The streets of San Luis Obispo changed dramatically in 1940. Suddenly, the effects of the Great Depression were cast aside as carpenters, plumbers, electricians and tractor operators were hired at union-scale wages from throughout the United States.
By March 1941, the first of the “buck privates” arrived. Downtown San Luis Obispo was literally “covered in khaki” as the small town struggled to adapt to the influx of 25,000 men in training.
World War II had begun in September 1939. President Franklin Roosevelt and Henry L. Stimson, his secretary of war, were convinced that America would soon be involved in the conflict. Stimson had been the governor general of the Philippines and secretary of war for President William Howard Taft. He believed that America faced a threat from both Germany and Japan.
The War Department leased Camp Merriam (later named Camp San Luis Obispo) from the California National Guard. The camp had been created in 1928 with 5,800 acres. Through local agents, the War Department purchased and leased former dairy farms, enlarging the facility by another 4,685 acres.
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The original plan was to use the camp for training the 40th Infantry Division, which included elements from California, Arizona and Utah with sections designated for artillery and Signal Corps training.
From the perspective of strategic planning, the camp was ideally located along the main coastal highway and railroad line midway in the nearly empty 400 miles that divided California’s two urban cores. It could serve a dual purpose in both training troops and having a military base near the coast capable of opposing an enemy landing.
Despite the most rain-filled winter on record from November 1940 to April 1941, the camp was readied for the arrival of troops in March 1941. Thousands of lonely young soldiers whose drill sergeants had granted them passes into town sought some happy diversion from the rigors of training during one of the wettest winters in the history of our region.
San Luis Obispo had two motion picture houses in 1941: The elegant 1920s Hispano-baroque Obispo at Monterey and Osos streets near the Greyhound Bus Depot and the ElMo, combining the “Elks” with “movies” in its name, in the 1900s yellow brick Elks Club auditorium at Marsh and Morro streets. They jammed both theaters to capacity.
Fox West Coast Theaters had begun building the classic art deco Fremont, but the scarcity of electrical and plumbing fixtures during the war delayed its completion until May 1942.
America was not at war, yet, but Hollywood was prepared for the inevitable. Universal Studios “drafted” two comedians from the vaudeville and burlesque circuits, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, to make the film “Buck Privates” in mid-1940.
In the movie, the pair enlist in the Army to escape an angry police officer. They find themselves in boot camp. They are shocked to discover that their sergeant is the cop who was about to jail them when they enlisted. The drill sergeant becomes a comic foil as Abbott and Costello wreak havoc on the Army.
Delighted audiences quickly discovered one of America’s beloved comedic teams. The film made $4 million, a great deal more than another 1941 film, “Citizen Kane,” Orson Wells’ thinly veiled satire on the lifestyle of William Randolph Hearst.
The Andrews Sisters trio was visually introduced to the public through “Buck Privates”: As Abbott and Costello marched to the tune of a different drummer, they sang “You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith,” “Apple Blossom Time” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company ‘B.’”
“Buck Privates” was just what “sergeant-weary” and homesick boys needed.
Camp San Luis Obispo quickly grew into America’s third-largest training base which, when combined with the largest, Camp Roberts near San Miguel, and Camp Cooke, now Vandenberg AFB near Lompoc, formed an audience of more than 70,000 trainees at a time.
Hollywood stars from the Andrews Sisters to Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Rita Hayworth, Laurel and Hardy and John Wayne came in person to entertain the troops.
But America’s favorites on the eve of entry into the war were Abbott and Costello.
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.
Historian Dan Krieger’s annual Halloween tour of the Old Mission Cemetery will begin at the Bridge Street entrance in San Luis Obispo at 4 p.m. on Oct. 31. It’s free and open to the public.