Home Sweet Home Front: Dayton During World War II
Lights Out

Lights Out:

Dayton Takes Precautions


            Some Americans began to fear that the United States was going to come under attack again. The military wasn’t any help in calming the rising panic.  Lt. General John L. DeWitt declared, “This is war.  Death and destruction may come from the skies at any moment”.  When asked by a reporter if the U.S. was open to enemy attack, President Roosevelt replied, “Enemy ships could swoop in and shell New York; enemy planes could drop bombs on war plants in Detroit; enemy troops could attack Alaska.”  When the shocked reporter asked whether the Army and Navy and the Air Force was strong enough to deal with situations like that Roosevelt replied, “Certainly not”.  The Army even suggested that the White House be painted black in order for it to be harder for enemy bombers to target, a suggestion that was turned down.

            The citizens of Dayton, as in almost every city in the United States, set about preparing to defend their city from attack.  The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor an immediate all-out program for local defense was formulated by the Dayton city commissioners and municipal department heads, which Mayor Charles Brennan had called together into an emergency meeting.

            Immediate changes were made.  Before the meeting, anyone who wanted to volunteer to act as an air raid or fire warden had to have a connection with the American Legion.  This was dropped so that anyone could volunteer for this service and go into immediate training.

            “It is no longer a job of one particular individual or group to handle the defense situation here.  Everyone has a job to do, and we don’t know how long it will take or how far it will take us,” Mayor Brennan declared in opening the session.  “It is up to us as Americans and as Daytonians to calmly appraise the situation, not get panicky, but do the necessary things to insure the protection of our city and citizens.”

            The importance of everyone watching for any subversive activities was stressed.

            “Let’s tell the world we are on the job to protect our own, come what may,” Mayor Brennan declared.  “The time is past to boast about our Americanism.  We have the opportunity now to make good those boasts.”

            The Dayton Council for Defense had been set up before the war began.  At the time of its conception, however, war seemed remote and the immediate problems were geared more toward unemployment and defense housing.

            The first bombs dropped in Pearl Harbor completely transformed the duties of the Dayton Council for Defense.  Its began mapping out an overall plan for civilian defense and synchronized various other organizations which had their own particular work to do. 

            In less than two weeks after Pearl Harbor, Dayton had begun planning for air raids.  Five air raid shelters were immediately  opened.  The shelters were nothing more than the cellars of the old Stickle Brewery.  The former brewery housed five large compartments that were formerly used for the storing and aging of beer.  Each cellar was approximately 50 feet long and 50 feet wide.  

            The Dayton Masonic Temple was made available as an emergency hospital, as was the Steele High school building.  Cots were moved into the Temple, along with lanterns, blankets and candles.  A special detail was trained to set up the cots quickly if needed.

            Four Dayton industrial plants,  National Cash Register, the Frigidaire and Delco Brake divisions of General Motors and the Rubber Manufacturing Company agreed to cooperate in the sounding of air raid warnings.  Daytonians were warned that four short and one long whistle blasts continuously repeated were the signal to find shelter.  One long blast for two minutes was to indicate an “all clear”. 

            Plans were made for the installation of 25 sirens across the city as a warning system. The Office of Civilian Defense recommended a “Victory” type siren.  The siren was touted as being so powerful that “eardrums could be ruptured if one is too close to the siren”, and had a radius of 1.7 miles.  At a cost of around $3700 each, the city wisely decided to test the effectiveness of the siren. 

            It was well that they did.  When the siren was tested at Deeds Park, only one spotter in the city reported the siren as effective.  Most of the others said the siren was either very faint or completely drowned out by traffic noise.  Further indication of the siren’s weakness, at least as the city council was concerned, was a report made later by the police that only seven people in the entire city called their switchboard asking what the noise was.

            By December 1942 twenty-five smaller sirens had been placed throughout the city, but tests still indicated that many parts of the city could not hear the sirens.  The Dayton Council for Defense began pushing the city commission to purchase four larger “Victory” sirens to augment the smaller sirens.  City commissioners balked at the idea of spending $14,800 for sirens that had proven to be somewhat ineffective.  Mayor Frank M. Krebs stated that he was concerned the state would cut further allotments if “the city takes the attitude of not providing badly needed equipment.”  Krebs believed that the need for proper protection of the city was indicated by the fact that the federal Office of Civilian Defense had supplied Dayton with 5,000 gas masks and helmets along with instructions that the public needed to be on the alert at all times. 

