Civil Defense, Historical Musings

See also: Civil Defense Fire and Rescue Apparatus

Originally published as Living Hell, Volume #1, Issue #13, subtitled Special All Nukes Edition!


  • Introduction
  • Civil Defense
  • History
  • Selected Sources
  • Fallout
  • Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb
  • Cast of Characters
  • Credits
  • We'll Meet Again


Reporting from Kill Devil Hills, N.C., AKA "The Outer Banks," AKA the place made famous by some guys named Wilbur and Orville Wright, where a gusty, off-shore Nor'easter over the weekend made [last weekend's] Saturday-overnight beach trip blow. We're talkin' gusts of 20 to 30 mph-- not knots-- which rendered sand-sitting a non-option, much less any shore-based activity attempted without a wet suit. (You could say the ocean-churning sight was... swell. Sorry.) Cotton fields in full, snowy bloom at least added some scenery both getting there and back. As did the numerous volunteer fire stations located oh-so-conveniently alongside the highway. (Soap written on the back of one firefighter's personally owned vehicle: Buck Fin-Laden. With the "B" and "F" underlined.) Best-est, tho, was Saturday afternoon's climbing of the Currituck Beach lighthouse, all 214 leg rubber-turning steps of it. Straight to the top and, as it turned out, moments before the 158 foot parapet was closed due to 35 mph-- not knots-- gusts. (You must be over eighty pounds to ride that ride, or so said the staff.) Snapped some pics, viewed some exhibits, and trawled the museum shop. Yup, you might say it blew, but it certainly didn't suck...

Civil Defense

Station #23 lofts, 3529 Hennepin Avenue South in Minneapolis, MN-- a quartet of townhouses converted from a 1906 fire station turned Civil Defense office for the Twin Cities city. 'Tis the latter the author remembers as an Uptown-exploring youth, during those longer reconnaissance missions performed while hanging out at the Rainbow. (As said building was a good six blocks-- long, Minneapolis-style blocks-- from the family restaurant, foot-carried visits were in- frequent. Unless I was biking between the Rainbow and Grammie's, whose house wasn't terribly far in the opposite direction. (See photo.) Though the townhouses were completed almost a decade ago, and which I've since seen during visiting drive-bys, 'tis the former fire station's use as a Civil Defense office that I remember. The blandly interesting, white-painted facade, with three sets of second-story windows over three arched apparatus exits; those impossibly high ceilings on the first-floor that undoubtedly held horses 'n' "steamers" in the old days and, in the late Seventies, housed a couple of Civil Defense emergency vehicles. (See photo of present building)

3750 Zenith Ave. So.

Station #23 Lofts Today

I remember an enormous, armored car-shaped, GMC (?) rescue truck that seemed fifty-feet high. Believe it was red, with M.F.D. lettering; perhaps a retired rescue company. Another of the quartered units was a van, a step van, maybe mobile command post or medical- rescue unit and painted in the tradition light blue-and-white Civil Defense colors. ('Twas a paint scheme common to federally funded emergency vehicles in both the post-War and Cold War eras. See photo.) There may have been a third truck housed in the former fire station, though, as I recall, the long apparatus floor was also occupied by blackboards and other, non-vehicular items. The barely lit wooden floor was also whisper quiet; whatever Civil Defense employees worked upstairs and I don't recall encountering a single person during the sundry poke-arounds where I'd wander among the trucks, touching everything in propelled curiosity and hushed awe.

Civil Defense Colors

Same for the back of the building, in the old station's old kitchen used, by then, as a modest library. 'Twas there I first learned of "Firehouse" magazine to my squealing glee. (An even more excited discovery of "Fire Apparatus Journal" occurred years late in a hobby shop in North Carolina.) Alas, despite extensive present-day Web searching, I don't know the dates that the former fire station was active. Station #23 Lofts has a home page,, but the station as operated by the Minneapolis Fire Department doesn't. In fact, the "Lake and Hennepin" area didn't get another fire station till Station #28 on W. Lake Street was opened in the Nineties. (Did find this bit o' text in The Extra Alarm Association of the Twin Cities' book "Minneapolis and St. Paul Fire Apparatus 2000 - A Millennium View," authors Jack Mersereau and Ron Pearson: "By the turn of the [century], Minneapolis [encompassed] 54.5 square miles with a population of 202,718. It's horse-drawn fire department [included] 19 Engine companies with 18 companion Hose/Chemical companies, two Hose companies, six Hook and Ladder companies, seven Chemical Engine companies, and one Water Tower housed in 24 stations." (What is a "water tower?" See photo.)

