California State Military Department
The California State Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
California Military History
California and the Second World War
 
California was witness to some of the most traumatic events that happened during the war in the then 48 states. When Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941 California was racked from north to south with near panic conditions because tens of thousands of its citizens expected similar attacks, possibly by the same naval force that attacked Hawaii, at any time on California cities.

Within days of the attack on Hawaii, Japanese submarines were attacking merchant ships off California's coast reinforcing those fears. Wild rumors circulated of Japanese invasion fleets being seen in California water and of actual Japanese landings. There were rumors of air attacks, rumors that secret Japanese air bases existed in California's deserts or in Mexico, rumors of sabotage, of periscope sightings and of many other fearful things. Worst of all, there were wild and unfair rumors about the ethnic Japanese: Japanese fishermen were mining harbors; supplying food, fuel and secret information to submarines off the coast; Japanese farmers were poisoning fruits and vegetables they brought to market; the Japanese were secretly organized into military units to carry out attacks behind American lines if and when an invasion came. None of these things were true, but every such rumor was believed by someone.

These fears lead to a series of immediate and unusual events in California. Martial law was declared on Terminal Island in Los Angeles Harbor where a major U.S. Naval base, important oil facilities and a large ethnic Japanese community existed side-by-side. Soldiers from west coast Army posts, some of them only partially trained, were rushed to various points along the coast to prepare defenses against an invasion. California's beaches were strung with miles upon miles of barbed wire. Coastal cites were blacked out and citizens sandbagged their homes and businesses. Radio stations went off the air, commercial airliners were grounded and ships were ordered to stay in port. These measures were seen as absolutely necessary by the west coast Army commanders because at the time of Pearl Harbor the Army Air Forces in California consisted of only 16 modern fighter planes available to defend the entire state.

Citizens of enemy countries (enemy aliens), most of them Germans and Japanese who were known to the FBI and thought to be dangerous, were taken into custody under international laws defined by the Geneva Conventions and shipped off to internment camps as far away as North Dakota. This represented only a small percentage of the 531,882 registered enemy aliens in the state. Califomia a the second largest enemy alien population in the nation. New York had the most with 1,234,995.

In time, the wildest rumors faded away but others persisted, especially those about the ethnic Japanese. Fears turned into harassments and attacks on the ethnic Japanese, many of whom began to fear for their safety and that of their families. Soon, a fantastic plan began to evolve to expel all people of Japanese ancestry from California, and within a few months that plan was put into effect.

In late February 1942, as the evacuation of ethnic Japanese was just getting under way, Californian's war fears were rekindled when news came that an oil facility near Santa Barbara had been shelled by a Japanese submarine. Some saw it as a prelude to greater attacks or perhaps an invasion. The night following the shelling Los Angeles had a false
air raid that looked and sounded like the real thing and went on for several hours. Antiaircraft guns fired away at imaginary planes and search lights scanned the skies looking for them. It was weeks before everyone in the area was finally convinced that Los Angeles had not really been bombed.

While Californians were learning to live with war fears their aircraft and shipbuilding industries exploded with defense work. Unemployment virtually disappeared and every one was called upon to do their share for the war effort. California's huge oil and mineral resources were cranked up to full production, new industries of all kinds sprang up, train loads of people flocked to California looking for work, and her southern border was opened to Mexican workers. During the war California would receive 11.9% of all U.S. Government war contracts and her plants and workers would produce 17% of all war supplies made in the U.S. Military bases were built by the dozen, sometimes in little towns that people in the big cities didn't even know existed. California's deserts became bombing ranges, her harbors became naval bases, her airports became air bases and infantry and tanks rumbled across her farm lands, orchards and deserts. During the course of the war California would acquire more military installations, by far, than any other state.

During the long war years California's big cities became mega-cities and the automobile became the main means of transportation. Already, California lead the nation in the number of cars; one for every 2.3 persons in the state. The Los Angeles area, already large and growing rapidly before the war, experienced the greatest growth of any metropolitan area in the country. By the end of the war the Los Angeles metropolitan area stretched 80 miles solid from the San Fernando Valley to San Bernardino, and a new phenomenon had occurred ... smog.

War fears for most Californians never really went away and with good cause, for the Japanese had plans to carry out further attacks against the state, if and when the opportunities arose. During the winter of 1944-45 the state was attacked again ... this time by Japanese bombing balloons. Many bombs were dropped on California by these curious weapons but no significant damage was done, and effective U.S. censorship kept news of individual incidents secret from most Californians.

As a direct result of the war, millions of Americans "discovered" California for the first time. Many stayed on after the war and others returned to settle in the state. In doing so, they started a trend of strong and steady growth that lasted for more than four decades.
 


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