California Council for the Humanities
California Stories Initiative
Years of Valor, Years of Hope
Tulare County and the Years 1941-1946
Tulare County Library
The Friends of the Tulare County Library
And the Tulare County Historical Society
Interviews in 2003-2004
Subjects covered in the interview: Family history, Rankin Field,
Life in Tulare during the war.
DJ: I’m interviewing Gerry Soults in Visalia for the project "Years of Valor, Years of Hope, Tulare County, 1941-1946." Thank you for doing this interview, Gerry.
GS: Oh, I enjoy it. I’ve been looking forward to it.
DJ: Please tell us a little bit about your family history.
GS: Well, I was born in Waukena. Do you know where Waukena is?
GS: All right. That is about 12 miles west of Tulare, between Corcoran and Tulare. And in the early days, long before I was ever born, it was known as Buzzer’s Roost. And it was known for its artesian Wells. And I was born in a beautiful old two-story house, which still stands. And when I was two years old, then my folks moved to Tulare, into the city of Tulare. And I was born to William B. and Velma C. Eyer. And I’m one of three daughters. And I’m the oldest. And I went all through the Tulare City schools. And of course, that brings us up to the year of 1938 when I graduated. My middle sister’s name is Lesta May
(Anderson) and my little sister is Billie Nell (Steinbach).
I was fortunate to be with a group
of people that go through school with people that really made their mark in
history. For example, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt
was a classmate of mine. He was the
youngest Admiral ever to be appointed in the
I was just recalling the other day how in 1937-‘38 what was the hottest news, you know. And you’ll never guess what it was. This is when Wally Simpson wanted to marry the Prince of England, Prince Edward, I think his name was. And he abdicated the throne in order to marry her because she was a divorced woman. And of course, they made history down through the years. But I can remember that very, very well. And we just thought it was something that a king would give up his throne to marry that woman, you know. And she was an American to boot. So, that was one thing that I remember in ’37-’38 aside from my graduation.
And of course, and you have to remember that I am a child of the Depression. My parents were just like any other parents who were trying to raise a family. As a child, I never knew that we were deprived because we were a happy family. And things were tough. And I had one pair of shoes and one pair of socks I washed out every night so I’d have fresh socks the next morning. I remember vividly they were white and now they’re back in style and they just remind me of how it was when I was going to high school.
And then we had usually one or two changes of clothing to go to school. But everybody was in the same boat so no one really, you know, had more than the other, because it was a very, very sensitive time in the ‘30s.
Probably the thing that impressed me was that my folks could not afford to send me on to a college. There were a few out of my class that were fortunate to go on to college. Though I came over here to what was then known as Visalia Junior College. And I was only at that building, which is on Main Street where the Redwood High School is today. That had a building just for the junior college. Then what we know now as College of the Sequoias was built and I was in that first class. And it was just the one main building. That’s all that was there. It was way out in the fields. And I rode a bus from Tulare to Visalia to go to school. The bus started out in Corcoran, stopped in Tulare and then on to Visalia.
So, anyway, then of course, the clouds of war were beginning to appear and people were, you know -- just really didn’t know what was going to happen to their lives. We knew the Japanese were threatening. And Roosevelt was President at the time. And of course, this really hit our age bracket because our young men were all being taken to serve in the service in one way or another. But I was over here at COS probably -- I served two semesters and then I heard that there was going to be a -- what we knew as a Rankin Academy. This is where they were to train young cadets to fly. And it was going to be out at the Tulare Airport, which still exists out there on South 99. So, I thought, well, shoot, I’ll just apply and see if I can get the job. I could either apply at Rankin Academy or the U.S. Air Force. So I applied for both places and I got the job with the U.S. Air Force. Now, that was all in one building and that old building is still standing today. It’s right there close to the highway. And we were all crowded in there, jammed in there, the Air Force offices and the Rankin Academy. And of course, about two miles east of where this hangar was, was the new building that was being built; the new hangar for the classes where the cadets would be trained.
So, we had two telephones. I never will forget this. One telephone for the Air Force; one telephone for Rankin Academy. And we were always standing in line waiting to make our calls or to receive a call. It was very, very hectic. And so finally the day came when I was secretary to a Captain Kilgore. I think he was a West Point graduate. And he was here to train the first class. And in the meantime, I was sent out to this hangar, this brand new hangar. This is in the time when -- in the days when we really got rain. I think it rained 40 days and 40 nights during that time. It was just nothing but mud clear up to my ankles. And I hated it. I was the only one out there. I’d sit there trying to look busy. Nobody would ever come out. Once in a great while somebody would knock on the door. The Captain was busy at the hangar there on 99. So, I was literally on my own trying to, you know, do a job. And I hated it.
