Friday, February 23, 2018

Civilian Defense Corps and Air Raids in Jefferson City

The U.S. government responded to the early, spectacular successes of the Japanese and Nazi Germans at the beginning of World War II by creating the Office of Civilian Defense on May 20, 1941. This office was to protect Americans from the possibility of enemy bombing of our towns and cities. Clifford G. Scruggs, the lumber dealer, was the chairman of the Jefferson City Council of Civilian Defense and was in charge of administering the executive order locally.

My dad, age 38 when the war began, had been given a 3-A (exempt) classification for military service. My mom jokingly said it was because he had flat feet, but then she quickly added that he was the sole provider for five other persons, including his two young sons (my brother Richard and me) and Mom’s German-born parents who lived with us. With civilian status, Dad was expected to do his duty by civilian service. To do this, he became an air raid warden with the local Office of Civilian Defense.

Looking back seventy years ago, it seems incredible that we believed that Japanese and German Nazi planes could penetrate so deep into the heart of the continent to reach Jefferson City, Missouri, without being intercepted somewhere along the way. Nevertheless, at the time we took the possibility seriously . . . very seriously.

The kids on West Elm Street, six to eleven years old, learned how to identify enemy airplanes from silhouettes of them published in the newspaper and on the back sides of breakfast cereal boxes. (Airplane identification cards also came in packs of cigarettes, but no one in our family smoked.) With our binoculars we surveyed the skies, lying on the steep, grassy terraces or peering out of second- and third-story windows. We were sure we would spot a German Stuka or Messerschmidt or maybe a “Jap” Mitsubishi or Zero and save Jefferson City from air attack.

The Office of Civilian Defense distributed leaflets about preparation for air attacks: “Read and Save this Leaflet—it may Save Your Life Some Day!” The city held air raid drills to practice what to do. It was important to extinguish all lights inside houses, so that the enemy planes could not find anyplace to bomb. So we had to put out all lights in the house and pull all the window shades shut. We were not allowed to use any matches or flashlights outside. People were not even allowed to light a cigarette in the open. All streetlights were extinguished. If you were driving, you had to stop immediately, turn off the lights, and park close to the curb, but not at any intersection or fire hydrant. Police and firemen could use their headlights, but their headlights had to be mostly covered, leaving only a slit to allow a little light through. Detailed rules were in place for those caught in theaters and other meeting places at time of an air raid. We were also instructed, should an attack actually occur, to seek cover under a large table or under an overturned sofa. “Carelessness or negligence in observing these precautions may invite disaster.”


 Newspapers also printed information about what to do when an attack comes. Since gas was a dreaded weapon in World War I, there was fear it could be used again. In case of gas attack, we were to close doors tightly, stuff cracks, avoid the basement, and retreat into the attic. If we were caught outside, we were to cover our mouths and noses with damp handkerchiefs and “walk against the wind to get in the clear quicker. Above all, keep your head. Running around wildly results in much greater danger to yourself.”


 To be an air raid warden, Dad had to take a training course. It consisted of eight sessions, taught in evenings at the Junior College (now the Miller Performing Arts Center). He learned about chemical warfare, high explosives, incendiary bombs, and how to keep civilian morale up.


 Each session included first aid instruction, including how to care for casualties of gas bombs. “It is the responsibility of the Air Raid Warden to see that everything possible is done to protect and safeguard the homes and citizens within his area from the hazards created by attacks from the air.” On December 12, 1942, the class received certification of membership in the United States Citizens Defense Corps as air raid wardens. Dad was now an official air raid warden!
Jefferson City was divided into geographic areas for air warden patrol. Each area comprised about 500 persons. Dad was assigned to Lafayette Street between McCarty and Dunklin and connecting streets, the neighborhood known as “The Foot” of Lincoln University. It contained the black business district and many residences of both blacks and whites.

When an air raid drill was called in the evening, Dad put on his sleeve identification band, picked up his flashlight, and walked the eight blocks from our house on West Elm Street to Lafayette. He looked at all the windows of the businesses and houses to make sure no light was visible from the street. He told those walking on the sidewalk that they should go inside a building and those with cigarettes to put them out or go inside.

My brother and I waited up in our darkened house with all the window shades drawn until he returned to find out what was going on. He never reported anything unusual. He said that everyone was in full compliance with the regulations. We were actually kind of disappointed that no enemy planes had been spotted flying over Jefferson City. It had been just another drill.


 As 1942 turned into 1943 and then into 1944, the probability of enemy air attack on the 48 United States greatly lessened, although we kids still occasionally surveyed the skies looking for enemy planes. The Japanese temporarily occupied Attu in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and sent some incendiary balloons over Oregon, and German U-boats were sighted off the East Coast, but we in Jefferson City felt safe from air attack.

Dad, however, retained his air warden status and participated in more air raid drills. It was not until June 4, 1945, a month after Germany had surrendered on May 8, that the Office of Civilian Defense was terminated by executive order and Dad put his air raid warden sleeve band away. Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945.

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.

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