Water Tower

During those same years, before moving down south at age 14, that curious, Cold War entity Civil Defense was also encountered as a weekly-meeting cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, AKA United States Auxiliary Air Force. In between drill formations, phonetic alphabetic quizzes, aviation education, and search-and-rescue training, we were taught the finer points of fallout particles, radiation shielding, and Geiger counter use. (And what more-modern, digital- display device can possibly compete with the spine-tingling ticking of those wonderfully menacing Geiger counters?) Warning siren signals were also studied, those swelling, goose bump-inducing mechanical screams all too common to severe weather-sensitive Midwesterners. Alarmist information was also resplendent in the various disaster preparedness books that I devoured in elementary and junior high school. (No wonder, eh?, that the author was tormented by "tornado dreams" as a kid.) Thus, the late Seventies saw a delirious buffet of Cold War leftovers; Civil Defense initiatives born back before Pearl Harbor, when the federal Office of Civilian Defense was formed and subsequently headed by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. (Trivia: fire protection at New York's La Guardia airport, like all New York airports, is provided by the NY/NJ Port Authority's police department.)
No, I don't have ready recollections of "duck and cover" shorts or air-raid drills. Those were before my time. As was the construction and stocking of fallout shelters. But the oft-spotted, triangle-shaped Civil Defense logo is still spotted on the sundry warning siren or vintage fire pumper. (During the 1950's, federal Civil Defense legislation was amended to provide 50/50 fund-matching for fire and rescue equipment.) In fact, just this summer, at the Firehouse Fire and Emergency Services Expo in Baltimore, during the Sunday morning "firematic flea market," a Civil Defense warning siren control box was for sale. And, as I've since discovered, similar memorabilia is consistently available on eBay, such as the once-ubiquitous fallout shelter sign. Remember those? Yellow over black, a circle above three triangles? Seen on countless public and private buildings, notably those with deeper basements? And, in the wake of the events of September 11, one can't help but wonder if we'll see such signs again. Civil Defense for The New Millennium? With cheesy PSAs narrated by pop singers instead of cartoon characters like "Burt the Turtle?" Britney Fox be-bopping through gas-mask instruction? Or our worst, weapons of mass-destruction fears come to life with signs stating "biological shelter?" Let's hope not...




Here's a nationwide history of Civil Defense, as best I've pieced together from fourteen days of Web searches and library browsing:

  • 1916, Council of National Defense directs Civil Defense program during World War I until 1918.
  • 1939, September 1, Germany invades Poland; World War II begins.
  • 1941, May 20, Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) created. Director and New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia challenges Americans to "give an hour a day for the U.S.A." Agency coordinates federal, state, and local defense programs for protection of civilians during air raids and other wartime emergencies. Efforts notably concentrated in all coastal cities and towns.
    Facilitates civilian participation in war programs. Provides instruction in first-aid administration, firefighting, aircraft-spotting, etc.

    Civil Defense Arm Bands From WWII
  • 1941, December 7, Pearl Harbor attacked.
  • 1943, June, OCD volunteers number over ten-million.
  • 1945, August 6, atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
  • 1945, August 9, atomic bomb dropped on Nagaskai.
  • 1945, August 14, Japan surrenders to United States and World War II ends.
  • 1947, National Security Resources Board (NSRB) assumes Civil Defense planning duties until 1949.
  • 1949, March 3, National Security Resources Board, Executive Office of the President (EOP) assumes Civil Defense planning duties until 1950.
  • 1949, August 29, USSR explodes first atomic bomb.
  • 1950, July, NSRB publishes "U.S. Civil Defense." Book proposes passage of CD legislation, establishment of CD administration outside NSRB, and appointment of CD administrator.
  • 1951, January 12, Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) created as part of Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950.

    Latter provides for bomb-proof shelters; medical treatment for mass casualties; control of massive fires and debris clearance; mass evacuation and dispersal of essential industries; post-attack economic, financial, and industrial rehabilitation; and ensuring continuous operation of federal government in event of attack on Washington, D.C.

    States retain basic responsibility for CD duties; FCDA assigned such tasks as publishing educational materials and forming interstate CD plans. Civil defense classes become standard in public schools. Students learn about radiation and basic survival techniques. "Do you know exactly what your family would do if an attack came?" begins the typical lesson.

    Warning sirens installed in cities and towns. For families not living within range of siren, National Emergency Alarm Repeaters (NEAR) planned-devices plugged into ordinary household outlets producing distinctive tone when activated by Civil Defense officials.
  • 1951, FCC develops CONELRAD system. CONtrol of ELectronic RADation designed both to confuse radio direction-finding technology used by USSR and to disseminate information to citizen. In event of nuclear attack, all radio stations in country broadcast alert and either cease broadcasting until emergency is over or begin broadcasting on one of two official frequencies, 640 AM or 1240 AM.