So, one day I’d been out with the Air Force probably nine months, I think. In the meantime all of my friends were saying, "Well, Gerry, can you come and have lunch, come in town and have lunch with us?" I couldn’t even get out to go have lunch. And so one time a good friend of mine said, "Hey, there’s going to be a job as a teller at the Bank of America. Why don’t you apply?" Now, remember, I was working for the U.S. Air Force and I was making $135 a month. This was more than my father was making. I mean, this was big money. But money was not important to me because I gave up that lousy job and went to work for the Bank of America at $75. And I worked there for four years and I still hadn’t worked up to a $135. My parents were aghast. They could not believe I would do this. But, like I say, I wanted to be with my friends. I hated the job; I didn’t like the atmosphere. The pressure I could see was mounting because no one knew really what they were doing out there. Rankin Academy was a new, new installation. Everything was new. No one had any experience. And I just didn’t want any part of it.
So, I got this job as a teller. And I was the first girl teller in the Bank of America at Tulare because all the men were being taken off, drafted for the service. So this is when they were beginning to change over. And so I had a wonderful experience at the Bank of America. It probably trained me for the rest of my life. At least I learned how to balance a checkbook. No. But I will always be grateful for that experience. It was great. I met so many people.
And then in 1946 I married Gene Smith. He happened to hold down two jobs. He was the editor of the Tulare Times, the morning paper. And then after that was published he would go to work at Rankin Academy as the purchasing agent. You have to remember during those days everybody was expected to do a lot of things. There were some days when the banks would close early and people were expected to go out and either pick cotton or pick grapes. And I picked grapes. I chose to pick grapes at Mr. John Hovannisian Sr.’s farm, which is right across from KCOK radio station today. It’s there on Mooney Boulevard.
DJ: Why was that?
GS: Because there were no men. I mean, there were people who were being drafted and war was under way. I was employed at the bank at that time. On December 7 1941, that’s when the war started, Pearl Harbor was attacked. And I was sitting in church and I remember -- my father was Superintendent of the Sunday school in a small country church in Waukena. This young man came up and handed him a note in church. My father, who was standing at the pulpit at that time, read the note and he paused, looked out at the crowd, and he said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Japanese have just attacked Pearl Harbor." And I’ll never forget that. That was on a Sunday.
So, anyway, the next day, of course, we all went back to work. Everybody was stunned. But it was after those days and weeks and months that people were expected -- the citizens that were left behind, we all pitched in to help out in the fields. And so I chose to pick grapes. And sometimes the bank would close early, you know. Everybody’s life was touched. Everybody’s life was touched.
It was the days of when we had the blackouts, you know. Your curtains had to be drawn, no lights could show. And we took turns at different strategic parts of the city in downtown Tulare. Mine was at the top of Hotel Tulare, which was a four-story hotel. So, I would serve from midnight to four, I think it was. That was my time to spot planes or any unknown activity in the sky.
DJ: And if you did --
GS: We had our telephone that we contacted
another unit. People really forget that
the first line of defense for the
Of course, this was in the days then when the Japanese were being put in, I hate to say concentration camps, but I mean it does remind you of that. But they were all herded up. I had a very dear friend who I went to school with all through my early years. Her name was Sadako Izumi. And we’ve lost touch with her. But I understand she is still living. And she and her family had a grocery store on the main street of Tulare, South K Street. One day the store was just locked up. The family was gone. Well, she was part of the group that was taken and put into internment camps.
DJ: Was there a camp in Tulare?
GS: Yes. Well, for a short time they kept them down at what we know as the fairgrounds. So, they stayed there for a while. And then I think most of them went over to Owens Valley. Here about five years ago we were going up to one of the lakes. I said, "I’m going to turn off here, I want to see where that internment camp was." There’s just a few things that you can see where they kept thousands and thousands of Japanese. It was just a forsaken barren place. Cold, you know, coming off of the Sierras. It was just awful.
But, anyway, another thing that we had was out here at Tagus, we had the Germans. The Germans were brought over as prisoners. We had German prisoners out at Tagus Ranch. Yes. And my husband was the morning editor for the Tulare Advance Register. In those days it was called "Tulare Times." And then the evening paper was the Tulare Advance Register. But we had two papers in those days. So he was the morning editor. He had to get up early and put out the paper. But he used to go out and do interviews of the German prisoners. He kept one letter. I gave it to the museum otherwise I’d show it to you. But it was so interesting because the story he wrote had to be approved by a government official. It was very censored. And few words he would use in his description of the camp were marked out, meaning he could not use that word, you know.
