Gas and tires were both rationed during WW II, but somehow my folks managed a surprising number of trips to see Dad’s family. Most of those trips were to Dinuba, about 130 miles south of Stockton, but I remember at least one trip to Vallejo, one of the towns on the east shore of San Francisco Bay, about seventy miles west of where we lived in Stockton. This must have been just before I started school, probably the early spring of 1943.
The hills as we approached the Bay were brilliant green with long grass moving in the wind. It was just Mom, me and my little sister, Juanita, in the car. We were going to stay overnight with my cousins Larry and Joanne. My mother was good friends with their mother, my Aunt Hilda. Uncle John was my dad’s next youngest brother, and Larry and Joanne were my closest cousins. They had a little sister named Linda, but she was just a baby, too young for me to play with. It was Joanne and Larry who were important. They were special. To visit them was exciting, a real treat.
Uncle John and Aunt Hilda lived in a trailer house in an area set up for the families of defense workers. Green grass surrounded the trailer houses, and there seemed to be a lot of space between them. After we arrived, Joanne, Larry and I played outside for a while. I think we may have climbed a small hill. I remember eating Kix cereal at a booth with a built-in, so we must have stayed overnight. If we did, that trailer house would have been very crowded. Mom might have slept on the couch, and Nita and I probably slept on the floor or shared Joanne’s bed. Crowded sleeping was the norm back then. It was simply part of visiting.
Joanne and I are still good friends and have many fond shared memories. On one of my recent visits I brought up my memories of the trip to Vallejo and was surprised to find that Vallejo was not a place that brought up good memories for her. Her memories were dark and fearful. She told me how scared she was when she lived there, scared of the war. I was surprised. My own memories of that time were sunny. What I had felt was excitement, not fear. Later, after our visit, I asked her if she would be willing to write up her memories for the family history I was putting together. Joanne is a good writer, and I wanted to include her perspective on a time we both lived through, but experienced very differently.
Joanne: “I was born in 1939, the beginning of WW2. We had moved to Vallejo where Dad worked at Mare Island Navy Yard. At age 3, 4, and 5, I clearly didn’t understand what war was. But what I did understand was that it was scary and could “get me”. During blackouts we would pull the shades and turn out all lights, then sit in the dark. My parents were afraid, obviously, so that fear became mine. Fear was an emotion I lived with all the time.
“We lived in government housing on a hillside. I would wake up very early and lie awake listening to traffic going by on our street. There weren’t many cars out that early but enough to make me listen and wait. If a car stopped, it was the war coming to get me. I would lie there terrified, hoping the car would keep going. I think that was when I learned how to pray.
“Early one morning when Port Chicago blew up, it rocked our house. Larry, Linda, and I raced into our parents’ bedroom and jumped in their bed. We weren’t supposed to do that, but the fear of what was outside was greater than our fear of punishment.
“Dad took me on a submarine docked at Mare Island. We were inside it and walked from hatch to hatch. I knew it was a war ship but didn’t feel afraid because Dad was with me.
“When the war ended, my parents and some neighbors got us out of bed and took us to town in our pajamas. Everyone was celebrating, shouting, laughing, crying. All of that craziness was almost as scary as the war had been. One sailor got hit by a car and Mom got hysterical. Picture complete.”[i]
I have absolutely no memory of any big explosions in California: I do not remember hearing the words, Port Chicago. Reading Joanne’s description of the explosion that rocked her family’s house came as a complete surprise. I wanted to know more about the explosion, more about California’s role in the war. I needed to go beyond personal memories, and I found exactly the book I wanted, Kevin Starr’s Embattled Dreams; California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (2002). [ii]
What I learned was that Vallejo where Joanne lived was right smack in the midst of a vast network of strategic military installations that ringed San Francisco Bay. This area was the major military command center for the war in the Pacific, and Port Chicago had a particularly dangerous role to play. Port Chicago was a virtual bomb. “All ammunition intended for the Pacific was funneled through Port Chicago on the Carquinez Strait north of San Francisco, midway between the cities of Benicia and Pittsburg” (74):
“ … On the night of Monday, 17 July 1944, shortly after ten o’clock, a horrendous explosion racked Port Chicago as two Liberty ships, a fire barge, and a loading pier disappeared in a blast that was equivalent to five kilotons of TNT, which is to say, an explosion comparable to that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima thirteen months later. An Army Air Force crew flying overhead at the time reported a fireball that covered approximately three miles and sent metal fragments nine thousand feet into the air. Three hundred and twenty men—202 of them black enlisted stevedores—lost their lives in an instant. Only fifty-one bodies were recovered sufficiently intact to be identified. Another 390 military and civilian personnel, including 233 black enlisted men, suffered injuries, many of them serious. It was the most significant home–front catastrophe of the war” (119).
The whole San Francisco Bay area would have been a tempting target for enemy sabotage, particularly the big Naval Shipyard on Mare Island where Uncle John worked. He would have been very aware of that Vallejo lay in the center of a vast military complex, aware of the threat it posed to the people who lived there. That he and Aunt Hilda felt anxious, that their children felt and internalized that anxiety, seems almost inevitable. No wonder Joanne was such a frightened little girl.
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*Uncle John changed their last name to Williams sometime in the late 1940s or early 50s.
[i] Joanna Williams (1 Feb 2011). Jo was “Joanne” to me when we were growing up and gave me her permission to continue to use that form of her name.
[ii] Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams; California in War and Peace, 1940-1950. Oxford University Press, 2002.