1940s

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During the 1940s, the young men were off fighting "the good war," while citizens of Palo Alto were busy offering support, coping with war shortages and waiting for their return.

Palo Alto in 1940 was a quiet town with 16,770 people. Neighboring Menlo Park had only 3,258 residents. By mid-decade the war - and the growing electronics industry - brought major changes to these sleepy, suburban communities.

Contents

[edit] On the home front

In 1940, all males between 21 and 36 (2,055 of them in Palo Alto) had registered for the draft. (No. 18 among Stanford's registrants was young John Fitzgerald Kennedy of 624 Mayfield Ave., a student at the graduate school of business.)

[edit] Pearl Harbor

Within hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, plans to light up a "Chapel in the Sky" Christmas decoration above the new University Avenue underpass were scrapped because of blackouts. The 40-foot plywood "chapel" was left in a warehouse as police and fire fighters rushed to protect city facilities from expected sabotage. Guards were posted at water wells and the airport, and two citizens "of Japanese extraction" were questioned by police, then released.

Believing that the West Coast was imminently threatened, the City Council, meeting by flashlight, called for volunteers to be trained as auxiliary police and firefighters. The mayor asked citizens to donate revolvers.

It was a time of fear and confusion, but within a week things began to calm down: The powers that be decided to hold no more practice blackouts and to save use of the warning sirens for a true emergency. But they did crack down on all outdoor neon lights for the duration of the war - and allowed outdoor Christmas lights only if someone were home to turn them off in case of an air raid.

[edit] Anti-Japanese Sentiment

As war hysteria grew, so did anti-Japanese sentiment. It wasn't unusual for police to stop and question Japanese motorists. Some Palo Alto school bus drivers refused to pick up students of Japanese ancestry. Banks suddenly refused credit to Japanese flower growers. And one woman even criticized the famed Chapel in the Sky because the stained glass-like rose window too closely resembled a chrysanthemum, Japan's symbol.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order for the internment of all persons of Japanese lineage, aliens and citizens alike. Local families had only a week or two to prepare for their departure. They were allowed to take only two suitcases. Families first went to the Tanforan race track (now Tanforan Park Shopping Center) where they were housed in stable; from there they were sent to internment camps. Before they left, they ran a paid advertisement in the Palo Alto Times expressing their gratitude for having lived in Palo Alto, their sadness at leaving and their hope for returning.

The camps were all in desolate, inhospitable locations. Topaz was called the Valley of Salt because of alkali soil that frustrated the efforts of Mormons to settle the area, according to one historian. However, actual camp life was not bad. Interns went to Japanese school and American school, and learned crafts.

By the time the war was over and they returned to Palo Alto, many families had lost everything - homes, wealth, possessions. Japanese who owned land were often pressured into selling it before leaving. Anti-Japanese sentiment continued after the war. Banks wouldn't give them credit, some stores wouldn't sell to them, some restaurants wouldn't serve them, many employers wouldn't hire them.

[edit] The War Effort

The forties was characterized by the innocence and naivete that preceded war, and when war came, it was "really a break with all that was traditional," in the words of one Palo Alto resident.

Even the most basic daily patterns were broken. Instead of driving, women took to their bikes to go shopping. No new cars or trucks were sold, and tires were rationed. For the entire month of February 1942, Palo Alto was allotted 18 passenger car tires plus 15 tubes.

Soon everyone was pitching in to help the war effort. More than 3,000 people volunteered for civil defense, acting as auxiliary firefighters and policemen, road repair crews, medical personnel, messengers, and food and housing coordinators.

Others collected rubber and tin cans. There was even a "keys to victory" drive where old keys and files were dropped in barrels in downtown stores.

War affected everyone. Sugar, gasoline, coffee and most food items were rationed, with people lining up for books of ration stamps. Medical care was limited because so many doctors were involved in the war effort. The recommended Christmas gift in 1942? War bonds, of course.

Newspapers, too, dealt with wartime shortages. The Palo Alto Times, faced with a paper quota, began printing smaller headlines and comics and limiting the number of classified ads. And new subscribers had to be put on a waiting list.

Despite the war, life went on, children went to school, people went to work. A $12,000 addition was made to the library and the Children's Library, a gift of Lucie Stern, was erected in 1940. The number of volumes in the city's collection increased from 65,000 in 1940 to 104,000 in 1952.

[edit] Growth

[edit] In Menlo Park

Menlo Park's wartime population suddenly soared when the U.S. Army chose to build Dibble General Hospital where SRI and the Menlo Park Civic Center stand today. Between 1943 and 1946 Dibble cared for soldiers injured in the South Pacific, specializing in plastic surgery, blind care, neuro-psychiatry and orthopedics and at its peak it had 2,400 beds - about two-thirds the population of the entire town.

[edit] In Palo Alto

A new electronics industry began in Palo Alto when Hewlett-Packard Co. built its headquarters on Page Mill Road in 1942. By 1946 HP filled half the U.S. needs for items such as distortion analyzers, vacuum tube voltmeters, regulated power supplies and lab amplifiers. In 1948, HP expanded once again.

Likewise, by 1944 Fisher Research Lab at 1961 University Ave. in East Palo Alto was doing a $300,000 annual business, mainly in battlefield mine detectors. Varian Associates began by doing all national defense work, establishing a lab in 1948 for creative techniques in applied physics. And by the mid '40s boy wonder Stanley Hiller was president and CEO of his own company, United Helicopters, which was first located in a Palo Alto warehouse near the animal shelter on El Camino Real. Promoting what he called the "Fort of the air," Hiller was producing three helicopters a week by 1949.

