Category Archives: Civil Defense History

1937 Ohio River Flood


Eighty years ago this week, the United States was in the midst of one of its greatest natural disasters, the Ohio River flood of 1937.

Damage was widespread, starting at Pittsburgh, which had experienced severe flooding the year before, to Cairo, Illinois. Damage was light in the Pittsburgh area, but there was extensive damage in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. The pictures at the top of the page are from Evansville, Indiana, and appear in the February 13, 1937, issue of Stand By, the program guide magazine of WLS Chicago, whose mobile unit is shown. The boats shown in the picture, docked at the back door of a hotel, are actually on the street, as shown by the mostly submerged street sign in the picture.

The WLS magazine reported that “radio became the principal means of communication, especially during the early days of the flood, and thousands of lives were saved because of the radio directions sent to rescue workers. Commercial, amateur and military stations all provided communication.”

Hazelton, Indiana, January 23, 1937. National Weather Service photo.

Hazelton, Indiana, January 23, 1937. National Weather Service photo.

In Evansville, the local station, WGBF, had an emergency radio set up at the relief headquarters. The station went to 24 hour service, and the programs were interrupted frequently to broadcast relief messages.

Downtown Huntington, WV, during the flood. Wikipedia photo.

The flood caused 385 deaths, with a million left homeless. Property damage reached $500 million, and relief and recovery was strained, with the disaster coming in the depth of the depression and only a few years after the Dust Bowl.  The head of the Red Cross called the disaster the greatest since the war.  For many impacted areas, it was the most severe flood yet experienced.

The water levels began to rise on January 5, and rains throughout the

Ohio basin continued.  By January 23, it was clear that the flood would be severe.  Martial law was declared in Evansville on January 23.  On today’s date, the water crested in Cincinnati at 80 feet, the highest level in the city’s history.  By the next day, 70% of Louisville was under water.  It wasn’t until February 5 when the water levels dropped below flood stage in most areas.

As might be expected, amateur radio operators played a key role in communications, and many of these stories were recorded in the April, 1937, issue of QST.  Since many of the active hams were also involved in the Army Amateur Radio Service or the Naval Reserve, Army and Navy call signs were often used in addition to amateur calls.

In an action unprecedented since the war, on January 26, the FCC entirely closed the 160 and 80 meter bands nationwide to all but those hams directly involved in flood relief. The FCC order stated:

To all amateur licensees: The Federal Communications Commission has been advised that the only contact with many flooded areas is by amateur radio, and since it is of vital importance that communications with flooded areas be handled expeditionsly, IT IS ORDERED that no transmissions except those relating to relief work or other emergencies be made within any of the authorized amateur bands below 4000 kilocycles until the Commission determines that the present emergency no longer exists.

This order was rescinded on February 5.  The FCC did allow the ARRL to select 60 “vigilantes” to monitor the bands and inform any offenders of the order.  According to QST, this order had a very positive impact in reducing interference.  160 and 80 meters were still packed with signals relaying emergency traffic, but the nets were able to work very effectively when they had the bands to themselves.

Hundreds of call signs in all of the affected states are included in the QST report, but it also acknowledges that it would be impossible to list all of the hams who participated.

The 30,000 residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia, were cut off from the outside world, and about a fourth of them were homeless. Herbert Romine, W8GDF, of nearby West Milford hurried to the town. Lacking sufficient equipment, he hurredly assembled several transmitters from the serviceman’s parts stock, and established stations on fire boats in the city. These hastily constructed transmitters consisted of type 45 tube oscillators, along with another 45 serving as modulator. QST noted that this work undoubtedly saved a number of lives.

Romine then put station WPAR in Parkersburg back on the air, having to dismantle and move it a number of times as the waters rose. Another ham, W8BRE, helped put together a 160 meter radio to link the station with the Naval Reserve station.

At Leon, WV, inactive ham Clarence Casto, W8JJA, had been off the air for three years. But with the emergency, he hastily assembled an emergency version of his station to keep the town in contact.

A few miles downstream in Point Pleasant, WV, William Stone, W8MAO, was able to use a portable 20 meter rig to notify authorities in Charleston that medical supplies were needed by air.  This station was set up in the court house on the judge’s bench.

w8yxgeneratorIn Ohio, much of the relief traffic passed through W8YX, the club station of the University of Cincinnati.  Since commercial power had become unavailable, the station operated with the generator setup shown here.  Two 15 kva alternators were run by the power takeoff of a McCormick-Deering tractor.

