A Brief History of Civil Defense
Civil defense refers to civilian activities directed towards protection against and emergency relief for a military attack or a natural disaster. The bureaucratic history of official civil defense organizations in the United States is long and convoluted. The first such organization was the Council of National Defense, created in 1916. During the Second World War and continuing into the Cold War, civil defense took on greater importance as fear of an enemy attack on the United States rose. The most famous civil defense organization, the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), was created as part of the Department of Defense by President Kennedy's Executive Order 10952 in July of 1961. The office was charged with, among several other duties,
...the development and execution of Their familiar logo was a blue triangle inscribed with a white triangle which contained the letters "CD."
- (i) a fallout shelter program;
- (ii) a chemical, biological and radiological warfare defense program;
- (iii) all steps necessary to warn or alert Federal military and civilian authorities, State officials and the civilian population,
The Office of Civil Defense and its predecessors enacted many programs against the threat of Soviet attack. Some of these were public information and propaganda campaigns, such as Bert The Turtle's "Duck and Cover" filmstrip for children. Many other films were produced, as were multitudinous brochures and booklets describing the effects and aftermath of an attack, ways to protect one's self, and how to build a backyard or basement bomb shelter. (Note that, foreshadowing the WMD trinity of "Nuclear, Biological, Chemical," there were films released dealing with biological and chemical attack.) Sirens were put up to warn the public of any attack. The government established CONELRAD (Control of Electronic Radiation), a program with a twofold purpose. First, it served as a precursor of the Emergency Broadcast System and the Emergency Alert System of today, by informing the public of any attack or disaster through radio transmissions on 640 and 1240 AM. Secondly, through requiring all public radio and television transmitters to cease transmitting except for CONELRAD announcements on the appropriate frequencies, it would prevent Soviet bombers from using the frequencies of different transmitters as navigational aids.
The other activities of the civil defense movement were intended for the aftermath of an attack - caches of supplies were established in large buildings, both public and privately owned. These fallout shelters in the basements of sturdily constructed buildings provided a place to seek shelter from the blast and the radiation, and, where supplies for emergency hospitals were set up, to treat the wounded. The signs reading "Fallout Shelter" and bearing the logo of three yellow triangles in a black circle can still be seen over the doors of many buildings more than a couple of decades old. In many cases, the actual fallout shelter supplies themselves still reside in some dusty, disused basement room.
During the 1970's, the threat of a nuclear war lessened and the various civil defense organizations all became FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), which focused on national disasters much more than hostile attack. Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, however, the civil defense movement has been reborn in the form of the Office of Homeland Security, of which FEMA is now a part. The fallout shelters became abandoned and forgotten.
Inside the Fallout Shelter
The particular fallout shelter and emergency hospital I visited during the late 1990's and after was in the basement of a combined church, school, and community building. The room the supplies were in, somewhat larger than a tennis court, had once been a small bowling alley. Sometime before the shelter was established the bowling alley had been shut down and most of the quality bowling alley floor had been removed and sold, replaced with rough boards full of holes and cracks. Along with the omnipresent dust, this contributed to the abandoned atmosphere of the place. Near this former bowling alley was a large community hall and a gymnasium, where the shelter could be set up when the bomb was dropped.
The owners of the building had decided they wanted this area for storage, and the shelter supplies had to go. The last government acknowledgement of the fallout shelter seemed to have been the removal of the shelter's supply of Geiger counters for use elsewhere. No government organization was now willing to take responsibility for the removal of stacks of crates and boxes, so it had to done by volunteers for the church and the school, which I attended at the time. A dumpster was rented, and we began trying to dispose of as much of the shelter supplies as we could. Some things were thrown in the dumpster, some supplies were donated to local organizations that could use them, a few were sold at the church's tag sale, and a few found their way home with the volunteers.
The shelter probably was built to serve anywhere between fifty and several hundred people. Of course, they needed a place to sleep. So the shelter contained boxes full of folding cots and supplies of sheets and blankets. The blankets were of a high quality wool/cotton blend, and proved to be quite a popular item. There is one on my bed now. After the nuclear holocaust, the survivors could sleep warmly.
After their nap, our survivors might need to use the bathroom. The shelter was up to this challenge. First to answer the challenge of sanitation were the Sani-Kit IV's. These were cylindrical cardboard cans that contained a toilet seat, a liner, chemicals (like the chemicals used in porta-potties), cans of hand cleaner, sanitary napkins, and 10 rolls of toilet paper, along with instructions for use and gloves and tie wraps for the disposal of filled Sani-Kits. The can that contained all this became the body of the commode, with the liner inside and the toilet seat on top. For unexplained reasons, the Sani-Kit also contained supplies for dispensing water. These were a tube to siphon water from the tanks or metal water storage cans and cups to hand out to the shelter's inhabitants. Each Sani-Kit IV was intended to service fifty people for two weeks. If the Sani-Kits ran out, the shelter had additional options. The metal cans used to store water could be used as toilets. There were huge boxes full of additional toilet paper, a different kind of toilet seat presumably for use with the water cans or over a latrine, and toilet seat protectors for anyone afraid of getting germs on their buttocks.
