Signal 100 | Chapter 2: The Signal Covers World War II

No. 23 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal

It’s startling comparing how different the Santa Clarita and this nation are today vs. the early days of the 1940s. In 2019, we are as divided as any time since or during the Civil War.

And today, The Signal works to keep us together.

During World War II, certainly there were divisions, different opinions and viewpoints. However, we were single-minded about sticking together as a nation and facing a common foe: the Axis powers of the Nazi Socialist Party of Germany, Italy’s National Fascist Party and Japan’s Social Democratic Party.

Some 80 years ago, The Signal helped hold this valley together.

We were just coming out of a decade of the Great Depression. Immediately, we’re hit with a world war. Not only did people sacrifice, but they also became used to more government-driven operations in our private lives. Simple things, from turning off lights at night to what we could eat, where we could go, where we worked, who we could call or talk to, were all colored by the war effort.

It was a pretty simple choice in 1941: Good vs. Evil.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Santa Clarita Valley went into instant emergency mode.

Why?

American military consultant Gen. Homer Lea listed the SCV as one of the top military targets on planet Earth. He opined that if the Japanese could take out and control our valley during World War II, they could effectively bisect California. Courtesy photo

The Signal pointed to a little-known military genius from early in the 20th century. American Homer Lea was an Army consultant for the Chinese, global military strategist and author. Though barely 5 feet tall, he helped Dr. Sun Yat-sen overthrow the ancient Qing Dynasty in 1911. He lived in Los Angeles for four years and visited the Santa Clarita a few times. In one of his books, he compiled the 10 top military targets on Earth. The Santa Clarita Valley was on the list.

Again — why?

The Signal pointed out that 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, as General Lea suggested, you could effectively bisect California.

Women and Bermite to the forefront

Many old-timers here will remember Bermite, a fireworks factory that became one of the country’s top munitions plants. Few, however, know where the name originated. Owner Pat Lizza, a fourth-generation fireworks maker (whose family ironically hailed from the base of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy) named his factory after the first half of the plant’s manager (“Bernie”) and the last half of “dynamite.”

Ber-mite.

Get it?

For the duration the war, an overnight metamorphosis in gender roles occurred. Women worked hard. Socially, they were considered mothers, wives and girlfriends. Women ran the households, not the factories. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, that instantly changed.

The Mighty Signal painted a picture of a valley in calm cacophony. As men rushed to combat, SCV women immediately took over the previously male-dominated work of cowboying, farming and even bomb-making. Bermite (where the Soledad Metrolink Station is today), had a 70 percent female workforce. That worked out to about 1,400 women out of 2,000 employees.

This created a unique and delicate set of problems.

Back then, the fashion trend touted silk stockings, silk underwear and sometimes silk brassieres.

Silk is a big no-no at a gunpowder factory. Rubbing silk against silk can cause a flammable spark.

Every woman, on all three round-the-clock shifts, had to go through a Female Body Inspection before entering the secured facility. Pity the poor woman who wouldn’t — ahem, stand up — to have her long skirt lifted or trousers lowered. Fred Trueblood, in his Signal Watchtower column, once noted that each shift, a trio of husky Bermite (female) inspectors were more than happy to lift up a recalcitrant factory worker to make sure her unmentionables were government-grade.

One of the blessings of World War II for this valley after the end of fighting was the arrival of war bride Bobbie Trueblood. At 21, she married future Signal editor Fred Trueblood II and would become one of the brightest lights for 50 years of Santa Clarita life. For many years, she was also this paper’s society and lifestyle editor. Courtesy photo

Another strange working condition we noted?

The lady bomb-makers at Bermite were literally chained to their job. Many workers were nailed to the floor with rubber ankle cuffs. It was to form a ground so they wouldn’t make sparks while fiddling with high explosives.

Just what did someone earn working at Bermite during WWII? Women employees started at around 75 cents an hour, being brought up with regular nickel raises on a schedule and taking into consideration performance. Some women made over $1 an hour. Other women workers in similar plants around the country started at 60 cents an hour and didn’t have as many raises. The men made around 25 percent more than the women in similar jobs.

Still. While being at the top of the pay scale for factory workers, Lizza (pronounced like the female first name of “Lisa,”) worked tirelessly to get the employees raises. In 1942, Washington put a freeze on all raises involving defense spending. Lizza managed to get all staff raises. The overworked Bermite crew received retroactive checks ranging from $40 to $550.

How’s this for sacrifice?

Many of the workers used the money to buy war bonds.

During the war, many American industrialists were profiting. In 1943, Lizza noticed he had a surplus of money — about $1 million — from military contracts. That was a staggering sum in those days. The Signal reported how Lizza flew to Washington to return suitcases of cash to a surprised War Department.

Women weren’t just working at the bomb plant. The Signal noted in 1943 how a big battalion of Forest Service heavy equipment lumbered into town. SCVians were literally running out of the homes and businesses in Downtown Newhall to watch as the crews climbed down to go to lunch. They laughed and pointed at a sight never seen before. Seems the entire convoy was comprised of women.

Our MVP as editor?

Signal owner and editor Fred Trueblood would easily make my Top 10 list of the most influential people in SCV history.

The dashing Fred Trueblood I, 1890-1960. He led this valley and The Mighty Signal through the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War. Courtesy photo

If I could write this description of Trueblood in neon, I would:

No Other Editor In

The 100-Year History

Of This Newspaper

Went Through So Much

And Sacrificed More

Than Fred Trueblood.

Period.

Not only did Trueblood fight in World War I, but also he worked full time at Bermite during the day as an Army quality control inspector with the rank of major. After his shift, he’d work sometimes all night to put out The Signal, which was a Thursday weekly then. Pretty much, Trueblood worked a 7-day-a-week schedule for the entire war.