In Kentucky, since Frankfort was cut off and flooded, the Governor of the state relied upon an amateur for emergency communications. W9AZY, who was also affiliated with a broadcast station, was able to set up a shortwave link between the Governor and his staff and broadcast station WLAP.

w9mwcThe man identified as “one of the flood’s ham heroes” was W.O. Bryant, W9NKD. On January 22, WHAS in Louisville broadcast the information that Carrollton, KY, population 2500, had been cut off from the outside world. The broadcast included a plea for an amateur to go there with emergency equipment. Bryant answered the call and brought his equipment by boat, where he was the only source of communications for 10 days.  Another such amateur is shown to the left, W9MWC, taking emergency equipment by boat to Shawneetown, KY, in temperatures of 12 degrees and sleet.

Boy Scouts Distribute Air Raid Posters: 1942

In hindsight, the likelihood of air raids against Chicago during the Second World War seems small. But the Windy City, as well as the entire region, was a bit safer thanks to the efforts of the Boy Scouts, as reported by the Chicago Tribune75 years ago today, January 12, 1942. According to this article, the 110,000 Boy Scouts in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan were making plans to distribute air raid instruction posters throughout the region.

According to the article, Chief Scout Executive James E. West had wired civil defense officials that the Scouts “would keep on the job until the nation is blanketed with air raid posters and all communities can join the Boy Scouts in being prepared for the emergencies that war may bring us.”

For more information about Boy Scouts during World War II, see my earlier post.

Keep indoors. Lie down. Turn off the lights. Turn on the radio.


The December 1941 issue of Radio Retailing hit the presses after Pearl Harbor, and much of the issue stressed that for the war effort, radio was a necessity. The cover reminded that there was no more essential consumer item than the radio. It noted that millions of Americans had learned anew that the radio in the home, office, or automobile was of prime importance, and that the nation’s radio retailers and servicemen would need to meet the imperative of keeping sets in operation above everything else.

Fiorello LaGuardia.jpg

LaGuardia. Wikipedia photo.

The issue provided a quote from Defense Administrator Fiorello LaGuardia for advice during blackouts: “Keep indoors. Lie down. Turn off the lights. Turn on the radio.”

WGU-20, “The Last Radio Station”

WGU-20 logo. Wikipedia image.

Forty years ago, the Spring-Summer 1976 issue of Communications World carried an interesting profile of station WGU-20, sometimes dubbed “the last radio station.”

The station was built at a cost of two million dollars in 1973, and operated with a power of 55 kW on 179 kHz with a 700 foot toploaded vertical antenna located at Chase Maryland. It was operated by the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency.

The station was designed to be the first in a network of longwave stations constituting the Decision Information Distribution System (DIDS) to warn the public of an enemy attack. An additional stations, operating on 167, 171, and 191 kHz were to blanket the continental United States with coverage, controlled by 61.15 kHz control stations at Ault, Colorado, and Cambridge, Kansas. In the event of an attack warning, civil defense authorities would send the alert to these control stations by landline or microwave, and the DIDS network would commence playing taped messages warning the public.

The station did QSL, and the magazine provided the mailing address for reception reports.

The network was never built, and the WGU-20 antenna was ultimately demolished in 2011. While it was operational, the station broadcast the time of day:

Good evening. This is WGU-20, a defense civil-preparedness agency station, serving the east central states with emergency information. Eastern Standard Time seventeen hours, twenty minutes, twenty seconds. Good evening. This is WGU-20, a defense civil-preparedness agency station, serving the east central states with emergency information. Eastern Standard Time seventeen hours, twenty minutes, thirty seconds. Good evening. …

The video below contains a recording of WGU-20, and was recorded at a later date after weather broadcasts were included in the broadcast:

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July 20, 1956 CONELRAD Test

Milwaukee Civil Defense Director Don E. Carleton and Col. Anthony F. Levno assess damage after simulated attack on Milwaukee. Milwaukee Journal, Jul. 20, 1956.

Milwaukee Civil Defense Director Don E. Carleton and Col. Anthony F. Levno assess damage after simulated attack on Milwaukee. Milwaukee Journal, Jul. 20, 1956.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of what was, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the only nationwide test of CONELRAD, the system designed to give Americans emergency information about a nuclear attack.

As I wrote in a previous post, all radio and TV broadcast stations in the U.S. left the air at 3:10 PM Eastern Time.  Designated stations came on the air on 640 or 1240 kHz, alternating between transmitters to confuse enemy bombers.  In some cities, such as Milwaukee, local exercises were conducted in conjunction with the CONELRAD test.  In the photo shown here, civil defense planners are examining the hypothetical ruins of Milwaukee.

