Signal 100 | Chapter 3: The Signal Covers World War II


No. 24 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal

In 2019, we live in dizzying times. Change is omnipresent. It defines us. What is today’s horrific tragedy is forgotten in a news cycle. On TV, cable, print, cellphones, laptops, electronic ticker tapes, the public is stuck in a daily, forever-changing dance of purgatory. No culture has endured this ongoing and self-inflicted assault on soul and psyche.

But it was much different here in America and Santa Clarita from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.

We were defined by one news story: World War II.

We watched it unfold, every Thursday in the weekly Newhall Signal. We experienced the horror, tragedy, sacrifice and humanity during the actual fighting. At the war’s end and beyond, we created a new culture, born of the habits of a Great Depression and the epic fighting of the second world war.

One indelible mark still glaringly exposed some 75 years later is the role of government in our daily lives. Prior to the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, America and the SCV were divided about going toe-to-toe with the Axis powers of the Nazi Socialist Party of Germany, Italy’s National Fascist Party and Japan’s Social Democratic Party. This newspaper was pretty much in favor of letting the rest of the world tear into one another.

After all, they were so far away. But, once in the fight, Signal Editor Fred Trueblood, one of the most influential people in the history of this valley, led a tireless, heroic effort to accept nothing less than victory over the evils of totalitarianism.

Part of that victory came at a price. We surrendered personal freedom to a central government.

The Signal reported the overnight presence of government, from county to federal. One of the first local acts of World War II was to form the Tire Rationing Board of the Little Santa Clara River Valley (that’s what we called ourselves then). Rubber was in short supply, and the three-member board of locals would make sure any discarded spares would be turned in to the war effort. Think of it as an HOA, backed by the military.

This newspaper took an active part, informing locals about all the new rules and regulations. The blackout rule was put immediately into effect, and you didn’t want to break it. Because of a very real concern of another sneak attack by the Japanese, the county of Los Angeles mandated a $300 fine or 50 — count them — 50 days in jail for leaving your porch light on after dark. The Signal lightened the message by noting: “… can’t see why you’d want to leave them on during the day, either.”

Fire Warden Bill Frownfelter gave a demonstration to hundreds of locals on how to dismantle and extinguish a variety of incendiary bombs. Worry was, in this area of woods and oaks, terrorists would start massive forest fires.

In March 1942, The Signal covered our first community wartime kabuki theater. Around 1,000 residents took part in a full-dress mock battle scenario. Remember, the SCV had been listed as one of the most prominent military targets on the planet (because it connected Southern and Central/Northern California by both road and railroad, our strategic “hub of the wheel” of water, electrical, natural gas, petroleum and other pipelines).

In this pretend scenario, five bombs took out a house on Chestnut and Kansas; a half-ton bomb hit the American Theatre dead center, leaving an 18-foot-deep crater; two Axis bombers crashed in Placerita Canyon; a huge bomb took out a bunch of track near the Saugus Depot, demolishing the train station; and, someone on Chestnut Street refused to turn out their lights during blackout.

Signal Editor Fred Trueblood quipped how “… several pretend spies were pretend captured, pretend questioned and then pretend beaten.” The town worked out solutions to fix all these scenarios.

Caption goes w/ accident at Saugus Care

Back in 1941, there was a sandwich shop right next door to the Saugus Café. Story goes that, on opening day, a delivery truck backed into Fielding S. Wood’s enterprise. Opened the same day. Closed the same day. About two years later, it didn’t take a truck to close the Saugus Café. With government-mandated rationing, the historic eatery closed its doors for 18 months. Didn’t have any food to serve all the Bermite workers and residents.

We got used to air-raid sirens signaling blackouts. With the war effort rationing of everything from sugar to coffee to bacon and beef, nearly everyone in the SCV ate a lot less. Trueblood even wrote a front-page editorial entitled, “Will we eat this year?”

In the early days of the war, things were going badly for us. In 1942, Trueblood wrote of the demeanor of the Santa Clarita Valley. Dances were canceled. So was the historic Fourth of July parade. The American Legion, which was responsible for the annual parties, was busy building defenses for the SCV, and many of the grown men of the valley were in the armed services.

Wrote Trueblood of the mood of our hamlet: “Folks, it’s serious. Everything is serious.”

In the spirit of patriotism, the Triangle Cafe changed its name to the Victory Cafe.

Other eateries weren’t so fortunate. Remember. Bermite employed 2,000 people then. It was just a couple miles away from the Saugus Café. But the historic eatery was forced to close for 18 months. Why? With rationing, the Saugus Cafe couldn’t get enough food to serve the hungry workers and locals.

Strangely humorous note about that closing. The Saugus Café had been open 24 hours a day since the days of SCV dinosaurs. When the owners went to lock the place, they realized the doors didn’t have any locks. They had to motor into Newhall and get special hardware to close the place up.

There were some benefits. Newhall Avenue was improved. Back then, much of it was a spine-breaking dirt path, dubbed “The Russian Road” by locals for its primitive condition. The Newhall “International” Airport was out there. (It earned the nickname because it made a twice-monthly mail run to Mexico.) The strip became a major military airport. The problem? Once flyers landed, they couldn’t go anywhere because Newhall Avenue was such a dystopian excuse for a highway.

This newspaper reported how the County Improvement Project of 1942 raised the road, regraded and oiled the dirt highway and provided what they thought would be a decent byway for cars and trucks. They didn’t take into consideration the epic rainfalls that hit the valley from 1942 to 1945. The project was also a local boon. The county Road Department was hiring just about anyone locally (even over 55 years old) to be laborers on the project. It paid pretty well, too — $110 a month.

