Retired Adm. William Harrison Standley of La Mesa was quoted as being “hard hit by the news as his daughter, Mrs. Edwin Herron, and his two grandchildren had just moved to Honolulu to be with their naval officer father.”
Like many in the region’s “Navy family,” according to The San Diego Union, Standley showed his frustration at having no way to receive word from the Pacific on the well-being of his relatives, friends and colleagues.
It was Dec. 8, 1941. The day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
On the 70th anniversary of what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy,” we revisit La Mesa weekly newspaper accounts showcasing the fear and patriotism of the time.
After the state and county called for the first official blackout at midnight Monday—amid rumors of enemy planes being sighted near San Francisco—the La Mesa City Council held a special session Tuesday, Dec. 9, to address civil defense.
The council’s first action was to pass a “blackout” ordinance empowering the city’s police to enforce rules for “all persons to blacken their residences or business.”
Police Chief Dennis Smith made it clear that the new ordinance “will be enforced.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Mabel Rapp Fox, a La Mesa native whose parents still lived in town, had just left Hawaii on the S.S. Lurline on the Saturday morning before the attack, after a nine-month stay with her husband, Navy man Roy Fox.
Mabel relayed the frustrations of finishing the delayed trip on a blacked-out ship forced to follow a “random” zigzag course, and a destination change from Los Angeles to San Francisco in hopes of avoiding any Japanese submarines that might know the regularly scheduled route of the popular passenger ship.
Mabel would not reach her parents’ home on Boulder Heights in La Mesa until Dec. 17 after traveling south from San Francisco. And even by the posting of her story in the Dec. 19 La Mesa Scout, she had heard no more from her husband than a single letter from him—dated Dec. 6.
Other La Mesans known to be directly in the fray included Navy Cmdr. Cyril T. Simard, who had brought his family here in 1938, hiring the noted architect Lillian Rice to design one of her iconic Spanish-Colonial Revival style homes east of downtown on Lemon Avenue (this house is now a City Historical Landmark).
Simard was the commander of the newly established naval base at the small and remote Midway Island.
The Union article of Dec. 8 noted Simard’s already distinguished career in naval aviation but had no news on the fate of him or the base.
(Simard and the base were not attacked Dec. 7. But seven months later in June 1942, the newly promoted Capt. Simard would earn the Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership in the defense of the island in the “turning point” Battle of Midway. He would survive the war and retire as a rear admiral in 1947).
Capt. William A. McGuire, another La Mesa naval officer, was directly in the action at Pearl Harbor. McGuire was assigned as U.S. Navy Fleet chaplain in Hawaii on Dec. 7.
Within a week, Capt. McGuire was quoted in numerous newspapers nationwide, and repeated in the Dec. 19 La Mesa Scout on his eyewitness assessment of the fleet’s bravery and sense of duty at Pearl Harbor:
The courage shown by the men in the American fleet was magnificent. Men who met death in the treacherous attack displayed a spirit of gameness which should serve as an inspiration to every American. These men died gloriously in the defense of their country.
A Typically La Mesa Beautiful December Sunday
On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, La Mesans awoke to clear skies but no hint of the ominous news that would soon arrive to forever change their lives—and that of the country.
Those clear skies had led to a relatively cool low temperature in the high 30s during the night but would yield to a high of 77 degrees during the day.
This appeared to be the kind of “typical” December day that our local Chamber of Commerce had always been mindful to tout to the frigid and snowy East Coast.
Yet just before noon, as La Mesans made their way out of church or were getting ready for a midday meal, those near a radio heard the first announcements of the attack at a Hawaii naval base.
Unlike much of the nation, most La Mesans would have recognized the place nam—Pearl Harbor. This was due to the fact that the Navy was by far the largest employer in San Diego County—and even if you didn’t have a family member in the service, your neighbors or friends probably did.
