brink of war wore heavy on the conscience of Napa Register editor and
publisher George H. Francis in June 1938.
Each day’s wire reports
brought more unsettling news of Nazi Germany’s aggression in
Czechoslovakia and the disputed Sudetenland, as well as its crackdown on
the rights and freedoms of Jewish people in Germany.
troubled world backdrop, Francis built a front page on June 20, 1938,
dedicated to the service of the woman who was resigning after 25 years
leading the local library. He reflected on the challenges he faced as
editor in an editorial that day.
“Maybe his readers unconsciously
blessed him when their afternoon paper told them that in spite of all
hell that has broken loose, the unspectacular business of making a more
civilized world was still going on,” Francis wrote. “Maybe a story
doesn’t have to have a corpse in it to be news, after all.”
far cry from the rugged, pioneer outposts that his father, Register
patriarch George M. Francis, knew 50 years prior, the Napa Valley’s
towns were still rural and had economies that thrived or suffered with
the annual harvest.
The next seven years would be a time of
immense challenge and change in Napa Valley. Napa, its largest city,
began to burst at its seams to accommodate the influx of defense workers
and shipbuilders who poured into the Bay Area to work at the Mare
Island Naval Shipyard or at the Basalt shipyard. In October 1942, the
city of Napa marked a statistical accomplishment it will never know
again: It was the third-fastest-growing municipality on the West Coast,
trailing only Los Angeles and Oakland.
It was also a time of loss.
Young men, many fresh out of Napa Union High School, shipped out to
fight on foreign soils; some returned in flag-draped caskets, while
others never returned at all.
All of that seemed far off in 1940, a
storm cloud growing on a distant horizon in the bucolic Napa Valley.
The total population of Napa County was 28,414 that year, and the
unincorporated area represented 17,783 of those residents. The city of
Napa had only 7,700 residents; St. Helena and Calistoga had 1,700 and
1,100 citizens, respectively.
A drive up Highway 29 would seem
foreign to a resident of today: Fruit orchards and intermittent homes
would dominate the view, historian Lin Weber wrote in “Roots of the
Present: Napa Valley 1900-1950.” The tightly manicured rows of vineyard
and extravagant winery buildings that mark the view today were fewer and
farther between back then.
As editor, Francis was a statesman for
the valley, writing editorials in a gentleman’s voice and never with
the bombast found in other newspapers of the time. But even the Register
could not hide its enthusiasm when a movie, “They Got What They
Wanted,” was filmed in Oakville in the summer of 1940. Actress Carole
Lombard was the star for the RKO motion picture, which was filmed at
Nick Fagiani’s ranch in July.
The Register reported that 2,500
people showed up at the train depot to greet Lombard, and she was later
photographed entering the Plaza Hotel at Second and Brown streets.
Throngs of people followed her to the hotel, pressing their faces
against its windows to get a glimpse of Hollywood stardom.
inches in the newspaper tracked her every movement around the valley
that week. The infatuation was fleeting, however. Weber writes that
national publications picked up on how Napans “were dazzled over the
flesh and blood appearance of actors and actresses,” and poked fun at
it. “The Napa Valley’s reputation for yokelism became painfully clear,”
Weber wrote. The film’s premiere in October did not even garner a
mention in the Register.
The drum of war beat louder that year as
Germany initiated heavy bombing raids over Great Britain that fall,
coinciding with Italian and German offensives in North Africa and
Greece. While still officially neutral, the United States began ramping
up its defense plans and military spending.
Mare Island — and Napa
— soon saw the results. Eligible Napa men had to register for the
draft, while a steady flow of defense workers swelled the valley’s
population. Another Napa industrial institution, Basalt Rock, also saw
new business in supplying raw material for the military, as did the 20
local mining operations in Napa County.
The Vallejo shipyard
employed 6,700 workers at the beginning of 1940, according to Weber.
Eighteen months later that number had more than doubled, to 14,600, and
many sought homes in Napa and Vallejo. The figure had doubled again by
November of 1941, to more than 30,000.
A headline in the Register
that month was indicative of the boom — “Napa building reaches all time
high.” The 136 new residential building permits in the first 10 months
of 1941 were twice than those issued in the same period in 1940. A
front-page editorial on Nov. 11 — Armistice Day — reflected the mood in
“Once more the world blazes,” the editorial stated. “Once
more freedom trembles. Once more the German military machine overruns
defeated states. Even the most determined pacifist feels danger drawing
Less than a month later, the danger arrived.
Japanese bombers struck the naval base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. The
Dec. 8 edition of the Register delivered the news, with a massive
headline on the front page: “WAR DECLARED!” Another front-page editorial
spoke of the ways Napans could aid the war effort, either through
military service or through working at the shipyards and local bases.
citizens, individually and as groups, will not hesitate to do their
bit,” the editorial stated. “Patriotic Napans feel proud of their
privilege to be of service. Together we are in this war. Together we
can, and we will, be victorious.”
