In the far northwest corner of Washington, residents of San Juan County (an archipelago of small, rural islands in the Salish Sea), responded quickly to the nation's needs during World War II with energy and commitment, contributing services, materials, and funds from the earliest days of the war. Many islanders, both men and women, enlisted in the armed forces. Farmers and fishermen, often with little additional assistance beyond their families, increased their yields of needed products. Residents volunteered for duty in the Air Warning Service, local Red Cross chapter, countywide projects, and on numerous boards and committees related to civilian defense and rationing. They planted victory gardens, knitted and sewed garments and other items, entertained and supported locally based military men, exceeded every quota of war-bond sales and USO and Red Cross contributions, and were concerned and kept informed about every islander who entered the armed services. At the same time, familiar activities of island life continued throughout the war, and those returning from service were welcomed home to an environment and community largely unchanged despite the added stresses and responsibilities of the war years.
The Approaching Threat of War
Like others across the U.S., San Juan County residents in the late 1930s were just beginning to emerge from the struggles of the Great Depression. A rural economy largely based on farming and fishing had helped sustain residents through the difficult years, and local resorts were more frequently welcoming visitors coming to enjoy the islands' restorative tranquility and beauty. Islanders received news of the mainland U.S. and overseas primarily through their local, weekly, six-page newspaper, the Friday Harbor Journal (FHJ), published in the county seat, Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. In the Journal, readers learned of Hitler's advances in Europe and the Japanese military's movements into Southeast Asia and China, but it all seemed very far from the concerns of their daily lives. While they acknowledged and approved the U.S. government's increasing aid to England and France in their resistance to the growing threat, most islanders agreed with the Journal's editor, who wrote:
"Thus far we are in accord with the administration's neutrality plan, which follows, if it is firmly understood that American vessels carrying contraband of war will do so on their own responsibility, that there is no reason whatever for this country becoming involved" (FHJ, November 9, 1939).
More extensive coverage of European and Asian news in the Journal in passing months made clear the broadening scope of the conflicts and catalyzed intensified preparation toward possible U.S. involvement as well as recognition of the aid needed for those already suffering. When, in September 1940, the first peacetime draft for military service was announced, a county selective-service board was formed. In December the board members -- Dr. Lyman Phifer (1905-1981) of Friday Harbor and William Norton (1888-1970) of Deer Harbor on Orcas Island -- urged prompt return of the selective-service questionnaires that were to be completed by all men 18 to 64 years of age; compliance with the five-day-return requirement had been, they pointed out sternly, "lax" ("Questionnaires ...").
The Red Cross and other relief agencies were already actively seeking help and funds to support the growing number of war refugees and servicemen abroad. Knitting and sewing quickly became vital activities whenever and wherever opportunity and time allowed. As it had done so effectively in World War I, the Red Cross organized a national effort; local chapters of the Red Cross supplied patterns and materials and arranged for shipment of the finished items to regional centers for distribution. Many individuals and island groups such as the Moose Lodge Welfare Department, Women's Business and Professional Club, Young Married Women's Club, and Junior Guild all stepped up to help. And sometimes the knitters (who often put tags with their names and addresses on the finished items) had the satisfaction of knowing just how much their efforts were appreciated. An English soldier stationed in London through the horrific bombing of that city wrote to a Lopez Island knitter about the sweater he had received:
"I was a lucky man to draw your pull-over out of the many 'comforts' we received from America ... I was really thankful for it this winter. I never possessed such a warm garment, and I certainly needed it. Standing around in the street at night waiting for the Rescue Parties to extricate air raid victims from the debris is miserably cold work in winter" ("Graphic ...").
Appeals for monetary contributions received generous response as well. Paul McMillin (1886-1961), owner of the Roche Harbor Lime Company, spearheaded an appeal for relief of Finland after its invasion by Germany, and the Red Cross noted that San Juan County was one of the first in the state to meet (and exceed) its quota of donations to its first fundraising campaign. It was a pattern of broad community support repeated throughout the war for every war-bond and Red Cross and USO (United Service Organizations) appeal. Islanders -- most of whom were farmers and tradesmen, fishermen and small businessmen, laborers, and their families -- always contributed well beyond the quotas and expectations of mainland organization officials.
