Some say that their’s sounded a “hoogaw.” Others heard a shrill whistle or a siren. They were a familiar sound in virtually every small town in rural America. San Luis Obispo’s own fire siren was named “Ferdinand.”
From the 1880s, San Luis Obispo used a bell in a tower over the City Hall/Fire Department. On Aug. 29, 1938, the fire station caught fire; the bell fell and cracked and was replaced by a giant air horn. Every day, exactly noon, a blast of sound would emanate from a tower on the City Hall, police station or Fire Department.
The horn was atop the old City Hall and one time fire station where Charles Shoes is now located on the 900 block of Higuera Street.
On Dec. 8, 1941, Ferdinand sounded out the alarm that Congress had declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
By the summer of 1945, everyone was waiting for the happy signal that Japan had surrendered.
By then rationing had made many staples slim to nonexistent.
Throughout the month of July, what was then the Telegram-Tribune was predicting that county restaurants would have to close because of shortages of staples like coffee.
Since mid-1944, ice cream was no longer available to civilians at the Golden State Dairy where the Creamery now is located at Higuera and Nipomo streets.
You could get by with lime sherbet. Real ice cream was reserved for the men and women in uniform.
By Aug. 2, the paper reported that all of the public restaurants in the Sierra town of Auburn were forced to close. There was “not a cup of coffee for 40 miles around.” Auburn residents had restored to a Depression-era type soup line to meet the nutritional needs of travelers and workers away from home.
The Telegram-Tribune warned ‘Filet of Red Kidney Beans’ and ‘Sirloin of Macaroni’ may be the nearest resemblance to meat that local restaurant goers will find here ”
The reason for the shortages was the buildup for Operation Olympic, the planned invasion of the southern Japanese island of Kyushu scheduled for November 1945.
More than 6,000 troops, advance units of Gen. Terry Allen’s 104th “Timberwolf” Infantry Division, arrived in San Luis Obispo.
The Oregonians in the “Timberwolves” had liberated Antwerp, Belgium, and fought “The Battle of the Dikes” in the Netherlands, then the Battle of the Bulge, and then captured Cologne, Germany.
They were to be retrained for the invasion of Japan itself.
These heroes were not happy campers. Aug. 15 was a day of wild rejoicing for the “Timberwolves.”
Five days before, the Telegram-Tribune announced there would be “three short blasts and a long one.” Mayor Ralph Kennedy said, “As an urgency measure, the city wishes to request bars and taverns to close immediately.”
Fear over what the celebrating “Timberwolves” might do to the town was widespread and in some instances justified.
The bars remained open.
The celebration was short-lived.
The full complement of the “Timberwolf Division” arrived at the end of August. The men wanted to go home to their families and sweethearts. They were angered by the scuttlebutt that they might be sent to Japan with the army of occupation.
Happily, Ferdinand, the clarion of victory, got a promotion. The horn was moved to the top of a 102-foot tower at the city firehouse at Pismo and Garden. That firehouse has now been replaced by a new structure at Santa Barbara and Broad streets.
Ferdinand was taken down and sold to the city of Earlimart in the San Joaquin Valley.
Sixty-six years ago, Ferdinand sounded his greatest and most lasting bellow.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.