DJ: So interesting.
GS: It was very, very secretive and yet they were good people, you know. He got to know a lot of them. They would pick the peaches, you know, those that could be trusted. And that was just another example of how critical it was to harvest our fruit and harvest the cotton. No one was there to do it so that the citizens had to pitch in and go to work.
So, that brings us up to probably about 1946.
DJ: Can we rewind and talk a little bit more about the German camp. Where did these people, where did they come from?
DJ: I wonder how they decided Tulare?
GS: You know, that’s another thing I really don’t know. I really don’t know how they arrived here. See, Tagus Ranch was quite an interesting focal point here. And lot of history took place there. It was created by a man by the name of Merritt, Heulett C. Merritt. At one time Tulare had the largest peach orchard in the world and he was the one that created it. How and why that prisoner of war camp was there, I just don’t know that history.
DJ: During the war years, did you see a lot of prejudice going on in Tulare County?
GS: No, I really didn’t see any prejudice because we all had our work to do. You know, we were rationed. Our gasoline was rationed. We had stamps that we could buy gasoline. Sugar stamps, flour stamps, shoes, you know. I was married in 1946 and I had one stamp to buy my wedding shoes. I had to decide whether I’d spend them on my shoes for my wedding dress or whether I would choose the shoes for my going away outfit. So, I found a cute pair of satin slippers and took the foo-foo off of it and I wore those down the aisle. And saved the stamp for my good shoes to go away.
So, aside from the rationing --have you ever seen a rationing stamp?
DJ: I’ve seen the money, little coins.
GS: Well, these were stamps. And they were in a booklet form. And they were negotiable. You could go buy but you always had to show that you had a stamp that gave you the right to have that. When I was married, it was pretty limited on sheets, you know, and bedding, because cotton was an issue. To have a pair of sheets and pillowcases was a privilege. And I had a very dear friend whose mother worked at the Tulare District Hospital, or what we know now as Tulare District. It was the Tulare Hospital. And so she got me a pair of sheets and pillowcases. So it sounds a little silly, but that was very true.
DJ: What a foreign world that is -- to say to young people in high school today. They wouldn’t even understand.
GS: You know, I often think about even my children and of course, the children of today, young people today, if they ever had to have a Depression. First, you know, our age bracket, we went through a Depression, we went through a terrible world war and it really hit my generation. But, you know, I think we came out stronger all because of it. We didn’t ever get to a point where we were saving string. You’ve heard those stories about that. But it gave us an appreciation for what we have and to enjoy life without having to spend money. I always try to tell my boys, we can have fun without spending money. Let’s get on the bicycles and go for a bike ride. Let’s go for a picnic. Today, everything seems like it takes money to have a good time. And then you really didn’t have to have money to have a good time.
So, like I say, I raised three boys, three fine young men. William Gregory was born in 1948, Richard Allen was born in 1950 and Thomas Eugene was born in 1953. I did lose my husband when he was only 59 years old. And that left me widowed me at the age of 57. And I had boys still in college. And that was pretty tough. We had a business in Tulare where we made many friends. So two years later then I married Bob Soults. And he was at the point where he was getting ready to retire. We had a wonderful life together. We traveled. But we became involved with the Tulare Historical Museum together. And we just had wonderful years there. I always enjoyed seeing progress that we made on seeing that Tulare had a museum. It was very rewarding to serve as director. Lot of acquaintances and lots of new exhibits that we would create and hope the people would come and see them.
DJ: I look forward to visiting that place now. You spoke about Rankin Field. Could you just elaborate on what was going on there, the history, a little bit more.
GS: All right. What you have to remember now, I was there I think when the first two classes came. And. . .
DJ: It was a training --
GS: It was a training facility. This is where they were taught to fly. They called it primary. Then after they were there and they passed all of their tests, they were sent on to another field, which would be either Lemoore or down at Shafter, which is close to Bakersfield. And then another place. There were three different steps that they had to take before they got their wings.
DJ: And you didn't like it there, all those handsome young men?
GS: Oh, yeah. That part was nice. But it was very rigid. The young men were under strict rules. Sometimes, if they had their studies all in order and had performed their duties, then they would have the weekend off and they would come into Tulare. And we had what we call the USO. This is where they had dances and food for the fellows. And of course the citizens of Tulare really rallied to entertain the young men. They got acquainted with them. If it was holiday time, they would ask them to come for Thanksgiving dinner or spend the Christmas Holiday if they couldn’t go home. Cause time was limited. These men were really under pressure. And if they washed out -- washed out means they couldn’t pass their primary training, then they sometimes would qualify for bombardier.
