(As printed in our Dec. 7, 2007 edition)
"Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan." So began the war message to Congress of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger," he told Americans crowded around their radios. The surprise attack early on a Sunday morning in Hawaii had a ripple effect of tsunami proportions throughout our nation. Pleasanton was changed forever from a sleepy agricultural town as the nation went to war. It was senior year for members of Amador Valley High School's Class of 1942. The news reached them midday, creating memories forever frozen in time.
Verna (Delucchi) Garibaldi can even remember what she was wearing.
"I had on a beige suit and a beige turned-up hat with a green ribbon," she said. "I was just back from church. I remember I was walking out the screen door when we heard about it on the radio."
"My father had gone fishing, so my mother and I went to Cozy Corner for lunch," said Verna's classmate and lifelong friend, Barbara (Lanini) Wolfenberger. "Someone came in and said Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and we weren't sure where that was. I said I thought it was in Hawaii. We were shocked."
"I happened to be on a date," remembered Shirley (Oxsen) Butler. "I was with Bob (Casterson, Amador Class of 1938), my first husband, on the way to the Paramount Theater in Oakland to see "Honky Tonk," starring Clark Gable. When we heard the news on the radio, we pulled to the side and stopped, listening in disbelief. None of us had any idea of how the world was going to change for us."
The next day, Amador coach and teacher George Patterson was missing, a captain in the reserves already called to active duty.
"All the boys were talking about enlisting," Wolfenberger said. "They were all ready to go."
In fact, one of their classmates, Louis Jackson, left school before graduation to join the Army, and the school yearbook--with the nation's eagle on its cover--was dedicated to him. Most of his male classmates would also sign up for Army, Navy, or Marines within four months of their graduation. That was the case for Jack Butler, who grew up in Sunol. He enlisted in the Navy.
"It was the thing to do," he said.
By November, he was on a troop train to Idaho for basic training. At the end of that three-day trip, he found himself in a different world, along with several thousand other sailors.
"I was living in a great big open barracks, with no privacy whatsoever," he said. "I remember how tired I was when I got that four-hour watch after a full day's work. You really matured fast."
Butler's military training took him to Tennessee, for aviation machinist training, followed by gunnery training in Florida--all new worlds for the teenager. He crisscrossed the nation again by train to Treasure Island for two weeks before shipping out to the South Pacific.
"At least I could hitchhike home from there," he said.
"In those days, hitchhiking was a common practice. When you drove out Hopyard onto Highway 50 (now Interstate 580), there'd be a whole line of sailors waiting to hitchhike," Butler said. "You'd stop and pick up as many as you could fit into your car. These were someone's sons, brothers, and husbands, and you watched out for them."
But that came later, after Pearl Harbor Day's impact was understood.
"We were just kids, and the biggest thing on our minds was the Senior Ball," Wolfenberger said. "I don't think it hit me until Ambrose Regalia was killed--he was the first (from Pleasanton)--that was reality."
"One impact on us was that we had Japanese kids who went all through school with us, and they took them away," Butler said. "We definitely felt that when they were gone from our class."
Four of the 34 members of the Class of 1942 were shipped off to internment camps the April before graduation. One of the teenagers, Tom Sakata (now deceased), enlisted in the famous all-Japanese-American battalion. That battalion was sent on harrowing missions and suffered the highest rate of battlefield deaths. Blackouts became a part of life on the homefront. Block wardens were assigned to make sure that no light was showing from anyone's windows. Verna Garibaldi recalled getting down on the kitchen floor so she could practice her shorthand homework by the pilot light of the water heater--surely one of the most heroic student efforts on record. Fear and rumors swirled through town, particularly when full blackouts were announced by the prolonged wailing of sirens.
"My mother had washed white sheets and left them out to dry," Wolfenberger said. "I was scared that we'd get bombed. We'd heard the (false) rumor that Japanese troops had come as far as San Jose. We were supposed to turn out every light and stay inside but of course, we didn't. We all went down to Main Street. It was so dark you couldn't even tell who you were talking to in the crowd."
