Winning the nuclear lottery

In 1950, the U.S. government published a pamphlet with the hopeful title of Survival Under Atomic Attack. The publication came five years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan and one year after the Soviet Union developed its own atomic device. Both nations would develop more powerful thermonuclear weapons—hydrogen bombs—in the early years of the decade.

The booklet begins with an assessment of survival:

What are your chances? If a modern A-bomb exploded without warning in the air over your home town tonight, your calculated chances of living through the raid would run something like this:

Should you happen to be one of the unlucky people right under the bomb, there is practically no hope of living through it. In fact, anywhere within one-half mile of the center of explosion, your chances of escaping are about 1 out of 10.

On the other hand, and this is the important point, from one-half to 1 mile away, you have a 50-50 chance.

Under that hopeful assumption, the booklet goes on to explain flash burns and radiation before listing six survival tips for atomic attacks:

  1. Try to get shielded
  2. Drop flat on ground or floor
  3. Bury your face in your arms
  4. Don’t rush outside right after a bombing
  5. Don’t take chances with food or water in open containers
  6. Don’t start rumors

Easier said than done. In the Cold War novel Distant Early Warning, the residents of Pennsboro have a mixed reaction to that advice. Patriotic to the core, the Gouchers build a fallout shelter in their backyard. The rest of the neighbors are on their own. At work, Marshall Andersen hears the sirens blare and wonders if he can get home in time. His wife Georgia unplugs the iron and draws the curtains against a possible blast. Their son, Wil, ducks and covers in the hallway at school, frozen by the sound of impending doom.

The pamphlet offers a more hopeful appraisal.

“To sum up, If you follow the pointers in this little booklet, you stand far better than an even chance of surviving the bomb’s blast, heat, and radioactivity.”

That’s a big if, even for the 1950s.

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

Building a fallout shelter

They were all the rage in the late 1950s—fallout shelters you could build in your basement or backyard. Now viewed with comic tolerance, the shelters were a response to a series of very real threats, starting with the Korean War and the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying and culminating in launch of Sputnik in 1957. In between, the United States and the Soviet Union traded nuclear-bomb tests tit for tat. America and Canada built the Distant Early Warning Line of radar stations across the Arctic. The U.S. staged mass evacuations of its largest cities. And children huddled under their desks in duck-and-cover drills.

The threats were anything but comic.

In June 1959, the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization published a 32-page pamphlet called The Family Fallout Shelter. The text was sobering:

Let us take a hard look at the facts. In an atomic war, blast, heat, and initial radiation could kill millions close to ground zero of nuclear bursts. Many more millions—everybody else—could be threatened by radioactive fallout. But most of these could be saved. The purpose of this booklet is to show how to escape death from fallout.

The booklet contained building plans for several types of shelters: basement concrete block, above-ground double-wall, pre-shaped corrugated metal, and underground. (Harry Goucher used similar plans for his backyard shelter in the novel Distant Early Warning. Imagine you’re a young mother like Georgia Andersen watching him build a four-person bunker and wondering where the rest of your neighbors will shelter.)

The booklet listed equipment and supplies for a prolonged stay and advised readers to “be prepared to make it your home for 14 days or longer.” Four to six people in a shelter with a hand-crank air pump and a bucket for a toilet. How long do you think most of us would last?

The underground fallout shelter

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

A Flood of Memories

I was old enough to remember but too young to understand the destruction and aftermath of the Flood of 1955. Back-to-back hurricanes Connie and Diane ravaged the Northeast that summer, dumping nearly two feet of rain on Northeast Pennsylvania where we lived and killing 184 people throughout the region. Some of the worst destruction happened in Connecticut.

The storms hit that August. Connie swept through with little to show except for rain. As if to blow the all-clear, the sun came out. I ventured into the backyard. Rain had turned the grass into a pond. It seemed miraculous.

