Let’s say, just for the sake of the game, we have awakened 75 years ago, on the first Sunday of December 1941. A kind of reverse Rip Van Winkle.
We would find it was not Sunday, Dec. 4 in 1941. It was Dec. 7, 63 degrees and overcast in most of Sonoma County, fog on the coast.
In Santa Rosa, people were going to or coming from church, women getting the roasting chicken ready for the oven, men looking forward to a day without hard work, kids lying on the floor, giggling over the Katzenjammer Kids and L’il Abner in the Sunday funnies.
This was distinctly small-town USA. Several years earlier the city was chosen for a survey by Life magazine, calling it a “typical West Coast city.” Residents took great pride in being typical.
Music lovers tuned to the Sunday morning symphony concert in New York City were probably the first to hear: Announcer John Daly stopped the music to say that Pearl Harbor, in the Hawaiian Islands, where the Pacific Fleet was moored, had been attacked.
The announcement from Daly, later the moderator of TV’s long-running “What’s My Line?” was pretty much like kicking over an anthill. The old fire bell, long unused atop the former fire station on Fifth Street, was tested for air raid warnings. The county’s Defense Council ordered a 24-hour watch over public utilities and other potential air raid targets. By nightfall, more than 1,000 men had been appointed as block wardens and were patrolling the streets, reminding residents to cover their windows and turn out all outside lights.
Citizens of the West Coast truly believed, in those early days, that Japanese planes and ships were on their way.
The military didn’t help calm jangled nerves. Tuesday morning’s Press Democrat (the PD did not publish on Mondays) came with “EXTRA” printed big and in red ink across the top and a headline of equal proportions and brilliance that said: “ENEMY HERE.”
It would later be determined that the Army’s information office in San Francisco had reported 30 Japanese planes crossing the coastline west of San Jose on Monday night, flying north over the Navy base at Mare Island.
Cooler heads would later admit that this probably never happened, but every night that first week, somebody saw enemy aircraft. Submarines were spotted at Dillon Beach and Point Arena, the latter likely to have been absolutely true.
The recollections of Santa Rosa’s Keegan brothers, told to author Studs Terkel for his book “The Good War,” speaks to that turmoil.
Dennis, later a respected Santa Rosa attorney, was a 20-year-old student at the University of San Francisco, and Frank, 16, was a senior at Santa Rosa High School (he would later become a scholar and author who served as vice president of Sonoma State in the 1980s).
When Terkel came to interview them in 1983, Dennis told of his Sunday night ride back to school with friend and neighbor Paul Wright, then a young carpenter working during the week on the construction of San Francisco’s Union Square Garage and later a well-known Santa Rosa contractor.
They were stopped on the Golden Gate Bridge while soldiers searched their car. They found panicky crowds in the streets, exchanging rumors of incoming planes.
Dennis recalled a sobering experience next morning as USF students entered their classes. The dean, he said, stood on the front steps, greeting each of the young men as they entered. “Dennis, good morning. Thank God you’re safe.’’
“It was as if,” Dennis told me many years later “We had already been to war.” The Jesuits, he decided, were just as frightened as everyone else.
Meanwhile, Frank and his high school buddies were not in class. They were spending the daylight hours hiding in the sand dunes at Bodega Bay, armed with their hunting rifles and shotguns, ready to repel any attempts at invasion.
It wasn’t a kids’ game, Frank said. They were deadly serious. They felt they were protecting their families and their homes.
It took just two days to bring this peaceful little farm town (population 12,000) into full war mode.
On Tuesday, a fleet of trucks and buses arrived from Fort Ord, depositing 1,300 troops from the 17th Infantry. The fairgrounds became an army base complete with guard towers and perimeter patrols. Headquarters were in the second floor ballroom of the Poulsen Building at Fourth and A streets and a smaller service company occupied the Armory Hall upstairs at Fourth and D.
