The story of Santa Rosa during the opening days of WWII begins with Roy Vitousek – the first American eyewitness to the start of the war. He was from Santa Rosa and Healdsburg; just more proof a local Believe-it-or-Not! footnote will turn up for nearly any chapter of our nation’s history. Sonoma County: Come for the wine and the redwoods, stick around for our mile-high stack of intriguing backstories.

It was not long after sunrise when Roy took to the air in his private plane. Taking a quick spin was a Sunday morning ritual for him and his teenage son; there was no reason to believe December 7, 1941 would be any different than all the times before.

After flying for about an hour they headed back to their home base, the John Rodgers Airport (now the Kalaeloa Airport) a few miles southwest of Pearl Harbor. Another small plane was also preparing to land, so they looped around to make another approach. Roy’s son, 17 year-old Martin described what happened next:

We zoomed up again and circled around the entrance to Pearl Harbor before making another landing attempt. Suddenly we were in the thick of it. The enemy pilots machine-gunned our plane and I could see their heads in the cockpit and the Rising Sun insignia on their wings very plainly. I guess you’ll have to say I was scared and mad as hell.

Their little high-wing Aeronca was now smack in the middle of the initial assault wave on Pearl Harbor. He saw two enemy planes shot down above them and thought another hit the water, although Martin said it might have been dive bombing. “All in all, we were in the air for ten minutes throughout the first attack before we were able to land.”

Once on the ground, they were amazed to find their airplane was undamaged – there was not a “pin-prick in the ship,” Martin said. They were also lucky to not have landed in their first attempt; the airfield had been strafed with the manager of the flight school killed. A Hawaiian Airlines DC-3 preparing to takeoff was pockmarked by bullets but no passengers were injured.

Roy A. Vitousek, whose small plane was caught in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo from 1935 via
Roy A. Vitousek, whose small plane was caught in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo from 1935 via

This amazing tale was almost lost in the avalanche of other news about Pearl Harbor, getting its modicum coverage in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Press Democrat only because of who was flying the plane. Roy Vitousek was a prominent Hawaiian lawyer and legislator, elected several times as speaker of their Territorial House of Representatives. A native of Healdsburg, Roy attended Santa Rosa High, practiced law in Santa Rosa and was city clerk 1913-1917 before moving to Honolulu in 1919. He remained well known here, having returned for a visit just a few months earlier. (Roy was 51 and his parents still lived in Healdsburg.)

News of the Pearl Harbor attack reached the Mainland just before noon Pacific time (Hawaii being three hours behind the West Coast) and KSRO announcer Gordon Roth read the first bulletin on its 12:15 Sunday news program. The station would remain on the air past its usual 10PM signoff until after midnight, updating listeners every fifteen minutes.

But you can bet few were relying just on KSRO; the big San Francisco stations, with their live broadcasts from the East Coast, were interrupting programs with the latest info as it arrived (listen to a short compilation).

San Francisco was in a panic – as was pretty much every other community on the West Coast – expecting sabotage or an invasion or Pearl Harbor-like attack was imminent. (Japan did launch balloon bombs against the U.S. but not until 1945; see “WHEN JAPAN BOMBED SONOMA COUNTY.”) The SF mayor declared a state of emergency and tripled the number of guards on the city’s water supply system. Employees of the central switchboard handling police and fire calls were issued guns. Unions were ordered to drop labor disputes. Japantown in the Western Addition had a policeman on every block. A false report of an enemy plane sighting caused an hour-long blackout of the Golden Gate Bridge; the last car to cross was driven by Judge Hilliard Comstock, returning with Helen from a weekend stay with their friends in San Jose.

In Santa Rosa, an emergency meeting was held by the Civil Defense Council.* Per their prepared guidelines, they ordered patrols around water supplies all over the county plus guards on strategic bridges and the KSRO transmitter. All hospitals were to have a doctor, nurse and two first-aid providers available around the clock. No sales of guns, ammo or explosives were to be made without written consent of the local chief of police.

The county health officer announced his laboratory would be testing water samples for “contagious diseases that might arise as result of the emergency” and the coroner said he was training deputies on how to identify “possible victims of sabotage activities.” Those with longer memories might have recalled the Council earlier sought out warehouses that could be used for temporary morgues. That all plans centered around contingencies for mass casualties made no one uneasy, I’m sure.

The local captain of the Highway Patrol said he would appeal for 75 men who had a car or motorcycle (plus a firearm) to serve as reserve traffic officers, but people were already coming to the the sheriff’s office to signup for civil defense duty. “A crew of volunteer girls and women is at work in the district attorney’s office sorting questionnaires in order to select personnel required for auxiliary police and fire departments needed in event of emergency,” the Press Democrat reported.

Also: All non-military aircraft was ordered grounded nationwide. The 22 Bodega Bay fishing boats were tied up at the dock under Navy orders. The phone company asked that no one make long-distance calls in order to keep the lines clear.