It didn’t take long for
residents to begin to truly feel that they were at war. Air raid sirens —
based on the mistaken reports of approaching Japanese aircraft — blared
over Vallejo and San Francisco just days after Pearl Harbor, the
The city of Napa had more defense workers than
homes, leading many to set up in shacks and camps on the outskirts of
town. Local contractors began to pitch housing projects, including one
that would construct 25 homes in six months.
More were needed, but
the projects outgrew the city’s infrastructure. In March 1942, federal
housing loans were banned in outlying areas of the city because the
sewage lines weren’t big enough. Sewage would overflow into the streets
in the northwest areas of Napa that had recently been annexed into the
city, leading to fears of typhoid fever, the Register reported.
writes that the junkyard at Randolph and Second streets was transformed
into a massive mound of trash, while the banks of the Napa River
“became gorged with trash. People simply held their noses and continued
on their way.”
The Register’s front page also wrote of local men
in military service, reporting on brave acts or of soldiers dead,
wounded or missing in action. A story in April 1942 told of the heroic
acts of Napan Bill Wilcox, part of a Navy machine gun battery that
stopped a Japanese airplane from crashing into his ship.
stories were more incredible. Because Napa was so close to the military
plants, complete blackouts of homes in the valley were mandated — no
driving or exterior lights at night. Weber writes that in the first
blackout, a pregnant mother, Marjorie Hetland Wright, went into labor
and delivered a son. Her husband, Edgar Wright Jr., was fighting on the
island of Corregidor in the Philippines. He escaped a Japanese assault,
and spent 2 1/2 years surviving in the jungle, fighting the Japanese as a
guerilla, until U.S. forces reclaimed the island, according to Weber.
May 1942, the Register reported that all people of Japanese descent
were required to leave Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties for internment
camps. The May 30 edition of the Register was evidence of the dichotomy
Americans had in believing their triumph in the war would be a victory
for freedom and all of humanity, while turning a blind eye to the
plights of their Japanese-American neighbors.
The paper carried a
national item that day, reporting on the Memorial Day remarks of
Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. Welles said, “Our victory must
bring in its train the liberation of all peoples. Discrimination between
peoples because of their race, creed or color must be abolished.” In
the adjacent column, of no apparent irony to the typesetter, was an
article about the last 800 Japanese people being forced to leave Yolo
Rationing hit the homefront hard, and even the Register
was not spared. Federal wartime regulations barred the paper from
continuing home delivery to rural residents by cars, to save rubber
tires. That forced the paper to print earlier so the day’s edition could
be sent out with the mail deliveries. “We nevertheless must do so to
assist in achieving an all-out American war victory,” a note to readers
By the fall of 1942 the building boom in Napa was hitting
greater heights. October saw almost $1 million worth of home permits get
issued, as 240 homes at $4,000 each got approvals. It was during this
period that the Westwood neighborhood was born.
It also marked
crucial turning points in the war. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were
engaged in heavy fighting with the Japanese on and near Guadalcanal, in
the Solomon Islands. Their eventual victory marked the first U.S.
offensive victory in the Pacific Theater and the island hopping
campaign. In Africa and the Soviet Union, the tide was also turning
against the Germans.
In June 1943, the Register ran a fictional
letter that a “graduate” of Napa High School was writing to his older
brother, who had graduated the previous year and was now fighting
overseas. The letter, while invented, could easily be true, an editor’s
“I realized that it was the last time we’d ever all
be together,” the letter wrote of graduation. “We don’t know what lies
ahead. A lot of the fellows are going to enlist. Some of us may not come
back to Napa or any other city. Maybe we’ve danced for the last time,
some of us, with our girlfriends. We’ll soon be listening for the
sergeant’s whistle ... instead of the class bell.”
summer, Napa received a firsthand dose of the violence occurring
overseas. On the night of July 17, 1944, two ships at the Port Chicago
naval base in Suisun Bay were engulfed in a massive explosion from
munitions, killing 320 people in the area. Weber writes that a brilliant
flash of light from the detonation filled the Napa Valley that night,
along with a terrific clap of thunder.
By that point, Allied
forces were driving from the east and west toward Berlin, and the
confidence in victory grew. When the war in Europe was declared over, on
May 8, 1945, Napa residents were muted in their celebration, the
“There was little indication of public
demonstration,” the Register wrote. “The general conviction was that
confetti throwing, shouting and public celebration must wait until
That day came four months later, when Japan
formally surrendered on the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. Throngs of
people did get their chance to celebrate in the streets throughout Napa
Valley, Weber wrote. But many were also out of town because of the Labor
Day holiday. The Register noted the significance of labor, including
Napa County’s workers, to the successful war effort.
labor staged a historic exhibition of teamwork and unselfishness,” the
editorial stated. “Because there was a war to be won. Their success
amazed and confused, and ultimately defeated, the enemy. Now there is
peace to be won.”