Signs of the Times: Fallout Shelter Signs Were A Common Sight for Boomers

Having lived through the Cold War, boomers remember Fallout Shelter signs on government buildings, large office buildings and apartment complexes. Yet most boomers, having lived through the origin of the signs, do not know the history behind them.

A Fallout Shelter sign was a public notice of emergency shelter, presumably in case of nuclear attack. The government-issued signs were iconographic and simple in their design: three yellow downward-pointing triangles contained within a black circle resting on a yellow background. Below were the words, “Fallout Shelter.” Additional messages on the sign could offer an occupancy capacity or directional arrows.

Within a decade after the end of WWII, advances in technology enabled the two remaining world Super Powers to build long-range missiles capable of delivering atomic destruction over great distances. By the 1950s, the Cold War emerged as an arms race, with each country wanting to keep a balance of power — as in matching the other’s number of available nuclear warheads — as a deterrent. An attack by either could result in the total annihilation of their respective countries, if not the entire planet. Fear began to grip the American public at the prospect of an attack via the U.S.S.R.’s ICBM missile system. Early Baby Boomers recall the national 1951 “Duck and Cover” program at school, where they were told to “duck and cover” should they see a nuclear flash of light. It was apparent early on that this type of action was not going to offer enough protection. As a result, plans circulated for home fallout shelters, and pre-fabricated shelters intended for home use were also made and sold.

Government officials were concerned about the rising national debate on the morality behind neighbor against neighbor — those with shelters vs. those without — should an attack occur. It was decided a system of public shelters, with each having a capacity of 50 or more, should be instituted. The country had a shelter system in place for years before WWII. These shelters, marked with a sign containing a large “S” and the words “Public Shelter,” were intended for use in instances of natural disasters, then as bomb shelters during WWII, should the homeland be bombed by enemy planes. Widespread bombing on the mainland did not transpire, though we now know the Japanese military did undertake a mission to bomb the Northwest states near the end of the War.

All but abandoned after the War, President Kennedy assigned the responsibility of re-establishing this shelter network to Civil Defense, a branch of the Department of Defense (DOD), and asked Congress to authorize funds to create signage and stock these shelters with provisions that included water, food, first aid kits, communication equipment and other things considered essential for survival.

The task of creating the design of the sign was given to a government contractor in Virginia. It was this graphics firm that suggested the colors and symbol as a simple graphic that would be easily recognizable. In recent years it has come to light that the symbol of the three triangles were not meant to evoke the symbol for radiation, as many people had come to believe. Rather, it was based on elaborate symbolism of the essential functions of the fallout shelter system. A DOD newsletter (OCD region 3, Volume 1, No. 2, March 1963) explained the reasoning behind the design and attributed it to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Defense, Steuart L. Pittman:
There are six points to the shelter sign. They signify: 1. Shielding from radiation; 2. Food and water; 3. Trained leadership; 4. Medical supplies and aid; 5. Communications with the outside world; 6. Radiological monitoring to determine safe areas and time for return home.
The newsletter article added, “It is an image we should leave with the public at every opportunity, for in it there is hope rather than despair.”

This explanation, however, was not communicated to the general public.

In December of 1961, the DOD unveiled the new Fallout Shelter sign to the wire services. As newspapers began to disseminate images of the signs along with government-supplied information on what to do in case of an attack, the first sign was installed in a building in White Plains, New York. In less than a year, the signs could be seen across the country. The ubiquitous signage was immediately recognizable then as it is to people of a certain age now. The DOD was still distributing the signs as late as 1977, and many remain visible in all parts of the country.

Fallout Shelter Sign
Many Fallout Shelter signs can still be seen, including this one that Mister Boomer passes every day.

Mister Boomer did not actually know of a family who had a home fallout shelter, so the national system was going be the best his neighborhood could do. For Mister B’s family, the basement of the house would have to suffice. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, his parents began to stock a storage area in the basement of the house with SPAM, canned vegetables, gallons of water and jars of other canned items. The canned items came mostly from Mister B’s grandmother and aunts, as his mother did not take to canning fruits and vegetables like other members of her family.

