Our Sunday Best

Yolo at war: Back on the home front

By From page A1 | November 03, 2013


Violet Gordon watches for enemy aircraft in 1944 from an observation tower behind the high school gym on Fifth and B streets in downtown Davis. Hattie Weber Museum/Courtesy photo

* Editor’s note: It’s been more than 70 years since the bombing of Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into World War II. The war, of course, touched every person in America in some way, and Yolo County was no exception. But as the years pass and people of that era die, the memories begin to fade away.

In a series launching today and continuing through next Sunday, The Davis Enterprise takes a closer look at how World War II affected our community and our region. Although we were far from any battlefront, there were compelling changes here:

* With the students and faculty at war, the UC Davis campus trained U.S. Army Signal Corps soldiers;

* Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s Raiders reportedly practiced their aircraft carrier takeoff techniques at the Yolo County Airport for their famous Tokyo raid;

* Clarksburg was the site of a German prisoner-of-war camp; the prisoners were pressed into service in Yolo’s farm fields;

* Local Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps, leaving their homes and businesses behind;

* And, of course, local boys and men went to war, fighting in Europe and the Pacific while their families kept things going on the home front.

Follow along with us this week as we step back in time …
“There has never been such unity as this country has at present. Every American stands solidly behind the president in the pledge to wage war until international gangsterism is destroyed. The spirit of the nation is one of grim, uncompromising determination. But let all remember that the home front is as vital to war and to the perpetuation of our way of life as the battlefront. There will be subversive influences on both fronts. Only an awakened, aware people can prevent their depredations.

“We fight for freedom, then. And we must fight it all the way — fight it for here in America, no less than in the broad reaches of the oceans and the lands beyond.” — Chelso Maghetti, owner and editor of The Davis Enterprise, Jan. 9, 1942 

It was a Tuesday in August. The United States had days earlier ravaged Japan with two strikes of atomic devastation, and with the Second Great War over, Davis, like cities across the country, had lost itself in celebration.

Astride a white horse, Mayor Calvin Covell thundered down the streets of Davis alongside his band of Circle “D” Horsemen.

Ahead rumbled a raucous parade of fire engines and trucks, blaring their horns and sirens. Store owners and customers emptied out onto the road to join the momentous occasion.

Until this day — V-J Day or Victory over Japan Day, Aug. 14, 1945 — for more than four years the people of Davis and Yolo County watched many aspects of World War II spill into their small farming towns, completely reshaping the way of life here.

The campus would be converted into an army training camp. Fighter pilots would choreograph a famed Japanese air raid from what’s now the Yolo County Airport. Japanese-Americans would be banished to work camps, and German POWs would harvest American fields.

But even with the end at hand, it was hard to imagine life returning to normal anytime soon.

Labor shortage 
Before the day Japan surrendered, the sun had not risen over a United States in peacetime since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act of 1940, which required 40 million American men to register for a draft for the Army.

While the war escalated overseas — by 1939, Adolf Hitler had seized control over Poland and much of France, among other nations — locally, farmers, cannery employees, railway workers and any man between the ages of 21 and 36 was called away to begin mounting the American armed forces.

Of course, the young men who left home for war would travel to far-off places and fight in peril for their country, but their departure also severely depleted the labor force here, leaving the men, women and children with their own call to duty.

As Rollin Armer, a Davis High School graduate of 1947, recalls, food was an important resource for the Army during wartime. In Yolo County, a region at the center of the farming industry, those on the home front had no choice but to get their hands dirty.

“We participated to any extent that we could,” remembers Armer, who was in middle school when the war began. “The students often would go out on fruit-picking details, things that young men had done that had gone into the service.”

In Woodland, the start of at least one school year was postponed during World War II due to the desperate need for manpower.

The Davis Enterprise featured coverage of the school board’s decision to delay the opening of classes.

“We KNOW there is a GREAT labor shortage in Yolo County and we intend to do our part to help solve it,” the school board was quoted in the weekly paper. “We have elected to postpone the opening of Woodland High School because we feel such action is necessary. If farmers can prove to us there is a NEED for keeping high school closed three weeks we will do that.’”

In Davis, Wendell Jacob, a childhood friend of Armer’s, remembers administrators announcing in class that any student willing to help harvest crops could leave school at noon and a bus would shuttle them out to help farmers tend to their land.

In the 1940s, the Davis population mostly lived between A and L streets, and First to about Seventh streets. Beyond those boundaries lay fields of tomatoes and sugar beets, along with orchards or apricots, almonds and plums.

