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.”

1941shelter(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.

Dec. 20, 1941 Santa Rosa military parade. PHOTOS: Santa Rosa Republican
Dec. 20, 1941 Santa Rosa military parade. PHOTOS: Santa Rosa Republican

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.”

An array of cakes at the Santa Rosa Moose Lodge on their way to being donated to troops at the fairground. PHOTO: Santa Rosa Republican, Dec. 25, 1941
An array of cakes at the Santa Rosa Moose Lodge on their way to being donated to troops at the fairground. PHOTO: Santa Rosa Republican, Dec. 25, 1941

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.

Privates Warren and Hillebrandt, 17th infantry Company E enjoy some of the 1,500 cakes donated to the troops. PHOTO: Santa Rosa Republican, Dec. 25, 1941
Privates Warren and Hillebrandt, 17th infantry Company E enjoy some of the 1,500 cakes donated to the troops. PHOTO: Santa Rosa Republican, Dec. 25, 1941




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Blackout! In the week after Pearl Harbor, Santa Rosa was hit with “future shock” as the war descended upon us. The blackouts drew everyone’s fevered attention; they made it apparent our lives had changed for the worse – and would likely stay unsettled for a long, long time.

Later they discovered there never were enemy bombers – the reports were all false alarms issued by the Army or hysteric rumors, such as the story of a dogfight with a dive bomber over San Francisco Bay.1 Yet at the time the fear was real and personal; it was the enemy reaching into your home, threatening the very lives of you and yours.

Problem was, there was no “How to Blackout” manual – so when the first two air raid alerts happened on the night of Dec. 8-9, no one knew what to do. There were no blackouts anywhere in the county for the first alert although during the later one Santa Rosa and Petaluma managed to at least turn out streetlights. (Full story found in the previous article.)

blackouttomales(RIGHT: Handheld traffic sign. Image courtesy Tomales Regional History Center)

Directions from the Office of Civilian Defense appeared in newspapers nationwide on December 9th but were less than helpful: “Put out lights. Stay away from windows.”

Considering the urgency of the matter – had there really been bombers, that is – you’d expect authorities and/or the press would have offered detailed guidance on how to stay safe besides sitting in a pitch-black hallway or windowless room for hours (just imagine what hell that would be for families with little kids).

By the end of the week commercial options were available. The paint store began selling “heavy blackout paper” at 6¢ a sq. yard and lumber dealers were suggesting plywood (“after the emergency is over, panels can be salvaged and used for cutouts, furniture. built-ins, even wall-coverings”). Pedersen’s Furniture would install blackout window shades and the linoleum store on A street advertised blinds made out of linoleum. Civil defense insisted neither blinds or shades were adequate – windows had to be covered with dark cloth or all lights must be doused. The City Council backed that up by passing an ordinance making light leaks punishable by a fine up to $250 or 90 days. Police were also allowed to walk into any building to click off a light.

All well and good, but there was one other teensy problem that first week of the war: Santa Rosa had no air raid signal.

That Santa Rosa didn’t have a plan to alert citizens during an emergency must have stunned old-timers; thirty-ish years earlier, Santa Rosa was the City of Loud and Shrill Noises. Besides the steam whistle at the Grace Brothers’ brewery reliably blasting off at noon and five there were other industrial whistles and bells; when there was a fire or need to send the public a prearranged signal, the designated noisemaker would toot, scream or ring out a code.2

The day after Pearl Harbor it was announced the old bell at the former Fifth street firehouse would be used as the alarm, clanging three long rings and 10 short ones. “The huge bell, in disuse for several years, can be heard for several miles,” the PD said.

That plan lasted for a single day. The next idea was to park a firetruck by the courthouse and use its siren, at least until a large one with a range of seven miles arrived and could be mounted on the roof of the sheriff’s office. Now the signal would be one long blast “to be given intermittently within the discretion of the officer in charge” and two short ones meant it was all clear.

That night (Dec. 9) the firetruck siren was sounded at 11:05 due to the Fort Bragg false alarm described earlier, although many didn’t hear it or recognize it was supposed to be the new air raid signal. Police Chief Melvin “Dutch” Flohr said people should assume there was a blackout if city streetlights were off, but even that failed as a backup plan because not everyone had a lamp pole within easy eyeshot.


It was unworkable to allow every little town and hamlet to come up with its own unique air raid signal, so on the 11th the civil defense council for the Bay Area ordered a uniform signal for every county within a 50 mile radius. The alert would be a siren wailing up and down and the all clear would be a steady tone, both two minutes long – once Santa Rosa finally got its siren, that is.

