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

Interviewee: Elizabeth Sullivan


Date: 10-02-03


Tape # 4


Interviewer: Stan Wilkendorf


Place: Tulare County, CA


Place of Interview: In her home in Visalia


Fresno, California

Visalia, California


Shock of Atomic Bomb

Japanese Internment




Women in factories

Women in the fields

This is Stan Wilkendorf speaking. Today is Wednesday, October 2, 2003. I’ll be interviewing Mrs. Elizabeth Sullivan in her home here in Visalia. This interview is for the Tulare County Library project, Years of Valor, Years of Hope covering the years of 19411945.

SW: Mrs. Sullivan, would you please state your full name and spell it out for me.

ES: Elizabeth Ann Sullivan

SW: Thank you. When and where were you born?

ES: I was born in Visalia, California on August 4, 1923.

SW: What were your parents’ names and where were they from?

My father was John P. Lotito of Visalia and he was born in Visalia in 1896.

My mother was born in Visalia. Her name was Jessie Georgia Croll and she was born in 1900.

SW: Where did you grow up? I assume here in Visalia?

ES: Yes, I grew up in Visalia.

SW: What were you doing during the years of 1941-1945?

ES: 1941,I was probably in Visalia Junior College, and then in 1942 I transferred to Fresno State and got my degree from Fresno State.

SW: What major were you seeking there?

ES: I was taking biological sciences and chemistry and I majored in psychology.

SW: Where were you when World War II began? Actually, before 1941; the war actually began in 1939.

ES: I was here in Visalia.

SW: In 1941 Japan attached Pearl Harbor. What was your feeling and reaction to that?

ES: I was with my husband at that time, but he wasn’t my husband, he was just my boyfriend and we were riding on a tractor. I had never ridden on a tractor before and we were riding on a tractor. Now he was in the Air Force at that time because he was called in the first draft and so he was already in the service and he was up at Hammer Field in Fresno.

SW: Now, that was 1939-40?

ES: No, no, the day war was declared.

SW: But when did he go into the service?

ES: He went into the service in ’40.

SW: Okay, so he was in at the actual time of Pearl Harbor?

ES: Yes.

SW: What was your reaction? How did you hear of the news?

ES: We heard it on the radio. We didn’t have television in those days. We heard on the radio and, of course, they were called back about 5:30 that evening. They were all to report back to camp so my parents had the money for the gas, enough gasoline that we took him back to Hammer Field and dropped him off.

SW: What events stand out at that time: the feeling of the people around you or your parents? Were they in shock?

ES: Yes, everyone was in shock. Everyone was saying, "Oh my goodness sakes." Not in Hawaii. And then they were talking about the different things that had happened and no one could believe it. The anticipation was very great and my boyfriend, Joe Sullivan said, "Well, I guess I’ll be going off to war."

SW: Did he actually have to go?

ES: Oh yes, he was gone.

SW: Where did he go?

ES: First they took him up to the Air Base in Seattle, Washington. And from Seattle they put him on a boat and he went down to Melbourne, Australia . They were there for a while and then from Melbourne it was New Zealand .

SW: Melbourne is Australia .

ES: Well after that, they took them up and through the Coral Sea and he made all the Hibrides and all those different islands and he ended up in Okinawa. He was in for over five years.

SW: And he was a Visalia native?

ES: No, he came from Colorado. His family moved to Visalia when he was a child. His dad, James Edward Sullivan, worked in heavy construction and worked on the San Simeon Highway on the coast of California. His mother, Mary Briardy Sullivan, died of the flu epidemic in 1918 in Leadville, Colorodo. His aunts, Ellen and Rose Briardy, moved from Colorado and raised him here.

SW: You were in communication with him that whole time, I’m sure.

ES: Yes, we wrote V mails as they used to call them. They were called V Mails and they were little tiny notes. They were about 5 " long and you wrote on those. Anything that they didn’t want was blanked out. Anything that the service didn’t want you to say was blanked out.

SW: You got the same kind of thing back from him?

ES: That’s what I got from him. I wrote regular letters.