Then, on August 18, came Diane, with its torrential rains and raging creeks that took a region by surprise. When the sun returned, my father packed me in the Buick for what came to be known as the disaster tour. One location remains embedded in memory: a stop by the Brodhead Creek along Stokes Mill Road just north of Stroudsburg, Pa. Climbing from the car, we viewed a great plain of mud, dried and cracked as if an earthquake had hit. Not a single tree, house, or rock. Just acres and acres of nothing.

Grand opening ad

I remember other things about that time: air-raid sirens near the Y, duck-and-cover drills in school, playground bullies and kick the can. Knowledge of the Cold War, the fear and paranoia over spies and nuclear attack, would come later.

Researching and writing about that era allowed me to explore the events and feelings of people who, at the time of the flood, were, for a child, out of reach. The result is Distant Early Warning, the story of a family—Marsh, Georgia, Penny and seven-year-old Wil—as they struggle with the perils and promise of the 1950s. The title refers to the line of radar stations strung across the Arctic Circle to detect incoming Russian bombers, but it could easily serve as a metaphor for a young boy’s discovery of the friendship of girls and the darkness that haunts his family, secrets buried deep beneath the mud.

That research also led me to discover these family photos of the aftermath of the flood, images unpublished until now.

Postscript: Thanks to members of two Facebook groups for their help in identifying the location of these photos: “I remember East Stroudsburg and Stroudsburg when . . . ” and “1955 Flood in Monroe County, PA, and environs.”

The Iron Bridge, or Interboro Bridge, between Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg, photographed after Hurricane Diane, circa August 20, 1955
Lower Main Street, Stroudsburg, looking east toward the remains of the Interboro Bridge. The entrance to 4th Street is on the left. The building on the left with the glass front is Archibald Plumbing. To the right at the corner is the home of Dr. John L. Rumsey; Ray Price Lincoln/Mercury dealership, and Frisbee Lumber  Co. The building before it with the arched doorway is part of the Holland Thread Co.
A bicyclist walks the muddy streets after the Flood of ’55, possibly Second Street in Stroudsburg, Pa.
Crews work to restore utilities near the Cities Service station at the foot of the Iron Bridge, 190 Main St., Stroudsburg, Pa. The irony is that August 18, 1955, was the grand opening of the facility, which could explain the flags on the left and possibly the word TODAY to the left of the gas station sign.

On top of the world

The Distant Early Warning Line was a system of 63 radar stations built across the Arctic Circle to detect Soviet bombers. Constructed by Western Electric, it extended 3,000 miles along the 69th parallel from Alaska to Baffin Island. The Arctic Institute of North America estimated it took 25,000 workers and $300 million to build the stations.

The U.S Air Force took operational control of the DEW Line on July 31, 1957, two months before the Soviet Union launched earth’s first man-made satellite, Sputnik.

This magazine ad appeared shortly after completion of the system.

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

The sound of the Cold War

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cold War spy craft is the most innocuous-sounding: numbers stations. They broadcast seemingly random strings of numbers or letters over shortwave frequencies. The broadcasts are received by agents embedded in other countries. Because the signals are one-way, spies are able to hear and decode the messages without fear of radio-tracking.

Originating during World War I, numbers stations proliferated during the Cold War, that period of tension between eastern and western powers from 1947 through 1991.

In the novel Distant Early Warning, Wil and Glenn Andersen believe these broadcasts are aimed at a spy operating in their neighborhood.

This is what the boys might have heard on their shortwave receiver. It is a recording of a woman reading a string of numbers in German. The numbers were often read in groups of three, four, or five. The file comes from The Conant Project on SoundCloud. The Conant Project consists of dozens of recordings of numbers stations from around the world, available for listening or download. (For a look at contemporary use of the stations, see the Numbers Stations Research and Information Center.)

Soviet spy radio set (Eagle) Mark II R-350M. (Photo by Maksym Kozlenko. Used with permission under Creative Commons license.)