For most of the war, we ran a regular column in the paper, devoted solely to the goings-on at the ordnance factory. The feature was called “Fuze News.”

Clever.

Obviously, much of the news had to be censored. But Trueblood ran a firsthand account of one of the terrible accidents that occurred working around explosives. This is Trueblood’s reporting, from The Signal, Sept. 7, 1943. It is about the grisly death of George Cole, 41, when an explosion at his machine took his head clean off:

“In an instant everybody is standing and moving quickly, quietly, to the exits. Some glimpse through the smoke, a blackened figure prone on the floor. Red rivulets are creeping outward. But there are no screams, no panic. In a twinkling, the room is empty.

Some of the girls try to get back into the room. They want to help the man on the floor. … He is beyond help. Others are trembling and unstrung, some even physically sick. An hour passes while necessary measures are taken. And now the women and girls are coming back into the room. They take their accustomed places and again, the flow of deadly war materials begins.”

Besides shouldering the heavy burden of double duty and being the premier community leader by word and example, Trueblood had a son to worry about.

In early June 1942, a young Fred Trueblood II ran the print and composing portion of this paper. He took his physical. In a flash, he was on the battlefield.

Two years later, in August 1944, the second lieutenant was fighting in the tank corps against German Panzer divisions. He was in the turret when it was hit by an artillery round. Rocked by the explosion, Trueblood II survived in a surrealistic haze and ended up in a medic’s tent. Fred the Second would later take over for his father as editor of this Mighty Signal. He’d also bring home a war bride, 21-year-old Aileen “Bobbie” Nash. The effervescent Bobbie Trueblood would rule over Santa Clarita society for nearly 50 years.

The Signal leads by humor

That wonderfully unique American sense of humor has helped us through many tragedies. Certainly The Signal has a long history of tickling funny bones, no matter what the circumstances. Trueblood (the father) kept spirits alive by reminding us of both the war and the lighter side in all the darkness.

While Trueblood jokingly referred to several women around town as “Sob Sisters,” he graciously noted they were 100 percent correct in their grievances. Women were asked to recycle cooking grease for the war effort (it was used for munitions and lubrication). They were also asked to donate nylons. The gals pointed out that they couldn’t donate kitchen grease because bacon, sausage and the like were being rationed so they couldn’t save grease from meat they didn’t have. As for nylons, many of them claimed to have been walking about bare-legged for the previous 18 months.

In 2019, some of us fret about government spying and illegal phone taps.

Back in the early 1940s, we had about 500 phones in the greater valley and all calls went through the Newhall switchboard. The Signal reported how one Canyon Country sailor, home on leave, had gotten drunk. The seaman was making some rather inventive 2 a.m. romantic suggestions to his girlfriend, all the way across the valley in Newhall. The horrified and spinster operator, Holly Hubbard, as she was often wont to do, was eavesdropping. Holly called the cops. The Navy man was arrested, not so much for giving up state secrets, but for ribald speech over a party line.

Can you imagine — the citizens of 1943 Santa Clarita being vaulted into the future to 2019? How would they react to a culture and economy of surround-sound pornography?

Trueblood made us laugh.

He penned a joke in his page-1 column, noting that the U.S. and our enemy the Japanese had struck an agreement to divide the Pacific Ocean in half. “The U.S. would take the top and Japan would take the bottom,” wrote Trueblood.

Making fun of wartime rationing, he noted a sign hanging behind the counter of the old Sand Canyon Café:

“Coffee: 5 cents. Sugar: a dime.”

He covered Tuffy, the first local dog drafted for the war effort. Of the estimated 20 million dogs in the country, only 10 percent were big enough (18 inches at the shoulder) to qualify for the armed services, The Signal noted. Several local pets were donated by their masters to serve carrying packs, standing guard duty or delivering messages. Trueblood pointed out some dogs were much brighter than most officers. A total of 11 SCV dogs were “drafted.”

“No word from the local cats if they felt slighted,” wrote Trueblood.

In 1943, at the American Theater (which had only had its grand opening two years earlier), Trueblood wryly commented about the second half of the double bill. The movie was entitled: “We Were Never Licked.” The Signal hoped the film was a war movie.

Through humor, tradition, honesty, hope, remembrance of that through which this country strong and vital, The Signal saw the SCV through the heartbreak and sacrifice of the second world war. Just days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, The Signal’s Dec. 26, 1941, issue wished all its readers and advertisers to have a “…merry, -confident Christmas.” The hyphen was no extra charge. Courtesy photo

And Fred Trueblood’s front-page columns could make the toughest mug cry.

His Signal thought pieces were simple, to the heart. The first known local killed in combat was LaVern Furgeson. The Castaic boy lost his life in the Philippines in February 1942. Trueblood reminded us of our divine duty to comfort the families of those who lost their lives serving America.

He wrote one of the best columns ever penned in this historic paper. It appeared on Christmas Eve, 1943. Trueblood offered a touching comparison of Joseph and Mary trying to find lodging 2,000 years earlier and a young soldier trying to stay warm and safe in a foxhole during World War II. Trueblood’s grafs were labeled either “A.D. 1” or “A.D. 43.”

From the Christmas Eve, 1943, A.D.:

“It is, for wonder, a sunny day in the winter murk of northern Europe … The fighters peel off to the left, but freakish pterodactyls keep coming. Most of the monsters flick by, like bad dreams.”

From Christmas Eve, Year One, A.D.:

“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

And that, for many in the Santa Clarita, was this newspaper’s prayer of hope.

Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for our WWII final installment, Chapter Three: The Signal Covers World War 2, in part 24 of our 52-part History of The Mighty Signal.


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