Gimme shelter

A historic tour of nuclear \npreparedness in Missoula



“You know,” says Dudley Dana dryly, “I always wanted my own bomb shelter.”

Growing up in Columbus, Mont., 300 miles west of Missoula, the downtown gallery owner says he remembers cowering under his desk along with his grade school classmates during the late ’50s and feeling “pretty sure” that the Big One was going to drop any day. A private bomb shelter would have been just the ticket, Dana says. It’s just taken him awhile to accidentally acquire one.

Earlier this month, while exploring the gallery’s new digs on the Dixon-Duncan block of Higgins, Dana Gallery employees uncovered a cache of unusual items apparently left behind by the building’s former occupants: survival supplies of a kind once furnished on demand by the federal government, and now moldering away into their fifth decade at the end of a long, damp, unlit basement corridor.

At one time, the discovery of such a stash would hardly have seemed noteworthy: Dana’s building, along with about 60 other buildings around Missoula, was part of the city’s—and the country’s—first and last line of civilian defense in case of nuclear attack: a series of municipal fallout shelters, each stocked with the bare essentials needed to ensure survival of a hundred or more people for several weeks underground.

Nowadays, though, finding rusty barrels of water and water-damaged boxes of tasteless crackers in the basement does seem a bit unusual. The agency that laid them up has essentially been defunct since 1979, and in the intervening decades many building owners with similar basement caches have quietly gone about the business of throwing these Cold War oddments out with the trash. Dana doesn’t know what he’s going to do with his basement bonanza yet. The musty cement corridor, on the other hand, he jokes about leasing to struggling artists.

Right now, however, the Dana Gallery’s basement could be the last extant specimen of a fully stocked fallout shelter in Missoula. With the Cold War over and the likelihood of a full-scale nuke-a-thon a ghost of what it was 20 years ago, its usefulness as a civil defense facility is debatable.

But it still works as a time machine. Dudley Dana’s bomb shelter is a tunnel to an intriguing but sadly under-documented period in Missoula civic life: an era of community planning for surviving the end of the world.

An official contingency for protecting civilian lives in the event of an attack on American soil has been a feature of American life since the creation, on May 20, 1941, of the Office of Civilian Defense. Responding to what he perceived as “a state of unlimited emergency”—even though the United States had not yet entered WWII—then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged every American city to draft plans for a coordinated military and civilian response to potential enemy attack.

To cut a long story short, World War II effectively ended with an American attack on a foreign civilian population, culminating in two spectacular demonstrations of a formidable new weapon. “Atomic” entered American parlance as a byword for American ingenuity, security and world supremacy; the secrets it described were originally to be kept between the United States and its closest allies. This atomic honeymoon lasted until September, 1949, when President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had successfully detonated a bomb of its own. You know what Benjamin Franklin said about secrets in his Poor Richard’s Almanack: Three people can keep one if two of them are dead.

We blew some more stuff up, they blew some more stuff up. By 1953, when the Soviets detonated their first hydrogen bomb, the specter of long-range bombers with red-starred wings slipping through radar defenses to carry out a preemptive strike on American military and industrial targets became a major preoccupation for military planners and ordinary joes alike. Dozens of federal agencies charged with the creation, coordination and administration of civil defense programs and activities started popping up from 1951 onward, an alphabet soup of acronyms for ad hoc organizations charged with overlapping and sometimes unclear powers and responsibilities. It took some time for a clear mandate to emerge, but when it did, it steered the course of domestic and international politics for the remainder of the century. When the National Security Act was signed into law in July, 1947, it established the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the National Security Resources Board. Renamed the Federal Civil Defense Administration in 1951, the NSRB became the main clearinghouse for civil defense activities.

Historians have argued that civil defense activities in America were more placebo than prophylaxis, more a morale-booster and a security blanket and less a comprehensive plan for coping with nuclear attack. At the very least, with the Cold War and its attendant threat of atomic attack steadily escalating, civil defense gave people something to keep them occupied.

In Western Montana, one of the earliest and most popular ways to get involved with civil defense was through the Ground Observer Corps. Established in 1952 under the supervision of the Air Defense Command, the GOC enlisted civilian volunteers to monitor the skies for enemy aircraft that might have penetrated the gaps in the country’s protective radar shell. And there were indeed gaps, as even the military admitted: “To stand constant guard at the cracks in our armor,” reads the 1951 Ground Observers’ Guide published by the Air Force, “we must have alert, conscientious and capable lookouts. That is where you come in.”

