Party to top all par­ties — S.F. went wild when WWI ended

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - BAYAREA - By Gary Kamiya

At 1 a.m. on Mon­day, Nov. 11, 1918, San Fran­cisco held one of the great­est cel­e­bra­tions in its his­tory.

Shout­ing and sing­ing, an army of men and women flowed up and down Mar­ket Street, wav­ing flags and bang­ing on drums. Tens of thou­sands massed in pub­lic places to at­tend re­li­gious ser­vices and hear dig­ni­taries give pa­tri­otic speeches. Ex­u­ber­ant drivers ca­reened through the streets, honk­ing their horns and drag­ging tin cans. The bash didn’t run out of steam un­til well into the next night.

The event that prompted this vast cel­e­bra­tion and brought the city to a stand­still: the ar­mistice that ended World War I.

The Great War, as it was called, was the most bru­tal con­flict in hu­man his­tory to that point. In four-plus years, an es­ti­mated 9 mil­lion com­bat­ants and 7 mil­lion civil­ians were killed. It was op­ti­misti­cally la­beled “the war to end all wars,” per­haps an at­tempt at jus­ti­fy­ing the ap­palling slaugh­ter. Yet in just 21 years, a rab­ble-rous­ing na­tion­al­ist vow­ing to make Ger­many great again would hurl the world into an even blood­ier con­flict.

San Fran­cisco, like other Amer­i­can ci­ties, was deeply af­fected by the Great War. The U.S. was in the con­flict for just a year and a half, and didn’t ac­tu­ally fight in ma­jor bat­tles un­til early 1918. But in that short time, 116,000 U.S. sol­diers died — twice as many as in the Viet­nam War — and 200,000 were wounded. Hun­dreds of San Fran­cis­cans were among the ca­su­al­ties.

As word of the im­pend­ing ar­mistice spread, crowds gath­ered near City Hall. At 1 a.m., it was 11 a.m. in France — the hour and place set for the ar­mistice sign­ing.

What fol­lowed was no or­di­nary civic cel­e­bra­tion.

At 2 a.m., with the Civic Au­di­to­rium “filled as it was never filled be­fore,” a woman’s voice was heard, ask­ing for a prayer for the dead. “Off came hats and ten thou­sand heads were bowed in the in­stant,” The Chron­i­cle re­ported. “Si­lence cut clean across pan­de­mo­nium — a si­lence with­out a voice for hu­man ears.”

Then the city of 500,000 peo­ple let loose. Crowds filled Mar­ket Street all day long and into the next night. Stores and shops were closed.

“The great pur­pose to join in the joy of it all swept away all other pur­poses. Men and women walked the streets, sign­ing, shout­ing, wav­ing flags and ring­ing bells,” The Chron­i­cle re­ported. Em­ploy­ees crowded onto com­pany trucks “and took their part in the never-end­ing joy of vic­tory over the un­speak­able Hun.”

Union mem­bers pa­raded up and down Mar­ket, in­clud­ing 1,000 mem­bers of the Piledrivers and Ware­house­men’s union and their band. There was never a mo­ment when there was not some pa­rade on Mar­ket as con­fetti rained down. In­cluded in the throngs were peo­ple of var­ied na­tional ori­gin — Ital­ians, Serbs, Bri­tons and French — all march­ing un­der the flags of their na­tive lands.

The down­town ho­tels were filled with peo­ple sing­ing pa­tri­otic songs. The one that drew the wildest cheers was “Over There,” with its cho­rus, “We won't come back til it’s over, Over there.”

Af­ter 2 a.m., the throng left Civic Cen­ter and headed down Mar­ket to the Ferry Build­ing. Mayor James Rolph, with a sol­dier on one arm and a sailor on the other, was sup­posed to be at the head of the pro­ces­sion but was swept up into the cen­ter. The mu­nic­i­pal band was also sup­posed to be at the front, but in the frenzy marched off with the North Beach con­tin­gent.

Un­like the World War II “peace ri­ots” that re­sulted in death and destruc­tion, th­ese cel­e­bra­tions were over­whelm­ingly peace­ful. The po­lice had vir­tu­ally noth­ing to do.

“One or two in­frac­tions of the peace were noted in the din. The bel­liger­ent in one re­ceived, mod­estly, the earned con­grat­u­la­tions of the po­lice­men,” read a less-than-ob­jec­tive piece in The Chron­i­cle.

“It hap­pened in the al­ley skirt­ing the Tivoli. Thither re­paired two per­sons, one of which, with that in­ca­pac­ity of the Ger­man to un­der­stand psy­chol­ogy, had made a re­mark cast­ing no credit upon Amer­i­can arms. The ar­gu­ment of per­sua­sion was brief and to the point — of the chin. They took the skep­ti­cal one to the Emer­gency Hos­pi­tal to pon­der on the con­se­quences of Teu­tonic ‘mal­adresse.’ ”

Af­ter the cel­e­bra­tion ended, news of San Fran­cis­cans who had been killed in the war con­tin­ued to trickle in. There was Mike Sutter, a ho­tel cook who had shipped out to Eu­rope in July. There was Cpl. Chauncey Frank, who had gone to Lick Wilmerd­ing and Low­ell High and was on the first train of San Fran­cisco con­tin­gents who were sent to ba­sic train­ing in Septem­ber 1917. He was killed in France, as was Cpl. Harry Daw­son, who worked for the Mu­nic­i­pal Rail­way.

For San Fran­cisco, fall 1918 was a fraught time. The city had to deal not only with the death of its boys over there, but with a dev­as­tat­ing epi­demic that was killing even more of its cit­i­zens at home.

Chron­i­cle ar­chives

Peo­ple flooded Mar­ket Street “as one great stream” on Ar­mistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. Many wore masks be­cause of the flu.

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