Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
From a safe distance, history can become romanticized. For example, there is a persistent misunderstanding of the World War II American home front. Many believe that Americans willingly submitted to wartime necessities, like price controls, rationing and blackouts. The truth is far less generous.
Consumer demand, not need, frequently surpassed ration limits during the war. Once rationing was instituted, black markets instantly emerged in every corner of America. Gasoline, meat and nylon stockings were some of the most common goods criminally traded. One journalist documented his drive across America on a single gas ration stamp. Every time his tank ran low, he was able to fill up, albeit illegally. The Department of Agriculture estimated that 20 percent of meat sold during the war came from the black market. Demand for nylons led to several near riots. On July 12, 1946, as manufacturers struggled with peacetime conversions, a barely controlled crowd of 30,000-40,000 women gathered in rainy Pittsburgh just for the chance to buy stockings.
The German aerial bombing of the United Kingdom, the Blitz, began in the fall of 1940. The tales of terror quickly crossed the ocean and impressed Americans on the need for effective air raid safety, including blackouts. As the name suggests, blackouts require businesses and residents to turn off all lights that would enable enemy aircraft to identify population centers or specific targets by sight. There could be no lit streetlights or neon signs, no flashlights or car headlights. Drapes or blankets covered all windows. In nearly all American cities, blackouts and general air raid preparedness were treated seriously by the populace, but not in Anchorage.
Officials in some American coastal cities were well aware of their vulnerability to air attacks and began ordering practice blackouts long before the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor. On March 8, 1941, Seattle became the first major American city to test its blackout procedures. Author and fighter pilot Samuel Hynes was in Seattle during its first blackout. He later wrote:
“On the night of the city’s first blackout I left the apartment in the early dark and walked to the top of the hill, where there was a wide space without buildings or trees. An overcast night, neither moon nor stars; only the lights of the city made the darkness visible. Then the sirens began to keen, some near, some far-off, and the lights on the seven hills went out, neighborhood by neighborhood; out beyond Lake Washington where the university was, south toward Tacoma, along the Sound places disappeared, fell out of light into darkness like falling angels. Now the night was entirely dark and featureless, cloud and earth one black emptiness.”
Ketchikan officials staged a brief blackout practice on April 2, 1940, the first such blackout in Alaska. The war must have seemed very distant then, 20 months before the Pearl Harbor attack. This blackout lasted only 15 minutes and was a festive affair, immediately followed by the annual firemen’s ball. The next Ketchikan blackout practice on April 18, 1941, while German bombers still flew over the United Kingdom, was a more somber affair. The blackout included a full air raid drill. Armed National Guard troops took stations around the town. Firefighters set off firecrackers and lit smoke pots to simulate the noise and confusion of an attack.
Apart from Ketchikan and Wrangell, which conducted two blackout tests that summer, most Alaskan communities did not plan for blackout eventualities. On Nov. 21, 1941, the Petersburg Press ran a poem with the following lines:
We don’t have to dodge a bomb,
Or grope in blackouts here,
The night is peaceful, still and calm,
There is no trace of fear,
The only blackout we go through,
Is when brother blows a fuse.
Most carefree attitudes toward air-raid safety changed 16 days later when Pearl Harbor was attacked. That same day, Sitka issued an immediate blackout order. Many other coastal Alaska towns followed suit by the next day. Fairbanks residents, if anything, were too zealous during a successful Dec. 10 blackout. As evident from electricity usage, many residents turned off all lights and sat in complete darkness for the duration of the blackout. As the local Civilian Defense director noted, interior lights are allowed during blackouts so long as all windows were covered.
Then there was Anchorage. Here, officials ordered blackouts every morning from 5 a.m. until dawn. Mornings were considered especially dangerous, a favorite time of would-be raiders. The first local blackout came on the morning of Dec. 9, 1941.
There were high expectations for this blackout, just two days after the Pearl Harbor attack and in a military town. Instead, it was an utter failure. Many stores and apartment buildings left their exterior lights and signs running, reflecting brightly off the snow. Most drivers left their headlights on, illuminating themselves, other cars, and the surrounding buildings. There was even poor compliance in Army housing districts. During the supposed blackout, Anchorage remained visible for miles down the Cook Inlet. Cab companies, at least, prospered by doubling rates during blackouts.
