Monday, November 30, 2015

Air Raids and Blackouts: Civilian Defense During WWII

by Erin Doane, curator

During the Second World War, Americans feared the threat of aerial attacks. While it was technically possible for the German or Japanese militaries to launch strategic bombing attacks on major cities on the east and west coasts of the United States it was unlikely to happen. It was even more unlikely that small cities like Elmira would be targeted. That did not make the fear go away, though. It was logical to think that this area could be targeted because of all the factories producing materials for the war effort. Many cities and towns across the country were in the same situation. As a way to ease the minds of its citizens, the U.S. government created the Office of Civilian Defense in May 1941. The Air Raid Warden Service was part of that.

Air raid warden helmets were painted white so that they
could be identified more easily during a blackout.

Civilian Defense broke cities and towns into sectors, each containing the homes of about 500 people. Each sector was controlled by an air raid warden’s post that was staffed by a senior warden and three or more assistant wardens. Each post had to have 3 to 6 wardens. From 4 to 15 posts were grouped under a precinct warden who reported to the chief warden. Air raid wardens were members of the community who volunteered for service. They were trained and issued a handbook that served as a reference manual and explained their duties. It contained information on the chain of command, how to equip the warden’s post, how to write reports, and how to respond to attacks using magnesium bombs and war gases.

Handbook for Air Raid Wardens, 1943
An air raid warden’s primary responsibility was “to see that everything possible is done to protect and safeguard those homes and citizens [in their sector] from the new hazards created by attack from the air or by enemies from within our gates,” according to the handbook. To that end, they were trained in first aid, methods of combating incendiary bombs, and protection against gas. They had to have detailed knowledge of their sector’s streets and buildings as well as of the people who lived there. It was important to know if there were firefighters, police officers, or doctors living in the sector. It was also important to know where the elderly or disabled lived as they would need more help in the case of an emergency.

Air raid warden whistle, 1940s
“The whistle is furnished you to use in drawing attention to your
presence in an emergency, not to sound a general warning. Do not
run about blowing it to supplement the siren warning.”
- 1943 Handbook for Air Raid Wardens

Air Raid Wardens were also responsible for overseeing air raid and blackout drills. Blackouts were ordered only on the authority of the War Department and everyone needed to be ready and know what they had to do when that happened. On January 4, 1942 a county-wide blackout drill was held. The local newspapers advertised the drill in the days leading up to it.
Elmira Star-Gazette, January 3, 1942
Horseheads used its fire siren to announce the blackout while Elmira Heights used its factory whistles. Upon hearing the signal, people were asked to stay where they were. If they were in their cars they were to stop and find shelter in the nearest building. People were also asked to make sure that no light could be seen outside their homes, offices, or factories. Any light that was visible from above was a target for airplanes on a bombing run. Street lights were turned off and all traffic lights, except the one on Lake and Church Streets which had a special shade, were turned off as well. Factories only blinked their outside floodlights to show that they could blackout if necessary. They were ordered by the federal government not to interrupt defense production for the drill. WENY was also ordered to keep its flashing beacon lit on it 425-foot transmitter tower in Southport so that airplanes would not be thrown off course during the drill.

Elmira Star-Gazette, January 3, 1942
I’m sure it comforted people to know that there was a corps of well-trained, local air raid wardens ready and able to respond in case of an actual enemy attack.