Category Archives: Civil Defense History

1961 Life Magazine Fallout Shelters

1961SeptLife1A year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the September 15, 1961, issue of Life magazine carried a big section of civil defense advice to the nation, along with a letter to the American people from President Kennedy. He stated that war couldn’t solve any of the world’s problems, but that the decision was not ours alone.

Accordingly, he urged the magazine’s readers to carefully consider the issue’s contents to prepare for all eventualities. And the picture above shows how one family did exactly that by building one of the fallout shelters, the basic blueprints of which were included in the magazine. The magazine also told where you could write for more information, and it’s likely this family had done exactly that.

The view outside shows that this family’s town escaped the blast effects of the nuclear weapon, but the fallout had either arrived or was on the way. But life went on. Mom is tucking in the youngest child, while the older brother sits vigilantly near the entrance. (And the shelter did have an entrance, but since the original picture took up two pages in the magazine, it seems to have gotten cut off when the image from the two pages was combined). Meanwhile, the older sister seems to be fixing her hair, and the father is relaxing by lighting up a smoke in the relatively well ventilated enclosure. (In addition to the ventilation provided by the entryway, you can see four ventilation holes on the wall near the ping-pong table.)

The family shown in the picture below had even better protection, since their outdoor corrugated pipe shelter provided protection against the blast as well as fallout.   In this case, instead of going inside the relax with a smoke, it looks like the father is hoping to catch a glimpse of the fireball before slamming the door before the blast wave arrives.


The magazine carried plans for more shelters along with estimates for their cost, as well as some other rudimentary civil defense instructions.  It also suggested the possibilities for private community shelters, such as that constructed for the group shown below:


This shelter was in a suburb of Boise, Idaho.  Families there incorporated and bought shares for $100 each for access to this community shelter dug into a hill.  According to the magazine, the shelter had dormitories, a power plant, kitchen, hospital, and decontamination showers.  In the photo, the families were lining up in peacetime to bring in their emergency rations.


And speaking of peacetime, there was no reason to let all of that perfectly good living space go to waste just because Krushchev hadn’t hit the launch button yet, as demonstrated in the picture above of Amelia Wilson of Vega, Texas.  The family had installed a shelter in the backyard, and Amelia seized upon the opportunity to make it her clubhouse and the perfect place to get away and chat with her friends.  But as the magazine pointed out, the shelter was ready to be put to its intended use at a moments notice, as evidenced by the air blower directly above her and the exhaust pipe running out of the ceiling.  And the radio entertains her now, but it’s also all ready to go at a moment’s notice to tune in civil defense information and warnings on CONELRAD.

1960 CONELRAD Monitor

1960JanRadioElecThe plans for this CONELRAD monitor appeared in the January 1960 issue of Radio Electronics magazine. As part of the nation’s civil defense structure, the CONELRAD system was designed to alert Americans to an incoming attack, but also make sure that broadcast signals did not serve as beacons for incoming bombers.

To prevent this from happening, all radio stations ceased broadcasting. Selected stations then resumed broadcasts, but only on two frequencies, 640 and 1240 kHz, in order to confuse the navigators of those incoming bombers.

1960JanRadioElecSchematicWhen the station first left the air, this would serve as the first warning to the public. And this device sounded a bell when the monitored station left the air. In some more remote areas, a more sensitive and selective receiver might be required. But in most areas, the ubiquitous “All American Five” receiver could be used. This alarm tapped into the receiver’s AVC circuit. If the incoming carrier disappeared, the bell would sound.

London Air Raids of 25 September 1917


The Underworld: Taking cover in a Tube Station during a London air raid

The Underworld: Taking cover in a Tube Station during a London air raid.  Imperial War Museum© IWM (Art.IWM ART 935)

One hundred years ago today, the September 25, 1917, issue of the Chicago Tribune carried this headline of a German air raid earlier that day (3:00 AM London time) on London.

The newspaper reported that the first raid was made by airplanes and resulted in six deaths and about twenty injuries.  This was followed by a Zeppelin attack which first appeared off the coast of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

The British government had set up a rudimentary civil defense organization in the summer of 1917, with about 200 observation posts set up. They reported by telephone to military headquarters, and fighter squadrons and spotlights were called into action to shoot down the invading craft. Street lights in central London were turned off at night, and a lake was drained to prevent its distinctive shape from serving as a landmark.

There was, however, no method in place to warn civilians. However, civilians knew that the Germans needed moonlight and good weather. Therefore, many Londoners took shelter in underground stations on nights when bombing seemed likely. It was estimated that some 300,000 Londoners took refuge in these stations, with another half million in their cellars.


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:

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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