SW: Did you have to pay postage on them at that time?

ES: Oh yes.

SW: But he did not, though?

ES: No, but I think it was only three cents in those days.

SW: Interesting, quite a bit more now. During that timeframe you said you were going to Fresno State.

ES: Yes.

SW: What did you do? Did you come home on the weekends? Describe a little bit about Tulare County and Visalia during that timeframe.

ES: As I talked about the stamps and things, my parents didn’t have enough stamps to come and get me up in Fresno, so I would come home on the Greyhound bus and then they would take me back to Fresno State on Sunday afternoon. We would come home on Friday nights and they would have what was known as USO dances. And it was held at the old Elks Club in Visalia which was on the corner of Court and Main.

SW: Where Brown’s Shoe Fit is now?

ES: Yes, where Brown’s Shoes is now, maybe Locust. The USO dances were conducted upstairs in the old Elks building and they served donuts and coffee. Boys from both air bases, Rankin Air Base and also out here at Sequoia Air Base; they would come into the dances and we would dance until 11:00 at night.

SW: Did they have a band?

ES: They had live bands.

SW: Live bands, must have been quite an exciting time.

ES: Oh, it was. Those days were great and we would go to dinner usually beforehand and there was place called Motley’s and we would eat at Motley’s before we would go to the dances in the evenings and it was a very nice place to go to dinner.

SW: Did you come down alone or with several of the girls?

ES: No, I was by myself. There weren’t many girls in college in those days.

SW: That’s true. OK. As the war progressed, did feelings change? What was the mood of the people, the people in town, the people you dealt with? Did it change as the war progressed?

ES: We would listen everyday to see who was killed or where the ships were or where the troops were, as we were told over the radio. And then also when you would go to the theatre, they would have it on the newsreels and that was the only way we ever saw the war.

SW: I understand there were German Prisoner-of-War camps in this area.

ES: Yes, we did have prisoners-of-war and they were out by the airport, out by our Visalia airport. Between there and Tulare there was a POW camp and they were just young boys and people had sympathy for them. They didn’t have an animosity towards them because we realized those boys were truly just like our boys that we had sent into war. They were told to fight; they didn’t want to fight.

SW: Very interesting. How about changes in your family life here, your parents,did their housing change? You talked about the rationing.

ES: The rationing changed because we would cook with honey rather than sugar and that sort of thing because sugar was rationed. And butter,it was the first time we ate margarine because the butter was rationed. Now my butter stamps had to go to where I lived up in Fresno and also my sugar stamps had to go where I lived in Fresno, because I was being fed up there.

SW: Anything else rationed? I know gasoline, sugar, butter . . . shoes, someone told me about shoes being rationed.

ES: I don’t know. I don’t recall that.

SW: I don’t really know either. Okay, how about other family life? Did you have any hardships during the time? Did your parents have to bring borders in? Did they struggle to make ends meet? Everything went fine?

ES: No, my father worked in the District Attorney’s office in Visalia. Now, you asked about nationalities. My father’s mother was from Olvera Street down in Los Angeles and she was a young girl at that time. And she came here as a young girl to Visalia when she was sixteen years old and my grandfather was from Italy and he came in from steerage. That was the only way he got here and the reason he was sent here was because of the war in Italy . They didn't want him to go into the war. And he had a little harp. His uncle was in New York and of course, he didn’t meet him at the boat, so after he got through at Ellis Island, they released him and he went in to play his little harp in front of saloons and they would feed him free eggs and sandwiches and things from the saloons as he’d play his harp and people would give him money, I guess, and eventually he found his family.

SW: What made him move here?

ES: I don’t know what made him move here. I never heard the story.

SW: It would probably be an interesting story. It’s sad that people don’t know that. I have some of the same problems. Okay, did your family participate in the war bonds and buy bonds and things of that nature?

ES: Yes and I did too. I sold bonds at Fresno State. We used to go to the California Hotel in Fresno to sell them. We used to have what was called bouquets of bonds and you would get the little stamps and they were made in corsages and you would wear those during the war years. When you would go out, the boys would go out and buy you a corsage of stamps. And we bought war bonds and we would sell bonds.