She noted that, despite the persistent myth to the contrary, the arch sign was totally blacked out, not left with the letter "P" glowing, for "P-Town."
Pleasanton was invaded, but not by enemy agents. The government took over farmland just north of Pleasanton (now Dublin) for the site of Camp Parks and Camp Shoemaker. McNeil Construction Company of Southern California won the bid for the job, and they moved 4,000 construction workers to the site for the speeded-up project.
"That's when the town changed," Garibaldi said, "when they built Camp Parks for Seabees (CB for Construction Battalions) and Camp Shoemaker for the Navy. Almost everyone in town worked out there at one time or another."
Shirley Butler was working for a local bank after graduating from high school.
"You have to imagine here's sleepy little Pleasanton, and here comes this huge construction crew. It was mind-boggling." she said. "We would keep the bank open late on Friday nights to cash all the construction workers' paychecks, and there would be a line down the block."
Later, she left her post at the bank to go work at the military hospital at Camp Shoemaker. According to the historical society's records, that hospital served 45,960 military patients between October 1943 and January of 1946. (Pleasanton's population was approximately 1,500 at the start of the war.) "Mind-boggling" might be the appropriate term to describe the immensity of the construction underway to transform farmland into military bases. The May 18, 1943 edition of The Oakland Tribune reported that William Curlett, general manager of the McNeil Construction Co., "revealed that 238 structures have been erected in the 176 working days since the start of the project last November. In addition, more than 2 1/2 million cubic yards of dirt was moved, 20 miles of road built, and a water system with capacity of more than 3 million gallons installed."
It would seem that the construction company did its best to live up to their motto: "The difficult we can do immediately--the impossible takes a little longer."
Soon, up to 60,000 military personnel were being housed in 60 barracks and 1,000 quonset huts. This lead to a tremendous local housing shortage as wives of sailors came to say farewell before their husbands were deployed or later, to visit husbands recovering in the hospital, awaiting discharge.
"People would walk the streets, to see a two-story house and ask for rental room," Butler said. "My folks rented our attic out to a Navy inspector and his wife. They became our 'Uncle George and Aunt Grace,' and while they were with us, he completely finished the attic space."
One unusual space that was occupied round-the-clock, beginning two hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, was the so-called "Eye in the Sky" room atop the former grandstand of the Alameda County Fairgrounds' racetrack. Butler, Garabaldi and Wolfenberger all served four-hour duty shifts up there, as did Bill Trimingham (Amador Class of 1946).
"You had to walk out on the roof of the building and use field glasses to distinguish between plane lights and stars," Trimingham said.
Sightings of aircraft were reported by telephone to a central command station from which interceptor planes could be dispatched if needed. With nearly all adult males in military service, Trimingham and his classmates were required to help harvest local crops. One of the more unusual duties he recalls was tending to guayule plants near the racetrack. This was a U.S. Department of Agriculture Research station, seeking an alternative source for rubber.
One of the urgent needs that comes in a time of war is figuring out recreation for military personnel far from home. The (then) tiny town of Pleasanton rose to the challenge, hosting USO gatherings at the Veterans Memorial Building. The stated purpose of USO was to "aid and entertain military personnel and their wives." Someone came up with the brilliant idea of offering as bingo prizes coveted long-distance telephone calls home for homesick sailors. Monthly USO dances were organized, and many local teenagers got to be USO Girls, dancing with lonely sailors. However, they were carefully chaperoned.
"I was never there without my mother," recalled former USO Girl Gloria (Joseph) Stahlnecker (Amador Class of 1945). "My mother always ended up working in the kitchen."
Another person with fond memories of being a USO Girl is Harriet (Nilson) Causey (Amador Class of 1946).
