When the Whole House Wore a Mask

A guest post by David H. Schroeder, originally published in the Port Townsend Leader, January 20, 2020, reflecting on another difficult winter not so long ago.

I find myself dreaming of other times and places. Can you blame me?

Only 79 years ago, Port Townsend survived another winter of frightening uncertainty. Residents were encouraged to stay home. Large gatherings were forbidden. Travel, especially at night, was difficult or impossible.

It was the winter of 1941-42. In early December, a foreign power shocked the world by attacking American soil, dropping a barrage of bombs on the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing more than two thousand and decimating our defenses in the Pacific.

The attack left the United States feeling devastated, crippled and naked, especially along the West Coast. Even level-headed people anticipated further air raids, perhaps on Seattle, perhaps on the Peninsula.

The Port Townsend Leader wrote, “We must face the fact that, if the Pacific Northwest is an object of an attack by an enemy force, Port Townsend, with nearby military establishments guarding Puget Sound’s entrance, will definitely be a target.”

* * *

In hindsight, it is comforting to imagine a home front united in patriotic sacrifice, working in perfect harmony to fight the unambiguous evil that triggered World War II.

It couldn’t have been that simple. Moment to moment, right here in Port Townsend, how did it feel?

Our primary defense that winter was the black-out. Back then, attacking aircraft relied heavily on visual landmarks to find their targets. We couldn’t hide in the daytime, but nighttime raids were more likely. And at night –– if we all worked together –– we could go dark. So, we did.

Government poster

The Leader wrote, “Black-outs must be absolutely complete. Not a single industrial, business, residence or automobile light –– in fact, no light whatsoever –– will be permitted during black-out hours. There can be no excuse. Anyone seeing a violation shall immediately call the police.”

Now, imagine it’s 2:00 in the morning. Half-asleep, you glance out of your darkened bedroom and see your neighbor’s porchlight left on, or a crack of light emerging from the edge of hastily-installed window curtains. What do you do?

Isn’t that unmasked light putting the entire town at risk? The newspaper told you to call the police. Do you?

That winter must have been full of such grim tension.

Radio and newspapers were prohibited from giving weather forecasts. Extended use of the telephone was strongly discouraged.

Port Townsend Schools held evacuation drills, emptying entire buildings in less than a minute. Students carried their coats with them all day from classroom to classroom, just in case.

Big holiday celebrations were cancelled because they could be problematic during a bombing raid. A packed dance hall couldn’t easily black-out, and long strings of cars could slow critical military traffic.

Even small gatherings had worrisome protocols. Guests would knock on their host’s door, and then wait as the host turned off all his interior lights before opening the door to let them in.

And throughout the winter, sirens signaled the black-outs. Each siren could mean another precautionary drill, or an imminent air raid. There might be no way of knowing which was which — until the bombs did (or didn’t) fall.

Not surprisingly, local liquor stores shattered all-time sales records.

One night, a series of brush fires was discovered blazing on the Olympic Peninsula between Port Angeles and Sequim. Seen from the sky, these fires formed flaming arrows pointing toward Seattle. Apparently, they were an attempt to light the way for a bombing raid on the big city.

Who set those fires? A gang of restless teenagers? Foreign saboteurs? Those odd folks across the street who never said hello? Eventually, it was quietly reported that the perpetrators had been identified, and that “appropriate action would be taken.”

What got Port Townsend through those dark days? Patience and perseverance. As spring gradually dawned, we had more information, and more time to respond. The attacker’s reach was limited after all. Our military had fully awakened.

So, by the following winter, while we were still at war and making many sacrifices, black-outs were no longer called for, and the fears of imminent air attack had faded.

* * *

Now we endure our own season of uncertainty.

78 years ago, we were asked to mask our homes and automobile headlights. Now, it is our faces, but the dynamics are the same. We rely on each other –– individually –– to help protect us all –– collectively.

Tricky stuff. But we’ve done it before, and successfully. Eventually, our growing body of experience and knowledge turns the tide, whether that takes the form of military maneuvers, or developing vaccines.

Yes, we can work together to defeat an unwelcome invader. We’ve done it before.

From Pearl Harbor to the surrender of Japan, it took 1,353 days. In this battle, we’ll be declaring victory in less than a third of that time.

Thank you to the staff of the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Center for helping me review the early war-time issues of the Port Townsend Leader.

I’m grateful to David H. Schroeder for permission to reprint this visit to another time, another place. Here’s how it appeared in the print edition of the Port Townsend Leader.

Sources for Blackout images:

Featured Image found on the History website at https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/post-pearl-harbor-blackout-in-california-video.

“What to Do in Blackouts” found on the Spartacus Educational website at https://spartacus-educational.com/2WWblackout.htm.

“Put out all lights…” found on the Secretary of State section of the Oregon State website, at https://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/ww2/Pages/protect-blackouts.aspx.

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