Times Past

SLO’s economy thrived during wartime — but the true cost of battle weighed on veterans

Praying for victory at San Luis Obispo’s 1876 “Victorian Era” courthouse on July 4, 1918.
Praying for victory at San Luis Obispo’s 1876 “Victorian Era” courthouse on July 4, 1918.

A $10,000 organ for San Luis Obispo’s new El Monterey Theatre (renamed The Obispo and burned in 1975) seemed an extravagance during wartime. That’s $177,000 in 2017. But it was considered essential for civilian morale in 1918.

Wars always have more than one “front,” including on the battlefield and at home. Usually, both are filled with suffering. Aristophanes’ comedy, “Lysistrata,” was first performed in Athens in 411 B.C. In it, Athenian women protested the Peloponnesian War by denying men their favors.

Veterans Day originally celebrated the armistice ending World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. Estimates of battlefield deaths range from 9 to 11 million. The close quarters of wartime, food shortages leading to a breakdown in the health of the civilian population and lowered sanitation contributed to the deadly “Spanish influenza” of 1918, the first appearance of H1N1 influenza virus. An estimated 50 to 100 million died worldwide from that pandemic.

It was starvation on the home front, along with a failure to achieve long-promised military goals, that brought on the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 and the German surrender in 1918.

The “Great War” of 1914-18 brought unprecedented prosperity to the Central Coast. Local newspapers were filled with advertisements from San Francisco-based food wholesalers saying, “We are always ready to buy beans.” Formerly idle or pasture land was converted to U. S. government-subsidized navy bean production.

Cinnabar, the ore from which mercury is derived, copper and chromite mining in our region were revived by wartime needs. Mercury was a principal ingredient in munitions manufacturing. Hundreds of jobs were created.

The average price of homes rose dramatically. On Sept. 27, 1918, the Morning Tribune listed a six-room house in San Luis Obispo for $2,500. A 10-room furnished house was listed at $3,750. These prices were double what they had been just three years earlier.

Victory in Europe and prosperity on the home front concealed what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the returning “dough boys.” Medical specialists called it “shell shock,” but no one realized its implications.

In the aftermath of Vietnam and the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, PTSD is understood better. Louis Mello and still seriously injured Mike Benson returned from Vietnam to San Luis Obispo, where it almost seemed like the war never happened.

Lynne Ludwick’s “The Box: A Memoir” tells the story of her uncle, Eddie Schultz, whose family farmed where Stenner Glen is now. Schultz died in the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Morgan Philbin served as a military policeman in Vietnam. Later, on the Bookmobile and in charge of the circulation desk at the SLO Library, his skills as an MP made the staff feel well protected. Philbin has suffered from malaria since the time of his service.

Gregory Kurokawa of Santa Maria, son of SLO native son Paul and Bette Kurokawa, found the stress of being an Asian American fighting the Viet Cong overwhelming. Some of his service “friends” would call him “Charlie.” After 20 sleepless years, Kurokawa took his own life.

This Saturday, a moment of silence at the beginning of events honoring veterans of all U.S. wars will speak volumes about the cost of war.

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Please join me and the Mission SLO docents for a bus trip to Mission San Juan Bautista on Sunday, Dec. 3. We will have a private tour of the mission and museum, visit the state historic park and see the historic Christmas play, “La Pastorela,” put on by Teatro Campesino in the historic mission. The play is a traditional play of the shepherd’s visit to meet the Holy Child at Bethlehem. If you are interested, please contact Donna Young at ddyslo@sbcglobal.net or 805-459-4152.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.

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