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1941 Prefab “Semi-Bombproof” House

1941JunePMprefabSeventy-five years ago, preparedness for war was on everyone’s mind, as shown by this prefabricated three-room house, which was erected in just 23 minutes. The sections were made of concrete which was cast in forms lying on the ground. After drying, cranes lifted them into place, and welders completed the job by welding the sections together. The house was said to be “semi-bombproof,” meaning that it would “stop all but the heaviest flying fragments.” It was designed as quick construction of housing for defense workers.

The company making these, Thermo-Crete Homes, 10846 Ventura Blvd., Los Angeles, California, also made a small A-frame bomb shelter for use in backyards.

The house appeared in the June, 1941, issue of Popular Mechanics.

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1955 CONELRAD Monitor at WRFD

1955WRFDConelradFrom 1951-1963, U.S. broadcast stations were required to participate in CONELRAD, a system designed to alert the public to enemy attack, but also deprive enemy bombers of radio signals which could be used for navigation purposes.  Under a CONELRAD alert, all stations would cease broadcasting on their normal frequencies. Designated stations would switch to broadcasting on either 640 or 1240 kHz.  The result would be that listeners would be able to hear alerts, but enemy bombers would hear only a confusing jumble of signals on those frequencies.

For the system to work, each station needed an alarm.  For smaller stations, this would consist of an alarm tuned to another station in the area.  If the primary station went off the air, then the smaller station would be alerted.  If it turned out to be an actual alert, they would need to leave the air or switch to their designated frequency.  Alarms were available commercially for broadcast stations, and simpler models were also available for hams, who were later required to participate in CONELRAD.  Many hams built their own, and there were many plans published over the years.  Sixty years ago this month, the October 1955 issue of Radio Electronics magazine carried the plans for the unit shown here, which was in use at WRFD, a Worthington, Ohio, 5000 watt daytime only station affiliated with Fram Bureau Insurance, with a format aimed at the agricultural market.

The author of the construction article was Harold Schaaf, the station’s chief engineer, who noted a critical defect in many of the existing CONELRAD alarms.  Most of them depended on a normally open relay which would close in case of an alert.  If the alarm circuit failed for some reason, there would be no relay action.

Schaaf noted that “such a system cannot be considered reliable, since it can go out of order without the operator knowing it.” Schaaf’s circuit instead included a relay that remained energized during normal operation. In the case of a circuit fault such as a failure of one of the tubes, the relay would de-energize, which would cause the alarm to sound, requiring the station operator to investigate. The result was what the title of the article described as a “failure-proof CONELRAD alarm.”

Like most other CONELRAD alarms, this one was hooked to the AVC circuit of a superheterodyne receiver tuned to the station being monitored. As long as there was an AVC voltage present, the alarm would remain silent. If the monitored station went off the air, the AVC voltage would disappear, which would trigger the alarm, which could consist of an external bell.

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September 15 1945 Florida Hurricane

Miami Daily News, Sept. 16, 1945.

Miami Daily News, Sept. 16, 1945.

Seventy years ago today, September 15, 1945, a hurricane made landfall in Key Largo and then swept across Miami and Homestead, Florida. It was a Category 4 storm, and winds of 145 mph were clocked at Homestead Army Air Corps Base. Most of the city of Homestead was destroyed, and at Richmond Naval Air Station, a fire ignited during the storm burned down three hangars. 1632 homes were destroyed in Florida, and there were four deaths.

Amateur radio had not yet returned to the air after V-J Day, but hams were still available to help, since they formed the core of the War Emergency Radio Service, which had been formed during the War to allow hams to provide emergency communications for both civil defense and during natural disasters.

The November 1945 issue of QST reported “September Hurricane Finds Miami WERS Ready.” The Dade County civil defense operated under the call sign of WKNW, which used hams to link ten district headquarters stations to the main control station on the roof of the fifteen-story Technical Vocational Building. A Red Cross mobile disaster unit was also equipped with radio, as were a number of privately owned mobile units. Operations began as soon as the wind subsided enough for operators to get to their designated stations.

At the peak of the storm, all lines to the civil defense headquarters were down, and the WERS station, manned by hams and powered by an emergency generator, was the only link. When the phone line to Jackson Memorial Hospital went out, one of the mobiles was dispatched to that location, and contact was re-established in fifteen minutes.

