On Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941, Napa was a sleepy little agricultural town with a population of about 8,000 people. Like the rest of the country, its hard-working citizens were just beginning to recover from a disastrous 12-year depression. Life, as Napa's citizens knew it, was beginning to look good again and the future was looking brighter.
The next day, Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, their outlook became cloudy and their future uncertain. Suddenly, after 23 years of peace, our country was once again at war.
When my family moved to Napa in April 1942, World War II had just begun its fifth month. America's citizens were still in shock and trying to adjust to a wartime setting. Patriotism was rampant.
Many of Napa's eligible young men had already enlisted or been called into the military, while many others were waiting for the call. All adult males were required to register for the draft. Those not quite old enough for the service were anxiously looking forward to the day when they could enlist.
For those not eligible for military duty, they could volunteer for duty as air raid wardens, aircraft spotters, block captains and other duties then considered necessary. I have an official County of Napa County-wide Volunteer Civilian Defense Enrollment Card issued to my grandfather, Luther L. Woodrum, that assigned him the duty of air raid warden. His duties included periodic shifts at an observation post where he would be on the lookout for enemy aircraft. Luckily, neither he or any of the other wardens had to report enemy aircraft during the duration of the war.
All of us were doing our share one way or another. The general population was investing in war bonds, saving tin foil, collecting steel and iron scrap, growing victory gardens, conserving those things that were hard to come by and so forth. Some women were knitting and sewing baby clothes to send to Great Britain, our ally that had already been in the war with Germany for more than two years.
In early 1942, the population as a whole was just beginning to get used to the rationing of a long list of things that were considered vital to the war effort. Such items as gasoline, shoes, sugar, rubber products, meat and others were limited to so many or so much per person. Every family member had a ration book and each time a rationed item was purchased, an appropriate coupon was removed or an appropriate block would be stamped.
The country's industries were moving quickly toward products needed in the war effort. In Vallejo, Mare Island Naval Shipyard, a longtime manufacturer of ships for the Navy, was gearing up for wartime production by operating three shifts. Many of Napa County's citizens were employed at Mare Island and commuted daily by wartime-gray buses from as far away as Calistoga.
Women as well as men were employed at Mare Island — and not just in clerical jobs. My aunt worked swing shift in the machine shop tool room. Others worked as welders, riveters, pipe-fitters and in other former men-only occupations.
Napa's local industries were also getting involved. Basalt Rock Company, because of its location on the navigable Napa River, went into the business of building small cargo ships. They built dry docks, erected huge Gantry cranes, built large shops and went about their business of building ships. That site is now the Napa Pipe site.
Other local businesses that converted to wartime products included Rough Rider and Cameron Shirt Factory, the former known primarily for its men's corduroy pants, which were the rage in young men's casual clothing at the time, and the latter for its shirts and blouses. Both businesses began to make military uniform components. The glove factories in south Napa also got involved with the war effort by making leather products for the military.
The closest military bases to Napa were Mare Island in Vallejo, Fairfield/Suisun Air Base in Fairfield (now Travis Air Force Base) and Hamilton Field in Marin County. Both Fairfield/Suisun and Hamilton were Army Air Corps bases. Hamilton, with its assigned fighter aircraft, was a key component in the defense of the West Coast.
On a daily basis, fighter aircraft out of Hamilton would fly at treetop height ("hedgehopping") over Napa. The flights were a valid reminder that we were at war and, while the pilots were probably enjoying every minute of the low-level flight training, the flights themselves were a grim reminder to those of us on the ground that those were serious times.
It's interesting to note that Hamilton Field was considered a first line of air defense for this part of the West Coast and, to provide a fall back base in the event Hamilton was overrun by an enemy, the War Department (now Department of Defense) constructed runways and taxiways south of Napa. That facility is now Napa County Airport. In 1946, after the war, the War Department disposed of the site by giving it to Napa County.
("Napa As It Was" appears every other Monday in this space, alternating with Betty Rhodes' "Senior Corner.")