            Commissioner Fred A. Speice disagreed.  “The only person who will benefit by the purchase of four sirens is the man who sells it,” he claimed.

            Pressure for the city commissioners to buy the sirens began to mount.  It was reported that a growing number of emergency corps volunteers were thinking of giving up civilian defense activities if the sirens were not purchased.  Executive director of the Ohio State Council of Defense, Ralph H. Stone, sent a letter to the city commissioners, advising them to arrange for the purchase of “adequate air raid warden sirens or whistles.”

            Stone also wrote that it was unwise for the city officials to take the stand that the equipment wasn’t needed. 

            “Dayton is probably the No. 1 target city of Ohio, perhaps of the United States,” Stone claimed in his letter. “ We know that Germany has been building huge bomber-type planes capable of traveling 7000 miles without refueling... The Norway bases of Germany are several hundred miles nearer cities in Ohio than cities of importance on the Atlantic coast.  It is safe to say that the round trip could be made from Norway to cities in Ohio without refueling.” 

            Stone’s offer to appear before the commission and  “give the facts in my possession” was not followed by an invitation from the commissioners.  Still, the letter added fuel to the fire.

            Less than a week later, several city officials, including Speice, traveled to Cincinnati to witness a blackout drill that used Victory sirens as a means to alert the public of an air raid.  By the time Speice had returned, he had reversed his stand, stating that the blackout had clearly shown the necessity for adequate warning devices.  He also declared that he was also in favor of the purchase because the state (through Stone), had indicated that such a move was necessary.  The city commission approved the purchase of four Victory sirens from the Chrysler Corporation on March 24, 1943.  The Mayor had gotten his sirens.

            Unfortunately, the trouble over the sirens wasn’t quite over yet.  Due to shortages of materials, and the need for Victory sirens in other cities, it took over a month before the sirens were shipped to Dayton.  When they arrived, three of the sirens were to have been placed on 50-foot towers in time for a sectional blackout that was scheduled for May 27, 1943.  Bad weather and a shortage of labor delayed the completion of the towers.  The sirens were placed on ground-level platforms and used anyway.  This did not make the residents that lived near the sirens very happy.  In July, 1943 two of the sirens were still on the ground, one in a field near Odlin Avenue in Dayton View, the other on Haskins Avenue.

            Robert L. McConachie, assistant commander of the Dayton Council for Defense at the time, admitted that the corps had received complaints from residents of the two neighborhoods who objected to the proximity of the sirens.  In one instance, the defense corps representatives had been refused access through private property to the Odlin Avenue siren and had been forced to locate on city maps an underdeveloped right-of-way that they could use. 

            One resident had gotten so fed up that he fired a shot at the operator of the siren near Odlin after an inspection on July 12.  Someone had also cut the gasoline line that fueled the siren and had removed three gallons of gas.  Two weeks later the power belt of the siren on Haskins Avenue was cut, which effectively stopped the siren from blasting the neighborhood during the next test. 

            The sirens were all finally placed on towers, and were tested together on October 9, 1943.  McConachie reported that the citywide test was “very satisfactory, in fact beyond our expectations.” 

             To better prepare the public on how to act during an air raid, a thirty-page pamphlet called “Civilian Protection Against Air Attack” was distributed. The pamphlet taught the reader “first-hand knowledge of methods used to combat enemy activity”, including how to prepare a refuge room in their home and how to act during an air raid.  It also explained the need and purpose of civilian defense, the danger of high-explosive bombs, and why blackouts were important.

            Dayton’s first daytime air raid drill was held on July 15, 1943.  The test, lasting 56 minutes, was deemed to be “fairly successful”, even though it was reported that five cities in the countywide defense area never received the signal to take shelter.  Nearly 10,000 emergency corps members in the city and county reported to their posts.  Approximately 500 women air raid wardens, on duty for the first time, went to their stations. 

