Header Graphic
1941 School Air Raids

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on June 29, 1991


by Roz Young


            It cost a penny to mail a post card in 1941, and gasoline cost 16 cents a gallon. Visitors to the USAF Air Force Museum's display of how life was 50 years ago on Pearl Harbor Day can glean these bits of information as well as other glimpses of life in that long-ago time. The display opened earlier this month and will continue until Dec. 7.
            Ask anybody who was alive and old enough to remember where he was on Dec. 7, 1941, and he can tell you. It was late on Sunday afternoon when William L. Shirer's news broadcast came on the radio with the shocking news. At first it seemed as unbelievable as Orson Welles' fantastic radio broadcast two years before when he scared the whole country into believing we had been invaded, but it wasn't long until we knew this was not fantasy but real. And who could forget President Roosevelt's description of "a day that will live in infamy" when he informed us the next day that we were at war with Japan?
            The superintendent of schools sent out word to all the school principals to institute air-raid drills in their schools.
            We already had fire drill downs pat at Washington School where I was teaching. Miss Emma Jane Clark, the principal, had worked them out. When suddenly we heard three gongs on the fire bell, we were to put down our books and pens. On the first three gongs boys were to stand and pass to the rear room door and stand in line. When a second set of gongs rang out, girls stood and passed to the front door of the room. When the third gongs sounded, boys and girls left the room, formed fours and marched down the nearest staircase out onto the sidewalk, where they stood quietly on assigned sidewalk blocks until the signal to go back into the building.
            Fire drills were orderly and quiet.
            Miss Clark did not want to burden the teachers and pupils with too many new rules, so she devised a combination of bongs on the fire bell to work for fire drills and air-raid drills.
            "In the case of an air raid," she explained to us in faculty meeting, "I will ring two sets of three gongs each as usual. At that time boys and girls will line up at the room doors. Then I will ring the bell four times. That will mean there is an air raid and we all will march down to the basement, gather on our assigned spots and kneel, bowing our heads to protect them from debris in case we are hit buy a bomb. Are there any questions?"
            In a school faculty meeting there is always somebody who asks questions.
            A math teacher spoke up. "Does this mean that there will be nine gongs for a fire and 10 for an air raid?"
            Miss Clark thought a moment. "Yes. Any more questions?"
            "Suppose," the math teacher continued, "there is an air raid and a fire at the same time?"

Miss Clark frowned and looked down at her notes. "In that event," she said at last, "I will decide which is worse - the fire or the bomb danger. I will ring three gongs for boys to stand and pass, three gongs for girls to stand and pass and then either three more gongs to go outside or four gongs to go to the basement."
            "If there is an air raid and a fire at the same time, you decide the fire is worse than the bombs falling, are we to stand on the sidewalk during the bombing?"
            Miss Clark looked annoyed. "If the building is burning and an air raid bombing in progress, I will send everybody except the teachers home."
            "What if the building is attacked when you are downtown at a principal's meeting?" asked another teacher.
            Miss Clark's eyes blazed. "In that case, just use your own heads, but be sure to do it quietly. This meeting is over. We will have an air-raid drill at 10 a.m. Please go to your classes and instruct them."
            The first air-raid drill was a complete success. The second one, which was unannounced, was a shambles. The fire gong got stuck, somehow, and went on clanging even when Miss Clark let go of it. You could hear teachers asking each other all over the hall whether it was four gongs or three. Some classes went outside and others went to the basement. At the next faculty meeting Miss Clark said air-raid drills were canceled because they made too much disruption of the schedule.