For San Diegans, the War Changed Everything : The Sleepy City Was Suddenly Transformed Into Bustling Boom Town : THE WAR IN EUROPE: A 50-year Legacy

Times Staff Writer

The Very Rev. James Carroll, pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego, lived in Linda Vista throughout World War II. He remembers a city transformed.

“Anti-aircraft batteries were at the top of Kelly Street, patrolled for the first six weeks (after the attack on Pearl Harbor) by guys with fixed bayonets,” Carroll said. “The blackout at night was total, supplemented with air-raid warnings and lessons on how to put out fires.

“But I’ve got to be honest--for a 7th-grader, it was wonderful . Life was wildly exhilarating and romantic. We were all very much alive. Boredom just didn’t exist.”


For Europe, the war began exactly 50 years ago today, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. For San Diego, it arrived with a predawn air strike on Pearl Harbor.

San Diego was one way before Dec. 7, 1941, and quite another the morning after. World War II transformed the city from a sleepy cul-de-sac somewhere between Los Angeles and Mexico into a fledgling metropolis that overnight became critical to American military interests.

“With the war, the military took over large sections of San Diego County,” wrote Michael McKeever in “A Short History of San Diego.” “On Rancho Margarita near Oceanside, the Marines established Camp Pendleton. In El Cajon, they laid out Gillespie Field and trained parachutists. The Army camped on Torrey Pines Mesa, and the Navy moved into Balboa Park.

The City Transformed

“Every American city was affected by World War II, but San Diego was transformed. Its quiet streets suddenly throbbed with life. Aircraft carriers rang with the sound of work around the clock, and, along Broadway, some cafes never closed. Long troop trains rolled in and out of the Santa Fe depot. Darkened warships slipped in and out of the harbor, and armed men patrolled the city’s beaches.”

After Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt’s declaration of war, the city incurred massive problems in housing, not unlike those of the current era. Population soared from 200,000 in 1940 to 362,000 by 1945. The years after the war were even more staggering.

Streetcars gave way to automobiles and buses. Mission Valley, which some considered an environmental oasis, was laid bare for development. San Diego, like the rest of America, drifted to the suburbs.


The war created paranoia and mistrust in the city’s ethnic communities, at a time when thousands of local residents headed off to fight the world’s most flagrant racist. Thousands of Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps--more than 120,000 by the end of the war and 80% from California, including 2,300 from San Diego County.

Through it all, the economy thrived. William T. Immenschuh, 72, president of the San Diego Aerospace Museum, said the war brought tens of thousands of newcomers to the city to build planes. Ryan Aeronautical developed the PT-16 and a host of other “trainers,” built for teaching Army Air Corps cadets how to fly. The Rohr plant became a leading supplier of military parts.

In 1935, Reuben H. Fleet moved his Consolidated Aircraft from Buffalo, N.Y., to San Diego to escape the bitter winters and get the maximum out of year-round flying. Vultee Aircraft merged with Consolidated in 1943--a buyout that made Fleet $11 million--and became Convair, a leading manufacturer of wartime aircraft. Immenschuh said that Convair delivered 28,000 aircraft to the military during the war, including the B-54 bomber.

Among the various and dramatic effects of the war, one of the oddest and most annoying was an epidemic--of lice.

In the hysteria after Pearl Harbor, lice were symbolic of the growing fear of a Japanese air strike.

At the Convair plant on Pacific Highway, chicken feathers were applied to sprawling chicken-wire nets and painted, as a way of camouflaging the facility from enemies, who were supposed to believe they were flying over farmland.


Maurice Tompkins, 34, a teacher at Roosevelt Junior High School and the author of a master’s thesis on San Diego during the war era, said chicken feathers gave way to lice, which gave way to itching and sores but were no more life-threatening than the feathers themselves.

Attack Never Came

“Barrage balloons,” which one man remembered as “looking like blimps on steel poles,” floated throughout the county. If Japanese aircraft pierced the balloons, the thinking went, they would explode on impact. The balloons remained in place until the end of the war.

The attack that everyone knew would come never did. But, in the days after Pearl Harbor, the feeling of being the next victim of the Japanese shadowed everyone’s experience.

“I remember Dec. 7 as if it were yesterday,” said the Rev. William Mahedy, 53, Episcopal chaplain at UC San Diego and San Diego State University. Mahedy was born and grew up in Kensington.

“It was Sunday morning, and we had gone to church. We were planning to go to a football game that afternoon, an old San Diego Bombers game. I was terribly disappointed, because the game was canceled, and my father, who was in the Navy, was called away immediately. That night, the whole town was blacked out and would be for many nights to come.”

Mahedy, who was 5 at the time, remembers his mother buying “blackout” curtains, which kept light from escaping through windows and concealed the city.


“I remember my father saying, ‘There’s nothing between Pearl Harbor and San Diego’ and all of us believing an attack was imminent,” Mahedy said. “Blackouts and camouflages seemed like puny protection.”

