Region Forever Changed : S. California in WWII--Sleeping Giant Awakens

Times Staff Writer

On a wind-swept bluff overlooking the San Pedro coastline, a shallow trench covered with weeds marks the spot where World War II infantrymen once guarded against a Japanese invasion.

The trench stands as a memorial to the war’s profound impact on Los Angeles for historians such as Donald Young, who oversees the site as curator of the Ft. MacArthur Military Museum.

“There were once three dozen machine guns pointed toward the coast here,” Young said during a tour of the military base that held 2,000 soldiers at the height of the war. “It was the last line of defense. Most people have forgotten that the war was actually that close.”


Fifty years ago today, the German invasion of Poland ushered in World War II. In years to come, for a time at least, that war would loom as large as the ocean and as threatening as the night sky for Southern Californians, because of the proximity of Japanese forces in the Pacific. Blackouts often shrouded the region in darkness. Frightened residents flocked to their local police stations to obtain incendiary bomb extinguishers. And mothers chased their children off neighborhood playgrounds in the belief that crowds would draw enemy fire.

More than 50,000 local Japanese-Americans paid the price for those fears when they were stripped of their homes, businesses and belongings and carted off to internment camps.

Workers Pour In

In their place came tens of thousands of wartime workers hired to produce the weaponry of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy,” including women and blacks never welcomed into the workplace before.

The massive industrial expansion that accompanied the war effort, especially in aircraft manufacturing, set the region on the course to becoming a world-class economic power and forever changed the complexion of the agricultural Eden known as sunny Southern California.

Smog was one early byproduct of the growing population and industry, although the locals called it “smoke.” Traffic reared its ugly head then too, as Southern California became a region of tract homes, swimming pools and two-car garages running endlessly to the sea.

The veterans and wartime workers who occupied those tract homes were among the 10,000 people per month migrating to the region by the 1950s, creating the suburban sprawl that stretches from San Diego to Santa Barbara. New arrivals colonized Van Nuys, Westchester, Garden Grove, and much of San Diego. So many Iowans came to Long Beach that people started calling it the “Iowa Seaport.” And in Los Angeles County alone, more than 700,000 houses were built.


Amazed Servicemen

“I can still remember the faces of sailors and Marines walking into the winter sunshine at Union Station and just peering at the skies in amazement,” said John Weaver, a historian who came to Los Angeles in 1940. “Later, it seemed that most of them ended up in the Valley.”

One of those who migrated to Southern California after the war was Ortwin H. Holdt, now 65, a German whose first impressions were formed from behind barbed wire as a prisoner of war.

Holdt was taken to a prison camp near Santa Barbara after his division surrendered in France. The climate, the scenery and the people so impressed him that he decided to come back. Now a retired electronics engineer, Holdt lives in nearby Carpinteria and is active in the Boy Scouts.

“I’ve never broadcast the fact that I am a German,” Holdt said. “But if people ask, I don’t lie. Besides, I’m an American citizen now. In my mind, there’s no place like this.”

Fred W. Marlow was a major builder during the war and post-war years. The Westchester real estate developer, still active at 90, remembers building $4,500 tract homes by the thousands.

“We had a ready-made market,” Marlow said. “It wasn’t a question of selling the houses, it was just a matter of getting them up.”


The housing boom was accompanied by growth in practically every sector of the economy. In the period between 1940 and 1955, the Southern California region became a world class industrial center that boasted defense plants, oil drilling and refining, auto building, metal manufacturing, electronics and a sizable portion of the garment industry.

Industry Behemoths

Companies such as Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed, which contracted to build British planes before America even entered the conflict in Europe, developed into defense industry behemoths responsible for more than a third of the wartime aircraft production. Shipbuilding also boomed. The Kaiser Todd Co. became known as the General Motors of the shipbuilding world.

Manufacturing employment grew 10 times faster in Southern California than in the nation as a whole after the war. Garment production alone rose by 475%, and 1,480 factories opened.

