Sunday March 4, 1962 was a cool and cloudy day in Washington DC. The front page of the paper had several stories about Marine Colonel John Glenn, Jr., recent space traveler visiting his hometown in Ohio to happy throngs of people.
Other front-page stories talked about government corruption, unrest overseas, and of course, across the top in bold headlines:
New Soviet A-Tests Seen as a Reply to US
Hard Tone Is Taken By Russians
By PRESTON GROVER
Associated Press Staff Writer
MOSCOW, Mar. 3 The rough tone of Soviet comment on President Kennedy’s nuclear test speech stirred Western diplomats here today to a feeling of approaching crisis. It appeared likely one Soviet reply to the President will be a new series of nuclear blasts.
The official Tass news agency used such words as “distortion,” “aggressive action” and “resembling blackmail” to describe Mr. Kennedy’s announcement that the United States will resume atmospheric nuclear tests in April unless the Russians agree to a satisfactory test ban. “In this case Kennedy did not risk anything,” Tass declared, “knowing very well that the Soviet Union rejects the system of inspection proposed by the United States and Britain as completely unacceptable . . . “It is not difficult to understand . . . that by the decision to start nuclear tests in the atmosphere, the United States opened wide the doors for a nuclear arms race.”
Yes, the Cold War was burning up.
America had already begun building its nuclear ballistic missile submarines by that point. The “41 for Freedom” submarines would be an increasingly more potent answer to the Soviet land missile threat with one addition. The stealth of the submarines meant that even if the Soviets decided to launch a first strike with their massive missiles, they would be dealt a catastrophic response by the growing submarine fleet.
In the fifties and even into the sixties, the idea that any nation could survive an all-out nuclear war was still something that both sides entertained. Moving large numbers of people in shelters was openly discussed and planned for. There were not many populated places in North America that did not have public shelters with large stores of prepackaged food and water. As long as the public had enough notice, they could get to a shelter and wait out the blast and after affects.
That was the theory at least. But would it work.
Well, just like any theory, there were experiments. In the same day’s paper, a story appeared that demonstrated what would occur in a carefully managed test. Here is the story and what happened in the month of February 1962.
GROUNDHOG DAY AGAIN
Freed Shelter Dwellers Blink in Sun
By WILLIAM GRIGG
Star Staff Writer
It seemed like Groundhog Day all over again yesterday, as a crowd gathered at Bethesda Naval Hospital to see a hundred men emerge from a hole in the ground.
At 11 a.m., they bounded out of the Navy fallout shelter they had been helping to test for two weeks, stared and were stared at. Their hair unmilitarily long, their faces stubby or bushy – they were permitted to use electric shavers or to let their beards grow – the guinea pigs reacted in different ways to the world of sunlight and blue skies.
Some smiled and blinked at the sun appreciatively. A few stumbled and nearly fell as they hurried out. But most looked like many of us arising from sleep – too dull to enjoy the sunrise.
Capt. David Minard, the group’s physician, was greeted by a senior Navy officer with the news that John H. Glenn, Jr., had orbited the earth. “Tremendous!” he said.
He told newsmen that 25 or 30 men had gotten “upper respiratory illnesses,” including five flu-like cases, none serious and all mended or nearly so.
The men were taken to the Anacostia Navy Station in Southeast, to shower, sleep and read two weeks of newspapers provided by The Star and other papers. Until tests and rest periods are completed this weekend, the men will remain almost as isolated as they were in the shelter.
What did they do in that shelter – a 25 by 48-foot Quonset-shaped structure of steel and concrete buried underground? Not much.
What did they prove? Quite a lot. Naval Research Laboratory scientists say. Watched by closed – circuit television, monitored by continuous medical tests, recorded in their own and shelter commander Lt. (j.g.) John White’s diaries, this is what the men did and proved:
Saturday, February 17
Morale excellent. But the shelter diet—lots and lots of enriched crackers in two meals, one with soup and the other with peanut butter— rate no cheers. Divided into two groups, half the men sleep at a time, with two four-hour periods a day in which all are awake. Lights, on at all times, do not prevent sleep.
Several men complain of minor cold symptoms. The shelter, which has no heater, warms to the mid-70s from body heat. With the men not eating all the crackers provided (about 50 a day) the planned 2,000-calorie-per-day diet drops to 1,500 calories. The men request religious services and these are held in the evening.