"Although I was only 15 when I started attending the dances, I was allowed to be there because my good friend, Norma (Robey) Scruggs' mother, Mrs. Irma Robey, would help in the kitchen serving food to the sailors, so she was there to chaperone us," Causey said. "We had good bands from the base and learned lots of new dances from sailors from different parts of the country. Causey's friend Norma later married classmate Bob Scruggs (now deceased), who retired from Pleasanton Unified School District as director of media services. In an earlier interview, Bob Scruggs told of being one of the few teenagers living at Camp Parks.
"There were three of us who arrived at school in a Navy limousine, which was a little unusual," he said.
Scruggs also recalled that one of the buildings on the high school campus was converted into a cannery. Local families could preserve produce from their Victory Gardens, so that commercially canned goods could go to the military. Other ways that local families were encouraged to support the war effort included buying war bonds and donating scrap metal. Families learned to live with rationed sugar, meat, butter, shoes, gasoline, and tires.
No one was untouched by the war. Sixty-six years have passed since Pearl Harbor was attacked. As Roosevelt predicted, Dec. 7, 1941, is a date that continues to live in infamy not only for those who can remember it, but for all Americans.
They were there: perspective from Hawaii
Nancy (Torrey) Elsnab was 12 years old when her father's company transferred him to Hawaii in September 1941. On Dec. 7, she had ridden a bus to Sunday school, but when she arrived, all the adults and children were standing outside. "Your parents will be here to get you shortly," she was told.
When her family arrived, "We went out to Red Hill where we could see the destruction," she remembered.
As soon as they got home, Elsnab's mother began baking food that could be packed in case they were ordered to evacuate. Her father strung wire in the yard as a way of tripping up any invaders sneaking up on the house.
"We thought the Japanese might invade us that night," Elsnab said. "All the men had to go down to form some sort of military patrol, but my father had never fired a gun in his life. For a kid, it was exciting. I didn't realize the enormity of the whole thing."
School was dismissed until March. Civilians were ordered to dig bomb shelters at their homes.
"We all worked on it. There was just tons of military activity over there," Elsnab said. "Soldiers across the street dug bunkers. They were in them night and day, so they became friends with all the kids in the neighborhood. After all, they were just a few years older than we were."
When they moved to Hawaii, their Pleasanton neighbors came to see them off in their first-class stateroom aboard the Lurline. One year later, they returned aboard the same ship, but it had been transformed for war duty as a troop ship.
"Coming back, we had to sleep in bunks and stand in a chow line. Soldiers who were returning from Guadalcanal were on the ship, and so was Hilo Hattie, who sang and played the ukelele," Elsnab said. "Our house (in Pleasanton) had been rented out, so we had to move in with neighbors for a few months."
Hilton Haile, who later worked in the Pleasanton post office until his death, was stationed at Pearl Harbor as a pharmacist mate. Although military personnel were forbidden to keep written records of their experiences, he spent the night of Dec. 7, 1941 writing down in the back of his hospital manual what he had experienced after being rousted out of bed at 8:15 that Sunday morning and ordered to report to his battle station.
A transcript includes the following: "The first thing I saw was several of our ships on the horizon. They were undergoing a terrific bombardment, but as I was on the bus, my view was not so good and (I) cannot verify any hits or planes lost."
After arriving at Hicam Field, wrote Haile, "I could see huge billows of smoke rising and many puffs of anti-aircraft fire which seem to be only five-sixths as high up as the planes were. Over this smoke was the first double rainbow that I ever saw in the morning here or anywhere. Between these rainbows the planes came like a waterfall in a stream. One after another they dove down into the smoke billows, and it appeared that they would surely be unable to pull up, for they actually dove within feet of their marks, not two or 3,000 like the movies, but within at least 300 feet they dove. I could see them plainly.
This I believe was the last torpedo plane. It came in so low and close to me that I could see the (pilot) smile and the velvety blue uniform he was wearing. I do believe I could have shot him down with a shotgun if one were on hand. He was that close."