Over the Hill

Paso took warning seriously

Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of Paso Robles’ first wartime blackout. The blackout siren wailed at 7:45 p.m., Dec. 10, 1941. That was three days after Japanese airplanes bombed Pearl Harbor and forced America into World War II.

I didn’t live in Paso Robles then. I read about the blackout recently in an old newspaper — the Paso Robles Press, for Dec. 11, 1941. The Press said, “It was the real thing. The city responded 100 percent.”

The Press also said, “In downtown Paso Robles only the bars stayed open.”

The blackout was ordered for California and parts of Nevada. Twenty-nine enemy planes were supposedly seen near Los Angeles heading north. Today we can guess it was a false alarm, but in those jittery days Paso Robles turned off its lights.

Even drivers on the streets turned off their lights. They avoided collisions by slowing to a crawl. People gathered on street corners to experience the blackout. They hollered at passing drivers and at each other.

Many drivers parked and listened to their car radios. They had to listen to distant stations. Most West Coast broadcasters were off the air. The Paso Robles police vigilantly patrolled the darkness. They arrested several suspicious people and jailed them overnight.

In those days, Highway 101 ran right through Paso Robles on Spring Street. The highway drivers were also stopped until the “all-clear” siren sounded at 11:15 p.m.

Soldiers from Camp Roberts — the Army’s then-new, nearby, training base — usually filled the downtown sidewalks, but not on the night of the blackout. Three days earlier, when news spread of the Japanese attack, the soldiers returned to camp and stayed there.

A few soldiers, however, were posted to Paso Robles. They reinforced the new volunteer civilian watchmen at the municipal reservoir, the Water Works and the 13th Street Bridge.

Soldiers from the camp also helped patrol Sherwood Field — the Army National Guard airfield at Paso Robles. (It’s since been replaced by the Sherwood Acres subdivision, Sherwood Park and the Sherwood Industrial Park.)

But in 1941, the 115th Observation Squadron was based there. Three of squadron’s planes were dispatched Dec. 7 to patrol the Southern and Central California coast.

On the morning of Dec. 8, the Paso Robles Civil Defense program got under way. Many people went to the police station to volunteer. On the streets, young men talked about quitting their jobs and enlisting. Also, most people agreed the war would take years, but none doubted we would win.