Signal History | Chapter 1: The Signal Covers World War II


HOne of the most haunting bits of Signal prose I’ve ever read was penned by editor Fred Trueblood in early-December 1941.

It was during the second week of America’s involvement in World War II. The Signal was on Main Street then. The entire valley was under martial law. Because of a very real threat of the SCV being attacked by Japanese war planes, the valley was under blackout at night. The entire night was black.

Trueblood wrote what it was like trying to compose a newspaper in darkness:

“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 old 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?”

This newspaper has covered epic stories over its 100 years in existence. None was so big and lasted so long as how the valley survived during the second world war. The Signal chronicled the sacrifices, tragedies and heroism of its neighbors, both here and off a half-globe away, fighting the totalitarian Axis monsters.

Rough estimate, there’s some 300,000-plus souls squished into the valley in 2019. In 1941, 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 Signal was a weekly in 1941. This is the front page of the Dec. 12 issue, just five days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declared war on Germany, Japan and Italy.

CYellowed back Signal newsprint still hold the details of how the war unfolded. Within literally hours of the Hawaiian attack, 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 their 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 that 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 school yard, one of the figures chanced to look up. It was a Japanese face. Kids going into classes Monday morning say the Nisei 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, Japan’s version of al-Qaida then, had already attacked ports around the world and a plot to blow up San Diego had been thwarted by the FBI. Still. This paper noted how one local Caucasian farmer lamented both the friendship and skills of his now-missing Japanese neighbors, noting how he wished he should have paid more attention to their adept agrarian skills, from planting to packing.

Bermite, once a landmark of the SCV, was one of the nation’s largest munitions suppliers, employing 2,000 in round-the-clock shifts. During WWII, most of the workers were women.

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

The Bermite Powder Co. on Soledad (near the Metrolink station today) had been one of America’s premier suppliers of everything from commercial explosives to gunpowder and fireworks.

It immediately switched to churning out war effort ammo, employing 2,000 people around the clock all through the war.

Bermite began calling women to fill the three around-the-clock shifts. Eventually, the huge munitions plant would be about 70% 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 shoot first and ask questions later,” The Signal cautioned.

Through it all, we managed to keep our sense of humor.

This was predominantly ranchland in the 1940s, and all who were left at the Fox Ranch in Castaic were women. The cowgirls painted a new sign for their spread. Over the front gate was the new greeting: “Welcome to Amazon Ranch.” Sheriff E.G. Marty, forced to move into a camper outside the little sheriff’s substation because of the war load, 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.

The Mighty Signal even got into the tussle — with some Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The first week of the war, a small squadron representing that church chose downtown Newhall to stage an anti-war protest.

Enraged, Editor Trueblood wrote a damning front page editorial, in 18-point type. In part:

“These politic-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 The Signal came out, some visiting rodeo cowboys beat the tar out of the male protesters. In the next week’s paper, Trueblood wrote: “While few townspeople participated in the beatings, most approved.”

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 used to call his mom in Berlin.

The rancher was arrested and never seen in this township again.

The Signal noted Willard McGonigall, Bob Storm and Bill Orsgurn, the day after Pearl Harbor, dropped their school books and childhood to enlist.

Again, the pen of Signal Editor Trueblood created somber poetry, writing 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.”

R.R. Riedel, manager of the local branch of Bank of America (at the east side of 8th and San Fernando Road then), unfurled a war service flag with the number 1255 on it. That’s how many Bank of America men enlisted in the army.

Traffic stopped. The Signal noted that 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 …”

National forests were closed. Roadblocks 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 p.m., that didn’t stop the Downtown Merchants Association from erecting their 20-foot Christmas tree across from where the new Laemmle theater is being built.

The hastily created Newhall Women’s Ambulance Defense Corps opened a hospitality office on the main drag 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 and were confounded by Newhall Decembers. It could be 90 in the day and the next night, below freezing.

The Signal, in great detail, chronicled the changes, from great to minute. America stopped making cars. The Ford and Chevy dealerships in Newhall had a full stock of new cars that went unsold (money disappeared and you needed written permission from the federal government; add to that, a punishing new car tax).

Coca-Cola was rationed and the cost jumped 100% overnight. Locals hoarded sugar, which could be used to make alcohol, which powered ammo-making industries. A Signal stat: It took a ton of sugar to create enough energy to fire two shells from a 16-inch gun.

Today, The Friends of the Santa Clara River would be horrified at some of Bermite’s practices. Workers would take 55-gallon drums of defective powder, throw it in the back of a pickup, drive it across the street to the Santa Clara and dump it in the creek.

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

The Signal reported how housewives helped make bombs by donating their kitchen grease — what little they had. Women would take their bacon, lard and addendum animal fat drippings in coffee cans down to the Safeway and be paid 4 cents a pound, although folks were asked to contribute the money right back to the Civilian Defense Council.

The Signal noted the housewives joked that the government wanted more household grease, while limiting people from buying the very food items which produced it.

Another Signal war stat: Ten tons of grease would make a ton of glycerin, which was used to make nitroglycerin and other explosives.

Like nearly every community in America, the second world war stole the lives of vibrant men. August Rubel wasn’t the only SCV soldier to die overseas. The last owner of the Camulos Ranch had served in World War I as an ambulance driver and volunteered to train paramedic drivers in WWII. He was killed in Tunisia in 1943 when his training ambulance hit a road mine. The Harvard-educated Rubel was the last private owner of the historic “birthplace” of the literary character, Ramona. He and his wife bought the place in 1924 from the del Valle family, raising five children there.

CWe feared Axis terrorists would sneak into the forests and start huge brush fires. The local Civilian Mounted Posse was formed with nearly 100 riders to help the military patrol the back acres.

Folks shook their head 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 come 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.

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. 23, Chapter 2: The Signal Covers World War II, in our History of The Mighty Signal.

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