It was a small thing, done privately not to draw attention and happened every morning just before Rosenberg’s Department Store opened its Fourth street doors. Clerks paused their fussing with the stock; floor managers stopped setting up cash drawers; accountants in the offices upstairs stopped accounting and janitors let their mops rest in the buckets. Those who were sitting down, stood. A crackly 78 RPM record played over the store’s PA system and they all sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” along with it. They were honoring Malcolm Walt, a member of the family both literally and figuratively – he was the nephew of owner Fred Rosenberg and had been a coworker before enlisting in the Navy Reserve (Malcolm was then serving in Honolulu, a fraught place to be in December, 1941). They were also honoring all the other Malcolm Walts who were in uniform, some of whom were starting to be named in the local newspapers as missing or presumed dead.
In the week after Pearl Harbor, Santa Rosa stumbled down an unmarked path. We didn’t know how to respond to an air raid alert (which were always false alarms) and we couldn’t even settle on what an air raid alert should sound like. It was unclear who was making critical decisions; was it the sheriff, police chief, district attorney or a civil defense committee (which came in city, county, Bay Area and federal flavors) – or the Army? These topics were visited in “CITY OF WAR AND ROSES.”
(RIGHT: Red Cross appeal for temporary shelter during a war emergency. The notice appeared in both Santa Rosa newspapers December 18, 1941)
During the following week Santa Rosa tapped its long list of citizens who had signed up as civil defense volunteers, creating a network of 1,000 air raid wardens and assistants to patrol their block during blackouts. (When there was no volunteer for a block, mail carriers were asked to make recommendations.) A pair of students used thumbtacks to mark where they lived on a huge map of the city.
The indefatigable women’s clubs held a summit at the Saturday Afternoon Club to plan what each of the 50+ groups in town would do for the war effort. As many women belonged to more than one club, it would be quite a commitment for some, particularly as there was other charity work underway; 200 women were already fanning out through the neighborhoods to raise $18,000 as Santa Rosa’s share of the Red Cross war fund campaign.
It was also the week before Christmas, and everyone wanted to embrace traditions and act as if there was still a semblance of pre-war life. Clubs and fraternal groups had their usual holiday banquets and the Salvation Army orphanage at Lytton held its big annual Christmas party. All kids under twelve were invited to the free show at the California theater; over 1,900 attended and watched Shirley Temple in “The Little Princess,” plus a live appearance by “Little Sugar Dawn, Hollywood’s new western starlet” and her pony, Chiquita. Santa gave away two tons of candy; let Gentle Reader pause for a moment to contemplate the amount of noise inside that theater from two thousand little kids jacked on the highest sugar rush of their lives.
All of that mirrored what was going on in towns across America that same busy week – surely there were even many other businesses where the day began by singing the national anthem, reciting the pledge of allegiance, or similar. What set Santa Rosa apart was that we were the largest city between San Francisco and Oregon, which meant the generals would be stationing soldiers here. Lots and lots of them: Thousands, in fact, which would find us providing military base infrastructure for the duration.
As mentioned in the last article, about 1,200 members of the 17th infantry arrived here right after Pearl Harbor and set up a base at the fairgrounds. Santa Rosa immediately welcomed them by sending over truckloads of magazines, playing cards and board games, opening up the (heated) municipal swimming pool and vowed to bake 1,000 cakes – which ended up being 1,500 instead. But that was just for starters; it’s nearly impossible to believe all that would happen during the seven days before Christmas.
Off base canteen/rec centers were opened in the Episcopal Guild Hall (Church of the Incarnation) and the old Southern Methodist Church building on Fifth street, stocked with coffee, doughnuts and chocolate, staffed by the American Legion Auxiliary. The Auxiliary also threw the first dance where over 150 soldiers danced to live music with local young women. (Does anyone know of any marriages resulting from the 17th infantry being stationed here? I’ve found two possible candidates.)
And speaking of dances, Santa Rosa High School held its annual Christmas dance; admission price was the donation of a pack of cigarettes. Honest, mom, the smokes you found in my jacket were for the soldiers.
The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce launched a series of twice-weekly amateur variety shows for the troops at the fairgrounds pavilion. The first program included hula dancing by a local dance teacher, a magician and a ventriloquist; in later shows, a troupe of regulars included “Wayne Beeman and his musical saw,” “the Kate Smith of Healdsburg,” “Cow Country Minstrels” and “King the wonder dog.” King has appeared in these pages before – he could supposedly add/subtract up to five and entertained soldiers by playing dead after being asked to show what he would do to the enemy.
One entertainer should be singled out from that pack of cornball amateurs: Leroy Ross, a 28 year-old African-American man from Burnt Corn, Alabama (!) was a semi-professional singer/guitarist and had comedy acts he usually did with a Black partner. Besides these Army shows, Ross lived in Santa Rosa and was mentioned in the newspapers throughout the 1940s, appearing at taverns with stages and supper clubs such as the Mark West Springs Resort. Before and after the war he was also a popular figure on the “cowboy circuit” playing at rodeos all over California. Although he was forgotten when he died in Cincinnati in 1979, Bill Soberanes wrote a nice profile of his interesting life in the Sept. 4, 1956 Argus-Courier. When they invent the time machines, he’s definitely someone you’ll want to go back and meet.