“It was one of the most gigantic waves of economic change that ever took place,” said Larry J. Kimbell, director of the UCLA Business Forecasting Project. “It left an enormous residue of talent and jobs. It was a tidal wave of change that impacts our economy to this day.”

Southern California was more of a slumbering giant in the prewar years. The Depression sent the economy into a tailspin and saw the emergence of a mesmerizing religious figure named Aimee Semple McPherson. Voters approved the Colorado River Aqueduct, assuring water to the 13 cities of the Metropolitan Water District in 1931. Los Angeles Airport also opened that year. The Olympics came in 1932, and a deadly earthquake struck Long Beach in 1933, killing 100.

In 1934, Upton Sinclair ran for governor on the End Poverty in California ticket. Two years later, with the city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, 136 Los Angeles police officers manned the highways and railroads leading into the city to prevent unemployed people from entering town. During that same period, there were 680,000 people on the unemployment rolls statewide.


The economic picture did not start to improve until the end of the decade, when the newly formed Federal Housing Administration spurred construction, city officials started planning the first freeway and a cautious Roosevelt ordered the construction of 10,000 battle planes.

Air Raid Alarms

Los Angeles boasted a population of 1,504,277 as the 1940s began. By then, six defense plants had shifted into heavy aircraft production and dozens of other companies were busy supplying components.

Mass construction of factory worker housing was also under way, and communities up and down the coast started equipping themselves with air raid alarms. San Clemente’s alarm system arrived just a few days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

When the bloody raid came on Dec. 7, 1941, prompting the United States to declare war on the Axis forces, California had a mass anxiety attack. Enemy planes were supposedly sighted over the northern coastline on Dec. 8, and just two days later, Southern California groped through its first blackout as army aircraft fruitlessly searched the night sky for Japanese invaders.

California’s relative proximity to the Hawaiian islands--2,550 ocean miles--fed fears of attack, as did the area’s strategic importance. Those who lived through the years of civil defense sirens, blackouts, rationing and bogus enemy sightings remember it as a time of exhilarating panic.

‘Combat on Rodeo Drive’

“We imagined parachutes dropping,” author and actor Buck Henry wrote in a recent wartime remembrance. “We imagined the hills of Hollywood on fire. We imagined hand-to-hand combat on Rodeo Drive.”


The dreaded attack finally came at 7:15 p.m. on Feb. 23, 1942, when a Japanese submarine rose out of the sea at Ellwood, 12 miles north of Santa Barbara, and fired 13 shells at an oil field.

The shelling, which began in the midst of one of Roosevelt’s fireside chats, was the first of only four enemy attacks on the U.S. mainland. There were no casualties, but the enemy’s proximity had a profound psychological impact on people along the coast.

“A lot of people just packed up and left,” said Justin Ruhge, a Santa Barbara historian. “A lot of others got really serious about the war, saying ‘How dare they do this!’ ”

Just one evening later, the war threat edged even closer as Washington received warnings of an impending invasion of Los Angeles. Within hours, radar sensors picked up an unidentified object 120 miles west of the city. By about 3 a.m. something--no one is quite sure what--was spotted over Santa Monica, and all hell broke loose.

Anti-aircraft guns showered the sky with artillery, and shrieking tracers illuminated the night. Men armed with pistols tucked their families away in basements or closets, than ran into the streets to add to the fusillade, blindly firing away until their ammunition was expended.

“Searchlights from countless stations stabbed the sky with brilliant probing fingers while anti- aircraft batteries dotted the heavens with beautiful, if sinister, orange bursts of shrapnel,” The Times wrote of the night that has since been mythologized in book and film.


Much of the anti-aircraft fire came from Ft. MacArthur. Retired Col. Frank G. Tandy, a coastal artillery leader, watched the fireworks from his command post.

“The searchlights spotted something,” Tandy recalled. “And the anti-aircraft batteries were ordered to fire. The problem was, no one had figured out how to make them stop, so they just kept firing until they ran out of ammunition. It was a boondoggle of the first order.”