And I also worked for F.W. Woolworth’s as a kid. We made $6.62 a day. It was in the middle of the block on Main Street and across the street was Newberry’s. It was about 1938-39 or so when I was in high school. We had to get a card from the school in order to work.

SW: A little bit different than today’s wages. That’s a half-hour’s work today, for most people. Any other volunteer activities that you or your family were involved in?

ES: My mother volunteered and worked in the stamp distribution, distribution of stamps and things to people. And recipes were being changed constantly so that people wouldn’t be using so much butter and sugar. People would put recipes in the paper and things.

SW: So the differences substituting honey and other things instead. Okay. Great. Did you have any brothers and sisters?

ES: I was an only child.

SW: This was a very unstable time. What helped your family being maintained? Does anything in particular stand out?

ES: No, my father worked, like I said, in the District Attorney’s office and so he had a steady job and I was in college of course. I was one of the few girls in college. The rest of my girlfriends here were all getting married and having babies.

SW: Any vacations during that time? Any trips?

ES: No. You didn’t have the money for the gas stamps.

SW: Yes, that was very difficult at that time. Perhaps taking public transportation, but that’s about the only way. How about blackouts? Were there blackouts or air raid warnings in the city area here?

ES: We did have blackouts. And we had men who went around in the evening and they would go around and check your windows and check to see if you had your blinds down and that sort of thing. They were called Block Wardens.

I wanted to tell you, you asked about vacations. I didn’t go on vacations, but during the war years, I did go down to Los Angeles with my mother one time and we took the train and the military were there and whenever a military train came through, our train stopped. It took us about eight or ten hours to get to Los Angeles.

SW: But they had precedence. And you would pull off the side and they would pull through and then you could continue on.

ES: And also, the boys in military were on the train and if need be they would put you off and as a civilian, you couldn’t just buy a ticket and ride the train. You were put off if the military had the need to be there.

SW: Those are interesting remembrances. While you were down in Los Angeles, did you notice anything different there as compared to Visalia? How was it there?

ES: Things were faster in Los Angeles and that sort of thing. Lots of military, all dress uniforms on the streets and walking the streets, while around here we just had them in regular uniforms.

SW: More work clothes type. Back to the air raids,when they had air raid warnings, did they have sirens? How did they notify you of the blackout conditions?

ES: They just came around every night. We didn’t have sirens, not here. Now we did have what was known as sighters and if they heard an airplane or anything, they would look at the airplane to see what type of plane it was. They were called sighters. We had those in our neighborhood too. I don’t recall who was a sighter, but I know that each little neighborhood had a sighter and if they heard an airplane they would let them see if it was a crop duster or for teaching the men to fly or if it was coming from another air base from like down in Edwards. We had planes coming from Edwards and that sort of thing we would get here.

SW: How about movies and entertainment? Did you go to movies or anything like that in town? What was showing?

ES: Well, for instance, in the movies we had all the big stars and they went into the service, but then they also would be in the movies, "From Here to Eternity", which was military too. Oh I can remember Spencer Tracy was in uniform and Clark Gable was in uniform and they would be in war movies, or movies about the home back here in this area and they had a movie about the six boys who were all killed at one time.

SW: The Sullivan boys. That’s your name.

ES: Yes. Everything was oriented for the war.

SW: Kept it in the forefront of everybody’s minds that way. Women were a lot more involved in activities. Was your mother doing anything or what is your opinion of that? What do you see in that line? Were women getting more involved?

ES: Yes, my mother never worked out of the home before, but she would go to the center and help them.

SW: With the stamps. How about other people, "Rosie the Riveters," that type.

ES: Some people went into the fields and worked. I know our next door neighborhood never worked in the fields, but she went and would help pick the crops, because we didn’t have anyone to do that. There was a shortage of men and they would go and help. A lot of them worked in the canneries. We had canneries around here and people would go to work in the canneries. Now none of my family did, but I know some people did go and work in the canneries. The women, because we just didn’t have that kind of activity previously.