GOC volunteers were supplied with photographic guides and silhouette keys for identifying military aircraft—primarily American and Soviet, though also British and French—and were expected to report “flashes” to a filter center in Helena, where reports could be corroborated with scheduled air traffic. In the event of a real attack, field observations from the scattered GOC posts could theoretically have been plotted to reveal the flight path—and likely target—of an enemy long-range bomber. The Helena filter center, in turn, kept in close contact with the Western Air Defense Force, headquartered at Hamilton Air Force Base in California, the strategic group charged with scrambling a counterattack.

Call it planespotting: At one time, dozens of communities in Western Montana fielded GOC posts, with volunteers cheerfully describing the speed, altitude and direction of as many as 200 friendly aircraft to Helena every month. The Bonner post was located at the Anaconda Company mill. In Florence, Lloyd Higgen’s observation post doubled as his automotive garage and service station. In Lolo, much of the skywatching was undertaken by a women’s group: “One of the chief discussions of the Lolo Women’s Club,” reported the Daily Missoulian with just a hint of chauvinism, “is not one of the latest bridge [game] nor the doings of the nearby community, but rather how to better their procedure on reporting flash calls to the Air Defense filter center in Helena.”

The Missoula Ground Observer Corps was created in April, 1952. Rain or shine, volunteers kept vigil in four-hour shifts—sometimes longer—on the roof of the Palace Hotel. Apart from their own eyes, the observers’ main means of surveillance was an “ear,” one of 20 sets of sensitive sonic equipment distributed among posts around Western Montana by federal civil defense authorities. Each “ear” consisted of a loudspeaker and a microphone tuned to the frequency of distant aircraft engines.

For the time they served, GOC volunteers earned certificates, medals and honorary lifetime memberships in various military organizations. By 1957, the Missoula post could boast of several observers who had spent more than 2,500 hours atop the Palace.

Many, if not most, GOC volunteers in Missoula were women, too. M. Margaret Owen, who usually went by “Mrs. Lloyd Owen” when she appeared in the newspapers, logged over 5,000 hours by the time the Ground Observer Corps program was retired at midnight, December 31, 1958. Elected to post supervisor in 1957, she kept scrupulous records of aircraft sightings as well as a detailed roster of her fellow Missoula observers, who at the height of the Missoula GOC program numbered around 350. And she still found time to pursue her other interests: crocheting, needlework, genealogy and reading. And raising eight children.

At about the same time the Lolo ladies were discussing improved communications with Helena, Missoula was designated by state officials as one of two “reception centers” for the state in the event of an attack. Under the provisions of the state civil defense plan, local officials were charged with arranging accommodations for the estimated 25,000 refugees expected to pour into the city in the wake of an atomic strike. Missoula’s chief qualification for the job, apart from being low on the list of suspected Montana nuclear targets, was its abundance of space: at Fort Missoula, at the University, and in its public schools.

It was evidently assumed early on that any future attack would be nuclear in nature, although early reports and press releases were not couched in precisely that language. By 1957, however, local officials were using the term freely, and hardly hiding behind the earlier diplomatic, third-person-singular usage of “the enemy.” That year Warren Mead, civil defense director for the city and county of Missoula, identified what he (and Air Defense officials) surmised were the likely targets of a “Communist sneak atomic or hydrogen bomb attack” on Montana: Great Falls, site of Air Defense Command headquarters; Anaconda, home to the world’s largest copper smelter; and the Fort Peck Dam, which, if breached, would have “cut the country in half” with 21,000,000 acre-feet of Missouri River water.

Missoula, Mead concluded, was probably safe—unless one of the primary targets happened to be obscured by clouds that day, in which case a Soviet bombardier might drop his payload just to be rid of it. “They’re not going to take their bomb loads home with them,” Mead warned.

Mead also attended a 1957 meeting in the auditorium of the Federal Building, convened on the occasion of a visit by the state civil defense director, in which contingencies for atomic attack were outlined before a standing-room-only audience. The state director expressed his pleasure at the turnout and quipped gravely, “Let’s hope we’re all working on a useless task.”

Mead, for his part, closed the meeting with a call for civilian volunteers, specifically those willing to work as messengers, clerks and auxiliary police, and willing to work for free. Mead’s own post was voluntary. There was no money to be made in civil defense, he admitted, but “I can assure you that it will be interesting.”