Few people today realize that the little Newhall airstrip, so important in World War II, nearly became the site of Los Angeles International Airport. The Signal noted that a $15 million bond measure was passed in 1938 to make it so. Also, the fact that the SCV wasn’t fogged in like the airstrips of Glendale, Burbank and Los Angeles made it an ideal spot. But, paperwork was reshuffled and monies reallocated. In 1949, the Mines Field in Westminister became the central hub. After the war, the little Newhall field (near where Granary Square on McBean is today) reverted to the sleepy little strip. It was gone by 1960.

The Newhall “International” Airport was a vital part of this community, from the early 1920s to 1960. This 1941 photo of a row of Stearman PT-13Bs was taken at the Newhall field. Our airstrip was an integral part of the war effort and was a staging ground for training pilots, including French, Canadian and British, during World War II. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Fruedenthal)

Another aspect of Santa Clarita life covered by The Signal was the hardship of home foreclosure. In 1938, the state had divided unincorporated California into what they called “townships.” We were the epicenter of the Soledad Township, an area of about 1,000 square miles stretching to Fort Tejon, Palmdale and Chatsworth. In 1943, there were 1,600 properties on the auction block for delinquent taxes.

Here’s the amazing thing: the TOTAL value for the properties was just $414,370 and all 1,600 properties could have been purchased for just $159,000.

And, of course, these hardships were nothing compared to the trials our men and boys in combat endured. The Signal printed a letter from a local, Arthur E. Lee. The sergeant was a P.O.W. in Austria. Art wrote: “My Xmas this year was rather dull; no Tom and Jerries, and no exchange of presents. We received a parcel from the Red Cross with a little candy and cigarettes. God bless them.”

The Signal ran other letters from local servicemen. A young Newhall soldier wrote home to recall the hellish conditions of battle in the Pacific. They were still clearing out islands that had not heard of the Japanese surrender. In caves were rotting bodies of Rising Sun soldiers who had committed hari kari. His battalion was surprised when a beautiful geisha girl emerged from another hole, waving at the Americans and smiling. They dove for cover when her countenance changed and she came up with a live grenade, blowing herself up but taking no GIs with her.

By 1944, we could see, and feel, the tide of the war finally turning in our favor. Besides the war notes in The Signal of the enemy in retreat, locally, it was like the coming of a long-forgotten spring.

For one thing, after nearly two years, the Saugus Café opened again — and for 24 hours a day! A Signal ad proclaimed: “An Old Friend Returns Today.”

About a week later, Sept. 12, 1944, the old Motor Stage in Downtown Newhall reopened.

Wouldn’t that be grand if today, in 2019, someone would open a restaurant in downtown Newhall named The Motor Stage? Perfect with all those theaters there, isn’t it?

The Signal started looking toward the future. Plans from 1938 and earlier were revived to build that long-awaited local high school.

Interestingly, the original location for the future Hart High was to be in the Honby area (where Home Depot is on Soledad). After all. That was the center of the SCV and home to Bermite, the big munitions plant.

But with the formal end of World War II, on Sept. 2, 1945, Bermite literally cut 98% of its workforce, laying off most of the 2,000 employees. It would retool and grow for the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Soldiers came home. Women quit the factories and stopped driving trucks. They returned to become wives and homemakers, ushering a new generation of baby boomers and the halcyon 1950s.

I used to teach the history of the Santa Clarita. Two stories The Signal ran to this day still haunt me.

The first involved a Navy pilot who had been shot down twice during the war. The decorated hero had been involved in numerous European dogfights. He came home, married his high school sweetheart, bought a house and they immediately became pregnant. The flyer still worked for the Navy, training pilots in San Pedro. In 1946, after all those deadly missions, he died in a routine training accident in 1946.

That same year, a Newhall Army sergeant, recipient of numerous medals including the Purple Heart, had married his high school sweetheart on leave in 1943. They had one child. The Army sergeant had been wounded in the Pacific and had been involved in hand-to-hand combat in the jungles. He was adapting nicely to civilian life and was driving home from hunting in Pico Canyon. A carload of high school kids veered over the center and hit him head-on.

He died en route to the hospital.

Was it karma? Evil dumb luck? After surviving so much, after being presented with hope and peace, each accident was so terribly, impossibly cruel and unfair. And there were so many other horrendous stories, of servicemen coming home only to die in car accidents or of later war injuries.

The Signal noted, at the top of the front page in our Aug. 16, 1945, edition, how the town rejoiced at President Franklin D. Roosvelt’s radio address about the war ending I can’t even begin to imagine the joy, laughter, tears, exhaustion and simple exhalation of a breath held for five years.

This may have been the absolute happiest day in the history of the valley. For more than five years, the Signal covered just about every aspect of World War II, from the tragic to mundane. While the effects of WWII would be felt long into the future, in our Thursday issue of Aug. 16, 1945, we could finally say the fighting was over. But the tragedies would go on.

We were a tougher people in America then, a tougher people here in Santa Clarita.

About a week ago, I spoke with a friend about World War II. She questioned whether our America today had the fortitude and toughness to summon such strength and will. Faced with adversity or threat, would today’s society go running in search of safe spaces? Blame ourselves for being attacked? Would we fall into chemical withdrawals without Facebook?

We’re not that same species from the 1940s and that terrible war. Today, many are comfortable, angry, entitled, untested, overly introspective, humorless, in denial, often emotionally brittle.

The second president of the United States, John Adams, once offered a famous quote: “I am a soldier, so my son can be a farmer, so his son can be a poet.”

It isn’t fair to paint an entire generation or two with one brush. But a question deserves an answer.

Are our better days ahead? Or, will we add a final and updated stanza to Adams’ declaration?

“… so his son, or daughter, can be a whiner.”

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 installment No. 25 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

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