[edit] The War Ends

V-E Day, May 5, 1945, was celebrated with a church service and a popular vote repealing Palo Alto's ordinance against Sunday entertainment. Three months later the end of World War II was proclaimed a legal holiday on Aug. 15, 1945, as headlines blared "Flags fly, crowds roar, sirens shriek as Palo Alto goes all out for victory."

Post-war, shortages continued. In 1945 you couldn't pop into a department store to pick up menswear, good shoes, fine lingerie, aluminum utensils or even red striped candy canes for Christmas. Toys were mainly cardboard and wood. At Halloween 1946, children went door to door asking not for candy, but for thread, buttons, writing paper, pills and shoelaces to send to Germany, Italy and Japan. Forty to 50 mail bags a day were sent from the Palo Alto Post Office in the weeks before Christmas.

Probably the most exciting item offered for Christmas 1948 was that new invention, the television set. For $670 you could tune in a 12-inch screen; for $99.50 you could see--almost--a three-inch screen; or you could find the model recommended for family viewing, a six-inch screen for $200. Of course, actual programming did not begin until the next year.

[edit] Local Issues

Toward the end of the decade, the new population began to strain city services. Palo Alto installed its first parking meters along University, Hamilton and Lytton avenues. Rumors were rampant that incensed shoppers were planning to move their bank accounts to Menlo Park where one could park for free. The issue finally went to a town vote and citizens voted almost 2-1 to keep the meters.

In November 1947, a $300,000 bond issue to improve City Hall, which was located on Ramona Street behind today's Senior Center, was rejected by the voters. The next year a special campaign was launched to inform people about the future, when the population was expected to double in 10 to 15 years. Said the mayor, a member of the South Palo Alto Civic Club: "It won't be long before you will be the center of Palo Alto and not the south end of the city."

But even after the campaign, a second bond issue was defeated.

It wasn't until 1949 that Palo Alto voters passed a bond issue, but not for a new City Hall. Instead, voters agreed to build new elementary schools and expand the junior and senior high schools, getting ready for the baby boom of the '50s.

[edit] The Mail-Dispatch is born

From December 1946 until August 1948, a six- to 12-page tabloid called the Mail-Dispatch took on the Palo Alto Times, the Redwood City Tribune and the San Mateo Times, delivering homespun journalism to nearly 30,000 homes in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Redwood City, Mountain View, Los Altos and eventually San Carlos and Belmont.

By the '40s, free weeklies weren't a new idea, said former Mail-Dispatch editor Hugh Enochs in 1989. But they were mainly bland, all-advertising "throwaways." In a new twist Enochs and his partners wanted to transform the throwaway into "an honest-to-gosh newspaper." With a few thousand dollars in start-up capital from local publisher Joseph Best and other investors, the Mail-Dispatch was born.

The little paper churned out local news and columns from a small second-story office at 131 University Ave. in Palo Alto, above Wilson's Restaurant. It was printed in San Francisco and mailed on Thursdays. It billed itself as "the second-largest weekly newspaper in the United States."

The paper's staples were stories filled with background and local names - Enochs made a point of providing seven names in each story - and regular columnists on fashion, books, pets, gardens, sports and Main Street. A certain young journalist named Alan Cranston, Stanford class of '36, wrote a column on "World Affairs."

Aerial view of very long line of people waiting to get on the Freedom Train in 1948. Also visible: University, the overpass, Hamilton, and the city's corporation yard. Photo: PA Historical Assoc.
Aerial view of very long line of people waiting to get on the Freedom Train in 1948. Also visible: University, the overpass, Hamilton, and the city's corporation yard. Photo: PA Historical Assoc.

The little paper broke the story of the March 1948 Palo Alto visit of the "Freedom Train," a ballyhooed railroad convoy that carried the nation's original founding documents across the country. Other top stories included a local water shortage and traffic and parking problems in local neighborhoods. Also, the paper followed one of the major international stories of the day: the founding and development of the United Nations.

At one point, the paper's readers were surveyed by Stanford journalism scholars who found that 85 percent of local households read the paper regularly or occasionally, and 92 percent of those had a positive opinion of it.

But in August 1948, after about 100 issues, the paper ran out of money and folded, because of high printing and mailing costs, said Enochs. Enochs later went on to write extensively for the local Chamber of Commerce and was an associate editor and historian for the Palo Alto Community Book in 1952.

[edit] Around Stanford

By the mid-'40s returning soldiers and newcomers were swelling the ranks of Stanford University, bringing undergraduate enrollment from a bit more than 3,700 in 1945 to 8,200 in 1947. Although facilities jammed, construction on campus was limited by continuing material shortages. But in 1945, Stanford established its first Planning Office to study space, soon figuring out that it could eke out more space in classrooms, labs and dorms, just in time to meet the post-war demand from discharged veterans.

Realizing there simply wasn't room on campus for students, the university snatched up the Dibble Hospital site in Menlo Park, renaming it Stanford Village and providing 300 apartments for married students as well as 1,500 dorm beds.

[edit] Profiles

[edit] Sources

  • Palo Alto: The First 100 Years, The Palo Alto Weekly, 1994.
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