Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

The 1940s: On the home front

While the young men were off fighting "the good war," citizens of Palo Alto were busy offering support, coping with war shortages and waiting for their return. By mid-decade the war--and the growing electronics industry--brought major changes to these small towns.

by Carol Blitzer

Dec. 7, 1941. Ruthe Lundy was lying in bed in bed in her Kingsley Avenue home listening to the radio when she heard the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. She immediately called a friend, who assured her there was nothing to worry about.

Lundy's friend took the news more calmly than most in Palo Alto. Within hours 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. And 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.

Not that war was totally unexpected. In the previous year 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.

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.

What Ruthe Lundy recalls most of the '40s was the innocence and naivete that preceded the war, the preoccupation with teas and tennis games and "silly girlish things" like who'll be pinned next.

"When war came it was really a break with all that was traditional. The pattern was broken never to be repaired," she said.

Palo Alto in 1940 was a quiet town with 16,770 people. Neighboring Menlo Park had only 3,258 residents. But war and a burgeoning electronics industry would bring rapid growth to sleepy, suburban communities that would never be quite the same.

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.

For the local Japanese-American population, shortages were the least of their worries. In May 1942 all were told to leave for a reception center; 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.

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.

While Palo Alto was slowly growing, 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. Dr. Bernard Silber was working at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco when he was transferred to the new Dibble hospital. But first, he had to ask four or five people where Menlo Park was.

"It was a quiet, pleasant place," he recalled, noting that there weren't any stores yet on Santa Cruz Avenue except at the corner of El Camino Real.

Just as Dibble hospital spurred Menlo Park's growth, a new electronics industry began in Palo Alto. 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.

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."

For many the time was bittersweet. "What really haunts me is the waste of lives that my generation had," Lundy said, recalling a boy she sat next to at Mayfield School who did not return from the war. "These were decent human beings who never came back. I felt the loss of friends. Change happened so rapidly that we lost track of friends."

For local communities the end of the war was a turning point in growth. 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.

Where was everyone to live? Realizing there simply wasn't room on campus, 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.

Housing wasn't the only thing needed by the end of the war. 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.

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.