            There was, however, cause for concern, according to Dayton officials.  Some local air raid wardens had reported that pedestrians in some sections of the city had continued walking and children had continued playing on streets and yards even after the signal to seek shelter was given. 

            About a month after the drill, Mrs. Joseph Cates of Dayton found a letter in her mailbox from the Office of Civilian Defense addressed to her 9-year-old daughter, Diane.  A similar letter reached the home of Mrs. Richard Thorpe, addressed to her 11-year-old daughter, Phyllis Ann.  It seems the two girls were so disappointed with the results of the unsuccessful air raid drill, they had written President Roosevelt, suggesting that American planes “bomb” American cities with false bombs to increase war consciousness. 

            James M. Landis, OCD director at the time, replied that while their interest in the problem was sincerely appreciated, the method they suggested “...would not be in keeping with one of the guiding principles that has made America a strong and united nation- the principle that our people shall be given facts, uncolored by propaganda or deception, and permitted to decide any issues for themselves on the basis of those facts.  Only by adhering to this principle can any nation be certain of full, intelligent, and lasting co-operation on the part of its people.  To deceive them in any way, whatever the motive may be, inevitably results in the loss of a priceless national asset - the confidence of the people in the sincerity and integrity of their government.”

            The mothers, who knew nothing about the letter their daughters had sent, weren’t the only ones surprised.  The two girls themselves admitted that they had never expected a reply back.

            On May 27, 1943 Dayton held its first total blackout, along with the 10 surrounding communities.  While the blackout was “almost perfect”, there were a few cases of people violating the blackout ordinance.  “The defense council received about 40 complaints of violations after the last blackout,” reported McConachie.

            Although evidence of willful violation was obtained in a few cases, prosecution of the offenders was deemed impossible after “investigation revealed that the air raid wardens would have to sign the warrant against the violators and the wardens declined to do this,” said McConachie.  Plans were later put into place so that violators in future drills could be prosecuted, regardless of the unwillingness of air raid wardens to testify against their neighbors. 

            Fortunately, no ships floated down the Miami River, and no bombs were dropped on the old Court House.  Except for six casualties by a Japanese balloon bomb in 1945, panic caused more injuries on American soil than anything the enemy tried after Pearl Harbor.


Sidebar text:


After seeing the devastation of cities in Europe from German bombs, it was decided that America needed some form of defense against the possibility of enemy attack.  In May 1941, President Roosevelt created the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD).  This was put into place as a means to organize the thousands of Americans who wanted to volunteer their services.  The purpose of the Civilian Defense Corps, better known as the “CD” at the time, was to help train citizens on what to do during an emergency or enemy attack.  Volunteers could chose from a variety of jobs, from being a member of the bomb squad to that most important job of all, the CD Air Raid Warden.  Air Raid Wardens, wearing their metal helmets and arms bands, would police the streets of Dayton during blackouts, making sure that every light was turned out, or at least hidden from view by a pair of heavy curtains.  Sirens would sound to let people know it was once again safe to turn on their lights. Although the Office of Civil Defense was discontinued in late 1943, blackout restrictions were continued in Dayton until the end of the war.


            On July 30, 1942 Daytonians were given a demonstration on how well prepared the city was in case of an air raid.  The Office of Civilian Defense and the local Rotary club staged the demonstration on First Street, between Main and Jefferson.  An aerial bomb, set off by Judge Fred Howell, gave the signal for the mock air raid to begin.  A smoke pot, representing an incendiary bomb, was extinguished by the fire wardens, using the three methods of sand, spray and water. 

            A falling smoke bomb imitated a gas bomb, and brought the gas and decontamination workers in their gas masks hurrying into the area.  The air raid wardens rescued a dummy from a specially erected house which had been “struck” by an explosive bomb, a huge firecracker simulating a direct hit.  With special rigging they held up the “sagging”house while removing the victim from the wreckage.

            Artificial respiration was kept up continuously from the moment of rescue, while the victim was being placed on a stretcher, and in the ambulance as well, the local Red Cross taking over this part of the rescue from the air wardens.

            The program was explained to the crowd over a loudspeaker by Sgt. Paul Price, as well as broadcasted over WHIO radio.


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