When it was clear that Homestead had suffered damage, a convoy of vehicles set out from civil defense headquartrs. The antenna at headquarters had been repeatedly destroyed, and a temporary antenna was set up inside, with only limited range. Since it couldn’t reach Homestead, one of the mobile hams in the convoy backtracked until reliable communications was established. However, with the 2-1/2 meter equipment in use, it was not possible for that station to reach all the way to Homestead. It wasn’t until the third day that a reliable link was established between Miami and Homestead, after which a considerable amount of traffic flowed.

Singled out for praise were W4NB, W4AFF, W1KVB, W4CFC, w1JMT, and W4ANP, along with two other hams who were licensed after Pearl Harbor and hence had no amateur call sign.  Of those calls, the only one where I could find any later reference was Francis W. Jenard, W1JMT, who died in 1999, according to a QST Silent Key listing.  He was a member of the ARRL A-1 Operators Club, and you can see his 1963 QSL card at this link.



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Hurricane Betsy, 1965

Hurricane Betsy satellite image, 4 Sept 1965. Wikipedia photo.

Hurricane Betsy satellite image, 4 Sept 1965. Wikipedia photo.

Fifty years ago today, Hurricane Betsy started bearing down on the United States. On August 27, 1965, the storm formed as a tropical depression off the coast of French Guiana and started moving northwesterly. It caused only minimal damage to the Leeward Islands before heading over open waters for several days. It achieved hurricane intensity on August 30. On September 5, 1965, the hurricane stalled over the Bahamas, where it inflicted the worst damage since 1929, before resuming a westward track. It made its initial landfall in Key Largo, Florida, before reemerging in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where it continued to gain strength.

Flooding in New Orleans. Wikipedia photo.

Flooding in New Orleans. Wikipedia photo.

On early September 10, it made landfall again near Houma and Grand Isle, Louisiana, with winds of 155 mph. The eyewall was in the New Orleans area for over eight hours, with winds in the range of 120 mph. It caused a strom surge into Lake Pontchartrain and considerable flooding and levee breaches in New Orleans, lasting ten days. Near Baton Rouge, the storm caused the sinking of a barge loaded with enough chlorine to kill 40,000 people, necessitating mass evacuations in the harbor area.  In New Orleans, most antennas were down, and 90% of the city was without power.

The November, 1965, issue of QST reported on how Radio Amateurs responded to the storm. K5AOE set up on the 8th floor of City Hall, where considerable traffic was handled on 75 meters. This included health and welfare traffic, and also a dedicated medical net. Fifteen mobile stations, each assigned to a doctor, were set up at shelters, and there was constant traffic as conditions were reported and medical supplies requested. The FCC declared a communications emergency for the duration.

The Hurricane Watch Net was formed informally during Hurricane Betsy as stations came on the air to provide communications to and from affected areas. Since then, the net has continued to operate with a more formal structure any time a hurricane is within 300 miles of projecte landfall or otherwise threatening any populated area.


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Boy Scout Civilian Defense Volunteers in WW2


Photo courtesy of W8KBF, Yahoo War Emergency Radio Service group.

During World War II, Boy Scouts in both America and Britain were called upon to serve as volunteers in civil defense. In the July 1942 issue of Boys’ Life, BSA Chief Scout Executive James E. West wrote an editorial encouraging Scouts to volunteer in the Messenger Service of the Citizens Defense Corps. The Office of Civilian Defense recommended that six messengers and two adult leaders be recruited for each 1000 persons in a community. Even though others were eligible to join, both the BSA and the Office of Civilian Defense believed that Scouts, due to their training and qualifications, would be ideal. The editorial stressed that during an emergency, other means of communications could be disrupted, and that written messages might be the only means of communication. West concludes:

This is one of the most important national service projects that has been requested of the Boy Scouts of America. It requires the utmost effort on the part of our organization to fulfill the responsibility which has been assumed. Let us face resolutely whatever the enemy has in store for us, and BE PREPARED to do what we are asked to do to the best of our ability.

Franklin County, Ohio, identification card for Boy Scout CD messenger. photo.

Franklin County, Ohio, identification card for Boy Scout CD messenger. photo.

British Scouts Tour America

Visiting British scouts with James E. West and BSA foreign relations chairman Thomas J. Watson.

Visiting British scouts with James E. West and BSA foreign relations chairman Thomas J. Watson.

A few months later, a group of British Scouts who had served in civilian defense roles during the Battle of Britain made a tour of Canada and the United States, including a meeting with West, and their heroic tales were written up in the magazine’s September 1942 issue.   These Scouts represented four towns that had been heavily hit by bombing. Scout Stanley Newton of London explained:

Our Troop went through six months of heavy bombing in London. I cannot say that we came off unharmed. Our two Troop headquarters were wiped out, one was burned down and the other was blown to pieces. Several of the boys lost their parents and their homes and two of the younger boys were killed in those raids. But we were glad that we could go through them and do something to use our training as Scouts in helping some way or another.

