Thursday, October 21, 2010

Civil Defense Collection

I still remember it attached to one of the exterior walls of my elementary school, the yellow and black fallout shelter sign. Once inside there were other signs directing people to the basement. Once I was able to go down into the basement to help my teacher move some easels and there they were. Stacked neatly were big green barrels and boxes of supplies, some marked crackers, others marked medical kit.

When my teacher told me what they were for, I remember asking, "How is everyone going to fit in here?" I never got an answer. I thought that maybe the well behaved students got to the basement and the others would have to make due by hiding under their desks.

Most of those supplies were certainly placed in my school during the early 1960s, the zenith of the civil defense program during the John F. Kennedy administration. Prior to his Presidency, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were less enthusiastic about Civil Defense. Survivability was the key issue. Would it be worth all that money for civil defense, when few if any would survive, even within the shelters?

It was the Kennedy administration which made civil defense a priority. Kennedy urged Americans "without delay" to build backyard shelters. He requested and got $207.6 million dollars in civil defense funds to identify and mark fallout shelters and to stock them with food, water, first-aid kits and other essentials. Civil Defense would now be the responsibility of the Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense.

There was much opposition to any civil defense program. It was thought by some that no one in or out of shelters could survive an all out thermo-nuclear war, making shelters a waste of tax payer's money. Others noted that civil defense publications seemed addressed to the suburban upper classes and less for inner city populations or the poor who may not own a home. Still others argued that it would only encourage the start of nuclear war by undermining the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine.

In light of the opposition in November 1961 a decision was made that the federal shelter program would now only apply to communities or groups, not individual shelters. A decision was also made to restrict all future civil defense activity to completing the OCD shelter survey that had been funded in 1961. Eventually, this survey would identify and place shelter signs on designated buildings

In order to be designated a public shelter, a facility had to have enough space for at least 50 people, include one cubic foot of storage space per person, and have a radiation protection factor of 100. The materials division of DOD, called the Defense Supply Agency, furnished shelter supplies to local governments, which were then responsible for stocking all shelters in their regions. By 1963, 104 million individual shelters had been identified; and of those 47 million had been licensed, 46 million marked, and 9 million individual spaces had been stocked with supplies.

The museum's collection of civil defense supplies are as varied as the places and individuals they came from. There are survey instruments, water containers, medical kits, dosimeters, sanitation kits, food supplements, generators, crackers, flashlights, radios, etc. Some of the best examples are currently on permanent exhibit.

Many of these supplies still sit in shelters undisturbed all these years. You can still see yellow and black signs when driving around town. I am sure all those supplies I saw in the basement of my old elementary school are still sitting there waiting.

 Handbook for living in a fallout shelter

 Fallout Shelter Sign

Civil Defence artifacts found in the collection.

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