Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Operation 'Duck and Cover': Let Me Just Say That I'm Glad the 'Bomb' Didn't Drop

Today is the anniversary of the 1955 Eisenhower administration's first annual "Operation Alert" (OPAL) exercise, an attempt to assess the USA's preparations for a nuclear attack. That program must have been  a sign of the times because I can recall ( with some hilarity actually) that in school during the 1950s we were drilled in a 'safety' procedure to protect us should the bomb fall during the hours of 8 A.M. through 3 P.M.. Luckily for all of us, it did not!

Any of us of a certain age will recall hearing a fake alarm being sounded and going under our desks crouched with head down to protect our faces and bodies from nuclear fallout. Riiiiiiiight!!

After Nagasaki and Hiroshima, in the beginnings of the 'cold war', our government felt that there was a very real threat of unfriendly nations (such as the USSR) getting their hands on the materials needed to make an atomic bomb. So when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, the American public was understandably nervous. The defensive response by the US was to deploy a fairly strong layered defense of interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles but this was a small response compared to the construction of a huge fleet of nuclear bombers. While they were aware of the destruction that our atomic bombs did to the Japanese cities, the public did not know a lot about the dangers of radiation and fallout.

The FCDA commissioned an educational film for children. The producers went to work on a script that would combine live actors and an animated turtle to encourage kids to duck down to the ground and get under some form of cover – a desk, a table or next to a wall – if they ever saw a bright flash of light. The flash would presumably be produced by an atomic blast. The hero of the film was the animated Turtle named Bert who wore a pith helmet and quickly ducked his head into his shell when a monkey in a tree set off a firecracker nearby. The 'Duck and Cover' film was completed in January 1952. The film was shown to educators at a gala premiere screening at a Manhattan movie theatres after which it was distributed to schools around the country by one of the largest educational film distributors.

In 1951, a new Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) was set up to educate – and reassure – the country that there were ways to survive an atomic attack from the Soviet Union and this is where the school involvement came in. Teachers in selected cities were encouraged to conduct air raid drills where they would suddenly yell, "Drop!" and students were expected to kneel down under their desks with their hands clutched around their heads and necks. Apparently, some schools even distributed metal "dog tags," like those worn by World War II soldiers, so that the bodies of students could be identified after an attack.

Many baby boomers like me remember duck and cover drills in their schools but know now that those drills or even fallout shelters probably wouldn't have done much good. In any case, 'duck and cover' stopped somewhere along the way and today the threat of 9-11 style attacks or chemical warfare is even more frightening.

Attached is a link to the 1952  film. 


  1. Hi. Can you tell me where the photo of the kids under the desk came from? I need it for a presentation in a high res version.

    jim [at] spiritofamerica -- dot -- net


  3. DHS has a new video out on school shootings. They are actualy advising students to duck and cover.

  4. "Active shooter drills" and "exercises" to be mandatory in public schools. Its going to be an essential aspect of the "common core" curricula: Fear.