Another of the Scouts, John Bethell of Birkenhead, describes the work the messengers did during the Blitz:

When a bomb drops one of the first people on the spot is either the head warden or one of the senior wardens. He always has a messenger with him; one of us Scouts. What he does as soon as he gets there is to make out a report on what has happened, give it to that messenger and the messenger rides down to the post, which we call the pill box.

Inside the pill box there is a telephone. That is the only telephone we are allowed to use during an air raid. But sometimes the telephone lines get broken when a bomb hits the road. Then instead of just having to ride to the post and telephoning, we messengers have got to ride down to the control center. Sometimes it is a long way and sometimes it isn’t. In my case it is three miles; that’s three miles there and three miles back, maybe ten times in one night. Not only do we send one messenger but three minutes after the first messenger is gone we always send another one so if the first one gets bumped off the second one may get through.

Derrick Belfall (1926-1940):  I Have Delivered My Message

Derric Belfall.  Photo courtesy of Mrs. Rita McInnes.

Derrick Belfall. Photo courtesy of Mrs. Rita McInnes.

Indeed, one of those Scouts, Derrick Belfall, was “bumped off” in the course of his duties as a civilian defense messenger.  Fourteen year old Belfall lived at 109 Bishop Rd, Bishopston, Bristol.   He was the only son of Cecil Ernest and Mary (née Miller) Belfall, who died in 1983 and 1964, respectively.

The official minimum age for messenger service was sixteen, but due to his insistence, Derrick was allowed to join the service.  On the night of December 2, 1940, he was dispatched with a message.  He delivered it successfully, and upon returning to his post, he found a house beginning to burn and he stopped to put out the fire.  He then heard cries from another house where he rushed in to save an injured baby. Shortly after effecting these rescues, the air raid still underway, Derrick was injured by an exploding bomb and taken to the hospital with injuries that proved fatal. As one of the visiting Scouts confirmed, his last words at the hospital were: “Messenger Belfall reporting.  I have delivered my message.”

Defused German parachute mine.  Wikipedia photo.

Defused German parachute mine. Wikipedia photo.

A Narrow Escape

Bethell, one of the British Scouts touring America, also recounted his own tale of being thirty yards away from an exploding parachute mine which killed two other civil defense workers:

A warden and I were riding along the streets on our bikes and saw a couple of parachutes coming down. Well, first we thought they were German airmen bailing out and we were just going to run towards them and give them something like what we would like to give Mr. Hitler–a kick in the pants or something like that–and then we realized that they were what are known as parachute mines…. We started to ride towards them to see if we could help in the rescue work we knew would follow….

We saw a couple of chaps running up in front of us also going on the same job. Just then we heard something flapping. It was only very faint but we realized that it was another parachute with a mine coming down. We knew if we were able to hear that flapping we must be pretty close to it. We got down on the ground and shouted to the other two chaps. But unfortunately they didn’t hear us. The roar of anti-aircraft fire drowned out our shouts. They went on. The mine went off just thirty yards ahead of us. We were just blown across the street but otherwise all right. But those other two chaps standing up under the full blast–it got them right in the chest and blew their lungs out and killed them.

American Scouts In Action


The American Scouts shown here in the February 1943 issue of Boys’ Life are participating in a civil defense exercise.  The display shown at the top of the page is the uniform of a Scout as he would have appeared in 1943 as a civil defense messenger in Mercer County, Pennsylvania.  It was put together by W8KBF of the Yahoo War Emergency Radio Service group.

While American Scouts and other civilians escaped the harrowing experiences of their British counterparts, it is clear that they lived up to the Scout Motto to Be Prepared.   And as the British Scouts proved, a scout is brave.

As Scout Executive West wrote, these Scouts “were not specialists but were equipped only with such knowledge as is normally given to Scouts through our Advancement Program. Yet how nobly these Scouts lived up to our Scout Motto ‘Be Prepared.’ We, too, have a job to do!”


DerrickI would like to thank Mrs. Rita McInnes, a neighbor of the Belfall family, for providing the photograph of Derrick Belfall.  This photograph hung for many years in the Belfall home as part of the illuminated photo shown here containing Derrick’s last words. (Click on the small image to view the full image.)

I would also like to thank Sam Hevener, W8KBF of the Yahoo War Emergency Radio Service group for allowing me to use the photo of the American Scout messenger’s uniform at the top of the page.

Additional References

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