Santa Rosa Mayor Robert Madison urged residents to “go on about your daily life as usual, and continue with plans for your Christmas shopping.” The PD noted he told Japanese-Americans here to “continue business as usual” because “they have no cause for alarm.”

Despite those calming words, those who managed to sleep that night likely had the worst nightmares of their lives.


* The “Sonoma County Council for Civilian Defense” was formed here in Feb. 1941 as part of a statewide program to create regional councils for the “protection of persons and property in the event of any major disaster.” During an emergency the Council chairman (the District Attorney) would direct law enforcement activity and coordinate actions with other Councils and the state.

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Santa Rosa was wild with joy. Every store and business downtown closed immediately as people flooded into the streets, some shouting, some crying, some laughing; to an outsider it would have looked like everyone in town had suddenly gone barking mad. Nothing like that had ever occurred before and probably will never happen again. So once they invent a time machine, rush down to the atavachron station and buy a ticket for Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1945 at 3:10 in the afternoon. It was V-J Day.

“Almost before the radio and newspaper flashes had been recorded, automobile horns added their din to the sirens’ wail and hundreds of cars raced around the courthouse and up and down business streets – serpentine [party streamers] appeared from nowhere and wastebaskets were emptied from second and third-story windows,” reported the Press Democrat. “Exuberant youngsters raided the paper balers at the rear of The Press Democrat office, hurled the contents into the street and scattered paper ribbons from rooftops…Streets were littered with paper that backed up into the gutters and overflowed onto the courthouse lawn.” There was so much paper in the streets that it looked like the town was hit by a freak snowstorm.

“Fire trucks, flag-bedecked, raced through downtown streets, followed by countless cars, motorcycles, bicycles and shouting pedestrians,” the PD noted. Anyone in a vehicle with a horn leaned on it. “Once in a while you see a perfectly sane-appearing person driving by, not honking the horn on his car, and he looks sort of silly,” someone told the paper. Probably every kid with a stash of firecrackers – banned by the government since 1943 – gathered on the courthouse steps and earnestly went to work trying to maim themselves.

“Weeping women, many of them wives or mothers of servicemen in the Pacific, stood in doorways and offered their thanks to God…Tears streamed down their cheeks as they mingled with the milling throngs – grief-stricken by their own losses and thankful, along with the rest, that the lives of other sons have been spared.” The toll had been terrible; 82 Santa Rosa had been killed in the war with another 19 missing. Another 200 from the county were also dead.

The priest from St. Rose and several ministers tried to organize a thanksgiving ceremony in front of the courthouse but the crowd wasn’t in the mood: “the din of auto horns, sirens, backfires and firecrackers exploding in the streets drowned out the voices of the clergymen,” the PD noted. Giving up, Father Raters returned to his car and tried to leave, only to find himself trapped in the traffic jam. “The St. Rose pastor made the best of things, honking the horn of his car with the rest ot the hundreds that jammed Fourth street,” according to the PD.

The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce had published a set of rules about what was supposed to happen once the announcement came (see “THE DAY BEFORE THE GREATEST DAY“), including a decree that the bars, along with all other businesses, were supposed to immediately close. One entrepreneurial barkeep apparently “forgot” about that and kept his doors open. A reporter from the PD found “the lone exception was swamped with servicemen and civilians until Police Chief Melvin Flohr and other officers ‘cracked down’ at 5:30 o’clock.”

After that, out came the bottles purchased during the “peace jitters” of the previous four days. There were “numberless house parties where friends gathered to jointly celebrate the greatest day in the history of the United States and the world.”

Another part of the best-laid plans was a parade, but the Chamber and Parade Marshal decided to put it off until the next day, after efforts failed “to form a parade from the aimless mass of motorcars.”

Front of the Sonoma County courthouse covered in confetti and waste paper on Aug. 15, 1945. The little building in front of the steps was the "Victory House" built in 1944 to sell war bonds and stamps. Photo by U.S. Naval Air Station/Santa Rosa
Front of the Sonoma County courthouse covered in confetti and waste paper on Aug. 15, 1945. The little building in front of the steps was the “Victory House” built in 1944 to sell war bonds and stamps. Photo by U.S. Naval Air Station/Santa Rosa

Petaluma – always the mature Lisa Simpson to Santa Rosa’s callow Bart – managed to celebrate and still have a nice parade. The Argus-Courier wrote “hundreds of automobiles, both from the city and rural areas, with the drivers leaning heavily and continually on the horns, joined in the downtown area in an informal, noisy, but orderly parade…hundreds of people lined the streets to participate in the rejoicing and witness the parade.” Afterward, the Police Chief “complimented the drivers for the orderly way in which they handled their vehicles.”

