When the satirical newspaper The Onion, with its fake headlines and fictitious news stories, made up a newspaper entry for “August 12, 1953,” the prank headline read “Pentagon Develops A-Bomb Resistant Desk; Schoolchildren Now Safe from Atomic Blast.” The joke, of course, was that the nation spent most of the 1950s preparing for the unpreparable. No “duck & cover” protocol was going to protect children from a nuclear weapon and no amount of civil defense was going to prepare Milford — or any other town — from what war had become. And yet, it’s understandable that after mobilizing the “arsenal of democracy” to win a world war, Americans felt that there must be more that they could do than sit around and wait for doomsday. In Milford in the 1950s, that meant air raid drills, teams of civil defense wardens — and, yes, schoolchildren crouching under desks.
The vast American civil defense network that was organized in the first years of the decade was an effort borne out of fear. As the first Soviet nuclear test, the Chinese Revolution, and the Sino-Soviet pact all came in close succession in 1949 and 1950, Americans — usually comfortable behind two oceans — were panicked as never before. Soon civil defense was represented in every town and on every block. As the Red Scare took hold in 1951, air raid wardens in Milford conducted surveys of emergency housing and feeding in preparation for potential nuclear refugees. By October, the first full air raid test was conducted in town. Local civil defense director David Deans led a team of 156 volunteer “wardens” assigned to bring emergency instructions to the populace. In town hall, a former courtroom was cleared out, and on long hardwood desks, Deans and his men assembled Geiger counters, town maps, and shortwave radios. Communication was established with the town’s lone police cruiser, Milford fire trucks, and the state civil defense center in Concord. And hundreds of Milford residents joined the defense team — from airplane spotters to “evacuation unit ladies” to boy scouts who served as message couriers.
Air raid tests became an expected part of Milford life. Every citizen was soon familiar with the color-coded “alerts” that were reviewed before each drill. A “Test Yellow Alert” consisted of short blasts of the town hall fire whistle for three minutes, followed by a “Test Red Alert” consisting of a wailing tone for up to five minutes. During such drills, the entire town would shut down. All drivers were to “pull to the side of the road and turn off their engine” and “take shelter and crouch on car floors.” Only when the white “all clear” signal was given were residents permitted to go back to business as usual.
In addition, most of the drills included mock “events” and intricate scenarios to test preparedness. During a 1952 drill, a tire was set on fire, a bus was overturned, and an auto accident was simulated in order to test Milford’s reaction. In 1956, traffic was blocked on major town arteries as auxiliary police attempted to redirect automobile flow. Descriptions in the Milford Cabinet could give a casual newspaper reader pause as mock events sounded very real indeed. One such entry: “The nature and extent of the attack will not be known until after it occurs. Each target city involved will receive sealed instructions, and based on such instructions, they will estimate damage and report to State Headquarters.”
While air raid drills were usually announced in advance, the town was also given the occasional pop quiz. A grading of sorts from Deans would usually follow. In June 1952, the civil defense director told the Cabinet that the town reacted only “as satisfactorily as could be expected” and that he was disappointed with the total number of wardens who immediately reported. While another surprise drill in November won high marks from Deans, who noted that “wardens were out in force and doing an excellent job last night.” Still, there were always those who were caught unaware. The Cabinet reported that when the siren sounded, “one warden was in the bathtub but got on the job as rapidly as possible.” Under the leadership of Deans, Milford’s civil defense was regularly praised as one of the best in the state.
But as the realities of nuclear war became increasingly understood in America, a sense of apathy began to pervade civil defense. Many wondered if there would be any escaping a nuclear attack, and even if there was, would survivors want to go on? By 1958, the momentum of civil defense had stalled. On the Pearl Harbor anniversary, new Milford civil defense chairman Donald Fowler and his committee elected to not even participate in a statewide drill. “It would interrupt church services among other things,” he explained. By 1966, drills were conducted in Milford without public participation. In the early 1950s, civil defense authorities had seemed to want to scare residents into preparation, but by the mid-60s, as the Cabinet explained, siren systems were avoided so as not to “alarm or panic the residents.”
It seemed that having experienced fifteen years of the Cold War and a terrifying missile crisis, people were plenty scared already.
Milford Ground Observation Corps members visit Manchester headquarters.