SW: Back to your schooling,was there anything special going on at the school that aided the war efforts and kept it in people’s minds? Anything special that you remember from up there at Fresno State?

ES: I think we had plays and that sort of thing that we would attend, and then we also had air bases up there and the boys would be around in their jeeps and they would come to the school occasionally and give us talks or something, but you couldn’t talk. They had signs up, "Zip Your Lip" and "A Slip of the Lip Would Sink a Ship" and that sort of thing. You really weren’t supposed to be talking about anything of the military at the time.

SW: Just to make you aware of it, but not actually talking about it. In 1945, Truman authorized the dropping of the atomic bomb. How did that news get to you and what was the reaction of it?

ES: We were joyous. We thought that was wonderful, that it was going to stop the war, which it did. It was tragic thing to happen, but it did stop the war. Now we had a lot of percussions here in Visalia that we could feel when they were testing the atomic bomb.

SW: Oh, you could actually feel the tests from over in New Mexico?

ES: Yes, we got it from Arizona, no, in Nevada.

SW: After the war years, a little later on?

ES: No, that was during the war years. They shot it off when they were testing it, before they actually had the big one. And the debris would drop out and it would come sailing over the mountains and it would float down and settle on the ground.

SW: After the dances and all, right after that time frame, were there big celebration dances then?

ES: Oh yes, yes, we had big celebrations. I was in Fresno when they had VE Day. And the war stopped then. I was in Fresno. We had a big deal that night. Everyone was very joyous.

SW: And for VJ Day you were here.

ES: Yes.

SW: Your husband to be, he came back right after the war?

ES: Yes, he was one of the first to come home, because he had so many points. He had been in so many operations and things during the war. He came home in October, October 6th I think it was, in 1946.

SW: Less than a year after the war was over, he was able to come home. That was a big day for you.

ES: Oh yes, oh, yes. First, he had to go back and get mustered out and everything, but the war was over.

SW: The war was over and he was home safe. That’s major. In your opinion, what was the overall impact of the war on society here in Visalia?

ES: I think there was more liberalism with the women after the war. However, it was stated that women were to give up their jobs that they had accumulated and let the men have the jobs when they came back to Visalia. The women were supposed to give up their jobs and let the men have the jobs.

SW: Let them go back to work.

ES: That’s right, so that they could make a living for their families.

SW: Did you hear about the holocaust and that issue at all?

ES: Yes, we heard about it. We realized it was a tragedy. We knew of the atrocities that went on or heard what we were able to hear and we saw it on the newsreels, but I don’t know anyone involved in the tragedy.

SW: How about the military leaders or political leaders of the country during that timeframe. Did you have confidence?

ES: Yes, we felt they were like gods almost, Eisenhower and all of them when they came back. We had the highest esteem for them. It wasn’t the same feelings we have today of our leaders.

SW: A little different back then. Anything else in particular that comes to mind during those eras you feel would be of interest?

ES: Oh, I was a party girl, so I can’t go much into the politics. That was the fun part. Like I said, we were kind of liberated. And all of my girlfriends were having babies and there was a lot of that sort of things going on and we had showers for the girls. Now my mother during the war years, when they needed supplies for the bullets, as they told us in those days, she gave up all her molds like her Jell-O molds and all of her pans that she thought would be a concern for the war years. They melted those down. We also saved all the tin foil we could find and made tin foil balls and we gave the tin foil balls for the service and that was the first I can remember of having any kind of recycling. That was the first recycling I can recall.

SW: Interesting. I hadn’t heard that, giving up your cooking pans.

ES: Oh, yes, our Jell-O molds

SW: Tin type ones

ES: Yes

SW: Interesting. How did the war years affect your personally? Personal observations.

ES: A lot of the boys that left here from Visalia when we were in high school,they signed up for the military thinking they were going to get a vacation and they went directly into the war. We had several of them killed right at the very beginning of the war. Our friends and people we had been with. And then the Japanese boys, of course, were taken, during the war years and were put in concentration camps over in -- not concentration camps, internment camps, over in Lone Pine and that area.

