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John Boston: The SCV's December War, Part II

How Beige Was My Valley

Posted: December 20, 2008 4:46 p.m.
Updated: December 21, 2008 4:55 a.m.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

To say that current times are not foreboding would be disingenuous. For most of us, these first few years into the 21st century are unchartered waters.

Many of us ask: "Will we have a house?" "Will I still have a job?" "How will we pay for medicine?"

Sixty-seven years ago, this valley was in a war nothing short of Good vs. Evil. And for those who slept through high school history, the Cliffs Notes version was that we were the good guys and, luckily, we won.

One of the most beautiful but haunting passages ever to appear in this newspaper was penned by Signal Editor Fred Trueblood the second week into World War II, during military-ordered blackouts. This was back when The Signal rested on what is today Main Street:

"Trying to work in the print shop with two candles brought a thought to mind. Tiny tongues of flame - they cast huge wavering shadows on the walls and ceiling, gigantic, distorted, terrifying. All the familiar furniture and even the famous 65-year-old press looked queer and spooky.

"Almost instinctively everyone spoke in whispers. It must have been like that in Cro-Magnon caves, before the beginning of recorded history - when our hirsute progenitors huddled before a flittering oil wick in a gloomy cave and spoke in undertones of giants and devils roaming the world outside the magic circle of tiny light. We've just about come full circle, haven't we?"

That first week of WWII, Siegfried Dietzman was the unluckiest man in the SCV. For one thing, he was named Siegfried Dietzman. For another, he had a high-powered shortwave radio set and was calling relatives in Berlin. The rancher was arrested and never seen in this township again.

Again, I am humbled by the poetry of that complex Signalite, Fred Trueblood. He wrote of lost youth:

"Once they were little kids playing in sand piles. Their eyes were bright and dancing - and they laughed - when they were not crying. They came home from school like a gust of wind. The house rang with joyous shouts.

"From time to time, those kids come back again from some far shore, or camp where men do battle or prepare the selves for battle. They have taken on a dreadful maturity. They are men now, grim with purpose. In repose their eyes are somber, their faces haunted. Someone is going to pay for their lost laughter."

Willard McGonigall, Bob Storm and Bill Orsgurn, the day after Pearl Harbor, dropped their schoolbooks to enlist.

One wonders. Was it then when we misplaced childhood?

Traffic stopped. Remember, we were the epicenter of north-south and east-west highways. One Solemint merchant confessed he never saw more than six cars pass at any one time during the week, and that "gas stations had been turned into checker parlors."

The national forests were closed. Roadblocks were set up. Gas would be rationed and the national speed limit, to preserve fuel, was lowered to 40 mph. Highway Patrol officers were issued gas masks for fear of a chemical attack.

Even though we had complete blackouts beginning around 8 at night, that didn't stop the Downtown Merchants Association from erecting its 20-foot Christmas tree where Billy's sits today at Lyons and Main.
The hastily created Newhall Women's Ambulance Defense Corps opened a hospitality office for all the new soldiers stationed in town. Every man in a uniform was instantly adopted by SCV residents and taken into homes to celebrate Christmas. The visiting soldiers joked about Newhall Decembers where it could be 90 in the day and the next night, snowing.

Today, our car dealerships hike through a trying slump. And so it was 67 years ago. There was an immediate stoppage of auto-making. Even if you wanted to buy a car, you needed permission from the government. The Ford and Chevy dealerships in Newhall had a full stock of new cars that went unsold.

Add to that a punishing new car tax. Coca-Cola was rationed and the cost jumped 100 percent overnight.

Locals hoarded sugar, which could be used to make alcohol, which powered ammo-making industries. It took a ton of sugar to create enough energy to fire two shells from a 16-inch gun.

Today, along Soledad Canyon Road, sits 1,000 undeveloped acres called the Whittaker-Bermite site.

Heavyweight champ "Gentleman" Jim Corbett started an explosives plant there in 1901, and in the late 1930s, the Lizza family turned it into a fireworks factory.

The first week of the war, owner Pat Lizza returned from Washington, D.C. with a contract to turn Bermite into one of the country's biggest munitions makers. For most of the war, in around-the-clock shifts, 2,000 people churned out ammo.

The Friends of the River would be horrified at some of their practices. Bermite workers would take 55-gallon drums of defective powder, drive it across Soledad to the Santa Clara and dump it in the creek.

That's why back then you never drank the water in Fillmore.

We feared Axis terrorists would sneak into the forests and start raging brush fires. The local Civilian Mounted Posse was formed with nearly 100 riders to help the military patrol the back acres. Folks shook their heads at the strange line outside the Sheriff's Station at 6th Street: Several dozen cowboys were applying for passes to ride their horses up Bouquet Canyon.

You had to have military permission, even as a resident, to travel up there because of the reservoir. Funny thing was, here we were, surrounded by thousands of head of cattle, and we couldn't legally eat them.

They were rationed for the war.

Coupled with a West Coast shortage, it caused exactly half - that'd be two - of our butchers to close up their shops. Art Brown and The Peoples Market folded shop, leaving just Safeway and WP in business. A funny thing, a huge semi-truck carrying the precious foods flipped over and caught fire in Mint Canyon.

The prevailing winds carried a tortuous cloud of heavenly breakfast smells across the valley, causing jokes and sheepish grins.

So many things changed. The Southern Pacific Railroad, on military orders to again avert terrorism and roadblocks, started blowing up all the rail tunnels in the SCV, replacing them with simple cuts. The State Board of Equalization ordered bars closed at midnight. Historian and librarian Mary Brunner displayed a huge world map. The pushpins noted where every SCV serviceman was stationed.

Many of those men would not be coming home.

Heroism comes in the simple act. Early in the war, Mrs. Margaret Fose received the telegram no parent wants. She was notified her son, Bob, was killed in the Pacific.

Mrs. Fose showed up to work at Bermite the next morning, choking back tears while continuing to labor on the assembly line of our local munitions plant.

John Boston's work appears Sundays and Fridays in The Mighty Signal.


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