    (Hoping that all radio stations broadcasting the same information at the same time and on the same two frequencies, enemy direction-finding equipment would be useless, making it harder for Russian bombers to target specific cities and landmarks.)
  • 1952, President Eisenhower authorizes first funding of interstate highway system, impressed by German autobahns and their capacity for military movement during World War II.
  • 1953, USSR tests first thermonuclear weapon. Much-higher yield of the weapons necessitates changes in CD planning. Short-distance evacuations and modest "blast shelters" in cities are ineffective for protecting people.

    H-bombs also raise specter of radioactive fallout blanketing large areas of country. Previously, CD conceptualized as moving people out of target cities, with rest of country remaining unscathed.

    Advent of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) necessitates further change, precluding evacuations due to drastically reduced early-warning times.
  • 1953, all AM radios produced after 1953 marked with triangles at 640 and 1240, to make finding CONELRAD frequencies easier.
  • 1954, FCDA initiates nationwide exercise Operation Alert, similar to fire drills and requiring citizens of "target areas" to take for fifteen minutes. Even President Eisenhower departs White House for tent city outside Washington, DC.

    In later years, newspapers routinely publish next-day reports on the fictitious attacks, noting number of bombs dropped, cities hit, etc.
  • 1955, New York State makes failure to take cover during Operation Alert exercises punishable with fine up to $500 and one year in jail. Small protest subsequent staged in Manhattan's City Hall Park. Similar protests staged during.
  • 1956, Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 sets nationwide interstate design standards, increases overall length to 41,000 miles, and creates official name "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways."

    Design standards include: minimum of two lanes in each direction, 12 foot lane width, 10 foot paved shoulder on right, 4 foot paved shoulder on left, for speeds of 50 to 70 miles per hour.
  • 1957, novel "On the Beach" portrays destruction of Northern hemisphere by nuclear attack.
  • 1957, Federal Civil Defense Act amended to assign joint state and federal responsibility for CD.
  • 1957, October 4, USSR launches Sputnik.
  • 1958, July 1, Office of Defense and Civilian Mobilization (ODCM) assumes CD duties.
  • 1958, April 24, Federal Civil Defense Act amended to provide federal matching funds (50/50) for personnel and administrative expenditures for civil defense preparedness.
  • 1958, August 26, Office of Defense and Civilian Mobilization (ODCM) re-designated Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization (OCDM).
  • 1960, May 3, group of young mothers draws hundred of protesters on day of Operation Alert.
  • 1961, October 18-29, Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • 1961, same group of young mothers draws 2,500 protestors on day of Operation Alert. Other protests take place in other states during year, including demonstrations by hundreds of college students at several East Coast campuses.
  • 1961, July 20, Office of Civil Defense (OCD), part of the Department of Defense, assumes civil defense duties until 1972.
  • 1961, OCD initiates public fallout shelter program, to identify-- and stock with supplies-- buildings and underground areas to protect people from fallout particles of nuclear explosion. Such areas are designated as "fallout shelters."

    Per-person provisions: 700 calories per day, one quart of water daily, various sanitation items, along with medical and radiation detection kits.
  • 1962, Operation Alert permanently canceled.
  • 1962, October 25, Defense Department report states "over 112,000 fallout shelters provide possible protection for approximately 60 million civilians in U.S."
  • 1963, Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) replaces CONELRAD as official emergency notification method.
  • 1964, movie "Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" released.
  • 1971, February 20, false EBS alert transmitted at 9:33 AM EST. Many radio stations, including some key "primary stations" either ignore the alert or their employees don't know what to do.

    EBS subsequently "upgraded," with procedural changes and dual-tone alert signal to reduce false alarms.
  • 1972, May 5, Defensive Civil Preparedness Agency (DCPA), part of Defense Department, assumes civil defense duties until 1979.
    Early 1970's, Civil Defense programs broadened to include peacetime preparedness as well as wartime disasters.

    Decade also sees emphasis on operational capabilities of all available CD assets, including warning systems, shelters, radiological detection instruments and trained personnel, police and firefighting forces, doctors and hospitals, and emergency management. Program is titled On-Site Assistance.
  • In the mid-1970's, contingency planning initiated to evacuate cities and other high-risk populations during periods of severe crisis.
  • 1979, newly created Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assumes CD duties until end of Cold War.
  • 1989, November 9, Berlin Wall falls.
  • 1991, December 25, Soviet Union ceases to exist.
  • 1992, FEMA discontinues funding of fallout shelter identification program.
  • 1994, November, EAS (Emergency Alert System) approved by FCC. Using digital signaling, EAS enables sending, printing, and re-broadcasting on command of both alert messages and accompanying information.
  • 1997, January 1, EAS replaces EBS.