Later that year, civil defense must have seemed interesting indeed as hypothetical nuclear-attack scenarios began to play out in the front page. Even if you didn’t live through the era, you can still absorb some of the mounting hysteria by reading the newspapers: “Make Believe Bombers Smash 100 American Cities,” screams a July 13, 1957 Daily Missoulian headline. “Imaginary Bombs Hit Anaconda, Great Falls, Fort Peck Dam,” shrieks another.

OK, these were just hypothetical scenarios. But in 1957, they must have seemed more than just plausible. They must have seemed likely. At this point in our time traveling, it might behoove us to look around and get our cultural bearings.

Most Americans who attended grade school between 1951 and 1958 have some recollection of “Duck and Cover” drills at school. Those with especially keen memories might even recall Bert the Turtle, the animated poster critter for the Duck and Cover campaign, who first appeared in a 1951 educational film of the same name. In the film, Bert drops to the ground and retreats into the safety of his shell when a naughty monkey—meant to represent the Soviet Union—dangles a firecracker from a tree overhead. Bert the Turtle even had his own theme song. Students were expected to follow the wary terrapin’s lead and respond to surprise duck-and-cover drills by curling up under their desks.

Educational films played a key role in civil defense preparations, though few have got a patch on Duck and Cover for coyness. Survival Under Atomic Attack encourages viewers to “face, without panic, the reality of our times,” and then proceeds to make radioactive fallout look about as dangerous as a case of head lice. You Can Beat the A-Bomb, on the other hand, treats atomic warfare almost as a fait accompli, as though it were bound to happen anyway so you might as well deal with it. “You know,” an anonymous actor playing a civil defense warden says petulantly, addressing a room full of concerned citizens with a set of questions as scripted as any modern-day White House press conference, “there’s a limit to what this A-bomb can do. Radiation will not make a place uninhabitable forever. Possibly temporarily.” Even better: “No, the atom bomb will not blow up the world.” Sure, warden, you say that now—prior to the July, 1945 “Trinity” test, there was a good deal of apprehension among Manhattan Project scientists that the explosion might set off a chain reaction in the upper atmosphere, vaporizing everything on the planet. Not that those niggling worries kept them from going ahead with it anyway. Sometimes you just have to roll the dice.

In any event, such was the task faced by civil defense officials, in Missoula and elsewhere, in the late ’50s and early ’60s: to engender a degree of grave concern over nuclear weapons in the American populace, stopping just short of counterproductive panic. Many Americans, then as now, chose to do nothing and hope for the best. Others sheathed themselves in all the psychological latex the era had to offer, typified not only by Bert the Turtle (“When danger threatened him he never got hurt/He knew just what to do.”), but also by television, movies and comic books featuring superheroes who gobbled uranium-235 pellets for strength the way Popeye gobbled spinach. The idea of a superhero as the ultimate defense against nuclear holocaust made at least as much sense as imitating a turtle in a hard hat.

The nuclear panic peaked in 1962. President Kennedy, sensing that state and civic agencies were doing too little to develop shelter capabilities, had brought civil defense to the fore again in 1961 after a brief period of waning public interest. Once again stirring the alphabet soup, Kennedy redistributed the coordination and administration of emergency preparedness between two new agencies. The nuclear end of things, significantly, was to be handled by the Office of Civil Defense within the Department of Defense—a decision that effectively moved civilian defense into the military arena. Kennedy’s case for a renewed civil defense was strengthened considerably by the Soviet renewal of above-ground nuclear testing in central Asia in late August and early September of 1961—and by the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. Under Kennedy’s watch, a full-fledged program of shelter building went into effect. Existing buildings, particularly schools, courthouses and federal buildings, were assessed for their protective capabilities by civil engineers. Spaces deemed fit for public shelter were licensed and stocked with emergency food and water. Oddly enough, by some estimates as much as 70 percent of this space was located in the upper floors of multi-story buildings. Not much blast protection—but great (albeit brief) views of the mushroom cloud.

In Montana, however, there were concerns that civil defense wasn’t getting done fast enough—partly, at least, because of lingering confusion as to who was supposed to do what and to what extent. Department of Defense aegis notwithstanding, and contrary to popular misconception, civil defense was never supposed to devolve to the military—even during an emergency. In 1964, the last year survival supplies were delivered to Dudley Dana’s fallout shelter, Montana’s deputy director of civil defense, Philip J. Kincheloe, explained in a briefing to colleagues that “military services are not and cannot be a substitute for the numbers, skills and locations of civil authorities in the event of a nuclear holocaust.” Even if all military personnel were mustered for civil defense, Kincheloe insisted, “[it] would represent less than three percent of the nation’s manpower and equipment potential.”