To this day, the full story of the so-called “Battle of Los Angeles” remains unknown. The Japanese deny their warplanes ever flew over Los Angeles, and official wartime records are inconclusive. Some historians say it was all a big mistake. Regardless, fears of a Japanese invasion subsided in the months that followed as American forces in the Pacific made headway.

Meanwhile, the war’s impact was also being felt on other fronts.

In Hollywood, propaganda films and instructional movies started to appear alongside the usual dream factory fantasies as stars such as Jimmy Stewart and Glenn Ford went to war. Other celebrities spent their time entertaining soldiers at Hollywood clubs and abroad.

‘Zoot Suit Wars’

Racial tensions flared on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, where servicemen and Mexican-Americans clashed in a series of fights that became known as the “Zoot Suit Wars.”

And defense production proceeded at a frantic pace.

Aircraft employment, which stood at 1,000 in 1933, rose to 280,000 a decade later as Fortune magazine announced that “they are making dive bombers in the Land of Oz.” The $35 billion in government funds that poured into the area paid about 45% of the state’s salaries.


Douglas Aircraft Co. had plants in Santa Monica, El Segundo and Long Beach, with others outside the state. Its sales rose from $27 million in 1939 to about $1.06 billion in 1944.

At Douglas and other companies, the sudden surge in production of the B-17s, B-24s and other aircraft that made up the wartime armada had a tremendously unsettling impact.

Trying to Look Busy

New hires often waited days for their assignments. Some whiled away the hours by sitting in the cockpits of nearly completed aircraft, trying to look busy. Others picked up tools and waited for someone to tell them how to use them. At one Lockheed facility, a converted distillery, workers became light-headed sniffing the fumes. Shift changes resulted in massive and frightening crowd scenes, and lines often formed outside the bathrooms during breaks.

Carleen Bentley, who started at Douglas after graduating from Santa Monica College, later helped write a history of the era. “It was crazy,” she said. “We put in seven days a week, nine hours a day and thought nothing of it. Sure we got tired, but there was a war going on.”

Among those who found themselves in sudden demand during the war were midgets willing to work in cramped spaces. The midget work force included some people fresh from Munchkinland.

Women also entered the work place en masse for the first time during the war. The term “Rosie the Riveter” entered the lexicon. By 1943, as 150,000 men locally were going off to fight the war, women made up 40% of the local labor force. One company tried to bolster its female employment rolls with an ad that said: “It’s fun to work in an aircraft factory!”


In truth, however, the women had a tough time gaining acceptance. One survey showed that $250 in productivity was lost each time a woman walked through a plant because of men turning to gawk. Supervisors complained that their new female charges didn’t even know how to operate a screwdriver. And management often corraled them into doing demeaning chores, such as posing on top of camouflage netting in their bathing suits as part of company publicity campaigns.

Lucille Koch, who went to work at Lockheed’s Burbank plant in 1942, said most women accepted their roles. “I got paid 60 cents an hour, and I thought I was wealthy,” she said. “It was all very patriotic. We were working with mothers and grandmothers of servicemen.”

Racist Union Rules

Blacks also found a place inside the defense factories during the war. Before then, they had been excluded by racist union rules. But by 1942, as word of the job opportunities spread, blacks from the Southwest and other areas began arriving at the rate of about 300 a day. In 1943, when migration peaked, about 12,000 blacks entered the region in the month of June alone.

In 1940, Los Angeles’ black population numbered 63,744. It stood at 170,880 by 1950.

At the height of the war, many blacks moved into Little Tokyo, replacing Japanese-Americans who were shipped off to internment camps under Executive Order 9066, and for a while the area was known as Bronzeville. Nearby, late-night jazz clubs thrived. The internment was called a prudent security move, though many now consider it the country’s worst civil rights mistake.

People of Japanese ancestry were placed in camps in areas such as the Owens Valley, where they lived in cold, dusty barracks. Some thought they might be exterminated. When they were released at war’s end, many had nothing to return to because their homes and business had been sold.

