July 16, 1944

By BETTY REID SOSKIN Special to the Planet
Friday July 30, 2004

It was another of those extraordinary ordinary evenings in a time in history when change governed everything and when lifetimes were measured in hours and sometimes minutes. This was war time and we were caught up in the rhythm of it. We were the twenty-somethings living in the uncertainty of the times. 

As was true with other young Bay Area couples, my husband Mel and I opened our little South Berkeley apartment to African American servicemen wanting to meet the locals, but who were less inclined to visit the segregated USO centers. 

This was a late afternoon gathering following a softball game, as I recall. It drifted into the evening. We danced to records by Erskine Hawkins, Lester Young, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington—rushing to the living room window each time another train rumbled through. The Santa Fe railroad track split Sacramento Street down the middle, and brought—literally to our front door—the thousands of homefront workers coming to build the ships, the endless line of flat cars carrying jeeps and trucks, and the troops that disembarked at the nearby Santa Fe depot for assignment to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, the Presidio, the Alameda Naval Air Station, the Oakland Army Base, and, the Concord weapons station at Port Chicago. 

In that late afternoon of July 17, 1944, we danced, stole bits of intimacy playing “Spin the Bottle” and stopped long enough to hail the passing trains with our guests, which included four young sailors from Port Chicago. As I recall, there was Richert from Denver, Roosevelt and two other young sailors whose names I never knew. 

Toward nightfall, we bid our young uniformed strangers goodbye as they headed back to their base, lingering for a while near the curb in the strange half light that came with evening. This was called a “Dim Out,” a precaution that involved painting half of all street light bulbs a deep gray on the side facing the ocean—to prevent the enemy from seeing the coastline in silhouette—inviting attacks from submarines lurking offshore. There was an eerie cast to everything; strange shadow patterns. Our young friends would drive back to Concord in this half light. 

Some hours later, at exactly 10:18 p.m., the sound of thunder rolled somewhere in the distance. But it wasn’t thunder. Seconds later the ground shook violently in a seismic wave felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada. Had the enemy finally infiltrated our defenses? We’d heard no planes overhead. There were no air raid sirens. 

We wouldn’t know until morning. 


Berkeley native Betty Reid Soskin is a National Parks Service librarian-technician for the Rosie The Riveter Word War II Homefront National Historical Park in Richmond. She is a former legislative aide to Assemblymember Loni Hancock and former Assemblymember Dion Aroner.ª