Times Past

Dan Krieger: For Al and Mary, love bloomed as war loomed

Their first meeting had been at Mary Giovanazzi’s christening.

Al and Mary did not meet again until he returned home to Los Angeles on leave from his assignment as an Air National Guard photographer at Paso Robles’ Sherwood Field in 1941.

Al’s maternal grandfather joined the Italian merchant marine, landing a wife in Chile. His father’s grandmother, a violinist, was on an Italian world opera tour when she gave birth in Sacramento. Later, on her way to a concert in Los Angeles, she got off a streetcar, was robbed and murdered.

When his father abandoned the family, Al was five. They moved to the largely Jewish and Russian immigrant Fairfax district, where his mom found work as a seamstress.

After school at Fairfax High, Al worked from 6 to 11 p.m. at a fruit and vegetable market on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue. After graduation in 1934, he was lucky, finding a job as a commercial artist in the depths of the Great Depression. He painted signs for a 12-store chain of “supermarkets.” He’d always get a room at the back to work in.

Then Al began creating signs for the Thriftimart chain, earning $20 a week. At night he tackled courses at what’s now Trade Tech — Los Angeles Trade Technical College — the Chouinard Art Institute and the Art Center College of Design.

Meanwhile, war broke out in Europe. In September 1940 President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act — the first peacetime draft in U.S. history.

Al had moved to San Francisco to be near the Golden Gate International Exposition. He was enjoying the good life when his draft “Number Two” was drawn from the fish bowl in Los Angeles.

Like many American boys who recalled what had happened during World War I, Al didn’t want to be in the infantry. He had some Hollywood friends who had enlisted in the 115th Observation Squadron of the California Air National Guard, training on a small airfield in Griffith Park. He reckoned he could find regular work and train on weekends.

The 115th’s mission was photo reconnaissance. During the 1930s, it often used Camp San Luis Obispo as its summer training base.

By March 1941, Al was stationed at Sherwood Field, then about a mile and a half east of Paso Robles. The 4,200-foot runway, ideally situated near Camps San Luis Obispo and Roberts, had just been appropriated by the-then War Department.

Al was there at the end of the “wettest winter” and says “at least 50 inches of rain” must have fallen. After Pearl Harbor, the 115th flew submarine detection patrols along the Central Coast.

Members of the 115th served in New Guinea and eventually concluded their wartime service flying light observation aircraft in the China-Burma-India theater.

Al was destined to remain stateside dealing with technical operations in aerial photography.

Just before being transferred to San Antonio, Texas, Al met Mary again at a party. He sent her a giant Valentine, with a lovesick Al, tent encampments and Cupid throwing an apple at a seated couple.

He cautioned, “Now don’t sit under that apple tree, while I’m deep in the heart of Texas!” Mary joined Al in the shadow of the Alamo in 1943.

Mary died in January. By then she and Al had long been known as Mr. and Mrs. Cayucos.

Over the next few weeks we will draw on Al’s remarkable memories of the Central Coast as it prepared for war in 1941.

Liz Krieger contributed to this week’s column

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.