Ray Brandes, dean of the graduate school at the University of San Diego and author of “An Illustrated History of San Diego,” said that Tijuana paid no heed to blackout hysteria and profited from the fever of war.

“That place was lit up like a Christmas tree,” Brandes said. “As a result, it became a mecca for night life. Sailors loved it.”

Temporary Housing Units

Carroll, 60, remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor as the most dramatic turning point in the city’s history. Nowhere was change more apparent than Linda Vista, where the Navy erected dozens of temporary housing units. Carroll and his family moved into such a unit and lived there for years.

Mahedy remembers a town whose existence was oriented almost solely to sailors and Marines and to keeping the war effort going. As a child, he loved “war games” in Balboa Park but bitterly resented the rationing of gasoline and food. As a boyhood Catholic who later joined the Episcopal Church, he loathed “meatless Tuesdays.”

He remembers the fear-tinged excitement of listening to President Roosevelt over KFMB radio or KNX in Los Angeles and going to the Fox Theatre to see the latest Movietone newsreel, which captured in stark black and white the evil likenesses of the Satans of the hour--Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo.

But his lasting memories have to do with San Diego’s austere transformation from prewar town into post-war city. He, like others, sees striking parallels between the boom of the 1950s and that of the current era.


“The war opened up everything north of where Interstate 8 is now,” said Maurice Tompkins, whose thesis explored such changes. “A lot of people who came here to work during the war stayed here after the war.”

Tompkins said the most striking parallel between then and now is that “there were many more people on the streets then than houses to put them in. Bordellos were shut down by the military and turned into rooming homes for sailors. Sometimes, more than three people used the same apartment, sleeping in three eight-hour shifts. There was a huge need for schools and day-care centers.

“I remember hearing about one frustrated factory worker who said he would marry any landlady sight unseen if she would furnish him a room. Winos complained of the scarcity and high prices of muscatel. The Chamber of Commerce even tried reverse propaganda, urging people to stay away, at least until the war ended.

“The crowding was so bad that, if someone didn’t work, they were roundly despised. Wives and girlfriends who came out just to be with their men were known as geraniums , like the flower. They didn’t produce anything.”

Brandes, the historian, remembers museums being turned into hospitals to help with the sick and wounded; Mission Valley was inundated with trailers housing factory workers. As a Mexican-American, he remembers serving loyally in the Army in a unit separate from that of Anglos.

Had Own Regiment

“We had our own regiment,” he said, “but we always had Irish officers.”

Beth Slayen, 69, who came to San Diego in 1932, worked on Broadway for a jeweler named Harry Wosk. As a Jew who attended services at Temple Beth Israel in Hillcrest, she paid heed to the menace of Nazism and to the “virulent” anti-Semitism of The Broom, a newspaper published locally.

The full impact of the Holocaust hit Slayen after the war. Her brother’s wife lost more than 100 members of her extended family in the death camps of Europe. Slayen and her husband were married in 1942, but he went overseas in 1943, as an intelligence officer in North Africa and Italy. She didn’t see him again until after the war.


It was then that she began to notice anti-Semitism in San Diego. Realtors in La Jolla maintained a policy of neither renting nor selling to blacks or Jews. She said that Jews were not welcome as board members of the city’s arts organizations and that not until the opening of UCSD in the 1960s did anti-Semitism begin to erode.

After Dec. 11, 1941, when Benito Mussolini, took his Fascist empire to war against the United States, the FBI started keeping an eye on San Diego’s Italian community. Sorrow and suspicion shadowed the homes and businesses along India Street and in the neighborhoods near the waterfront.

According to published accounts, the FBI was raiding homes by February, 1942--mainly those owned by Japanese-Americans in Coronado--confiscating such articles as flashlights and telescopes and any other items the authorities figured could be used for espionage.

About 200 non-citizen Italians were ordered to leave their homes, although some restrictions were lifted for the aged and ill, for relatives of servicemen and for those who had filed naturalization papers before the Japanese attack.

It was not uncommon for “enemy aliens,” including long-time residents of San Diego’s Italian and Japanese communities, to be arrested for violating the strict 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew law.

In 1942, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors asked the federal government to remove all Japanese-Americans and their descendants to a “concentration camp.” The local Chamber of Commerce approved a resolution in 1943 that said, in essence, that the Japanese should never be allowed to return to San Diego.


About 2,300 Japanese were packed into sealed railroad cars at the Santa Fe depot and shipped off to Poston, Ariz. Most lost their homes and belongings and have yet to receive financial redress, although Congress voted in 1987 to allocate $20,000 to each person of Japanese ancestry interned during World War II.

For many, the war was a time of unparalleled fear; for others, a time of wild exhilaration, a time when the young, like the city and country they lived in, brutally came of age.

After the war, “the family got a new Chevrolet, and pretty soon we had nice new roads to drive it on,” said Mahedy. “Rationing was over, the camouflage came down, but childhood impressions never left. As it was for most people, childhood was never again the same. World War II changed childhood forever.”