Santa Rosa’s parade the next afternoon was another blowout: “…everyone, participants and spectators alike, having the time of their young lives.” From the Press Democrat:

…[it was] one of the noisiest and certainly the most spontaneous parades in the old town’s history. Servicemen and civilians, members of every veteran organization, all war services and fraternal organizations marched through the business district, past cheering spectators, to the music of the Petaluma Municipal Band and the screaming of just about every siren in the community. Every piece of fire equipment in the city, manned by uniformed fire-eaters, police cars, state highway patrol “prowl” cars and motorcycles, official Sonoma county automobiles all added to the general din with sirens held “wide open” for the event.

There were several wonderful staff photos showing the parade and some happy scenes from the day before – but alas, it seems likely they were destroyed. When the PD offices were remodeled much of the paper’s archives from before 1960 were tossed in the dumpster. The images never have been reprinted on any anniversary of V-J Day. A message left for the paper’s Director of Photography was not returned.

Descriptions in the paper, however, pointed out a common sight from both days: “The unbiquitous jeep the universal military vehicle was greatly in evidence in the parade but carrying feminine cargoes of strictly unmilitary nature. Almost every one was crowded to the gunwales with cheering Santa Rosa girls, sailors, soldiers and just plain civilians, all intent on telling the world how happy they were over the end of war.” For the parade, the Army airbase sent a caravan of military trucks. There were two floats with kids dressed up as Liberty and Uncle Sam.

The Chamber’s grand plan for all businesses to be closed during the holiday overlooked a little problem – with thousands of people packed into the downtown for an entire summer afternoon, some of them would want something to eat or drink. A few restaurants bucked the rules and opened their doors, but according to the Press Democrat “…they were more than swamped with customers and most of them sold out everything they had in stock. Hungry Santa Rosans roamed the streets in vain looking for something to eat, the only handicap to an otherwise glorious holiday.”

A few bars reopened at 5 o’clock and likewise found the hordes descend upon them. Although they could legally stay open until midnight, all closed hours earlier after struggling to push out the crowds after they had drunk the places dry and smashed glassware.

During all this, the streets were still deep in confetti and paper from the previous day. At the end of the parade someone tossed a match on an effigy of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, “setting off a fire in the litter of paper that covered gutters and plaza ankle-deep. The fire department already in the parade ‘countermarched’ to put this out, for the only incident of the day.”

Santa Rosa’s victory party was raucous, but nothing compared to what happened in San Francisco, where the celebration turned into three nights of deadly riots. Thousands of servicemen – mostly teenagers – rampaged on Market street, looting stores, destroying streetcars (and killing one worker), fighting each other and women were raped. The riot left over 1,000 injured and eleven dead, including 20 year-old William Flaherty of Petaluma, who died of a skull fracture after being struck.

The grand party over, in the following days the town glowed with a newfound spirit of optimism and energy to get things done. The proposal to build Memorial Hospital (then called the War Memorial Hospital) was dusted off; the Board of Supervisors began discussing ambitious plans to create meaningful war memorials in every community; and the Press Democrat published plans by architect Cal Caulkins to redesign downtown Santa Rosa – a revision of the layout which would have completely transformed our town’s future.

But we can also argue the celebration didn’t really end on August 15. At the end of the month the Naval Auxiliary Air Station out on Wright Road threw itself a 32nd “birthday party” that drew thousands. The crowds watched simulated dogfights, although there was nearly a disaster when two Helldiver bombers collided in midair. Both landed safely, but not before one headed directly for the air control tower. PD reporter Mike Pardee wrote he and others in the tower instinctively “ducked for places of dubious safety.”

The excitement probably didn’t really calm down until after September 22-23 and the Sonoma County “Victory Fair.” Over 10,000 packed into the fairgrounds each of those days, as told in “THE LOST HISTORY OF THE SONOMA COUNTY FAIR.” With thousands of soldiers and sailors returning to the Bay Area nearly every day there were thousands of renewed reasons to celebrate.

There is a a wonderful word in Portuguese, “Saudade,” which means a deeply-felt melancholy for an experience which will never come again, and reading those issues of the Press Democrat from August, 1945 can’t help but stir such emotions. The joy from those days leaps off the pages; you cheer along with them as everyone let loose after years of worry and hardship. And as the PD excerpts show, they were aware those would be unforgettable moments in their lives, days of utterly unclouded happiness.

Press Democrat, September 22 1945
Press Democrat, September 22 1945

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The wait was unbearable. Few probably slept although it was nice August weather, with cool fog after dark. Had it happened overnight? Tune in KSRO at 6:15 for the first morning newscast. Grab the Press Democrat on the doorstep and study it. Every word of news in it. You have to know everything about the situation. TODAY is the day. Okay, it will happen tomorrow, for sure. No need to set the clock. You’ll be awake long before 6:15. It will be THE day.

