps. In addition to patrolling the grounds the police checked incoming parcels for contraband, supervised the visitors' room and escorted inmates to the hospital. The most oppressing form of surveillance was the daily head count, six o'clock each morning. Another interference with the Nikkei's rights was the confiscation of contraband, ordered on June 20. Despite protests, over 4,500 Japanese-language books, except dictionaries and bibles, as well as records, were confiscated.

The camp's newspaper was the Tulare News . Published twice weekly, six to eight pages in length, it had a print run of 1,400. Delivered free of charge to the inmates, it contained administrative announcements, disseminated information regarding services and daily activities, and promulgated normalcy and optimism. A Japanese-language section was announced on May 23 but never printed, as it violated army orders. Nevertheless, the paper fulfilled two very important tasks, as the chief of service division contended, "to build morale and to provide a controlled channel of information [...]. No one single service has done and is doing more [for these goals] than the newspaper."

Inmate-Keeper Relations and Self-Government

Relations between the administration and the inmates were good. Much of this must be attributed to the inmates' willingness to cooperate, and on the Norwegian-born camp director Nils Aanonsen. A civil engineer, formerly employed as supervisor for WPA projects, he was the army's main adversary rather than the willing executor the military expected him to be. He consequently defended the inmates precarious rights, oblivious to racial prejudice that pervaded much of the military and the society at large. Aanonsen quickly won the trust and even friendship of Issei and Nisei alike who characterized him as "tolerant, humane and understanding." An Issei women remarked: "He is quiet. He is reserved. People say he is a thinker. [...] There is not the slightest trace of a sharp diplomat, nor a thick-blooded influential businessman in him. [...] The fact that Mr. Aanonsen is reserved in this ways, only seems to attract the respect of the people."

In the first issue of the camp newspaper, May 6, the camp manager promised the inmates their own civil government. Before formal elections were held, six community leaders served as temporary councilmen. Most of them were JACL members who had some experience in politics.

The system of self-government was designed by Harwood "Harry" Stump, Service Division head and Aanonsen's right hand. According to his plan, there were ten districts each electing two councilmen. In addition five commissioners appointed by the camp director served as mediators between inmates and administration. Councilmen had to be 23 years of age and needed fifteen signatures from their district. Voting right was conferred to all inmates at least 18 years of age, regardless of nationality.

On May 31, 1942, the army explicitly prohibited an elected inmate body taking over administrative tasks. Still, camp director Aanonsen went ahead with the democratic experiment. Elections were held on June 8, 1942. Out of 3,843 eligible voters 71 went to the polls. After run-off elections in five of the ten districts, Aanonsen confirmed the new Evacuee Council on June 15. Four of the twenty councilmen were Issei. The council formed ten committees to improve the camp conditions and wrote a constitution which was confirmed by Aanonsen on June 24.

The army did not recognize the Evacuee Council's authority, neither in fact nor in theory. Most of the Council's petitions to the army—regarding the improvement of housing and sanitation, the return of dishes and silverware, the confiscation of Japanese-language books, the selling of beer, the naming of streets or even the creation of a Tulare Assembly Center JACL chapter—were refused.

In the face of continuing self-government the army pressed the Tulare administration to stick more closely to its restrictive stipulations. Aanonsen managed to circumvent these stipulations and kept the Council alive and working until August 5, 1942. By that time the move to Gila River was only two weeks away so the dissolving of the Council had little consequence.

Moving On

The deportation to Gila River began August 20. Ignoring the military's stress on secrecy, Aanonsen had informed the inmates by August 1 of the forthcoming move. Each transfer included approximately 500 residents. After the last train had left, on September 4, only six persons remained in the County Hospital to be moved once their condition improved. On September 12 the guards were pulled out while the last civilian administrators left the camp on September 16. Shortly after, a Negro troop contingent of the VII Army Corps arrived to convert the grounds into a training facility.

The Tulare Assembly Center after the Second World War

After the war the Tulare-Kings County Fair returned to the "assembly center" site. It has since been held every year in September. In 1948, Kings County broke away from Tulare County to conduct its own separate fair in Hanford. In 1952, the Tulare County Fair suffered a disastrous fire that destroyed the old pavilion building and adjacent structures. Three new fireproof buildings were constructed to replace those lost in the conflagration. Located at 215 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the Tulare County Fair continues to be the showcase for agricultural products from the region and offers numerous family oriented forms of entertainment.

The site has been designated a State Historical Landmark (No. 934, "Temporary Detention Camps for Japanese Americans–Tulare Assembly Center"). There is no plaque or other sign pointing to incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war. The site is also not among the 25 sites designated by the Tulare County Historical Society.

Authored by Konrad Linke

For More Information

DeWitt, John L. Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 . Washington, D.C.: U.S. Gov't Printing Office 1943. [For the U.S. Army's view.]

Gorfinkel, Claire, ed. The Evacuation Diary of Hatsuye Egami . Pasadena: Intentional Productions, 1996.

Linke, Konrad. Das Tulare Assembly Center: Alltag in einem Lager für Japanoamerikaner im Zweiten Weltkrieg . Trier: WVT, 2014.

Tulare County Fair. https://tcfair.org/history.php .

Tulare Historical Museum. http://www.tularehistoricalmuseum.org/ .

Tulare News . [Edited by Brownie Furutani, 32 issues, published from May 6 to August 19, 1942. Is the camp's official newspaper, financed and published by the Japanese-American inmates.]

Last updated Oct. 13, 2020, 3:11 p.m..