Local Preparations Intensify
In January 1941, Alan Carter (1919-2007), then a 22-year-old from a well-known San Juan Island family and decades later mayor of Friday Harbor, was the first county resident called by the selective service for a year's active duty. The Journal reported, by name and often with the parents' names as well, every islander who was drafted or enlisted throughout the war years. Families made sure that editor Virgil Frits (1882-1971) was kept apprised of the activities, promotions, changing duty assignments, awards, and sacrifices through imprisonment, injury, or death, of their loved ones, and the whole county rejoiced and sympathized as only a small, tightly connected community can do. The total population of San Juan County in 1941 was slightly more than 3,100. Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, the largest town in the county, had fewer than 700 residents, and the population of the entire island was only about 1,500. The next three largest islands had populations of approximately 940 (Orcas Island), 500 (Lopez Island), and 85 (Shaw Island). On the front page and in the popular Journal column "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell" and those focused on other island communities, Frits and his wife Maude (1890-1964), who also worked at the paper, were always glad to note when a servicemember was able to come home for a visit and to publish letters received from those on far-distant deployments.
Many aspects of island life went on largely as usual. A new effort to expand tourism in the islands was launched with a promotional brochure. The islands were featured in a southern California yachting magazine, and Sunset Magazine for July 1941 included an article on excursion cruises via boats delivering mail through the islands. Despite gasoline and food rationing and government regulations against travel for pleasure, resorts in the county would continue to be popular refuges of relaxation throughout the war. Fishermen and canneries were busy. Farmers planted and harvested; when islanders visited a soldier at Fort Lewis south of Tacoma and had dinner at the base, they were delighted to find that the menu included Saltair-brand peas from San Juan Island.
But later in the year the newly organized Food for Defense Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked San Juan County farmers to reduce their wheat production for 1942 by 48 percent while increasing oat, barley, potato, hay, milk, and egg production, and boosting the number of cattle and calves, hogs, and chickens marketed; turkeys raised; and farm and market gardens maintained. The chairman of the local defense board explained that farmers would be contacted individually and that "this new farm program gives San Juan County farmers an opportunity to serve our nation and also to profit by it ourselves" ("County Farmers ...").
The war was rapidly becoming an increasing focus of island activities. The San Juan Island Commercial Club held a meeting with defense of the San Juans as a theme. County commissioners, the county auditor, and others from San Juan, Lopez, and Orcas islands met with state officials to develop plans for county civilian defense. In October 1941 the U.S. Army Air Corps devised a five-day exercise involving hundreds of planes and volunteer observers who were to spot, record, and report information including the types of planes, altitude, direction of flight, and distance from the observation site. Flights were scheduled from the Canadian border to southern Oregon; nine observation posts were designated by the army for the San Juan Islands. This was to be a trial exercise preliminary to an on-going activity designed to help pilots who might be intercepting an enemy air attack. Islanders were urged to volunteer to participate: "This is a patriotic duty, so let us not be caught sleeping, like so many nations throughout the world have found themselves in recent months" ("San Juan Islands ... Mock Aerial Siege"). The Air Warning System continued through much of the war, but because it was dependent on consistent participation by the volunteer spotters, procedures occasionally failed. The first general air-raid alarm occurred in July 1942 and lasted just a few minutes before the "all clear" was sounded, but many in the islands never knew the alarm had sounded at all because one of the volunteers responsible for telephoning the warning to other islands hadn't shown up for duty.
Recruitment for military service increased. A long article atop the front page of the November 6, 1941, Journal began:
"At the suggestion of Secretary of Navy [Frank] Knox [1874-1944], the Journal has been named to help the navy in giving local young men information about the opportunities the 'Two-Ocean' Navy offers them in technical training and advancement as they serve their country in its emergency" ("U.S. Navy ...").
The article went on to detail the benefits naval service would provide and ended by noting that information booklets were available in the Journal office. Related articles followed in later issues.
The War Begins
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941, the war became of immediate local concern and action; as a community a short distance from the Pacific Coast, San Juan County was vulnerable, and steps were promptly taken to increase vigilance and adherence to regulations that were swiftly imposed to enhance the area's defensive capability. The possibility of attack was real. During 1942 Coast Guard planes out of Port Angeles investigated reports of enemy submarines not just in coastal waters but in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the south shores of San Juan and Lopez islands. The Lighthouse Service had merged with the Coast Guard in 1939, and Patos Island, the northernmost island in San Juan County, and its lighthouse, which had been maintained by civilian keepers and their families since the 1890s, became an entirely military operation; an additional tower was constructed to enable 24-hour watch for planes, ships, submarines, and incendiary balloons. The light was turned off during most of the war except when needed to illuminate the treacherous waters of Boundary Pass for shipments of essential war supplies between California and Alaska.