But filling in as farm hands only scratched the surface of what folks in this area were called to do during wartime.

Southern Pacific Railroad, grappling with the loss of its own workforce, put out an advertisement asking residents to come help keep the tracks in “first-class shape to move vital war traffic.”

Essentially the lifeline of the war effort on the home front, the railroad was in perpetual service, transporting soldiers, tanks, food and whatever resources the Army needed to the coasts and eventually overseas to the front lines.

Jacob, who worked for The Davis Enterprise downtown during the war, mailing weekly copies of the newspaper to local servicemen all over the globe, recalls trains carrying military equipment through town via the Davis SP Depot almost every half-hour at the peak of the war.

“Wielding picks and shovels, setting tinplates and spikes, thousands of patriotic ‘white collar’ workers and students — stepping off the Main street and Market streets of cities and towns — have during recent weeks responded in increasing numbers to an appeal from the SP to join weekend track gangs to help relieve the shortage of workers,” read an article in a Southern Pacific magazine from March 1943.

“Bankers, sales managers, grocers, utility company workers, editors and faculty members have dug into closets and donned old clothes and gone out along Pacific Lines … to help ‘Keep ‘Em Rolling’ in recognition of the vital role of the railroads in the war effort.”

The Enterprise had the story as well.

“The railroad company has been hard hit with men leaving for the service in the face of increasing freight shipments,” an October 1942 Enterprise article said. “An SOS call was sent out and a good number of Davisites responded.”

The large response from everyday citizens even caught the attention of the national media. As recorded in “Davisville ’68,” a local history book by Joann Leach Larkey, the efforts of these local volunteers were “widely acclaimed” by railroad officials, who later implemented the “Davis Idea” throughout the SP system.

From “Davisville ’68:” A photo story in Time magazine and an article in the June, 5 1943, issue of Collier’s magazine constituted a ‘pat on the back’ for the Davisites who helped rebuild the railroad bed that had originally been laid in 1868, the year that Davisville was founded.”

Women’s work
Perhaps even more unconventional than bankers and grocers working on the railroad were the new roles women were asked to step into during wartime.

Throughout the United States, women received particular praise for their efforts building ships and aircraft on assembly lines, made famous by the “Rosie the Riveter” posters that now iconically depict a woman rolling up her sleeves with the saying ‘We can do it!” written above her.

In Yolo County, women were needed to work at the food canneries, harvest crops on the farms and perform other manual labor traditionally done by men.

“It changed from a homemaker/housewife to housewife/industrial worker of some sort,” Jacob remembers. “Many, many of the women went to work that had something to do with the war effort.”

In a bygone era, The Enterprise posed other possible ways that women could contribute.

“Will Davis Resort to Women Letter Carriers?” read one headline in an issue of The Enterprise from May 1942.

“Under the circumstance it is believed women may be invited to try for a letter carrier’s job,” the article said. “They do in England, it is pointed out, and with satisfactory results.”

While the war stretched thin the labor force here, it wasn’t just fighters who were rounded up and sent overseas.

Citizens were asked by the government to begin rationing anything needed for supplies for the Army, including rubber, sugar, meat, butter, canned goods, leather, paper and gasoline.

For many materials, stamps were distributed that folks could trade in for a specific allotment of the supplies they needed. For gasoline, local residents had to register with the city; they would be handed stickers for their windshields that classified what type of gasoline-users they were.

Class A users, which included most residents, could pump only 3 or 4 gallons of gasoline per week. Higher classes, such as farmers or other industry workers, could pump more, especially if their efforts directly contributed to the war.

“The hardship didn’t seem so hard because we were supporting the troops,” Armer said. “Many of the sons and daughters of people of Davis, some of them lost their lives there, and we took it very seriously.”

Stuart Rowe, a Davis High graduate who grew up across Putah Creek in Solano County, remembers that the United States was still recovering from the Depression when the war began and that people had grown accustomed to a scarcity of goods like clothing and food.

Plus, Rowe said, those who lived on farms grew a lot of the food they ate.

“I don’t feel like we felt deprived,” Rowe said. “On the farm we had plenty to eat. We’d go over to Sacramento and get a new pair of jeans and shoes, and we wore those jeans all year.”

Local leaders, meanwhile, implemented laws in an effort to encourage citizens to sustain the resources they already had.

At one point in Yolo County, a 35-mile speed order was enforced to conserve rubber tires.