The following January, Kincheloe counted 603 shelter facilities in the state, providing a grand total of 235,518 “approved” individual berths. At the time, the population of Montana was around 705,000—meaning, Kincheloe realized, that there weren’t enough shelter spaces for everybody. Furthermore, of those 603 shelters, only 414 were marked and only 376 stocked with supplies, forcing Kincheloe to admit that in the event of a nuclear attack on Montana, over two-thirds of the state’s population could conceivably be left out in the cold. Or the hot, depending how you look at it.

By the end of the ’60s, both public interest in and official administration of civil defense activities had begun to flag again. The Office of Civil Defense would linger on until 1979, when most of its powers were absorbed by the newly created Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the stockpiling of municipal shelters had largely ceased. Interest in public fallout shelters made a brief comeback during the nuclear buildup of the Reagan administration, but never reached the fever pitch of the late ’50s and early ’60s.

With nuclear terrorism recently floated as a possible coming attraction before the November elections, you might be interested to learn that no municipal fallout shelter program exists in Missoula anymore. The game has changed. What interests national security experts now are the “suitcase nukes” and dirty bombs. Granted, there’s always North Korea, but, in the main, the likelihood of all-out nuclear exchange between rival superpowers is remote. If it’s a dirty bomb you’re worried about, local Emergency Management personnel suggest that one place is basically as good as the next—just stay indoors. A radiation expert at UM suggests that having a HazMat team or two at the ready is about the best that can be hoped for, and Missoula does, under the joint oversight of municipal and county fire departments.

Perhaps the single most useful item of Missoula civil defense ephemera was also one of the last to be printed, in 1970: an eight-page foldout map of fallout shelters in the city, plus directions for how to get to them and where to park when you arrive. It was originally intended to be tucked into the household telephone directory for ready reference.

As mentioned, most if not all of the shelters marked on the map have been neglected and/or quietly dismantled over the past two decades. Nuclear winter turned out to be a non-event, but the spring cleaning has turned up some fabulous yard-sale items, like a box of LPs with pre-recorded messages to be broadcast after a nuclear strike. Sentinel High School and the Missoula Federal Credit Union gave the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula first crack at the goodies they retrieved from their shelters; senior curator R. Jane Richards says she’s got enough survival crackers, hard candy and emergency toilets now to trade for other civil defense relics at an upcoming museum convention in Wyoming.

Dudley Dana’s shelter is on the map, but the directions have changed slightly. To find it (you should probably ask first), take the staircase to the basement, clamber cautiously—and quickly—through the shaft of a still-functional service elevator, and open the door. You won’t be able to see the end of the cement corridor, but you’ll know you’re there by the smell.

Technically, the crackers and water might still be the property of the United States government, but it’s unlikely that any agents are going to come knocking to take them back. Most of the olive-green, 17-and-a-half gallon canisters of water are badly corroded and leaking all over the place. The boxes stacked toward the bottom of the spider-infested cracker-closet have fared even worse for sitting so long in a sitzbath of rust-colored slime; a thriving colony of earthworms has set up housekeeping in the nasty paste oozing from the bottom of the rusted-out tins. God knows how they got there, but they contribute an appropriate visual element to the humid, thoroughly pestilent troposphere the shelter has developed over the years.

The crackers from the still-intact tins taste like dust held together with wallpaper paste, but, as anyone who has ever eaten a C-ration can tell you, any cracker manufactured under contract to the United States government is bound to taste lousy regardless of how fresh it is. The tins are also extremely difficult to open, lending further credence to the assumption that civil defense efforts were predicated on the importance of keeping busy.

The emergency toilets are a hoot, though: In the event of an extended nuclear sleepover, you’d have lined the cardboard drum with a plastic bag, cinched the bag around the rim of the drum with a blue twist-tie, and proceeded to fill it 3 inches from the top with the excrement of a hundred or more people. Do not remove filled bags: The instructions included with the toilet are very emphatic about this.

All in all, a thoroughly miserable way to spend two weeks wondering if everyone you knew was dead, and with which of your shelter-mates to begin the dubious task of repopulating the Earth. Three hours in a decrepit fallout shelter is more than enough to give you a taste of how grim things might have turned out if only they’d turned out a little differently. A hundred degrees and blasting sun outside never felt so good.

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