Equally important was a new telephone system to network communities together. A special operations room would be built at the sheriff’s office staffed with women volunteers working in four shifts. Besides controlling the local siren, they were to be in charge of a switchboard that relayed the blackout orders to other towns in the county.

All this muddy confusion about window coverings and air raid alerts started during those chaotic three days after Pearl Harbor, when the wildest rumors were flying because the Army commander in San Francisco kept crying wolf. And while they surely meant well, it was not soothing to learn the local chapter of the State Embalmers’ Association was ready to ID and remove “fatally injured victims of possible bombing or sabotage.” As the week progressed Santa Rosa’s nerves became a little less frazzled but people were far from adjusting to their new normal.

The third night with a blackout – yet another false alarm – was December 12, which began with several accidents; some were trying to drive without headlights, leading to five hurt in a head-on crash on Chanate Road. A woman attending a Santa Rosa Grange meeting when the lights went out fell down a full flight of stairs, while an infant was burned after a parent spilled a cup of hot coffee (the PD item stated this was “another” incident, so apparently there had been one or more scalded baby already).

Press Democrat headline, Dec. 13, 1941
Press Democrat headline, Dec. 13, 1941

Police were called when Fred Hubner and Oscar Larsen of Healdsburg refused to switch off their lights, telling a civil defense volunteer they would “turn ’em out when we get damn good and ready.” They were jailed for thirty days each. And in Santa Rosa this happened:

One overenthusiastic Santa Rosan was brought to police headquarters because he carried a rifle when he gruffly ordered several housewives to extinguish lights. He was brought to the police station by a civilian defense officer. Chief Flohr determined that the weapon was unloaded and warned the volunteer to refrain from further “raid warnings” until assigned to volunteer duty by officials.

The PD also reported kids ran amok through downtown during that blackout:

Drastic action was planned against youthful vandals who damaged window signs and ran up and down sidewalks, bumping into pedestrians on the darkened streets. Parents are asked to keep all youths off the streets at night, police Chief Flohr said. Youths smashed a pane of glass to reach in and turn off a light in the Pioneer Laundry, officers said.

There was also a situation because the blackout clogged Santa Rosa’s streets, as the new stop-traffic ordinance required autos to immediately shut off even if the car was in the street or an intersection. As bad as it was, the situation was far worse in San Francisco where some streetcars were sliding down hills.

movieblackoutDespite those problems, the blackout of December 12th was the first in Santa Rosa deemed a success. It lasted between 7:30-10:00 in the evening, just when stores were crowded with Friday night Christmas shoppers. Unable to buy presents or even drive home in the darkness, some sought the company of John Barleycorn: “Bars and cafes were filled with patrons when the lights were doused. Many remained in the taverns, drinking by candlelight to drive off worries of air raids.” The movie theaters probably also had packed houses, as their ads vowed they would remain open during blackouts although their marquee lights would be dark. The Tower theater went as far as blurbing, “remember you are 99% safer inside.”

The traffic jam might have been a nightmare if it were not for all the soldiers on hand directing drivers to pull over as much as possible, even if meant double parking.

A few days earlier, on Dec. 9, some 1,200 members of the 17th infantry (7th division) had arrived in town on chartered Greyhound buses and trucks from Fort Ord in Monterey. Their mission was to guard the North Coast from the Golden Gate to Eureka, and the Sonoma County Fairgrounds would be their regimental HQ.

Their deployment was “one of the finest things that ever happened to Santa Rosa,” gushed Chamber of Commerce Secretary Dunwoody, and vowed the Chamber would “do all in their power to make their stay in Santa Rosa a happy one.” Dunwoody put out a call for magazines, books, cards and board games; three days later, there were enough donations to fill two army trucks.

The community embraced “our soldiers” enthusiastically. Normally closed for winter, Santa Rosa’s open-air swimming pool (AKA “The Plunge” AKA “Municipal Baths” at 436 King st.) was made available with the water heated. The Ice Arena (next to the Grace Brothers brewery, at Second and Wilson) welcomed soldier skaters and all movie theaters charged them only children’s admission prices, as seen in the ad to the right.

Looking a little farther past the first week of war, on Dec. 15 the Santa Rosa Moose Lodge called for 1,000 cakes to be baked for the fairgrounds soldiers on Christmas. They ended up with over 1,500. “The sidewalk in front of the Moose hall for several hours looked like Santa Claus had raided a bake shop,” quipped the Press Democrat.