“We had rubber drives and people would just throw carloads of old tires and hoses and pieces of rubber for this and that,” Armer remembers. “We also had a lot of bicycles in Davis, as they always have. We couldn’t get tires for our bicycles; all the tire companies were making tires for (the military).”

A glimpse into battle 
With a nation at war — the last “total war” for the United States, according to historians — clearly, citizens were forced to make sacrifices at home.

But in addition to rationing food and supplies, or lending a hand to local industry, there were many tangible reminders here of the true fight unfolding abroad.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, killing about 2,300 people, wounding thousands of others and sinking three major warships docked there. While the draft was already in effect and people had believed, one way or another, the United States would have to inject itself into the global conflict, the attack put the country on notice overnight.

In Davis and throughout Yolo County, civic leaders took immediate action to prepare their citizens for further potential attacks.

The first was alerting residents to be ready to put out lights at night and to make other preparations for mandatory blackouts in an effort to hide the community from enemy planes.

“The Blackout Signal for Davis and vicinity has been announced by the Council of Defense to be as follows,” The Enterprise reported just five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. “Two blasts of the siren followed by a minute intermission. Then two more blasts and an intermission until a total of five such series has been sounded. The “All Clear” signal will be a short blast followed by one prolonged blast.”

Stores such as College Lumber and Supply Co. placed ads in the papers announcing that they sold black material and screens. Folks who needed to be walking around at night were encouraged to wear white.

Jacob remembers everyone in Davis running up to Woodland to buy black sheets to drape over their windows.

“They were expecting the Japanese to make a follow-up to that, and of course the West Coast was one of the likely spots,” Jacob said.

People took seriously the possibility of an attack or bombing here, especially considering the importance of the railway junction.

“There was a real feeling when Pearl Harbor was wiped out that there could be a Japanese threat to the border,” Rowe recalled. “People really were afraid.”

Local Boy Scout troops were mobilized to distribute pamphlets with silhouettes and descriptions of aircraft printed on them to help residents identify the enemy.

The city also approve construction of a wooden listening-post at Fifth and B streets just north of Central Park where volunteers would take shifts listening and watching for Japanese planes. The structure had been on campus for several months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“They had built a tower, it was a wooden tower and they had four six-hour shifts,” Jacob explained. “My mother, she did one of the shifts; she sat up there for six hours with a binoculars scanning the horizon, looking for incoming Japanese planes. Today that seems silly, but not at that time.”

The Enterprise also printed tips in case of an attack.

“If an unexploded or delayed-action enemy bomb should land in your back yard or your neighborhood, keep hands off, and don’t attempt to obtain part of it for a souvenir,” stated the Yolo County Council of Defense in an article in The Enterprise.

While no attack ever materialized locally, people in the area were constantly reminded of the ongoing fight overseas. Convoys of trucks and military equipment often lumbered through Davis via the Lincoln Highway on their way to San Francisco and to the ships that would transport them to battle.

Jacob remembers his teachers stopping class when the convoys cruised past Davis High School — which is now City Hall at 23 Russell Blvd. — because the students could see the line of trucks rolling by right outside the window.

Some people got even closer to the action.

Once UC Davis had been turned over to the military in 1943 for use by the Western Signal Corps, and after the air field was built in the county a few miles northwest of Davis for further training purposes, residents occasionally would see troops or even aircraft right outside their homes.

“We were directed to stay (in our homes) because they had maneuvers near our place,” remembers Emily Rowe, who was born in Davis but grew up in Solano County. “Along the creek bed I saw a camouflaged soldier sneak right past my window.”

Added Emily’s husband, Stuart: “They were stationed in the Mesa Fields and they roamed the countryside and practiced low-altitude strafing runs. I remember I was mowing hay in the fields and somebody targeted me. I mowed the hay really fast then; it really spooked the horses.”

Later in the war, German prisoners were brought to the region to help fill the gap in the workforce. In Yolo County, they helped on the farm.

“They worked in the agriculture around here,” Stuart Rowe said. “They came out and harvested our beets, and I was so anxious to see them. I imagined they’d be wearing German helmets, but I went down there and they were all these blond, young homeless teenagers and 20-year-olds.”

Remembering how the soldiers would be fed bologna sandwiches and coffee for lunch, Stuart said: “I think they probably realized they were fortunate to be prisoners.”

— Reach Tom Sakash at [email protected] or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash

Tom Sakash

Tom Sakash covers the city beat for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at [email protected], (530) 747-8057 or @TomSakash.
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