DJ: What is that?
GS: A bombardier -- well, of course if you take your pilot, you know, and the bombardier was -- if you look at some of the old planes, the bombardier was in the bubble at the back of the plane. It was a very treacherous position to be. A lot of them lost their lives. But as far as Rankin is concerned, to see those young men marching in step and do their flying as they would come in with their instructors, it was a thrilling time, really. And people were very, very serious about what they were doing. And thousands of young men went through Rankin Academy. And the man that started it, his name was Tex Rankin. And he was killed in an airplane crash in Northern California.
DJ: During the war years?
GS: It was after the war years. And some of his family still comes back to Tulare.
DJ: You also mentioned a lot of rain. Did Tulare get flooded? I know Visalia did.
GS: No. Visalia is lower than we are. And they would always get flooded. But Tulare seemed to be a little bit higher. It would mean maybe north Tulare would get flooded. If you know where Cartmill Avenue is, that’s probably closest that I remember it. But the big part was down in Corcoran area, you know, where the water would end up down at Tulare Lake. That’s where it all went to, acres and acres of fields under water. But you had the Tule on the south and it would flood. And then of course we had Kaweah on the north here of us and that would flood. And Visalia, downtown, Visalia was flooded and Mooney’s Grove would be flooded.
And of course, speaking of Mooney’s Grove, now you know, that was the center for us to have good times. You know, that was where everybody went for picnics and that’s when they had the animals and ostriches and bears. And people forget about that. But we had rowboats and it was quite a place.
DJ: How wonderful.
GS: We had band concerts.
DJ: Was it called Mooney’s Grove?
GS: It was Mooney’s Grove. Mr. Mooney was the one that started it. It was a grove of oak trees. It was beautiful.
DJ: How do you think that the World War II years in Tulare County affected you?
GS: Affected me, I think in many different ways. It made me realize what war can do to families. And what war can do whether you have anyone in the service or not. It just so happened that I didn’t have anyone as far as family’s concerned in the service. But being in a position in the public, like in the bank, you know, you became in contact with people that were either killed or involved somehow in the war. There were many, many sad stories and you saw it every day. But I think probably another thing that impressed me was the way people went to work. We rolled up our sleeves and we went to work. And we didn’t ask, "How much money?" We didn’t ask, "How long do I have to work?" I mean, we worked until the work was done. So people’s outlook on life was much different than it is today.
DJ: And how did they distribute the work? How did you chose grapes and how long did you --
GS: Somehow our branch manager, bank manager, Mr. Bill Dunlap, would probably contact the Chamber because the word was out either in the local paper or through the Chamber that a certain amount of work had to be done out at someone’s ranch if you thought you could handle that kind of work, you’d do that. If you thought you could pick peaches, you know, if you thought you could cut grapes, you know. There were just many opportunities that you could serve. Some of it was in the hospital. Wrapping or making bandages that could be sent off. Some of it was . . . you know, there’s a certain term that I cannot remember what it is. It’s where we took our turns, our four hours, I think it was, to go on watch. This was for unknown flight, you know, planes coming over. And then of course, we had to report those, like I said. That basically was -- you know, it was a serious time in our life.
DJ: It was so interesting to me and I think that it probably built so much character and made people strong.
GS: It did. And made us responsible, it made us responsible. Because we knew. . . sugar, flour, that was all important to us. My parents lived on five acres and we had our own cow and we had our own pigs and chickens. We had our own eggs. So as far as food, we ate very well. But we lived next to what was the Santa Fe Railroad that connected Corcoran, Tulare and Visalia. And many, many times, tramps, what we called the tramps, would come off the railroad and they would be hungry. They hadn’t eaten in days. But my father always made them work at least an hour pulling weeds or do something. He felt that a man had to earn something. Whether my mother would go give them a dozen eggs to go on their way or whether we fed them after work or gave them milk, we always sent them off with something in addition to the meal. And I can remember one time one man was so weak he had to sit down, he could not continue hoeing the weeds that my dad wanted. So that gives you a feeling for how people had to live.
DJ: I almost would like to see the young people of today have to serve in some way. You know maybe if they were hired in high school --
GS: I think young people today are serving in different ways. But the hardship isn’t there. That’s what they don’t have, they don’t have the hardship.
