The Shadow of War: Southern California’s WWII Dimout Restrictions

Regional History

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Driving the Coast Highway at night was challenging enough, even sober—and especially without headlights. On the night of June 21, 1942, with only his parking lamps illuminated and alcohol on his breath, John P. Underwood attempted the winding stretch of highway north of Ventura as his drinking partner slept in the back seat. The streetlights were dark, the moon had just barely risen, and a light fog hung in the air.

Underwood was driving into the shadow of war.

A month earlier, Southern California’s civil defense authorities had imposed severe dimout restrictions on the region, ordering residents to turn off all lights that could be seen from the sea at night. Japanese submarines had been prowling the California coast—one even shelled a Santa Barbara oil refinery—and U.S. naval commanders were concerned about further attacks. In particular, they fretted that shore lights would silhouette American merchant ships, making them easy targets for anyone manning a periscope.

Residents pulled their shades, neon signs flickered off, and motorists learned to drive in the dark.

Soon, the order was expanded to include any light shining upward, even those as far inland as San Bernardino, to dim an umbrella of light that hovered over Los Angeles, usually visible 150 miles out at sea. Anyone violating the order was subject to criminal penalties and expulsion from the West Coast.

No Southern Californian, even one previously insulated from wartime hardship or injustice, could any longer doubt that these were extraordinary times. Suddenly, daily—or rather nightly—life had changed. Beach bonfires were banned. Movie premieres at Hollywood’s Chinese Theater took place under a black canopy. The Los Angeles Angels, the Hollywood Stars, the entire Pacific Coast League rescheduled their night games to the afternoon.

John P. Underwood, meanwhile, struggled to keep his car on the road. As he navigated the perilous stretch of the Coast Highway known as the Rincon, his parking lights barely illuminated the white center line that guided him through the blackness. Eventually, inevitably perhaps, he drifted off the pavement. His car got stuck. In the backseat, his friend was still sound asleep, unharmed. Underwood should have stayed with him.

At that very moment, young Esther Dominguez of Los Angeles was driving the same road, sneaking away from her parents to visit her secretly wedded husband in Santa Barbara. Her headlights dark in compliance with the dimout order, Dominguez never saw Underwood, who was walking down the highway in search of help. She only heard the thud as Underwood was killed instantly. Dominguez never stopped. A week later, after highway patrol investigators discovered a car with a damaged grill at a local service garage, she reluctantly turned herself in. Dominguez—the daughter of an LAPD lieutenant—was acquitted on one misdemeanor hit-and-run count and was never charged with negligent homicide.

Authorities finally repealed the dimout order on Halloween 1943, after seventeen months of white-knuckle night driving—and dozens of lives claimed by the shadow of war.

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