by Stephen Overturf
Several planes fly over Cambria at two o’clock in the morning in early January of 1942. A man, sitting in his heavy overcoat outside of his home, puts binoculars to his eyes, but cannot make out much about the planes through the gray mist. Still, it is clear from the pitch of their engines that there is more than one, and that they are heading east. He immediately calls Frances Smith, up at the Cambria Pines Lodge, a local inn, and reports. She — somewhat alarmed but telling herself to remain calm — issues a “flash message” directly to the Army headquarters at Riverside. They will know what to do.
This fictional account indicates how the Aircraft Warning Service of the Fourth Interception (Fighter) Command of the Army Air Force was designed to work, with the help of the volunteer civilians of the Ground Observation Corps.
Within two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a meeting was held at the Lodge to formalize plans for a series of observation posts, a small part of a much larger national plan to locate stations every seven miles or so along the coastlines of the country. Posts were set up in Cambria, Santa Rosa Creek, and Harmony, originally to be manned by members of service groups and clubs. Observers, encouraged to stay outside — “men and women alike” — so as not to miss high flying aircraft, would report from their homes any planes seen or heard.
By December 18, 1941, the San Simeon post was organized — with the late local historian Wilfred Lyons serving as one of the first assistant observers. At the later establishment of the San Simeon Defense Council, Norman Francis, lighthouse keeper of the Piedras Blancas Light Station was in attendance. Francis was representing the Coast Guard, which had assumed full management of the Light Station in 1939.
As 1942 progressed, several functional details began to be worked out at the Cambria post. Individuals signed up for shifts, so that all 24 hours of each day in a week would be covered. Women generally took the daytime hours, with each shift being three hours, while the men took the longer five-hour night shifts. Later all watches would be four hours each.
Surveys were taken to determine if people would rather watch alone or with a partner — the tradeoff of choosing the latter being the need to observe more frequently. Also, steps were taken to allow watchers to receive supplemental gasoline rations, albeit accompanied with a fairly elaborate system of approval.
By October 1942 there was a new location for the Cambria post, on the hill above the point where Burton Drive intersects with Main Street. The old Hesperian Grammar School had been located there, and the stairs from the school were used to access the “little white house on the hill.” The small structure was sealed, and provided with a heater, as well as the all-important telephone. Instructions were given to all watchers, because “it will be necessary for each observer … to make his own report.” (The Cambrian, October 1, 1942)
Local support continued, with the surnames of those who watched reading like a roll call of many of the early families associated with Cambria: Lyons, Minetti, Camozzi, Phelan, Williams, Bright, Dickie, Soto, Gamboni, Thorndyke.
Armbands were issued to those who had amassed at least 100 hours, while those with more hours received pins. During one ceremony Elsie Soto, Wilfred Lyons, and Erma Thorndyke were each awarded their sterling silver 1000 hour pins. It is interesting that Erma Thorndyke was the daughter-in-law of Captain Lorin V. Thorndyke, the second — and long serving — head lighthouse keeper of Piedras Blancas. Thorndyke’s grandson, Donald, also served in the Army during the war.
As a telling symbol of the extent of loyalty given to the observation task, Lillian Langan drove her car up to the post in the dark, and managed to get her wheelchair into the post so she too could stand her watch.
In addition, it is perhaps not well known that high school students played an important role as watchers, both during vacations and after regular school hours. Althea Soto (then Althea Smithers) remembers serving at what was called the “wee” house with her friend, Betty Soto Williams. Although her family was out at their ranch, she was staying in town with her grandmother — who lived down Burton Dr. from the post. During their watches the girls would chat and do their homework, nevertheless remaining alert to any sign of airplanes. After graduation from high school in 1944 Althea became a “girl riveter” — a real-life Rosie the Riveter, if you will — for the Lockheed plant in Southern California.
Cambria resident Gayle Caskey Oksen also remembers observing, although in her case she was only 10 years old at the time. Both of her parents, Eldon “Red” and Bernice Caskey served as well, making time in addition to their regular jobs at the gas station and Olmsted School, respectively.
Gayle’s father had recently traded four tires for a horse with a local farmer who was a little short of funds — a horse that became hers and whom she named “Buck.” She would ride Buck from their home near where Weymouth Street presently crosses Highway 1 — an area that then contained only three houses — up by the cemetery, and then down Bridge Street into East Village. She would hobble the horse at the corner of Bridge and Main Street, and make her way up to the post.
She took very seriously the responsibility of her duties, as those days early in the war were considered a time of “high alert.” The sinking of the Montebello, although they did not talk about it very much, was always in the back of their minds. She recalls that the post itself was quite small, not much larger than a shack. There were pamphlets available and charts of aircraft on the wall, and she “studied them very carefully,” to the point where she felt quite well versed in the various types of planes.
By October 1943 the quality and increased number of installations of radar had progressed to the point where round-the-clock manning of the civilian warning stations was no longer considered necessary. Clara Albee, who had taken over as Chief Observer, nonetheless continued on with the job of ensuring rapid — seven minutes in the Cambria case — response rates to any possible alert, backed up by more volunteers.
Finally, on May 31, 1944, Albee officially closed the post, because the Army now judged any Japanese air attacks as “improbable.” The following June a huge barbeque, attended by Clara Albee representing Cambria, was held in honor of Sergeant Cecil Stocker, the Army coordinator for the region. The event, held at a ranch in the hills 37 miles from Paso Robles, featured salads, “kettles of brown beans,” rolls and country butter, coffee, punch, “all the barbecued meat they could eat,” and “home-made pie a-la-mode.” Speeches, awards, a shooting demonstration, a rodeo exhibition, and music followed. The reporter felt that “the weather was perfect, and the whole affair a huge success.” (The Cambrian (June 8, 1944).
A broader perspective of the Ground Observation Corps during the war must include the fact that well over 1,000,000 American civilians participated in the effort to protect their country. One post was manned entirely by screen stars, another by Native Americans. Bankers observed from hotel roofs, while sheepherders watched from oak trees. Marjorie Sewell, a native of San Simeon and a Cambria Historical Society board member, notes that Hearst Ranch cowboys manned the San Simeon post from the hills between Highway 1 and the castle.
In all, at least 170 citizens represented the Cambria post alone over the years that the watch was in service. The level of commitment to the cause is perhaps best represented by a verse drafted by observer Helen Ballard:
Night after night, the long steep stairway climbing
While others slept
Upon that hill where pines were darkly swaying
The watch we kept
No glory ours, nor thrill of trumpet calling
No banner flung on high
As patiently our humble trust fulfilling
We watched the sky.