Then nine days past Pearl Harbor, a family on Lincoln street received the telegram no one wanted to read: Their son had been killed in the attack. Billy Montgomery was the first war casualty from Sonoma county.

At home in Santa Rosa a month before leaving for Hawaii and service on the USS California, his mother wanted to take a picture of her 20 year-old son in uniform. “…He told me ‘People know what I look like, Mom, so why should I put this face on paper?’ He was just an average boy who loved life,” she said in 1958.

Montgomery Drive was named after him in 1943, as was Montgomery Village (1949) and Montgomery High School (1958).


1 Although there was no aerial bombing in California, eight U.S. merchant ships were attacked by submarines off the California coast in Dec. 1941, and a sub fired at a Navy storage yard near Santa Barbara on Feb. 23, 1942, doing little damage. In 1945 balloon bombs landed in Sonoma county but caused no harm; see “WHEN JAPAN BOMBED SONOMA COUNTY
2 The Grace Brothers’ whistle was also used for civic purposes. A few years after the 1906 earthquake it was used to toot a code alerting our volunteer firemen to drop whatever they were doing and pedal their bicycles like mad to a specific neighborhood. During some drought years it also signaled when you could water your lawn and garden (more in “HEAR THAT PAVLOVIAN WHISTLE BLOW“). Also in those earlier days another steam whistle over at the power company was used to summon the on-call lineman, and before radio was available the Santa Rosa papers arranged for it to sound a code indicating the winner of a presidential election. And then there was Fred Wiseman’s 1911 airplane flight to Santa Rosa, when all factories in town were to blow their screaming steam whistles as the fire bell would clang and there would be “a succession of bomb explosions.”
It took the federal Office of Civilian Defense ten days to offer meaningful guidance on what to do during an air raid. Portion of illustration from the Dec. 18, 1941 Press Democrat
It took the federal Office of Civilian Defense ten days to offer meaningful guidance on what to do during an air raid. Portion of illustration from the Dec. 18, 1941 Press Democrat

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Sonoma County was at war, and it came as quite a surprise. Not the part about fighting between the U.S. and Japan; anyone who made a passing glance at a newspaper front page in early December 1941 knew the odds of war were almost certain. What shocked us here was to suddenly discover we were probably on the front lines. War was something that happens far away in another country – never in the street in front of your home.

In the first hours after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor our Sonoma County nerves were frayed. Was Japan about to likewise target the West Coast? Civil defense plans were hurried into action with calming remarks from authorities that the situation was in hand. Less reassuring was discovering their top priority concerned getting ready for mass casualties. (For more on Dec. 7 1941 see the previous article, “EYEWITNESS TO INFAMY.”)

The next day (December 8) saw frantic mobilization. Hundreds volunteered to guard public utilities from sabotage, direct traffic during an emergency or serve on rescue squads, while 96 men were sworn in as members of the armed Home Guard. Volunteer firemen were ordered to stay on 24 hour alert. In Santa Rosa it was a day like we had never seen before or since: Downtown must have resembled a hive of bees, with all those men rushing in and out of the courthouse, housewives with shopping lists to prepare for wartime food shortages and everyone on the street sharing their worries and any news about relatives/friends in Hawaii.

And then come nightfall, the Army made everything worse.

In that era radios were usually playing music in the background with some timeslots tending to niche programming. Between 5 and 6PM was mostly the children’s hour, with Captain Midnight, Tom Mix and other popular 15 minute adventure serials (KSRO was airing The Cinnamon Bear, a perennial Christmas series). After that came the news and sports half-hour from 6 to 6:30, although stations usually padded it out with music – at 6:15 KSRO normally switched over to playing records in a segment imaginatively named, “Music to Eat by.”

But the broadcast schedule that Monday was anything but usual. At 9:30 in the morning listeners to KSRO or any of the major San Francisco stations heard live President Roosevelt’s “day of infamy” speech to Congress, followed later by Winston Churchill’s address to Parliament. War bulletins read by local announcers peppered the airwaves at least every 15 minutes. So when it was time for the regular 6 o’clock news programs, you can bet every Sonoma County radio dial was tuned in to hear the latest war news.

Then KSRO and all other Bay Area radio stations suddenly went off the air.

None of the surviving newspapers from that day mention whether or not the stations had a chance to explain why they were going silent, but apparently nearly everyone presumed we were under attack.