Within a couple of hours of the initial public radio announcements the first “extra” editions of the San Diego Union was on the streets to confirm, in bold headlines:
Japan at War with U.S., American Island Bases Attacked, Second World Conflict Begins with Bombing of Honolulu, Battles Raging Throughout Wide-Area of Pacific; Reports of Damage Unclear; West Coast on Alert
As San Diego historian Richard Pourade recalled in his 1977 book City of the Dream—and could be found from reading various articles from the Union in the days following the attack—San Diego and the region spent most of the rest of the day “gathered around radios…to hear news…a tense San Diego, gathering in groups speaking in hushed tones—knowing that her sons and neighbors would be in the thick of it all.”
Pourade recalled that the city and region seemed to be somewhat in shock and uncertain how to react.
Capt. Bryon McCandless, acting commandant of the local 11th Naval District, quickly called all personnel to return to duty stations and all facilities to be placed on alert, but many locals were unsure if they should heed growing rumors of a Japanese aerial attack, or even invasion of the West Coast.
Although some activities and events were quickly canceled, some still went forward that afternoon—such as the professional football game between the San Diego Bombers and the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast League at Balboa Stadium to a crowd of some 3,500.
It was a crowd the Union reported as getting much smaller when McCandless’ order to report was announced over the stadium loudspeaker.
The U.S. and La Mesa Prepare for the “Inevitable”
Although the attack of Dec. 7 took the nation by surprise, America and La Mesa were not unprepared to join the war.
After the fall of France to Nazi Germany in June 1940, only Britain was left to face the Axis powers of Europe. The United States had not directly joined into the conflict but began to prepare for its “own defense.”
In September 1940, Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act that instituted a mandatory draft to help increase the active military by 900,000 men.
On Oct. 16, 1940, La Mesa Draft Board 167 was instituted. Between Oct. 16, 1940, and July 1, 1941, the La Mesa board claimed that 2,429 of local eligible men ages 18 to 35 had been registered with none unaccounted for (an impressive number for a city and environs with an estimated population of 6,000).
From the spring of 1941 on, each week the La Mesa Scout would announce those whose lottery numbers had been called, providing information on where they would be heading for their mandatory 12-month military service.
In March 1941, the U.S. stepped even closer to involvement in the war with the passage of the Lend-Lease Act—which allowed the sale of arms and equipment to Britain and its allies to fulfill President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s goal of making the U.S. safer as the “Arsenal of Democracy.”
San Diego and the region became a direct benefactor of the plan to spend millions on arming Britain and the remaining Allies when Reuben Fleet’s Consolidated Aircraft Co. was contracted to build thousands of military airplanes for the cause.
The resulting “Boomerang Boom” that hit San Diego and the region from the exponential growth of the military and defense industries would result in the near doubling of the county’s 289,000 population to well over 500,000 from 1940 to 1943 (La Mesa would see similar percentage growth from 3,925 in 1940 to an estimated 6,000 by war’s end).
During the summer and fall of 1941 San Diego and La Mesa also began to organize for “civil defense” in case the U.S. was drawn into the war.
In October, San Diego held its first trial “Emergency Blackout.”
Shortly thereafter La Mesa City and civic leaders organized several hundred “Grossmont area” Boy Scout troops in an exercise to mobilize for civil defense. On Nov. 8, local lads were trained in first aid, rescue and salvage, communications, shelter, crowd control and cooking.
These efforts were reported in the Nov. 14 La Mesa Scout with “plaudits for their effective Emergency Mobilization Drills.”
La Mesa Reacts for Defense
Headlines of the Dec. 5, 1941, La Mesa Scout continued to focus on the local news.
Holding the community’s interests, according to Scout editor Harry C. Reed: the 10th annual Grossmont High School Christmas Pageant, the financial success of another Foothiller football campaign, the Little Theater’s new production of the play George Washington Slept Here, the meeting of the Calavo Growers Association, the opening of the new Gilbert Five and Dime store on La Mesa Boulevard, San Diego civic leader George Marston’s scheduled speech for the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, and the names of five more La Mesa men heading off to military service.