Strict new rules were quickly put in force that required special identification papers for fishermen, cannery workers, and all those working on waterfronts. Many marine areas were listed as off-limits to all civilian boats including personal pleasure craft. The navy was anxious to find seamen and engineers who had experience on small boats and knew the waters of Puget Sound to help with local defense forces. Naval training was not needed, and duties were restricted to Puget Sound and neighboring waters. Island fishermen, who sought to increase their catch since the armed forces were purchasing almost all the canned seafood produced on the West Coast, were sometimes frustrated at restrictions on access to usually productive fishing areas.
The reaction of some white West Coast residents to the bombing of Pearl Harbor was blanket suspicion and condemnation of the many Japanese Americans (often residents for generations) in the population, with calls for their removal from sensitive areas and exclusion from commerce. In the San Juan Islands, the Roche Harbor Lime Company and McMillin family and others had employed numerous Japanese workers early in the century, and other Japanese had come to the islands each year as seasonal labor in the salmon canneries. By 1940, however, only one Japanese American family remained, Jack (1889-1960) and Yuki (1899-1962) Saoka and their daughter. Jack had worked in a San Juan Island cannery, was promoted to supervisor, and decided to stay in Friday Harbor and establish a florist and nursery business; the family became well-liked and respected members of the San Juan Island community. The first issue of the Journal after the bombing of Pearl Harbor included an anguished letter from the Saokas:
"We have nothing but sorrow and regret for the attack made on the United States, by the land of our birth. In our hearts we have for many years felt that the land of the free -- the United States -- is our real country. We would long ago have made application to become citizens of this country, if that had been possible. Whatever it is possible for us to do for the success of the United States, we shall be glad to do" ("To Our ...").
They went on to say that they would like to give all their stock of plants and flowers (which they suddenly could not legally sell and the community could not legally purchase) to the Red Cross to be sold for relief work. And they ended, "in all sincerity we say: 'God Bless America'" ("To Our ...").
The Saoka family was among the many thousands of Japanese Americans who were forced to abandon their homes and most of their possessions and move to internment camps under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882-1945) Executive Order 9066. The San Juan Island community was appalled and did all it could to help the family store and safeguard their household goods and prepare for the move. When the time came for their departure, the Journal included a sympathetic article on the front page of the paper noting their many friends in the community and that they were being driven to the Seattle assembly station by Howard Carter (1900-1978), a local businessman, who wanted to lend support to the family and help make the journey a bit easier. The family never returned to live on San Juan Island, but Jack and Yuki Saoka and Jack's first wife are all buried in the community cemetery there.
The Friday Harbor Journal had always featured local news on the front page of each issue and reserved national and international news for the inner pages. By February 1942, however, large segments of the front page were devoted to war-related news of local interest -- such as enlistment notes, a report that restaurants were restricted to serving no more than two cubes of sugar per customer, the availability of cheap mailing rates for books sent to servicemen, the prohibition of pleasure boats on local waters after sunset, the visit of the army signal officer to the islands, and methods to extend the life of tires -- interspersed with news of the Orcas Island school levy and local weddings and funerals. News of military activities in the area was included but often was so brief as to be almost entirely uninformative. In May, a one-column, one-and-one-half-inch article at the bottom of the front page reported (almost in its entirety and under the vague headline "Building Dedicated") that at the south end of San Juan Island a new "airplane watch station was taken out and placed on its location ... Appropriate house-warming ceremonies were held. Details, military secret" (FHJ, May 28, 1942).
Islanders and the War Effort
San Juan County engaged in a variety of activities in support of the military and a country at war. The facilities at Moran State Park on Orcas Island were taken over by the Coast Guard as a training post and local residents offered much-appreciated entertainment and hospitality, which was later reciprocated when the Coast Guard held a party to thank the islanders for their many kindnesses. At Christmas time residents donated gifts to a special collection sufficient for every serviceman stationed in the county to receive one. In 1942 approximately 375 packages were sent to officers to be given to their men on Christmas morning. In 1944 several groups from the Puget Sound area were given outings in the islands as a respite from the intense war-related demands of their jobs. Among them were more than 2,500 workers from the navy shipyard near Bremerton who, with their families, arrived on two Sundays and were entertained at the San Juan Island grade-school grounds with a picnic and barbecue. For many it was their first boat trip and visit to an island. One of the participants later wrote saying he "was especially impressed the way San Juan Island folks treat visitors" ("Bremerton Visitor ..."), and he included $2 for a year's subscription to the Journal.