In the morning’s paper, the mayor of Santa Rosa, hop broker Robert Madison, had urged people to “continue Christmas shopping as usual,” but there was no “as usual,” given the ongoing alerts, the nightly blackouts, the civilian defense guards on all the bridges, the order for all military and government personnel to “report immediately” and the expansion of the draft age from 21-28 to 18-44.
Mayor Madison also attempted to calm fears of the Japanese-Americans, promising “no cause for alarm.” But on Dec. 8, the day before that reassurance appeared in The Press Democrat, FBI agents had swept through the county, taking eight Japanese men — elders, but not citizens — off to internment at a hastily organized concentration camp at Tule Lake. With a week, the Chamber of Commerce had appointed a “Chinese Committee” that would issue badges with red, white and blue ribbons reading “I Am Chinese.”
The remainder of the county’s thousand-plus Japanese — many, perhaps most, of them U.S. born — would be in camp in Colorado by spring.
As the week passed without air raid or invasion, people relaxed a little and mobilized as a “war town.” Housewives promised 1,000 cakes a week for the soldiers, now deployed at every beach and possible landing point along the coast in an operation known as “Coast Watch.”
Soldiers who didn’t draw Sunday duty had dinner with families, invitations coordinated by the Chamber of Commerce.
The coast being secure by spring, the 17th Infantry went on to much tougher duty in the Pacific Theater under the command of Gen. Joseph Stilwell. They were replaced by the 144th Infantry from Texas.
Before Christmas, the 107th Cavalry took over the Occidental Hotel at Fourth and B with the Elks Building across the street as headquarters. Their 1,500 horses were stabled at the fairgrounds. These men would later fight at Bastogne in the standoff that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The 48th and 74th Field Artillery commandeered Wikiup Ranch north of town, noted for its racehorses. Stables were a necessity. It was a mark of how unprepared the country was for war that the artillery’s caissons came across the Golden Gate Bridge to Santa Rosa the old-fashioned way, pulled by teams of horses.
By Friday, Dec. 11, bulldozers were carving runways through the Talmadge and Slusser hop yards off River Road, on land newly designated as government property.
The resulting air base, built by the 13th Army Engineers as a training base for P-37 and P-38 fighter pilots, would, post-war, become the Sonoma County, then Charles M. Schulz, Airport.
Later in the war the Army Air Corps would be joined in the skies over Sonoma County by Navy Corsairs, dive-bombers from the Naval Air Station built at Sebastopol and Wright roads.
They often had “dog fights” for practice. Navy pilots were notable daredevils, shooting rocks and buoys along the coast with smoke bombs and flour sacks, shooting sea lions and sinking the whistling buoy just south of Fort Ross repeatedly, despite protests from the Coast Guard units at Fort Ross and Bodega Bay.
All this derring-do cried out for respite and the men found it at Santa Rosa’s many taverns. Characteristically, they chose separate venues as “headquarters” — Twin Dragons on Second Street for the Army and Lena’s on Sixth Street for the Navy.
Santa Rosa Junior College, where enrollment dropped from 670 to 235 in the first month of the war, was chosen as a pre-Officers Candidate School program with living quarters in Quonset huts on Elliott Avenue. SRJC’s flight school was relocated inland to Ely, Nevada where it offered a ground school for future Navy pilots.
Before the war ended, more than 7,000 soldiers and sailors would pass through Sonoma County. A surprising number never went back to Cleveland or Texas or Tennessee. They liked the climate, the scenery, the opportunity and, in many instances, the women they met (“girls,” they dared call them then) at the rec halls and dances sponsored by churches and home-front organizations. The war produced great change.
Many of you have heard all this before. And, with good fortune, most of you will hear it again, in some form, at the 100th year.
The tremendous weight of that “Day of Infamy” in 1941 — along with 9/11 in 2001 — will never be lifted from America’s memory. We should pray that the list of these terrible, frozen moments does not grow longer come 2041.