One week later, the news dominating the Dec. 12 edition of the Scout held these far different headlines:
FORM DEFENSE COUNCIL
La Mesa Disaster Set-up Is Ready for Cooperation In County-wide Group. Volunteer Workers Urged to Register For Service in Case of Need, So Their Abilities May be Used to Advantage.
Police Chief Smith also reported that the city’s official signal would not only be directed from Army and Navy radio warnings but with the sound of “all police and fire department sirens, followed by ringing of the fire bell, five taps, repeated twice—totaling 15 taps in all.”
The city hoped to buy a new “air horn” and raise the fire bell tower to 50 feet to ensure that the signal would be heard throughout town.
In addition, the council created the La Mesa Civil Defense Council, establishing its chairman—Vice Mayor Oliver Schultz—and its set of committee chairs. The council then appropriated $2,500 for supplies and equipment for the street and fire departments to prepare in case of a major emergency.
Fire Chief Raymond Lyles called for the expansion of the volunteer fire personnel total to 16, and the hiring of one additional full-time firefighter.
Vice Mayor Schultz, a member of the county’s Civil Defense coordination committee, and his various committee members quickly moved to organize the entire community in the defense efforts.
All citizens fit to help were encourage to register with one of the committees. Recruiting was to be held daily at City Hall under direction of city staffers LeRoy Bailey, H.H. Hampton and Scott Campbell.
However organized and controlled the reports of the committees were documented, the calls for assistance reflect the fear and unknown consequences of this uncertain time.
James Wysong, chair of the transportation and evacuation committee called for those with “station wagons, light panel and pickup trucks to register for possible ambulance and evacuation services.”
Dr. H. Pfeiffer of the health and first aid committee reported on the San Diego Medical Society’s arrangement for mobile hospital units. He asked for all graduate nurses, first-aid talent and clerks to register for service in the local committee.
On Wednesday evening, the La Mesa-Spring Valley District school board met to offer local school facilities for any Defense Council committees. They then reported that “thumb-printing of all children for identification files would be done soon, as will special school evacuation drills practiced.”
They also provided this ominous direction to the local school children:
In case of evacation for a bombing raid, children are warned to scatter, and then proceed to their homes, keeping out of groups, and dropping flat with their faces down, in case a bomb falls near them.
The next week, long-serving City Treasurer Rose Miller Parks was named president of La Mesa’s newly reorganized Red Cross Chapter. Parks named some of the town’s most prominent ladies as committee chairs. Mrs. Parks and her main recruiter, Vice President Nan Couts, quickly filled committees for production, knitting, surgical dressings, motor corps, first aid and publicity.
Over the next few weeks, the Civilian Defense Council undertook a full “census” of every home—learning not only what service our citizens could provide but also who might need assistance in the case of emergency.
Special classes in civil defense (air patrol, blackout wardens, etc.) were scheduled for “night school” at Grossmont High School and plans for “Home Guard Cavalry” units were being set up at local horse stables such as Circle S Ranch, and the Hazelwood stables in Lemon Grove and the Palomar stables in Mission Valley.
The First Steps for the Greatest Generation
Of course, these first few days after Pearl Harbor were just the start of four of the most challenging years in our country’s history.
So much has been written about how this country came together as at no other time in its history. Author/journalist Tom Brokaw called this the Greatest Generation and it is hard to disagree with that assessment—especially with 70 years hindsight.
Of all the emotional and jingoistic editorials printed in the La Mesa Scout over those first few weeks of World War II, it is the words attributed to one 12-year-old La Mesa girl, Jacqueline Foreman, published in the Dec. 12, 1941, edition that best speak to the mind-set of an America that rose to meet the challenge:
On December 7, 1941, out of a clear sky, clouds rolled over a peace-loving nation. They were not rain clouds, but clouds of war! They had been gathering for a long time. But surely Americans thought war was not for them. On that fatal day of the year 1941, Japan declared war on the nation flying the stars and stripes. It was then we were forced to make a great decision, which was the only one Americans could make—war! No matter what turn the war takes, for good or bad, Americans must win because they are fighting for what they believe and know is right.