An editorial in the Santa Rosa Republican the next day gave a sample of the hysteria that swept the town:

Voices on the telephone today insisted that San Francisco had been bombed and was in flaming ruins. A story was that enemy bombers were diving over Santa Rosa – the Golden Gate bridge had been blasted down – Vallejo was attacked by air — Japanese submarines were passing through the Golden Gate — these and other wild tales kept this newspaper’s switchboard operators on the jump — excited evidence of the state of uncontrolled nerves among the people.

There was certainly chaos in San Francisco after the air raid sirens wailed. Unsure about blackout orders, some people and businesses killed their lights, others didn’t or turned off just a few. Many drivers tried negotiating the city’s hilly streets without headlights, but far from all. A young woman named Marie Sayre was paralyzed after a rookie member of the State Guard shot at their car after her husband failed to pull over on the Bay Bridge onramp; the private was told to stop “anything strange” he saw.

There were no blackouts in the county, but when the alarms sounded the newly-sworn volunteers jumped into action, with 40 men reporting to the Santa Rosa police station within five minutes. Firemen and forest rangers prepared to fight conflagrations, and ambulances stood ready to rush the injured to the nearest hospital, each with a full medical staff waiting in readiness.

The all-clear siren announced the air raid was over about 9PM. Afterwards the War Dept. in Washington declared it all was just a readiness drill, but the Fourth Army commander insisted it was absolutely the real thing and there were “sixty unidentified planes” that came as close as 20 miles from Point Reyes. The radio stations had been ordered off the air so broadcasts couldn’t be used as “guiding beams” for approaching enemy aircraft.

Then a few hours later, at 2:30 on Tuesday morning the alarms again sounded and brought out the weary volunteers. This time Santa Rosa and Petaluma were prepared enough to turn out streetlights. The county hospital covered windows with blankets while nurses at the Petaluma hospital worked in the dark using flashlights. It was another false alarm and lasted until about 4AM.

During the early morning alarm authorities received several calls from people claiming to hear the heavy throbbing of big airplane engines overhead. Residents of Bennett Valley, Graton and the transmitter operator at KSRO all said they heard them, but could see nothing because of the thick fog.

The next day (Dec. 9) a communication mixup led to a shutdown of the Bay Bridge at evening rush hour, resulting in a backup of an estimated 20,000 vehicles. There was also an hour-long alert which ended at midnight after a low-flying plane was spotted near Bloomfield and Jenner which was later identified as a Navy patrol.

The latter incident was also the start of a new wave of rumors that mysterious flares were being dropped from planes. Callers from Fort Bragg said 10-15 were seen close to the shore, and in following days there were claims of flares being dropped around San Francisco. These stories were likely seeded by front page news of Japan’s attack on the Philippines, where flares really were being used to guide bombing raids.

Also on the 9th there was a quite unusual press event after the War Dept. in Washington said there was “no means of verifying the report” of hostile planes approaching anywhere on the coast. Instead of admitting mistakes could have been made, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Fourth army and top ranking Army officer on the West Coast, dug in his heels like a petulant four year-old.

In an address to civil defense workers, a peevish and angry DeWitt said it would have served San Francisco right if the city had been bombed:

Those planes were over our community for a definite length of time. They were enemy planes, and I mean Japanese planes. They were detected and followed to sea. I was bothered by newspapermen who wanted to know if it was a hoax why they did not drop their bombs. I hate to say this, but it might have been a good thing if bombs had been dropped to wake up this community. I am very much in earnest. Frankly, it was damn nonsense for sensible people to assume I would practice an alert on this population and lead them into foolish judgment and action. We will not have such a practice alert…

After a lengthy tirade about civilians failing to obey his orders for a total blackout, he turned to threats: “If I can’t knock these facts into your heads with words, I will have to turn you over to the police to let them knock them into you with clubs.”

DeWitt wrapped up by making it clear he would not tolerate being questioned or criticized by the press or public:

I could have expressed myself so clearly last night, to those men who called me up why didn’t I start to shoot, why didn’t they drop bombs. It is none of their damn business. San Francisco woke up this morning without a death from bombing. Suppose we had started to shoot. If an enemy had not dropped his bombs and there had been a signal for aircraft fire don’t forget that what goes up has to come down, and when you shoot guns you shoot them at something in the air. Stop these damn fool telephone messages. When it is all over, and when it has happened, and God willing, it won’t, the proper releases will be given. But put out your lights and take it. You have got to take it. If you can’t take it, get out of San Francisco now.