DJ: And also, how do you think that the war years affected the way Tulare County is today as opposed --
GS: Well, don’t you think that we live in a conservative way. In other words, we’re close to the land. We know what it means to live close to the land. And sometimes I used to envy people that lived in the city. But of course, the older I would become the more I realized how I was so lucky to live where I was, where I did and am today. But I don’t know whether that answers your question or not.
DJ: It does, it does. And that is a good thing.
Do you have anything else to add?
GS: Well, I don’t know. Look at your list and see if there’s anything more.
DJ: Okay. Were there changes in your family? Did you live at home?
GS: Yes. I lived -- during the war I lived at home with my parents. My middle sister got married and then my folks had another daughter later in life. And I was -- let’s see, how old was I? Must have been about thirteen. So, I lived at home with my parents until I was married at age twenty five. But we were just a close family and participated in local -- you know, my mother really was involved because we -- this was in the days when we canned our food. This is something I think is very interesting. We would can our own food. You know, we had our own peaches, we had our own apples. And many an hour on a hot summer day my grandmother would come over and she would cut the fruit and my sister and I would peel apricots and we’d peel the peaches. And that’s the way we had our fruit. They didn’t come in cans. We had the jars where we sterilized them and immersed them in hot water. And we had good eating in the wintertime.
DJ: What were your general feelings about the war? And also what do you remember your parents saying?
GS: Well, my father was in World War I. But he only served a year and the war was over with. And of course he was very anti-war. Of all wars, I mean, World War I was a terrible war. This was really hand-to-hand combat fighting.
DJ: The doorbell just ran but we’re back. You were telling me a little bit about your family’s reaction to the war and your dad.
GS: Yes, I didn’t finish that. As I said, he was in World War I, and of course, he was very anti-war. But how did it affect us as a family? Well, it affected us not so much personally because as I said, we had no one doing the fighting. But we had neighbors and we had friends who had sons who were serving. So when you say, how does it affect you, it really affects you because everybody is thrown into the same situation. So we’re all pulling together.
DJ: What about your dad’s feelings and your feelings? Did they change over time during those war years?
GS: No, I don’t think they changed. One thing I appreciated more than anything was my dad would go with me when we went out to pick grapes or to cut grapes. He said, "Well, I’ll join you," because, you know, he had a way that he could serve too. He was in business for himself so he had the time. So if the bank said well, on Tuesday afternoon everybody’s free now to go work, well, my dad would arrange it so he could go with me. And, man, we used to have a good time. We’d laugh. I’d see these big spiders on these bunches, and I’d think, oh, how in the world would I ever do it. But I’d just take that knife and I’d grab that bunch of grapes and down into the box it would go. And so those kinds of experiences one on one with your dad was a good time for me.
But my mother was a mother that -- of course, in those days women didn’t work outside the home. And she had us three girls and so her job was to take care of the chickens and milk the cows. These were the days when you didn’t have air conditioning. You either slept outside under the almond tree or on a screened porch. You got your watermelons nice and chilled with a gunnysack with the water going over it from the pump to cool it off. We raised almost everything. The only thing we didn’t have was the flour and the sugar, you know, those kinds of things, staples.
DJ: Did you have a certain feeling towards Russians and Germans?
GS: No. But I was scared of the Japanese. I felt sad for my friend, Sadako Izumi, to think that she and her family had to give up their business, because they were beautiful people, they were wonderful people. But everybody was fearful, you know. They didn’t know. There was so many things that could happen. And with so much being fed to us as far as what the Japanese were doing out in the Pacific, that we just felt, you know, we were the next ones. They could attack us. They got as close as Pearl Harbor, you know, the Hawaiian Islands. And that wasn’t very far from California. And so everybody, I think, felt that they were safer because they were being rounded up. And it’s a sad time of our history, there’s no doubt about it. But by the same token, we had the Germans here. Lot of people forget that. But we had the Germans out here.
DJ: That’s really interesting because I had never heard that before. Well, I think we’ve covered it all. Thank you, Gerry.
GS: Well, I hope I’ve given you a little insight to what I experienced and I’ve enjoyed it.
DJ: You certainly have given a lot of insight. Thank you very much.
GS: Thank you.
Diana Jules/ Transcribed by C. Paggi/ Edited by Judith Wood 6/16/05
Editor’s note: Words in italics are based on a phone interview with Gerry Soults on June 16, 2005.
Also, following this interview there are letters concerning a newspaper article about the German prisoner or war camp at Tagus Ranch in 1944.