SW: I know there were some in various states.

ES: They were taken immediately.

SW: These were people you knew.

ES: Oh, yes. Boys that were in school with us. See, I graduated from high school in 1941 and our class was very much affected by the war years because, like I said, so many of the boys signed up to go into the service.

SW: The others were put into camps.

ES: And then the four: we had what was known as the . . . the boys went over first if they could fly, they went over first and were in the Royal Air Force. And we had those come out of Visalia too. They called them the "Four Horsemen." They came from Visalia.

SW: Those were four particular boys.

ES: Yes, and they went into the Royal Air Force.

SW: Interesting. I didn’t know they had done that.

ES: Visalia was very affected with the war years, very. Here, we were just a little group, but we had the Night Fighters here too during the war years. They were out at our air base and they were known as the Night Fighters. They had a certain plane, but I don’t remember the name of the plane.

SW: There were some planes designated for night operations. How did the war years affect Tulare County and the way Tulare County is today?

ES: I think we tried to have the crops picked and things. Women went into the fields because we were trying to keep the agricultural going for the boys, so they would have enough to eat and things and we also sent boxes of cookies to them. We would send things through the mail, cookies and stuff them with popcorn so that they had the popcorn as well as the cookies to eat.

SW: The popcorn would keep the cookies from breaking up? And they had the popcorn as well. But you mailed them to APO type addresses. You didn’t know where they were. You just sent them off. You must have known quite a few people then that were actually serving. Anything else?

ES: We had all the various troops and everyone in this service, there were so many of them that were in the service. We had submarines, we had the various types of military aircraft, the Navy, regular Navy where they were on ships, battleships, and carriers and that sort of thing here, because we had the two air bases and also Lemoore started up at that time, just starting.

SW: So they were bringing in people for that.

ES: There was a lot of activity, a lot of construction going on. Visalia started expanding then.

SW: Because of this, all the people were coming here.

ES: Right, it was such an expansion.

SW: The County started expanding.

ES: Right.

SW: Let’s go back to the Japanese people. When the war was over, did they come back to this area?

ES: Some of them did, yes.

SW: Were they able to get back into society? How was the reaction to them?

ES: I didn’t feel it. I don’t know, maybe there were some feelings there. My mother, oh, anything that was Japanese she got rid of. It’s a shame, but I mean this was the way she felt about it. The older people had resentment to the Japanese. Now I didn’t have that. I’ve always been rather open, but you know.

SW: Understandably, being attacked like that.

ES: They had a terrible animosity. Now my father worked for J. Edgar Hoover during the war years. He went down and J. Edgar Hoover came and asked for different ones in particular. It was the only time I ever saw my father carrying a gun because he never carried his guns. He always had his guns locked up in a drawer at home. But, J. Edgar Hoover said you were going to carry a gun and he had a holster.

SW: You said he worked in the District Attorney’s office. He had to carry a gun in the office.

ES: No, when he went down south to work for J. Edgar Hoover. He went down to Los Angeles. I don’t recall the year, but I do know that it was before the real actual war started here because he went down and investigated cases down below Santa Paula. And they did find military garb that the Japanese had in their homes that was hidden in the cellars and things and they already had their uniforms and everything ready to attack us.

SW: So they had Japanese uniforms there as well as weapons and all, interesting.

ES: And that’s what he did for J. Edgar Hoover, when he carried his gun.

SW: So was he assigned as an FBI agent during that timeframe? This was the early 40’s timeframe?

ES: Yes. Early 40’s.

SW: Anything else you would like to comment on?

ES: There’s a lot of things you probably haven’t heard, and I’ll remember them after you’re gone.

SW: That’s fine. Any other thoughts.

ES: I have a lot of thoughts and memories, but at the moment my mind is blank.

SW: I sure do thank you for your time and effort and input.

1/22/04 Stan Wilkendorf/Transcriber: PD/Editor: JW

Editor’s note: Words in italics were added during a phone interview with Elizabeth Sullivan on May 8, 2006.