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What Santa Rosa was like on V-E Day

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The war with Nazi Germany came to an end in the month of May, 75 years ago. The over-80s among us today may have clear recollections of that morning.

They may remember wondering why, if the news was as happy as it sounded, their mothers were weeping and their fathers listening closely at the Philco “radio cabinet” in the living room instead of heading off to work. For that matter, why weren’t we all in the streets, hollering out our joy to the world?

There may have been spontaneous cheers for the unidentified Santa Rosa fireman who heard the early news on the radio, commandeered a fire truck, draped it with a makeshift banner reading “GERMANY HAS SURRENDERED” and drove up and down the streets. Or they may have been drawn from the radio by the raucous call of an amplified gong on a welders’ truck — the hasty work of Ras Bjornstad and his partner Bob Mitchell ­— following in the wake of the fireman.

But that was pretty much the extent of public jubilation. Americans had been warned the previous week by their new president, Harry Truman — in his unfamiliar flat Missouri accent so different than the stentorian Harvard tones they were accustomed to — that the anticipated surrender in Europe should pass with minimal public note, that any celebrations must await the end of the War in the Pacific.

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IT WAS MONDAY here, the one day of the week when there was no Press Democrat. But, alerted first by the gongs and then by radio, reporters, editors, Linotype operators, printers and pressmen headed to the PD office on Mendocino Avenue to write, print and “hit the streets” with a “VICTORY EXTRA!”

The news was punctuated by “artwork” that was ready and waiting — caricatures of a humiliated Hitler, Bill Mauldin-style GI Joes and Norman Rockwell-type advertisements from local firms, prepared in advance for the occasion.

Apart from the belated EXTRA and impromptu church services, it was Monday business as usual. Shopkeepers and business owners had agreed the previous week to honor Truman’s request to await the final ending.

If there was any controversy about this, or any grumbling even, it was not reflected in the news stories or in subsequent letters to the editor. There were no reports of speeches on the courthouse steps, no photos of marchers with signs.

Sonoma County’s citizenry, and, apparently, the rest of the nation, waited to be told when to laugh and cheer and parade and kiss strangers in the street.

That was pretty much “the norm” in the ’40s when war came, ended and, some would say, changed everything.

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GIVEN THE ECHOES of those cries of “Extra! Extra! Germany Surrenders!!” that were news to many in the streets that day, it is interesting to make a quick comparison to the world we know now where technology ignores distance in favor of “real time.”

The German surrender was signed, officially, at Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, northeast of Paris, on May 7, a Sunday.

On its way to Santa Rosa — from Reims to Paris to New York to San Francisco and finally, to Santa Rosa by Associated Press cable to The Press Democrat office — it was Monday morning, May 8. And there was nobody home.

They couldn’t even leave a message.

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SO WHAT KIND of a place was Sonoma County in 1945?

Statistically there were, by estimate, about 90,000 people, probably 15,000 in Santa Rosa. (These are guesses at the halfway mark between censuses.) And those figures do not count the estimated 7,000 GIs — mostly Army Air Corps and Navy pilots — who trained at the two air bases on the outer edges of Santa Rosa.(Many of them would return at war’s end to take up their lives in what they remembered as a welcoming climate.)

In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, I was asked by a relatively new resident to describe what it was like here in Burbank’s “chosen spot of all the Earth” when the war ended.

She wasn’t talking about celebrations or even statistics. She was asking about what Santa Rosa looked and felt like half a century before.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the answer she received:

Santa Rosans lived within a city bounded by Lewis Road on the north. The southern edge of town thinned out into chicken farms right around Hearn Avenue.

The western limits were just about where Dutton Avenue crosses Sebastopol Road. After that it was the neighborhood known as the Roseland south of the road and the “garden district” with Bertoli’s and Bertolini’s and Imwalle’s and then hop yards, all the way to the Laguna.

Sebastopol Road was filled with traffic, leading not only to the apple orchards and the coast but, closer in, to the Naval Air Station. And, on Saturday nights, if you were brave, to a place called the Midway for dancing and parking lot brawls.

On the east, on the road to Sonoma, when you crossed Brush Creek you left Santa Rosa and were in rural Rincon Valley, where prune trees blossomed and Lagomarsino’s sheep grazed on the hillsides along Calistoga Road.

But first, if you turned south and crossed the little bridge at Farmers Lane, where members of the Farmer family still lived along the creek, you would have found an open-air produce market and acres of walnut and prune orchards.

The Carrillo adobe, oldest structure in the valley, was the Hoen family’s prune dryer and storage shed.

Within a decade, the farmers’ market would become a shopping center and the orchard would give way to literally hundreds of new houses.

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ALL THE THINGS that weren’t here in 1945?

Wow! There is neither time nor space for that question. You can make your own list. Twenty- five years ago the list would have included: freeways, foreign cars, traffic lights, shopping centers, skateboards, frozen yogurt, contact lenses, copy machines, pantyhose, penicillin, polyester, FM radio, day-care centers and condominiums. And that list is distinctly partial.

As for the look of the town in ’45? The best response is simply a recommendation to watch “Shadow of a Doubt,” Hitchcock’s favorite movie, filmed in Santa Rosa in 1942. Freeze-frame at random.

That film captured the look of the town into the 1950s when the Bay Area’s wartime population explosion caught up with us.

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AS FOR THE celebration that was put on hold until V-J Day: It was just three months hence — the 14th of August to be precise — when people streamed into the streets to cheer and embrace and parade and rejoice.

But there was an undercurrent of dread that would become hard to ignore. Just eight days earlier our country had dropped an unimaginable new weapon, an atomic bomb, on the city of Hiroshima, killing an estimated 71,400 civilians. Three days later another A-bomb exploded over the city of Nagasaki, killing some 13,000 more.

Once the celebrations were over, there would be a long time to ponder how this war-ending decision would, or should, change the world.

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IS THERE SOME synchronicity in this snippet of history?

“War” and “pestilence” are two words that come up together often in discussions of world history.

And they come to mind as we mark 75 years from the end of a costly war and study the ways it changed the world. Freedom is the word that comes to mind.

Now, with our personal freedom curtailed, we are more than two months into, not war, but what can be honestly called by the Old World term “pestilence.” We consider all the changes, local and global, in the decade that followed the end of World War II.

Here’s just one tiny factoid to consider:

In the summer of 1945, gas and tire rationing ended and people were free to travel. On the first Sunday after V-J Day, more cars crossed the 8-year-old Golden Gate Bridge than had been predicted for the mid-to-late 1950s.

And so the change we called the “Post-War Era” began.

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