Historic California Posts, Camps,
Stations and Airfields
Tulare Assembly Center
(Tulare Fairgrounds Prisoner of
War Branch Camp)
Tulare Assembly Center
(National Park Service)
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 elements
of the VII 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
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
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
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 servedfood 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
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
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
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 armyregarding 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 chapterwere 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 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
AmericansTulare 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.
Aprisoner of war branch camp under the
control of the Camp
Cooke Prisoner of War Camp. It reportedly had a capacity
of 245 prisoners who were engaged in agricultural work . Activated
11 December 1944 and inactivated 24 January 1946.
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