Frequent collections of materials needed for the war were organized by local volunteers. Rubber, paper, aluminum, burlap sacks, phonograph records, scrap iron, tin cans and more were brought to designated deposit sites. Borrowed trucks were used to pick up heavy and oversize items of scrap iron from island farms. In Friday Harbor the drugstore accepted tin cans and keys that had been collected by grade-school and high-school students. Arranging to consolidate collections and get them to mainland depots was challenging on the dispersed islands. Throughout the war, books were collected in drop boxes on the four largest islands and sent for distribution to service personnel; donors were reminded that books should be "in good condition and interesting to men" ("Victory Book ..."). No doubt servicewomen also enjoyed reading some of the novels and nonfiction books sent out. By the end of the war, women from San Juan County had enlisted in the non-combat women's services of the army, navy, Navy Nurse Corps, and Marine Corps.
Many other women, especially those on farms, in addition to completing all the usual responsibilities of home life, were working in the fields, barnyards, and gardens helping to increase production. Early in the war, as enthusiasm for enlistment was rising, local farmers were told that "certainly the patriotic thing for every skilled farmer to do is to remain on the farm, and it should be understood by all that the farm hand who has been deferred by his local board as an essential farm hand is not unpatriotic because food production is certainly a defense industry" ("Director Urges ..."). But many farm workers did accept the draft or enlisted, and labor shortages on farms became acute. It was even suggested that women from towns could relieve farm women of some of their house chores to free them up to help in the fields at harvest time. Over the course of the war, the number of farms in San Juan County decreased from 497 in 1940, with 68,017acres farmed, to 377 in 1945, with 67,078 acres under cultivation.
Rationing and regulations added whole new challenges to island life. Farmers were required to register all their horses and mules, giving information on the age, sex, color, whether draft or riding, whether broken or unbroken, and whether necessary or unnecessary for the owner's use. The animals were not going to be drafted, farmers were assured, but would be purchased if needed. Women who had harvests of fruit from orchards and gardens waited anxiously to find out whether extra rations of sugar would be released for canning season. Applications for the precious commodity required information on number of quarts canned the previous year, number of quarts of fruit in possession, what the sugar would be used for (jams? jellies? fruit butters? preserves?) and other detailed information.
Because they were so close to the Pacific Coast, the islands were in areas where light control was required. The primary concern was lights seen from the sea, so homes or stores visible from Haro Strait west of the islands or the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the south were required to have blackout shades on their water-side windows. Some roads had signs indicating cars should drive with "parking lights only" until they reached an "end of dim-out" sign where car lights could no longer be seen from the water.
Some businesses were so overwhelmed by wartime regulations that they gave up entirely and closed for the duration of the war. The owners of King's Market in Friday Harbor, a well-patronized store still operating in 2021, announced in the Journal the sale of all in-stock merchandise with the explanatory complaint that they could not continue to serve the community "until ... some degree of normalcy has been established. The impediments and regulations now experienced in the merchandising business are too much to contend with and too intricate for most of us to understand" ("King's Market ..."). A ration calendar noting the allowances of the week was included on the front page of every issue of the newspaper through the war and beyond, and long articles explaining the details of the regulations and rules on everything from tires to farm machinery to canned milk were prominently featured.
End of Hostilities
As the war continued into 1945, more frequent letters were joyously received at home and shared in the Journal, particularly as German and then Japanese prison camps were liberated. After three years in a camp in the Philippines, one islander wrote:
"For 38 months we sweat out the 'Yanks and Tanks.' In 1942 we used to say, 'Free in '43.' In '43 we said, 'Mother's Door in '44.' Then in '44 we said, 'Mother's Pies in '45.' and at last the Yanks arrived! My Liberation Date -- February 4, 1945" ("Warren Kirk ...").
By the end of hostilities on August 14, 1945, islanders had served around the globe in Britain, Europe, the South Pacific, the deserts of Africa, and the tropical jungles of New Guinea; from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Alaska, Iwo Jima, and Cuba. Ten servicemen from San Juan County never returned: one from Orcas Island and nine from San Juan Island. Islanders were gradually released from military service and began to come home to find eager welcome from family and friends and the islands largely unchanged from the peaceful rural community the men and women had left months or years before. Having experienced the world, many would agree with the soldier who wrote from Germany:
"I would not trade the San Juan Islands for the whole European continent with the British Isles thrown in. To all of you who make the islands your home, I have this to say: You are very fortunate and don't let anybody tell you different" ("San Juan Soldier ...").