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John Boston: The SCV’s December War

How Beige Was My Valley

Posted: December 13, 2008 8:42 p.m.
Updated: December 14, 2008 4:59 a.m.

For me, gratitude comes in waves, and I was bowled over earlier by a simple gift. At the crossroads of my country flirting with socialism, with a helmet-headed Illinois governor flaunting his power like Caligula, with O.J. going to jail until his 90s, I noticed something.

No one fired a shot at me this week. In fact, no one has ever taken a shot at me. Well. At least that I know of.

This is not one of those sexy anniversaries that comfortably ends in zero. But 67 years ago, we, the Little Santa Clara River Valley, were at war.

My dad turned 86 Friday. When I was in my early 20s, I was playing basketball and softball five times a week and lost in all-night poker the other two.

I laughed with friends until my face hurt, rode a motorcycle, had the back-breaking job of being a part-time sports editor, went to $2.25 movies and sat in open-air coffee shops in Westwood, pompously debating the state of the world.

When my dad was in his early 20s, people were actively trying to kill the guy. He marched all day, lost part of his hearing from an exploding mortar shell, slept on the ground in the snow with just a canvas half-cover.

He saw what no one should - the burnt and misshapen corpses of children - and his meals were essentially cold dog food from a tin can.

This existence followed surviving the Depression, during which, as a farm boy, his Christmas present was an apple. My father endured winters where he literally ate crow.

"It was kind of bitter," he recalls with a sweet smile and his patented minimalist delivery.

Are things so bad this week in the Santa Clarita Valley?

Today, we have about a quarter-million people squished into the valley. Sixty-seven years back, our population was 5,638.

On Dec. 7, 1941, there was no round-the-clock war coverage complete with theme music and graphics. In barbershops, garages and distant ranches, people huddled around their radios to hear reports that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The Santa Clarita Valley met the sweeping changes with a quiet heroism.

A half-century earlier, we were known as Newhall-Saugus and the hunchbacked Chinese military strategist Homer Lea awarded us with the dubious honor of being one of the top military targets on Earth.

The reasoning? Because we were this hub of the wheel for electrical, water, petroleum, natural gas, rail, highway and telephone/telegraph lines. If you could knock out and control the Little Santa Clara River Valley, you could effectively bisect California.

Within literally hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, military convoys poured into the SCV. The 115th Combat Engineers took over Newhall Elementary, setting up machine gun towers surrounded by barbed wire.

Can you imagine that today at your child's school - machine gun nests? Ironically, Saxonia Park in Placerita Canyon used to be Southern California's playground for German descendents where Oktoberfest was always held. That stopped. The 160th Infantry took that over as its headquarters.

Immediately, the valley was under complete blackout. On Dec. 14, 1941, one Civil Defense warden noted: "It's darker than the inside of a coal mine at midnight."

Why? An overwhelming December fear the Japanese would just continue their earlier victory and attack the West Coast. We had a small population of Japanese farmers. Signal Editor Fred Trueblood wrote a week after Pearl Harbor:

"Driving past a group of khaki-clad figures squatting behind an Army truck at a corner of the schoolyard, one of the figures chanced to look up. It was a Japanese face. Kids going into classes Monday morning say the Nesei students looked at them hard and doubtfully. What would be the reaction? Was the war going to be carried into school relations?

"Then smiles broke out. It was all right. It's always all right when simple human beings get together regardless of race or creed. It's the lousy leadership that does the dirt."

Alas, except for William S. Hart's butler, every person of Japanese descent in the valley would soon be sent to the internment camp at Manzanar in the Owens Valley.

It's easy to judge decades later, but the fear of an underground terrorist attack on a grand scale was a possibility.

The Black Dragon Society, then Japan's version of al-Qaida, had already attacked ports around the world, and a plot to blow up San Diego had been thwarted by the FBI.

Still. One local Caucasian farmer lamented for the friendship and skills of his now-missing Japanese neighbors, noting how he wished he had paid more attention to their adept agrarian skills, from planting to packing.

World War II brought one of the most instantaneous social changes in this nation's history. Almost overnight, women started entering the workplace, specifically in areas that had been predominantly blue collar male.

The Bermite Powder Company, one of America's premier suppliers of gunpowder and ammo, began calling for women to fill the three around-the-clock shifts. Eventually, Bermite's employees would be about 70 percent female.

Bermite was also vigorously guarded by the Army (ours), and folks who used to leisurely use it as a shortcut from Placerita Canyon to Soledad were warned. Guards shot first and asked questions later.

Through it all, we managed to keep our sense of humor. This was predominantly ranchland in the 1940s, and only women were left at the Fox Ranch in Castaic. The cowgirls painted a new sign for their front: "Welcome to Amazon Ranch."

Sheriff E.G. Marty, forced to move into a camper outside the little sheriff's sub-station because of the war, shook his head at what he called "FBI Jr. Syndrome." One woman in Saugus accused her neighbor of hanging out her laundry in a secret code to alert incoming Axis bombers.

No report of the Santa Clarita Valley at war could be complete without a most unusual and controversial incident involving this newspaper and a collision of aspects of the First Amendment.

Days after Dec. 7, anti-war demonstrators from a San Fernando Valley Jehovah's Witnesses congregation drove to downtown Newhall to protest. While practicing their constitutional rights, they were met with hostile reactions from local residents.

The confrontation culminated with Newhall veteran Ervin McCoy getting into a shoving match with a protester. McCoy tore up the man's placard.

The following Thursday, Editor Trueblood penned an editorial, displayed prominently on the front page of The Signal, reading:
"These political-religious termites are not wanted in Newhall. They have no church and few, if any, communicants here. At least 999 out of every 1,000 residents resent their presence. Nobody invited them here. Nobody wants them to come here or stay here. They are the rankest kind of intruders and trouble makers."

The day that issue came out, visiting rodeo cowboys attacked several male protesters on what today is Main Street.

While the cowboys were arrested, Judge William Kennedy refused to press charges. Trueblood followed up with another inflammatory editorial, noting: "While few townspeople participated in the beatings, most approved."

The county D.A., along with the ACLU, sent a contingent of detectives to monitor the protests, which went on, in smaller scale, for a few weeks.

John Boston has earned 117 major national, regional and California awards for writing. His work appears Sundays and Fridays in The Mighty Signal.


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