Petaluma’s Past: When D-Day dawned and nudists descended in 1944

Historian Skip Sommer takes us back to Sonoma County during WWII|

On June 6, 1944, 11,000 planes, 4,000 ships, thousands of smaller craft and 250,000 men invaded the shores of Normandy in northwest France, just ?120 miles from German-occupied Paris. This incredi-ble event was to become forever known as “D-Day,” and it was to mark the beginning of the end to World War II in Europe.

History’s greatest armada had begun crossing the turbulent English Channel at midnight, in a driving rainsquall. Consisting mostly of American, British and Canadian forces, 4,400 of them were to perish as the troops beat down the Nazi coastal defenses. The following day, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that several strategic bridges had already been captured.

World reaction was huge.

Hundreds of thousands rushed to places of worship. Bells and whistles were heard everywhere. Workers observed a time of silence. President Roosevelt took to the radio. Newspapers issued “extras.” The New York Stock Exchange halted trading. The Summer Olympics were cancelled.

And saloons everywhere … ran out of liquor.

It was, at long last, a happy chaos.

In Petaluma, our Argus-Courier editor John Olmsted opined, “The invasion is on. We are about to determine whether machines can stop machines, whether right can prevail over wrong, whether liberty can strike down tyranny. This is the crucial test of what can be done by military power, backed by productive power.”

Petaluma’s own Gene Benedetti and Al Pelligrini were both skippering landing craft at France’s Omaha Beach that day. Gene came home to be a football star and then to found Clover Dairy, and Al, to own the Tuttle Drug Co. Gene would often reminisce how that day in 1944 had been “the worst day” of his life.

But, the news wasn‘t all about war, that summer of ‘44.

The Argus, at the time, was a Republican paper and editor Olmsted had been staunchly against the Country voting F.D.R. to a third term, much less a fourth term! In an editorial entitled ”A Fourth, A Fifth, A Life Term?” he wrote, “It’s foolish to argue that the man who occupies the office should be continued in office indefinitely, because a crisis exists. Too much fuss is made about the President knowing so much more about conditions than his successor could know. The laxity of long-held power” (he said) “results in a tendency toward personal rule and dynasty.”

But let’s turn to a lighter issue, one that was grabbing our County headlines away from world news that summer. In the Valley of the Moon, a fight was blossoming over the “Sun-O-Ma Nudist Colony,” attracting hundreds of people from everywhere.

This, in a year of national gasoline rationing.

Locals, who did not like the naked idea asked the Office of Price Administration (OPA) to look into how these nudists had acquired the gasoline to get here. Lawyers were hired, and the ensuing press coverage was way too much fun for this writer to ignore.

The Press-Democrat, for example, stated, “Nudes is nudes, whether it be good nudes or bad nudes!” They also, “got down to bare facts,” regarding those “nude nomads flitting about the Sonoma hills, learning the naked truth of poison oak and mosquitoes.”

One of the camp’s neighbors, over whose property the camp’s easement wound, had complained about hundreds of cars spreading dust over his crops and disturbing his peace. Also (he said), the bare skin was “attracting teenage boys from Sonoma High School,” who were “peeking and giggling” from behind his trees.

So, the poignant question became, how did these nudists acquire all that rationed gasoline to get here? Gasoline was just .15 cents a gallon, but only available in monitored supply. Well, an injunction was filed, and the complainers got OPA agents to raid the camp. The PD observed, “The agents who drew the lucky assignment were a couple of hardy boys, who came out still blushing.” And they also noted one young lass, “standing unabashed with her curves,” as exclaiming, ‘Heavens! My husband doesn’t know I’ve been using our car to come up here!”

Okay. Now that I’ve got you hooked on this story, here is the PD header from the day following that raid. Ready for this?


(The devil made me include that quote).

Well, eventually, Sonoma County did file an ordinance against the ‘Sun-O-Mans’ and the argument went on for several years, all the way up to 1947, when the spoilsports in Sacramento upheld an injunc-tion to close the access road to the camp.

So, you see, 1944 was multi-newsworthy.

The big news of course, continued to be “The War.”

Paris was liberated by the allies on Aug. 25, the U.S. invaded the Marshall Islands and Guam, and Rome fell on June 4. But tragically, in addition to those troops killed on D-Day, 19,000 more allied sol-diers lost their lives in The Battle Of The Bulge in ‘44. It was also in July of ‘44 that Germany began using V-2 rockets to bomb Britain, and they were developing a jet airplane as well. It was too late for a Nazi victory then, in mid-’44, as the war in Europe was to be over just 11 months later, but what if they had acquired those weapons a year or so earlier?

A very frightening thought.

On happier notes, good old “Smokey the Bear” made his first appearance that year, and “Casablan-ca,” with Bogart and Bergman won the Oscar for Best Picture. “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” debuted on TV in ‘44 and an 18-year-old-girl named Elizabeth Taylor starred in her first picture, “Nation-al Velvet.” Oh, one more thing for the Petalumans of ’44.

If your pre-war tires were going baldish, you could not buy new ones yet. But you could get those old ones recapped for $6.70 each, at 3rd and C here.

“No rationing certificate required!”

OK, that’s nice.

But I’m still trying to get past that “flitting about Sonoma County” thing.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary life member of Heritage Homes of Petaluma and The Petalu-ma Historical Museum. You can contact him at

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.