Monday Dr. Minard anticipates reduced metabolism (the body’s burning of food for energy) because of the smaller diet and limited activities. Some condensation on the shelter walls is noticed, but it is no problem. One volunteer, however, is suspected of having strep throat and is isolated behind a screen of blankets. A throat swab is passed out of the shelter for lab tests.
Men “still frisky.” Lab tests show the man with the bad throat does not have strep throat. Men are using only three of the six chemical toilets to see if three are enough; so far, they have been. One man seems to be in the recovery stage of a flu-like condition.
Men still have excess energy so Capt. Minard starts calisthenics. Cribbage, checkers and cards are played steadily; with ventilation still set at 350 cubic feet a minute, temperature range from 74 to 78 degrees. Food complaints continue.
Diet, heat and inactivity slow down the men. The atmosphere is getting stuffy, the temperature reaches 83 degrees. More food complaints.
The increase of air flow to 600 cubic feet per minute lowers temperatures, eliminates stuffiness and improves morale. The men devise musical instruments from ration cans and put on an impromptu show with twist dancing. A quartet sings and pantomime skits are given. Men have lost weight, but this loss shows signs of leveling off. Religious services are held. Men begin to accept full 2,000- calorie diet again.
Monday, February 26
The increased ventilation has lowered temperatures to 74-78 degrees. Men continue to accept 4,000-calorie diet. Three toilets are still enough. Lt. White is hoarse and thus not 100 per cent effective.
Men show signs of anxiety and interest in ending the test. Men are re-advised on sanitary precautions after two light cages of diarrhea develop.
Morale building as men anticipate leaving shelter soon. Based on their observations of steadily decaying radiation source outside the shelter, the men believe they can leave the shelter Saturday. Another entertainment is set tonight.
Saturday date for leaving shelter becomes firmer. A team leaves each day to monitor radiation from a safe source that simulates radiation levels after an attack. Team members shower to remove “contamination” while the rest, because of limited water, must use chemical wash-and-dry towels.
Men have predicted when the test will be over and are eager. Hot showers will feel good. Hot meals will be good, too.
The gear brought in is gotten together, men police up and are happy to be getting out.
Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 04 March 1962. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1962-03-04/ed-1/seq-21/
What was interesting to me as a submariner is how many times I have spent cooped up in a steel pipe with both ends sealed for not just a few weeks but many months. The irony is that we made all of those patrols specifically to deter the enemy from ever logically thinking that there could be a winner or many survivors in a nuclear attack.
The amount of devastation from an all-out nuclear attack is too incomprehensible to even imagine. Even if you are not destroyed in the first blast (which would be merciful in comparison) the survivors would face long periods of airborne and surface radiation contamination. Food and water supplies would be affected for months if not years. The climate changes caused by so much rapid release of surface dirt into the atmosphere at one time would be horrendous. The growing patterns of the crop cycles would be retarded if not completely upended.
Life as we know it now would cease to exist. The entire system of infrastructure that we have built over the past 100 years would crumble like a fragile autumn leaf. The electronic systems and electric grid would be displaced by the electromagnetic pulse of so many weapons being released simultaneously. This would impact water and sewage distribution, power generation, transportation systems and geo satellites in orbit. No electronic communications would remain untouched. Some would simply become useless.
The 100 men in the limited two-week test probably revealed how much of a challenge it would be to sustain even a small amount of people in the shelters of the time. By the 1980’s most shelters were either abandoned or just forgotten. The continuing growth of the nuclear capabilities of many nations made survival a purely academic exercise.
For many of us, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a blessed event. But as I look back on the past thirty years since then, it was truly deceptive in nature. The same hearts that could have imagined enslaving other people for political and personal gains still exist. The same weapons and lack of trust between the former enemies still exist. The same threat still exists. It never truly went away.
I hope the world can someday eradicate madmen and their mad schemes. But until that day occurs, we should all anticipate that safety is ultimately an illusion. As long as we depend on the good nature of our fellow man in an unrestrained world, there will always be another man or men who feel they can take advantage of our fears for their own gain. Peace through strength was Reagan’s mantra. It should remain that of all free people until the end of time.
I was reading an article yesterday (March 3, 2922) about a company in Texas that builds and installs personal shelters for people rich enough to purchase them. The shelters have a starting price of about $300,000. I assume that does not include the crackers or chemical toilets but I might be wrong. I also assume that the shelters being purchased will not be open to the public. I wonder how many of their extended family members will be invited to come into the shelters in the event that things go horribly wrong.