There’s more to the story the military’s December 8-9 false alarm SNAFU and others share blame with DeWitt, but this local history journal ain’t the place to dig into all of it.1 (Spoiler alert: The mistakes mostly came down to miscommunication along the chain of command, technicians having problems calibrating their newfangled radar gear and poorly trained radar operators.)

Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt Dec. 9, 1941 angrily denying West Coast air raid alerts were false alarms while berating San Francisco for not obeying his blackout orders. Also seen here is Admiral Greenslade (center) and SF Mayor Rossi
Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt Dec. 9, 1941 angrily denying West Coast air raid alerts were false alarms while berating San Francisco for not obeying his blackout orders. Also seen here is Admiral Greenslade (center) and SF Mayor Rossi

During those same days the government started arresting unnaturalized Japanese residents in Sonoma County. Although Santa Rosa Mayor Robert Madison said on Dec. 7 that citizens of Japanese descent “have no cause for alarm,” eight Japanese men were taken away as “suspicious aliens” by the FBI the next day.

Two each were from Santa Rosa and Petaluma, three from Sebastopol and one was from Forestville. Except for well-known Santa Rosa grocer Yoshio Nagase, all were apparently farmers. “Local authorities said the men had been under surveillance for several weeks as suspects in activities of subversive nature,” the Press Democrat reported. Overall that day 91 Japanese men were arrested in California, along with sixty Germans and 16 Italians.

That was just the prelude. Ten days after his fit over blackouts, DeWitt called for the Army to “collect all alien subjects fourteen years of age and over” and relocate them away from the West Coast. Over the following weeks his views of people with Japanese ancestry continued to harden and after President Roosevelt signed the infamous Executive Order 9066 (on DeWitt’s urging) in February 1942, DeWitt commanded the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans.2

In those days after Pearl Harbor no one could foresee that such an extreme and unAmerican action would be launched in just a few months, but a hundred members of the Japanese American Citizens’ League of Sonoma County still met in Petaluma to condemn the attack by imperial Japan and vowed to watch for saboteurs and anti-government activities.

Also fearful was Santa Rosa’s Chinese-American community, led by Earl Jann, manager of the National Dollar Store on Fourth street.3 He appealed to the Chamber of Commerce for help and they rushed into production white silk ribbons with an American flag at the top and text reading “I Am Chinese.” The 2×6 inch ribbon also included an ID number and that it was officially “issued by the Chinese committee of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.”

By itself that was not unusual; in December the Chinese consulates in San Francisco and elsewhere issued ID cards (the consul in Seattle said it was done “to avoid an unpleasantness”). In some places lapel buttons were made with the same message or displaying China’s flag.

But it was noteworthy the Santa Rosa ID ribbons were printed so expeditiously, just three days after Pearl Harbor. That may have been because both Santa Rosa newspapers implied there had been assaults: “Reports of attacks on several Chinese by excited persons, who apparently mistook them for Japanese, and took unauthorized mob action, occasioned the chamber’s move,” the Press Democrat said.



1 For more on the Dec. 1941 false alarms see “When Imperial Japan ‘attacked’ the city,” a well-balanced article from World War II magazine describing some of DeWitt’s other screwups and coverage of West Coast blackouts at the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.
2 Beginning in early 1942, DeWitt’s anti-Japanese racism grew more strident after he was promoted to lead the Western Defense Command. Although there were no acts of sabotage on the West Coast, he insisted that the lack of evidence was an “ominous” sign and proved something big was being planned. He expanded internment orders to include U.S.-born citizens and blocked them from returning to their homes, even though German and Italian aliens were released from the camps in 1943. During his April, 1943 testimony before the House Naval Affairs subcommittee he stated no person of Japanese heritage could be trusted and diverged from his prepared remarks to say, “a Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not.” Afterwards he received a wrist slap from military brass who called his remarks “unfortunate,” but he was never demoted or even censured. He defied orders from a federal judge who ruled martial law must be declared before citizens could be imprisoned for suspicion of disloyalty and in other court cases, falsified documents to justify the imprisonment of Americans in his concentration camps.
3 There were other “dollar stores” in Santa Rosa during the early 20th century but the National Dollar Store was a West Coast chain owned and operated by Chinese-Americans. Although ads show many items cost less than a buck the stores required all transactions total at least $1.00. The Santa Rosa store opened in 1930 and was at 619-621 Fourth street, next to the present location of Mary’s Pizza.

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