Fifty-one years ago people across the nation stayed glued to televisions sets and radios, listening to a stream of alarming broadcasts about heightening tensions as the Soviet Union and the United States faced off over placement of missiles in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy alerted the American people to the danger on Oct. 22, 1962, by going on the air during prime time to tell viewers that the nuclear weapons were in striking distance of Washington, D.C. He demanded removal of the missiles and ordered a naval blockade of Cuba.
With the world on the verge of mass destruction, this stand-off resulted in some frightening days. Here in Cecil County the confrontation had a direct impact. Less than an hour after the quarantine speech, John J. Ward, Jr., county director of Civil Defense, swung into action, notifying local officials and emergency units. His force contained 23 radiological monitoring teams, 95 auxiliary policemen, and 125 engineering personnel, along with the fire companies and police agencies.
From the Elkton “nerve center” Civil Defense maintained direct contact with the National Air Warning Alert System in Colorado. If the enemy launched an attack, the U.S. Air Force directly signaled the county seat so dispatchers could flash the urgent message to points in northeastern Maryland.
The morning after the startling speech, jittery residents and the County Commissioners acted quickly to increase survival chances. President John R. Dickerson called a special meeting to discuss the “current crisis,” survival requirements, and the necessity “for a safe place to keep county records.”
Ward advised that local government facilities weren’t well positioned to escape radiation or a blast from a thermonuclear weapon. Although a local 24-hour radio network provided communications with first responders, it would cost a significant amount to protect the control center. And there was no room for county government or its files. David C. Racine and Howard B. Tome, the other board members, joined the president, instructing the emergency manager to immediately develop plans for a “bomb proof building to house the CD control center and county records.”
Within a week, Ward reported back. The plan called for constructing a below ground fallout shelter to house 40 people for two weeks in the event weapons of mass destruction rained down on the nation. The concrete building was to be buried completely below ground.
Months before the international incident, the Army Corps of Engineers completed an initial survey of 108 local structures, determining that 52 qualified as fallout shelters. The urgency of the emergency expedited things so faster plans were put in place to hang fallout shelter signs on approved building, with stocking to get underway. As the elected leaders considered the option of “dig, or not dig,” they decided that schools were ideal for Civil Defense purposes so they instructed the Board of Education to build shelters in all new facilities.
Civil Defense preparations to survive the atomic bomb preoccupied the public too. In homes many nervous citizens laid in supplies of canned foods, candles or lanterns, a supply of water and medical supplies. And they stayed close to radio and television sets. Ward reported numerous calls from the public, wanting to know what they could do, where the shelters were located, and how they could obtain radiological instruments for the home.
Before the calendar turned to November many residents mulled over their options for putting concrete and dirt between their families and radiation. Considering the nightmare, some found the idea of huddling in private underground facilities appealing so the building inspector’s office got busy. Robert R. Reed issued 17 permits, authorizing residents to start digging into the ground to construct those backyard shelters.
George Reynolds, a Navy veteran who arrived in Hiroshima on an expeditionary survey soon after the bombing recalled those troubling October days. “It looked like we were going to war and I was anxious, he said. I had seen the devastation caused by an atomic bomb and they had missiles 90-miles from our shores. Regardless I got ready to do my part, and if the worst came, I had enough food, water and supplies stocked in our cellar that we could survive.”
Gene Meekins, a young Elkton soldier stationed in Germany, served as the driver for the watch commander. In the middle of the night, he recalls getting an urgent call to rush a senior officer to headquarters. There things were abuzz with military active and he soon learned that the military alert had been raised to the level just below an attack.
After a couple of agonizing weeks, a time when Armageddon was near, the immediate crisis eased when the Soviet’s agreed to remove the missiles. And as autumn gave way to winter and the page turned on a new year, the intense preoccupation with survival passed. But throughout the sixties, the Cold War and the threat of mass destruction remained a part of life and Cecil County kept a steady, though less frantic, focus on protecting the homeland should weapons of mass destruction strike the nation.
Four years after the intense crisis passed, the Emergency Operations Center designed to support continuity of government in Cecil opened deep in the ground in a sub-basement under the new courthouse addition.
This generation would remember crouching under our school desks during civil defense drills and concerns about converting basement space in homes into temporary survival areas. People who lived during those trouble days usually remember them.