Though the spectre of nuclear attack was evident in the creation of the family’s emergency stock, it was also a practical precaution as Mister B’s area was prone to both floods and tornadoes. Cans would be rotated to upstairs use every few months, and Mister B remembers his father replacing gallons of water a few times, before the family abandoned the practice entirely in the mid-60’s. By then Mister B, like a good many boomers, heard the scuttlebutt around school that in the event of nuclear attack, none would survive in his region. A newspaper report had indicated the targeting positions of Soviet Union missiles, and his area was directly in their sights since it contained so many factories. Local steel mills, a paper factory, and airplane and auto plants were prime targets for an enemy bent on disabling a country’s ability to wage war.

Mister Boomer made notice of the Fallout Shelter signs, but like many boomers at an early age, did not think that these shelters would mean the difference between surviving an attack or not. Boomers lived their lives with the ever-present possibility of nuclear attack hanging over them, but they pressed on, not thinking much about it or the Fallout Shelter signs that dotted the cityscape.

What experiences do you recall with Fallout Shelter signs, boomers?

Boomer History: The Cuban Missile Crisis

Fifty years ago this week — on October 14, 1962 — a U.S. reconnaissance plane flying over Cuba took photos that confirmed that Soviet missile sites were being constructed on the island, just 90 miles from the U.S. mainland. Since the U.S. had previously deployed more than 100 nuclear missiles in both Italy and Turkey capable of reaching Moscow, the Soviets had concluded that this deployment gave the U.S. an advantage for first strike capabilities in a nuclear confrontation. Therefore, their perception of the balance of powers required them to mount missiles in the Western Hemisphere.

As Soviet ships headed for Cuba, presumably with intermediate-range ICBM missiles on board, President John F. Kennedy ordered what was, in essence, a military blockade around Cuba to prevent the ships from reaching their destination. The action was officially deemed a “quarantine” in order to avoid using the term “blockade,” since doing so was considered an act of war. Nikita Khruschev accused the U.S. of an act of war and from there the incident crossed over into a crisis that has been described as the closest point to nuclear confrontation by the two countries than at any other time in the Cold War. It was at this time that the term mutually assured destruction was coined. Estimates of a full nuclear war between the two powers stated that the result would entail 100 million deaths on each of the sides.

While the Soviets publicly denounced the actions by the U.S., privately they were negotiating with the U.S. through the United Nations to resolve the situation. By early November, the Soviets agreed to dismantle the sites and return the missiles already on the island back to the Soviet Union. The U.S. agreed to dismantle the 100 sites it had deployed against the Soviets in Italy and Turkey and to publicly state it would never invade Cuba. These were amazing compromises considering the brinkmanship both had displayed, and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that the U.S. had supported just one year earlier. Another part of the settlement was the creation of a hotline between Washington and Moscow. This is the often-called “red phone” that sits on the President’s desk in the Oval Office. The idea was that if another crisis arose, the two leaders could instantly talk and the situation might be diffused more quickly and easily.

The hotline plays a prominent role in the satirical nuclear movie, Dr. Strangelove (1964), when a rogue Marine commander initiates a first strike order against the Soviets without authorization. The movie is perhaps the greatest satire ever made on the folly of a nuclear exchange between countries.

Several books were written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, most notably the then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days. A 1974 movie, The Missiles of October, was based on his book. The movie Thirteen Days (2000), though bearing the same name as Kennedy’s book, was actually based on The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow (1997). However, most of the movies have been criticized for historical inaccuracies by living members of the Kennedy administration.

In 1962, Mister B was in elementary school. He doesn’t recall the Cuban Missile Crisis being talked about openly in the classroom or by his parents. He does remember hearing about it on TV, and sensed the tension that was rising among the adults around him. This was especially confirmed when his school conducted “tornado drills,” where the kids would hunker down as low as possible against an interior hallway wall. Mister B knew that October was past the traditional tornado season, and had been “briefed” earlier by the government Duck and Cover movie on what to do in the case of a nuclear blast (see Mister B’s earlier post, Laughing Through the Cold War). He didn’t think they were about tornadoes at all. The factories of the Midwest had become the U.S. center of manufacturing during World War II and, now in the early 1960s, it was the engine that was propelling the economic boom that helped facilitate the Baby Boom. Even the school kids knew our area would be targeted by a Soviet attack. That’s why bomb shelters became so popular.

In the end, Mister B was too young to fully comprehend the severity of the situation until many years later. It is truly amazing to think how the leaders of the two countries were able to come to an acceptable conclusion while saving face with their own citizens, and the world. Now that history is part of our shared boomer history.

What memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis come to mind for you, boomers?