“Guilt no longer had to be established in a court of law,” Weaver wrote in a damning reference to the internment in his history of Los Angeles. “Now it could be inherited.”


Last year, Congress approved a reparations plan that will pay each internee $20,000. But many of those at the camps have since died, and some survivors remain bitter about their imprisonment.

“I have mixed emotions,” one survivor recently said. “I’m elated that Congress passed (the reparations bill), but I feel saddened that so many have not lived to see this day.”

Remarkably, as the 50th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland is marked, Japanese and Japanese-Americans are playing a pivotal role in Southern California’s robust economic growth.

Japanese investors own one of every three office buildings in Los Angeles, according to a recent survey, and about 40% of all Japanese investment in America is made in California.

Thanks largely to the capital that poured in during and after the war, the geographic area running from Santa Barbara down to San Diego now ranks as the eighth-largest economic power in the world. Moreover, the state as a whole produces 13% of the United States’ national income, and the local economy is so diversified these days as to be widely considered recession-proof.

“California grabbed on to a big chunk of manufacturing and has held onto it,” said UCLA economist Kimbell. “The war produced a phenomenal change in the state of our prosperity.”


Today, as Southern California’s population surges past 13 million, the growth shows no sign of abating. With it, however, has come a startling decline in the environment, unprecedented waves of crime and drug activity and traffic so severe that some people read on the freeways.

As urban planners and sociologists ponder Southern California’s uncertain future, many of those who lived here during the heady war years look back with more than a little nostalgia.

“When I first moved here, the area was covered with orange trees,” said historian Weaver. “Now all you see is condos and tract homes. We’ve paid quite a price for our growth.”

Times researcher Joyce Pinney also contributed to this article.

“I first passed through Los Angeles in 1941, and I came back to live here in ‘45, after I was discharged. How could you not like it here? At that time it was absolutely beautiful. The servicemen who were stationed here, especially the Easterners, had no intention of going back to the sleet and snow. . . . I got my first job when I was at the Farmers Market. . . . I didn’t even have civilian clothes at the time, so I worked in my uniform.”

--Sidney Borie, 65, Beverly Hill property manager and former combat engineer.

“When you lived in Santa Monica, you knew you were going to work at the Douglas Aircraft plant when you got out of school. It was the only industry in town. . . . Also, for women, this was the first chance to really go to work, to take off our aprons and put on dungarees. But it was also a sad time. At Ocean park Avenue and 25th Street, the vacant lots were filled with Army trucks full of kids going overseas. I just cried to see them go.”

--Carleen Bentley, 72, former Douglas Aircraft Co. worker.

“I joined the Naval ROTC when I entered USC in 1942. . . . After we graduated in 1945, we became ensigns, but by then the war had ended. . . . I was sent to Honolulu, then to Guam, then to Okinawa, then to New Zealand, mostly picking up and unloading supplies. When we were heading home, the ship was running on only one engine, so we spent 40 days at sea. I made the most of it. I figured a cruise like this would be pretty expensive, so I just relaxed and enjoyed it.”


--John Ferraro, 65, Los Angeles city councilman.

U.S. SERVICE PERSONNEL: A PROFILE Type of Induction--38.8% (6,332,000) of U.S. servicemen and women were volunteers; 61.2% (11,535,000) were draftees. Of the 17,955,000 men examined for induction, 35.8% (6,420,000) were rejected as physically or mentally unfit. Average Duration of Service--33 months. Location of Service--73% served overseas, with an average of 16.2 months abroad. Casualties--Out of every 1,000 who saw combat, 8.6 were killed in action, 3 died from other causes and 17.7 were wounded. Non-Combat Assignments--38.8% of enlisted personnel had rear-echelon assignments--administrative, technical, support or manual labor. Average Base Pay--Enlisted, $71.33 a month, officers, $203.50 a month. Source: World War II Almanac