After taking care of the bodily functions, perhaps it would be time to sit down to a heaping plate of pancakes, bacon, and scrambled eggs. Unfortunately, the shelter did not provide that. There were three items intended for human consumption: water, crackers, and candy. The water was stored in metal canisters in the back of the room. Each canister was built to hold seventeen and a half gallons of water inside two layers of plastic lining and was printed with instructions for filling, dispensing water, and reuse as a toilet. Someone had emptied the canisters in the years after the end of the OCD and before our visit. The crackers were the mainstay of the shelter's food supply. These were packed in sets of six tins inside a cardboard box, giving around forty pounds per cardboard box. Printed on top of the tins was "Civil Defense All Purpose Survival Cracker", the number and weight of crackers in the box, the manufacturer, and a list of ingredients. Upon opening the tin, crackers packaged in wax paper were revealed, along with a smell of preservatives. The crackers were still as fresh as the day they had been packed - not very. Although they did not actively taste bad, the crackers were very stale, bland, and dry. They were not something you would eat except if it was all you had.
The candy, on the other hand, was better. These were also in cardboard boxes, each containing two tins of about forty pounds each. The OCD might have been a bit ashamed of ranking candy as the second most important food for people, so the boxes and tins were all marked "Carbohydrate Supplement." The candies were standard "hard candies" (think lollipops in a different shape without the stick) and came in yellow and red flavors. The red was cherry, and the yellow was probably meant to be pineapple. No one told the OCD that most people like cherry much more than pineapple, as there seem to be ten yellow candies for every red one. They were liberally coated with powdered sugar and each tin included a pack of small brown paper bags for handing out the candies. These candies taste very good, although it seems that the red ones may contain the dye that has since been banned for causing cancer. The particular batch I took home was dated October 1963, so soon I will have the privilege of eating candy aged more than most wines. I have yet to develop cancer.
This was all a typical fallout shelter would supply - a few Geiger counters, sleeping materials, sanitation kits, water, and food, along with a large First Aid and medical kit that my particular shelter did not contain. That was because this shelter was more than a regular fallout shelter, it also had all the supplies to be an emergency hospital.
There were splints, surgical instruments, and stretchers. There were bedpans, bandages, and band-aids. There were large crates of hospital machinery - sterilization machines, anesthesia machines, and most tantalizing of all, a "Profexray" X-Ray machine. The X-Ray machine, complete with a lead apron and lead gloves that would protect the operator from radiation, and plastic goggles that would not, seemed to be complete and in working order. The only reason it may not work would be moisture damage - although none was visible, apparently it was very sensitive to moisture as indicated by the presence of several silica gel bags the size of socks. Silica gel is the material used to keep shoes dry during shipping, but in them you only see one bag the size of a sugar packet. I have yet to, however, attempt to use the X-Ray machine, as that seems needlessly foolish. I have used some of the band-aids and bandages and some of the various metal bowls and instrument jars that were there for the hospital.
Another interesting machine was the "Wangenstein." Not a machine for the repair of damaged penises, this was a grey metal cylinder on wheels which had a pump handle. It was evacuated of air by hand - a gauge indicated the pressure inside - and used to provide suction for surgery.
In one aspect, it may have been better to be a hospital resident than a regular shelter resident. Instead of the unappetizing crackers and a few candies, you got fed intravenously from jars of "Enteric Feeding Solution." The hospital also possessed a complete array of pharmaceuticals, but these suffered the most from the passage of time. Bottles of drugs and chemicals had broken and leaked their contents all over. These drugs and chemicals were the first things to be removed as they were considered potentially dangerous so I got little chance to look at them.
All bedpans were donated to the local hospital.
In the end, the shelter supplies were more than the rented dumpster could handle, and often the kind of thing no one wanted to buy or even get for free, so many boxes of supplies still remain, a reminder of a time when the United States feared something worse than terrorism.
Interesting Links and Sources
Civil Defense Museum - This site is highly recommended further reading. You can see pictures of many of the items I saw in the shelter.
Executive Order 10952 - Read the Executive Order that created the Office of Civil Defense.
History of Civil Defense - This site has a long history of Civil Defense, focused on Tennessee.
From Civil Defense to Emergency Management - A shorter history, set up by the Office of Emergency Management of Fort Collins, Colorado.
Cold War Civil Defense - CONELRAD - A description of the CONELRAD system for warning the public and shutting down stray radio transmissions.
Cold War Austin - Civil Defense in Austin - This site includes a tour of a small family shelter and an archive of newspaper articles.
Prelinger Archives - This source of "ephemeral" films includes many dealing with the Cold War and Civil Defense.