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Sunday, December 23, 2001

War hit home in Solano

Sabine Goerke-Shrode


Infamous attack unified the country

Sixty years ago, on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, at 7:55 a.m., Japanese airplanes attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1941, it became clear to the nation that a U.S. involvement in the war would be inevitable. In quiet, rural Solano County, the Solano County Defense Council worked hard to coordinate the defense activities of government and private agencies.

On Aug. 21, 1941, the Solano Courier announced the establishment of civilian observation posts:

“Solano County will have 20 civilian observation posts of the 2,100 being established throughout the state to cooperate with the U.S. Army for detection of aircraft and the prevention of sabotage to natural resources ...

“Each of the posts will be manned by a chief observer and two or three assistants.”

In Vacaville, one of these posts was established on Vine Street. The Vacaville Reporter noted on Dec. 12, its first edition after the attack on Pearl Harbor, under the headline “Vacaville Prepares For Possible Bombing Attack”: “All observers at air-raid posts were ordered on duty immediately, and the two posts located near Vacaville will be manned at all hours.”

One of the many young volunteers manning the post remembered: “We lived only a short distance from the aircraft observation post on Vine Street. People who didn’t work full-time volunteered hours there. I remember having a shift on Sundays - I think, from 10 a.m. to noon.

“When a plane was spotted, it was called in, ... to the air base. We told which direction it was coming from, identified it from a posted chart (if we could), and told in which direction it was going. I remember feeling very important. Usually I worked with an adult, but there were times I was alone.”

On that same Dec. 12 page, The Reporter summarized what had happened at Pearl Harbor. Information was still sparse and the extent of the damage not totally clear.

“With the bombing of Hawaii and the Philippines Sunday morning, war broke over a peaceful and contented United States. Although in the midst of negotiations to smooth out the tension between the countries, Japan suddenly launched a [...] attack on America’s outlying islands in the Pacific and was able to do a great deal of damage.

“Radio and newspaper reports indicate that we lost some warships and that thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed and wounded. So unexpected was the attack that the forces of the United States seemed to be utterly unprepared, and apparently were unable to engage the Japanese in any effective manner.”

Of major concern to the readership was the safety of the “Vacaville Boys in the Pacific.” One of them, Robert Costello, was stationed on a minesweeper in Pearl Harbor and “although his parents have endeavored to reach him by cable they are informed that the cable company is not accepting messages to any point in the Pacific.”

Another local young man, Rudolph Dito, had been employed by a company doing government defense work on the island of Midway. He was due to leave around the time of the attack, to be home by Christmas.

“Whether he got away before the attack is not known. Mr. and Mrs. Dito told The Reporter late yesterday afternoon that they had no word from their son, and as far as is known the island has been cut off from the rest of the world since the Japanese attack on Honolulu last Sunday morning.

“The United States government admits enemy attacks on the small outpost, but no definite word is forthcoming as to whether or not it has fallen into enemy hand.”

Vacaville suffered through its first blackout that week, too. Air Raid Rules ran in the newspaper, explaining what to do. The blackout signal was one long fire siren blast at a steady pitch, followed by three short blasts. For the all clear, the siren blast lasted for two minutes.

Instructions were explicit: “Turn out all house lights if you have not blackened your windows. Stay home. When bombs fall, lie down on the floor away from the path of flying glass.

“If you are driving, pull car into curb, turn out lights and get under cover and lie down. Avoid crowded places and stay off streets ....

“Above all, be calm, stay home. The enemy wants you to create a panic and rush into the streets and highways. Don’t do it.”

A week later, on Dec. 19, further restrictions came into place. Representatives from Safeway, Solano Grocery, California Market, Purity, Star Bakery and the Sprouse-Reitz Co. agreed to close their businesses at 6 p.m. every day. Other businesses followed suit.

But there was also positive news. Both Rudy Dito and Robert Costello had been able to contact their families and let them know that they were safe.

Others were not so fortunate, and a week later, on Dec. 26, The Reporter had to announce: “Richard Lang, 20, son of Mrs. Charles Lang of Vallejo, was killed in action, according to a notification received this week by his parents. As far as is known, young Lang is the first Solano County boy to die in action since hostilities began on Dec. 7.”

The Solano Republican ran an editorial on Dec. 11: “It’s Only A War - Keep Cool. Whether or not bombs drop on Fairfield or environs, we are at war - real, devastating, senseless, relentless war - and to the finish.

“When the first bomb dropped on Honolulu last Sunday morning, two political parties were wiped out - the Democrat and Republican. Today there is but one party in this Nation and that is the American Party. Let any color but the Red, White and Blue present itself from here out and it is suicidal.”

The Reporter saw the same uniting force at work and wrote on Dec. 12: “The action of our enemy has served the purpose of uniting the American people as they have not been united in many years. From this time forward this country will work unitedly toward the end of winning the war. ... Let us each stand firm and do our duty, whatever that may happen to be.”