For five days in August, 1945, Santa Rosa was as wound up as a 6 year-old eating spoonfuls of sugar on Christmas Eve.

Friday, August 10, was the day after the U.S. dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan, destroying much of the city of Nagasaki. Truman warned Japanese civilians to flee industrial cities to save their lives from further atomic destruction. The Soviets declared war on Japan, and the Empire then announced it would broadcast “news of vital importance to everyone” on Sunday night. Everyone presumed it would announce a surrender, marking the end of WWII.

The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce laid out the rules: When the fire sirens go off, all bars were to close and to stay closed for the rest of the day. Ditto for retail stores: “…stores will close immediately if official end-of-the-war announcement is received during business hours. In this event – receipt of word while stores are open – they will close not only for the balance of the day, but also for the entire following day provided the following day is a business day. If the word is received in the early morning, before the usual time of opening, they will remain closed all day…” There will be a victory parade, although “…There will be no Sunday parade, however, in event the word is received on that day, or late Saturday…” They apparently spent the entire day in meetings to make sure we knew how to spontaneously have fun properly.

Santa Rosa was having a bad case of the “peace jitters,” as the Press Democrat called it. There was little news on Saturday – Washington was keeping negotiations hush-hush, but it was reported Japan wanted conditional terms of surrender. Not much on Sunday, either. The PD ran a letter to the editor complaining about the new parking meters.

Everyone was waiting for that Sunday night message from Japan. And at the expected time, radio announcers interrupted the regular programming to announce “Japan accepts surrender terms of the Allies.” The PD reported what happened next here in town:

Some shouted, some wept… In more than one place, an excited individual leaped onto a stool or chair, stood up and shouted: “The war is over.” In some places the patrons burst into “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while others wept and still others stood, too choked up to sing.

Alas, it was a hoax – a prankster had hacked into the United Press news wire. About 15 minutes later, a correction was sent. “All rejoiced, only to have their thanksgiving shattered within a few minutes by word that the announcement was not true,” commented the PD. “False news that the war was over hit Santa Rosa like a shock.”

Although “Some Santa Rosans dashed for the nearest liquor stores to stock up against the 24-hour drought promised by state officials when the war really ends,” the false alarm had little impact here because the sirens did not wail. The PD – which was keeping the long-distance wire service phone lines open full time (“at an added expense to the newspaper,” a thrifty editor complained) – was waiting for confirmation of the surrender before asking the Fire Department to cut ’em loose.

Those who tuned in at 6:15 the next morning must have been emotionally fried. Now it seemed as if the war might not end soon, after all; Japan had torpedoed a U.S. warship at Okinawa and bombing of Tokyo had resumed. In Santa Rosa, everyone trudged on, pretending as if it were just another war day:

Minutes stretched into hours [Monday] night as the city held its breath for the flash which will officially end nearly four years of war…Santa Rosans were outwardly calm, going about their business just as if peace were a year away. Inwardly they were preoccupied, alert for the word which would end the conflict.

The staff of the Press Democrat had now been on high alert for more than 72 hours, ready to produce an extra edition when the news came. ” Newsmen on the night shift were routed from beds as early as 5AM to return to the office and await the final word that hostilities had ended. Many had no sleep at all, others only two and three hours.”

Then at 3:10 in the afternoon on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1945, the official announcement was made: Japan had surrendered. Within 10 minutes – ten minutes – San Francisco’s Market Street was filled with people as far as the eye could see from Union Square. The Press Democrat surely exhausted its lead type supply of exclamation marks for its extra:


City Greets Historic News In Wild Frenzy And Racket

Shouting Crowds Turn Downtown Area Into Noisy Bedlam


Santa Rosa went mad – deliriously mad – along with the rest of the world!

Minutes before radio broadcasters announced that the Japanese answer to our ultimatum had reached Washington, Santa Rosans had struck a low ebb their hopes for early acceptance of the Allied peace terms had been dashed and they were prone to believe that the Nips had given us another standup!

And then came the electrifying flash that the Swiss delegation had received the all-important note from Japan and that in a matter of just 11 minutes President Truman would meet in conference with the news and radio reporters in the White House.

That was enough for Santa Rosa!

Before the historic statement of the President of the United States, declaring the war ended had hit the street, semihysterical crowds were forming at every street intersection. In a matter of minutes Santa Rosa’s business houses had closed their doors and employees were pouring into the streets – some shouting – some laughing and some in tears.

Simultaneously, fire alarms screamed and fire trucks, flag-bedecked, raced through downtown streets, followed by countless cars, motorcycles, bicycles and shouting pedestrians.

That was the start of the most hilarious, uproarious and most demonstrative celebration ever seen in the history of Santa Rosa. Men and women wept, shouted for joy and slapped perfect strangers on the back, kissed them or clasped their hands.


The party went on for the next two days.



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