Obviously, blackouts are more difficult in long, cold Alaska winters. And some communities across America did improve with practice. Insufficient preparation, especially public education, doomed early blackouts in Klamath Falls, Oregon. As sirens announced their first blackout, two weeks after Pearl Harbor, confused residents turned on more lights while trying to figure out what was going on. Lessons learned, later blackouts there became more effective.
In Anchorage, however, air-raid safety compliance declined over time. On Dec. 27, 1941, Anchorage Police Chief Bob Huttle told the Anchorage Daily Times, “There are persons in Anchorage who apparently believe their position exempts them from observing the city ordinance.” That day, five residents were fined up to $10, about $170 in 2021, for blackout violations. The guilty included future mayor Zachariah Loussac. Huttle added, “Lights left burning may be shot out.”
Deputy United States Marshal Jack Triber returned to his Anchorage base after three months in the Lower 48. Dismayed by what he saw, he told the Daily Times, “Coming to work this morning shortly after 7 o’clock, I saw lights blazing through windows in numerous homes and business houses. Two nights residence in a Pacific Coast town would cure the worst of local violators. In towns there, burning lights are often simply shot out. Blackouts are rigorously enforced as far inland as central Idaho.”
Triber did not exaggerate the rigorous official and unofficial enforcement elsewhere. In Seattle, some residents walked the city during blackouts and threw rocks at offending lights. In San Francisco, a cabbie who left his lights on was sentenced to six months in jail.
Meanwhile, Anchorage remained a notable blackout outlier, not just in Alaska but throughout the western United States. Far larger cities, like San Francisco and Seattle, more effectively instituted blackouts. A reader wrote to the Daily Times, “isn’t it a shame that the citizens of Anchorage cannot take the time or trouble to observe the blackout regulations . . . Will it take an actual attack before people can afford to spend a little time covering up their windows?”
Poor compliance continued into the summer. Then, on May 31, 1942, the Army Air Corps and Office of Civilian Defense staged a surprise air raid test during the afternoon. Sirens wailed, and planes roared mere feet above the telephone lines. Then the planes began imitating dive-bomb attacks. Instead of seeking shelter, residents abandoned their homes, school, and businesses to watch the show outside. They lined the streets, gathered in yards, and even climbed on roofs for the view. As reported by the Daily Times, “almost every man, woman and child in the city would have been shot down had it been a real raid.”
The rapidly approaching war should have undercut Anchorage residents’ nonchalance towards air-raid safety. Just three days after the failed air raid test, Japanese air strikes hit Dutch Harbor. This attack was the first-ever intentional bombing of the continental United States. On June 6, Japanese forces landed at Kiska. The next day, they took Attu. Yet, on June 15, seven more Anchorage blackout violators appeared before the city magistrate.
“Blackout in Seattle is Success.” Petersburg Press, March 14, 1941, 1.
“Blackout in this Vicinity is Effective.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, December 11, 1941, 1, 3.
“Black Out Tonight.” Sitka Sentinel, December 7, 1941, 1.
Davis, Austin. “‘Pity the Poor Working Girl’: Nylons, Work, Class, Ideology, and Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1945-1946.” Tortoise, Spring 2020, 1-9.
“Firecrackers for Bombs in Ketchikan’s Blackout.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, April 19, 1941, 1.
Hynes, Samuel. “Growing Up with the War.” New England Review 24, no. 1 (2003): 38-49.
“Ketchikan Pulls Off Blackout.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, April 5, 1940, 1.
“Letters to the Editor.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 16, 1942, 8.
“Lights During Blackouts May be Shot.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 27, 1941, 1.
“Lights Shine Through City’s First Blackout.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 9, 1941, 8.
Lingeman, Richard R. “Remembrance of Rationing Past.” New York Times Magazine, September 09, 1973, 108.
Miller, Mark. “Border to Border on Bootleg Gas.” Collier’s Weekly, October 2, 1943, 61-63.
“Sneak ‘Raid’ on Anchorage Leaves Scores of ‘Casualties.’” Anchorage Daily Times, June 1, 1942, 1, 6.
“Test Blackout for Town of Wrangell.” Petersburg Press, June 13, 1941, 5.
Webster, Ditz. “The Old U.S. for Me.” Petersburg Press, November 21, 1941, 7.
Yates, Richard. “Klamath Falls Goes to War: A Personal and Newspaper Reminiscence.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 107, no. 3 (2006): 410-423.
Yellow Cab Company. “Announcement.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 13, 1941, 3.