Silicon Valley in Wartime
Mother’s Day is a good enough reason to finally share this bit of history, as told by my mother’s mother. Ann Stanchina passed away last summer at age 90, but before then she managed to live an amazing life on her own terms.
Ann grew up on the peninsula, and went to work at Hewlett-Packard during World War II.
I‘ll always be proud that my grandmother was one of the first people building products, by hand, in a place that would become a global center of innovation excellence. I’m so grateful that I got a chance to hear some of the stories of her life before she passed. Hopefully you’ll get a kick out of them too.
We worked under the Navy. We made amp meters, and our pride and joy was radar jamming machinery so the Japanese couldn’t get their transmissions out. We were doing that toward the end of the war.
We were assembling. We had the assembly line, the wiring line, the test line, and “It Better Not Be In Line,” that’s where the screw-ups went. If you were on the assembly you had to go to work the screw-ups line if you didn’t have anything.
Dave [Packard] worked right with us, all the time. It wasn’t all women. A guy called Davey Pew was my line leader, and he had one arm, and all his fingers were on the end of his elbow. That’s why he couldn’t go in the service. That’s how they allowed women in, because they were taking the men out of the workshop and drafting them, so then they decided “Well, we have to do women.”
They came to my high school, I went to Sequoia High, and said ‘If you agree to do war work, you can get out of high school in three and a half years.’ I ended school right there, got a diploma, and went to work for Hewlett-Packard.
I started at eighty cents an hour, and it went up to a dollar an hour. In those days that was a lot of money. No stock options, sadly! We could work until the fella that left for the Army came back, and his job was guaranteed. That was the guarantee they gave us. It was late ’45 or 46 when the kid came back, and that was the end of me there. But, they re-employed us to Sunbeam, the appliance manufacturer. I was making thermostats for irons. But that was through Hewlett-Packard.
There were two other girls. I had to get up at five o’clock in the morning, catch a bus about half a mile from the house, go into town, catch another bus out Alma street to the plant, and be there by eight o’clock. It was on Alma and Oregon, you just crossed the railroad tracks on Oregon.
It was a huge place. It looked like a horse barn. Inside, there was a computer. I had to go into it, the door’s here, and it’s square inside, there’s nothing in there, and you had to turn this way and that way. It wasn’t wired, we were responsible for putting it together. It was his dream. Bill Hewlett. I never met the man. He never put his nose into the shop. He was the butter-and-egg man from outside.
But Dave Packard was around, yes. His wife Lucile worked in the office, she made all our paychecks out. He was a wonderful man. If we had trouble on our line, he’d never hesitate. Someone would need him, it’d be Davey, go do something else. He’d come over. If someone overtightened a screw and it stripped, it had to come out. So sometimes shorty [that was my nickname] had to go underneath. Even with these computer boxes, we had them on stands, and you had to go underneath.
Every ship had two or three, airplanes all had them. We couldn’t turn them out fast enough. We probably made fifty a day. We had a long line, all women. And if Davey Pew couldn’t fix something with his bad arm, we’d call for Dave and he’d come out. Man Mountain Dean! Oh God, he was big.
I was the smallest on the line. We didn’t know what slacks were until we started there, and they issued us slacks. We couldn’t figure out why. I found out pretty damn fast. Crawl around on the floor underneath there with a chisel and a screwdriver, bust a brad off, and he’d put one in right on top. I’d get one out on the bottom, and he’d put one back in over the top.
“Is it all right?” he’d ask.
“Yesss,” I’d say.
“Are you sure?” he’d say.
“‘OK, come out.”
There was this “television” thing that was Packard’s baby, and he worked on it the minute we got everything done. Even if it was just half an hour a day. That was far from being finished, and that was ’46. I think it wasn’t until the ’50s. And then they had to shrink them so much. What good would a big computer like that have been?
We had Navy admirals all come down and check on the line. You’d look up the line and see a bunch of naval officers, and they’d come down and check your work.
“Can I try it?” they’d ask about the work I was doing.
“OK,” they’d say.
He wasn’t my boss!
Loraine, the girl who went to school with me, she was on the wiring line, she wired. She was a screw up, she ended up marrying Davey, with the bad arm.
We didn’t know what was going to be on the line each day, because we had two shifts. If we finished our line, we’d line up for the night shift. And the same with them and the day shift. They’d work on them and then line up for us.
But, if you were sick, and you didn’t call in, there was a Navy lieutenant who’d show up at the front door of your house, wanting to know if you were there. The first time, my mother was scared to death. They wanted to know why I didn’t report for work.
“She can’t even get out of bed,” my mother said, and the lieutenant said “That’s all we wanted to know.”
One time we saved up, we had a ‘38 Chevrolet coupe, and it was between jobs, we had a stoppage there, Roosevelt put a stoppage on everything for some reason, and we had a week off.
So your great aunt Yvette and I and Loraine Devers, we had all pooled our gas rations. We went down to San Diego, where my aunt lived. My dad’s sister. And we went down to visit her.
We called the car Aloysius P. Merriweather. So, you didn’t phone, you sent telegrams. “Aloysius P. Merriweather made the trip fine, having a burping good time.” Now that was Auntie Yvette who said that. Two FBI guys came to the front door and handed my mother the telegram and said “Can you explain this?” She said, “Those are my two cock-eyed kids.” And then they realized it was a joke.
We had an Indian boy, Donald Rainwater, and Leroy Rainwater, and their father, they moved in, I never did find out why, but they lived right down the street from us, and when the war broke out the dad disappeared. Donald was the oldest, and Leroy was my age. And then Donald disappeared. It wasn’t until after the war that we found out the father and the two sons were in that talk talk. All Navajo. Leroy worked for the railroad company after I exited the family retreat, he’s the one that boarded up my cedar chest and sent it down to San Diego.
Richie Alvarez was born with one leg three inches shorter than the other, so he couldn’t go to the war either. But he was the nicest kid ever, smart as a whip. So he got a job with the telephone company that ran telephone lines all the way down the coast, as close as they could get ’em to the ocean. And we used to get together and tell our stories.
One day, he was up on a pole, and heard a splash. Half Moon Bay was a little bay, we used to cut school and go there, build a fire, and have our lunch. It wasn’t too far from home. So he heard the splash and looked over and here comes a submarine, right up. And there was nobody around then. Now, it’s like San Francisco Bay. Then, it was just a beautiful cove.
The submarine didn’t know where they were when they surfaced. Richie was working on the line. He edged so he was facing them, but they couldn’t see his body, and he used the telephone line and he called. He said “There is a Japanese submarine here in Half Moon Bay, I’m on the top of such-and-such pole.” And they said, “Stay there. We’ll inform.”
That’s what they used the zeppelins for, because you couldn’t hear them. So he was down there, and a few minutes later it was “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!,” they just bombed the shit out of it and it sunk.
We went through a lot of funny stuff when we were kids. In the middle of high school the alarm would ring, everyone would get out of the school and go to the eucalyptus, we had a big field of eucalyptus trees, and find yourself a spot and sit there until the all clear came through. And it was never put in the paper. And if you did say something, it was “Oh, you’re crazy.” The government said it didn’t happen.
There was a bomb dropped right in the middle of Oakland, but it was a dud. Thank God. And you never heard a word of it. Unless you knew somebody who was there, you never heard a word of it.