Don’t rush to church during an “A-bomb” attack, Pittsburghers were warned in 1951. Churches are too flimsy. Stay in your home, pull down the blinds and head to the cellar.
“Prayer can be just as sincere and just as meaningful if you recite it while lying on your stomach in a basement shelter as it is when you’re sitting in a pew,” The Pittsburgh Press reassured its readers in a seven-part series published in the early years of the Cold War.
Fear weighed heavily upon Pittsburghers in those days. It was part of a national trend.
In Washington, a bullying and reckless Sen. Joseph McCarthy was busy stoking fear and wrecking lives. The enemy, it seemed, was everywhere. “Spies, traitors, fanatics” were trying to steal state secrets, warned the head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. He kept a close eye on those who couldn’t appreciate a joke — it was a surefire way to identify turncoats. “Almost to a man,” he was quoted in a Press article, “they lack ‘a good sense of humor.’”
Written by John Troan and published in February 1951, the Press series was part of an effort to calm fears and reassure citizens. Even if the Soviets penetrated U.S. defenses and struck Pittsburgh with an atomic bomb similar to the one that devastated Hiroshima, most people in the city would survive. Those in the initial blast zone would be vaporized, but neighborhoods a mile or so away would escape the worst of the bomb’s effects.That loaf of pumpernickle you bought at Mancini’s? It’ll be fine.
“Everything in your refrigerator will be safe to eat,” Troan wrote. “Even the bread will be safe if you take the wrapper off.”
The series, which warned against panic, was accompanied by drawings depicting apocalyptic scenes of a fictitious attack. Cars are flung through the air. Hordes of brief-case wielding, screaming businessmen and women stampede down a Pittsburgh street — maybe Fifth Avenue. Telephone poles snap like toothpicks. A mushroom cloud rises over the Point.
Pittsburghers were worried because all those steel mills lining the rivers made the city a prime target. Troan reassured readers by pointing out that an attack was not certain, and even if one were to occur, “the numerous hills here would be bound to cramp the atom bomb like a corset and thus shrink this danger zone.”
If a blast hit the Golden Triangle, for example, Mount Washington would protect folks living in Greentree. Of course, Troan wrote, “the side of a hill facing the explosion would be likely to take it on the chin.”
Troan was generous with survival tips in the case of such an attack.
If you’re at home, he wrote, “get up against an outside wall because when buildings buckle the floors usually cave in at the middle.”
Those in automobiles and unable to get out in time should at least slouch below the window level to avoid flash burns. If you’re out for a stoll and can’t find cover, dive into a curb or a hole.
For those hit by dust or mist that may harbor radioactivity, Troan advised, “strip immediately and take a shower. Scrub the hair and fingernails thoroughly. But don’t bath unless you have to. Save the water for the firemen.”
Whatever you do, don’t light up a Camel after a blast. Gas leaks will be an issue and you may blow yourself to bits.
Most likely, you’d survive the attack unless the bomb was placed in your lap, the series claimed. “From 1 ½ to two miles away, the odds are 50 to 1 in your favor,” it read.
But what about all that radiation?
Rays can kill or make you sick, Troan admitted, but the danger had been exaggerated.
“You can’t catch ‘radiation sickness’ from a person who gets an overdose of the bomb’s rays,” he wrote. “It’s safe to touch him, and you can even sit him up in your living room if you want to.”
— Steve Mellon
(Below is the civil defense film “Duck and Cover,” produced in 1951.)