Another popular entertainment for the soldiers that week was boxing. A standard-size ring was erected at the fairgrounds and the American Legion arranged “four snappy boxing bouts and a wrestling match.” The homefront columnist for the Press Democrat commented, “After the regular bouts, the place was thrown into a turmoil of laughter and cheers when a ‘battle royal’ was staged as a grand climax, with four soldiers in the ring at once, each with one boxing glove and blindfolded. Brother, you missed something!”
Soon there was to be yet another Army camp established just outside of town. “Camp Wikiup” was located on “famous old Rossiter ranch and horse-breeding farm” (-PD) and the 48th Field Artillery would be stationed there, bringing the number of soldiers in the area to nearly 2,000. A stage was part of the construction underway so the Chamber could perform weekly variety shows there as well.
But just before Christmas 1941 the 17th infantry was still the sole object of the town’s affections, and the soldiers thanked Santa Rosa with a military parade on Saturday. Down Fourth street rumbled the heavy transport trucks, artillery including tank guns and the zippy little Jeeps which were often the subject of jokes. Thousands turned out to watch, even though there was pounding rain with hailstones during the first half of the parade.
Also that weekend Santa Rosa was nearing peak cake mania. Well and good that your delicious treats would be enjoyed by the soldiers, but would it be so bad if you also got to, uh, show off your bakery skills, too? So there was a “cake preview” at Cheney’s jewelry store at 437 Fourth street before the first “cake shower” donations to the troops on the day after the parade and the “cake day” donations on Christmas Eve. From the Press Democrat:
|There were white-frosted gooey ones, hard-frosted chocolate ones, cream cakes, applesauce cakes, fruit cakes, angel cakes, raisin cakes, square cakes, marble cakes, round cakes, cup cakes, cakes fashioned into replicas of Christmas trees, cakes decorated With American flags, red, white and blue icing …|
One cake had a message that left everyone wondering: “To the naughtiest boys in camp.”
Between the afternoon parade, evening banquets, dances, and all that baking (did I forget to mention they were also making enough homemade candy to fill 1,800 one-pound bags?) it’s exhausting just to read about the doings in Santa Rosa that week. But we’re not yet to the end of our 1941 Christmas story. Not even close.
The big excitement in town was over the “Invite a Soldier Home for Christmas” drive. First proposed by the 20-30 Club on Dec. 17, the plan was to have at least two soldiers at the Christmas Day dinner table in every home. So popular was the idea that by the next day about 300 soldiers were paired up with a local host and the Chamber of Commerce had a soldier assigned to their office full time to coordinate the matchmaking. From the Press Democrat:
|More than 500 soldiers now stationed in Santa Rosa will have real home Christmas dinners as guests of Santa Rosans. The chamber of commerce office, clearinghouse for the Christmas dinner parties was literally swamped all this week with telephone calls and counter calls from Santa Rosa folks who wished to entertain the boys. At 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon the quota of men who will have leave Christmas Day was reached, and persons calling after that time were told they might have the boys as guests at any Sunday dinner, or New Year’s or in fact almost any other day.|
And then on Christmas Eve just before the sun went down came the news: All Christmas leaves and passes for the 17th infantry and other troops on the West Coast were canceled for the remainder of the year. Troops were placed on alert and ordered back to camps because the Army declared it was a “period of special danger” from sabotage. Western governors were told to warn citizens “special vigilance” was required because there were lurking threats.
Santa Rosa and other communities were wrenched back to the terror-filled days just after Pear Harbor, when there were crazy stories of enemy bombers flying over San Francisco and warships storming toward the coast. (For more, see “THREE DAYS OF FEAR ITSELF.”)
As happened then, the PD switchboard once more filled up with panicked callers: “…to show the speed with which the rumors advanced, there was a telephone call to The Press Democrat last night from Vallejo asking if it was true that buildings in Santa Rosa were shaken by gunfire blasts. Equally fantastic tales were topics of gossip in the streets here.”
The Scrooge who killed Christmas was Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt. If his name is familiar, it’s because he was earlier responsible for unnecessarily frightening the public about those fake threats, then refused to admit his West Coast air raid alerts were false alarms. And as mentioned in the “Three Days” article, during the week before Christmas DeWitt was also urging Washington to grant him special authority to “collect all alien subjects.” (His lobbying against Japanese-Americans in particular grew increasingly rabid after the first of the year, which led directly to the internment of 110,000 starting in February, 1942.)
In addition to the disappointed enlisted men and homemakers suddenly finding themselves with two (or more) empty chairs at their tables, there were a couple of dozen wives of Army officers in town because their husbands planned on having Christmas leave. “Why not call the hotels and invite them out to take the place of the soldiers you had planned on?” the PD helpfully suggested.
Although they were denied a home-cooked meal, the soldiers did not suffer greatly. The Army couldn’t have foreseen the Invite-a-Soldier groundswell, and had ordered 130 turkeys to feed all the soldiers at the fairgrounds. The Sunshine Bakery gave Army cooks use of their 12×15 foot ovens to roast the birds.
And after they gorged themselves on turkey and trimmings there was dessert: Cookies and candy. And cakes. Lordy, there were enough cakes to feed a small army. Which, of course, they did.
One thought on “A HOMEFRONT CHRISTMAS: 1941”
Thank you for these historical articles.