Grandpa and the Great Depression, Part 2

In April, 2008, my wife’s grandfather wrote an interesting post about his life during the Great Depression. He recently sent me a sequel. It picks up right where Part 1 left off and goes through World War II.


After a few years, the wine and tank business slowed down and I was out of work. I got an auto dealer route with the Examiner newspaper. It was made up of 2 or 3 kid’s routes put together. It was quite a bit of work but it was enough to keep a single guy who lived at home with his parents going.

I belonged to a writing club. The members put out little amateur publications. One of the girls in the club had a dad who was a big wig in the PG&E and he gave me a card to the personnel manager who gave me a job in the collection department. That was in 1938. The man who steered me into the job sort of offhandedly told me there was a good independent union there. I took the hint and joined. There were a number of conditions the employees were complaining about: work schedules, vacation times, etc.

In the writer’s club there was also 3 sisters. I dated the older one and my friend Lee dated the younger one. After some 8 months or so we switched – I dated the middle one and he dated the older. And these were the girls we married. Mary and I did not want a big wedding (like all the turmoil in Lee’s) so we flew to Reno. Flying was a big deal then. We were married April 15, 1940 and had over 55 years of a great marriage.

Back in 1940 there was the war in Europe. It had started in 1939 when Germany under Hitler invaded Poland. I think it was in the later part of 1940 that we had to register for the military draft. We had been given random numbers to be called up for military service in case of need.

In December 1941 we had the Japanese attack on our naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. All kinds of rumors flew that the Japanese were going to do this, that, and the other. All were unfounded. The city [San Francisco] was blacked out. There would be some rumor going about and we would go up on the roof of our 7-story apartment building and look at the blackout. It was surprising how a little light stood out in the big city.

In the early days sometimes we would walk out at night and find a crowd gathered in front of a store that had one light on and one policeman standing in front. And someone in the crowd would shout to break the door down. And the policeman would say he had no orders to break anything and the crowd would gradually disperse. Things eventually began to calm down. People began to realize that right now there was no big danger but to watch out for local small stuff.

In 1942 I was working for PG&E and active in the independent union and working on vacation scheduling, seniority rights, and other matters for the employees. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the union was company sponsored and outlawed it. I switched to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union.

People who don’t work for large corporations frequently don’t realize that even though the company might have reasonable policies, the lower down branch bosses and straw bosses make their own rules and play favorites. The NLRB ruled that PG&E had helped the “independent” union and outlawed it. So now only the CIO and American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions were left in the field.

The CIO and AFL were separate at the time. The CIO had just been formed in 1935 and in the main it was a new and progressive union.

I later quit the PG&E and went to work for the CIO in Fresno and signed up PG&E workers for the union. That was in the days when vigilantes would go out in the fields with shotguns looking for union men. I helped sign up PG&E workers but we were too late in starting. The election between AFL and CIO was lost by a 3 to 2 margin.

I was drafted in 1943 before the PG&E campaign was over.

I went to basic training in Alabama. Before it was over I was picked to go to administrative training at a college in Mississippi. After graduation I was sent overseas to New Caledonia about 1000 miles above New Zealand as an Administrative Specialist. I was picked by the Army Airways Group for the Administrative Office. We were in charge of communications and the towers of Army airfields. The Japanese never got down quite as far as New Caledonia. I was a staff sergeant in charge of officer personnel and their movements to various bases. My job called for Master Sergeant rating but I didn’t stay long enough. As soon as the atom bomb and the Russian threat to Japan materialized I became eligible for discharge. I left as soon as possible and went home in December 1945.

FDR had died and Truman was President.

While I was gone the CIO had organized the PG&E in the Bay Area and before I got home I was elected to a staff position in the union.

(Part 1 of this post can be found here.)