Selected Sources


Memories of nuclear preparedness expectedly led to a library visit and the subsequent skimming of the splendid "Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial" by Robert Jay Lifton and Gregg Mitchell. Published in 1995 by G.P. Putnam's Sons, the 454-page, all-text text traces the domestic effects of the atomic bombings, both mental and moral, and how those bombings came about. (More than a few pages probe President Truman and the psychology behind his decisions.) Though scarce on grisly, ground-zero detail, the exceedingly well-referenced reader is still fascinatingly disturbing in areas ranging from the rationale for choosing civilian over military targets to Japan and the rest of the world's non-knowledge about nuclear fallout and the deadly dangers therein. Also explained are the feel-better U.S. estimates of "casualties spared" and their later transformation into "lives saved." And, for you conspiracy theorists, tales of the government contaminating its own soil, be they bomb making sites-turned-plutonium dumps or intentional exposure of unsuspecting citizens. Such as the residents of a Massachusetts state school for boys and men considered mentally retarded given radioactive tracers in milk in the early 1950's... Some eight-hundred pregnant women given radioactive iron in the late 1940's, to observe the effects on fetal development... Prisons in Oregon and Washington and the exposure of inmates' testicles to X-rays... And that's not counting the estimated "250,000 to 300,000" servicemen also exposed in that era. Yikes.

Pocket Alert Chart

OBEY these official

Civil Defense AIR RAID instructions

(immediate attack)

3 minute wailing siren
or short blasts

(attack over)

3 one-minute blasts
2 minutes silence between

Quickly but Calmly




Drop to floor. Get under bed or heavy table.

Go to prepared shelter. Turn off all appliances.


Drop to floor. Get under desk or workbench.

Obey Wardens. Go to assigned shelter.


Drop to floor out of line
of windows. Bury
face in arms.

Obey your teacher.
Go to assigned
shelter quietly.

in the OPEN

Drop to ground or dive for cover. Bury face
in arms.

Obey Wardens.
Go to nearest OK'd
building or shelter.


Drop to floor. Bury
face in arms.

Get out. Go to nearest OK'd building or shelter.

stay put until the all clear and obey instructions

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb

The Cold War may be over, but Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove is still damn funny.

The essential quotes, not necessarily in strict chronological order:

  • "Now I've been to one world fair, a picnic, and a rodeo and that's the stupidest thing I've heard come over a set of earphones." (tj)
  • "I'm coming through fine, too, eh?" (mm)
  • "Well, boys, I reckon this is it-- nuclear combat toe-to- toe with the Rooskies." (tj)
  • "Well, then, as you say, we're both coming through fine." (mm)
  • "Shoot! A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff." (tj)
  • "All right, you're sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well." (mm)
  • "Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face?" (jr)
  • "I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri!" (mm)
  • "Well, if you'll excuse me saying so, sir, that would be, to my way of thinking, rather-- well, rather an odd way of looking at it." (lm)
  • "Don't say that you're the more sorry than I am, because I'm capable of being just as sorry as you are." (mm)
  • "Colonel, can you possibly imagine what is going to happen to you, your frame outlook way of life on everything, when they learn that you have obstructed a telephone call to the President of the United States? Can you imagine? Shoot it off! Shoot, with the gun! That's what the bullets are for you twit!" (lm)
  • "But if you don't get the President of the United States on that phone, you know what's gonna happen to you?" [ pause for answer ] "You're gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company." (bg)
  • "I don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up." (bt)
  • "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!" (mm)
  • "He'll see the big board!" (bt, exasperated)
  • "Hi There," "Dear John" (bomb graffiti)
  • "Wohoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!" (tj)
  • "Mr. President, we must not allow a mine-shaft gap" (bt)
  • "Mein Fuhrer, I can walk! (ds)

Cast of Characters

  • Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, Peter Sellars (lm)
  • President Merkin Muffley, Peter Sellars (mm)
  • Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers (ds) 
  • General "Buck" Turgidson, George C. Scott (bt) 
  • Major T.J. "King" Kong, Slim Pickens (tj) 
  • General Jack D. Ripper, Sterling Hayden (jr) 
  • Ambassador de Sadesky, Peter Bull 
  • Colonial "Bat" Guano, Keenan Wynn (bg)


  • Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
  • Directed by Stanley Kubrick
  • Produced by Stanley Kubrick
  • Screenplay by Peter George, Stanley Kubrick, and Terry Southern, based on the novel "Red Alert" by Peter George
  • Cinematography by Gilbert Taylor
  • Production design by Ken Adams
  • Music by Laurie Johnson

We'll Meet Again

[ Music by Albert R. Parker, lyrics by Hugh Charles ]

We'll meet again,
Don't know where,
Don't know when,
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day

Keep smilin' through,
Just like you always do,
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away

So will you please say hello,
To the folks that I know?
Tell them I won't be long.

They'll be happy to know,
That as you saw me go,
I was singing this song

We'll meet again,
Don't know where,
Don't know when,
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day

Copyright 2001 by Michael J. Legeros


[an error occurred while processing this directive]