With the frightening wail of air-raid sirens, routine duck-and-cover drills and fallout shelters, the government prepared Americans for Japanese bombs during World War II and nuclear attacks during the Cold War.
In the wake of the recent killing rampage at Virginia Tech, governments and institutions are debating how to warn people of emergencies today.
Ellis Stanley, general manager for the city of Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Department, has fielded several calls over the years from people asking if the old sirens still work.
“Every time there’s a disaster, people want to know if we can turn them back on,” he said.
The answer is no. Never particularly reliable, the countywide system deteriorated decades ago. It was disconnected in 1985 and unstable sirens were removed. But at one time the system was state-of-the-art.
During World War II, hundreds of trumpet- and rocket-shaped air-raid sirens were installed atop traffic signals and buildings across Los Angeles County as part of the civil defense effort. Even then, the system short-circuited routinely, triggering false alarms and panicking residents.
The sirens were switched off after the war but were updated and reactivated in the 1950s because of the Cold War. On the last Friday of each month, the Sheriff’s Department tested the system, sirens wailing for two minutes at 10 a.m.
One siren, shaped like a round birdhouse, perches on a two-story steel post at Temple and Spring streets. An identical one graces 3rd Street near LaBrea Avenue in Hancock Park.
Just six weeks after Pearl Harbor, the first siren was placed atop a traffic signal at 2nd and Hill streets, The Times reported. Soon, police began blaring warnings over loudspeakers: “This is an emergency. Take shelter.”
Larger, more powerful sirens resembling rockets could be heard a few miles away. They were installed on several buildings, including Griffith Observatory and the Naval Reserve Armory in Chavez Ravine.
Only one-quarter of the city’s sirens had been installed by Feb. 25, 1942 -- when, in the wee hours of the morning, radar stations picked up an unidentified object over Santa Monica Bay.
Alarms sounded. Searchlights swept the horizon. Thousands of volunteer air-raid wardens tumbled from their beds, grabbed their helmets and rushed into the night. Tens of thousands of citizens, awakened by the sirens and the popping of shells, jumped out of bed and, heedless of blackout regulations, began snapping on lights. It was chaos.
Sirens wailed for an hour and 1,430 shells were fired at the supposed intruder. Five people died -- three in car crashes and two of heart attacks -- and scores were injured during the blackout. Some homes, cars and streets were damaged by shrapnel in the so-called Battle of Los Angeles.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson first said there had been 15 planes operated by enemy “agents.” A week later, he modified that to “three to five light planes launched from Japanese submarines.” He never explained how these launches were accomplished.
To this day, it is unclear what happened. The Japanese deny that their warplanes ever flew over Los Angeles. Official U.S. wartime records are inconclusive. Military officials blamed the incident on jitters and a wayward meteorological balloon.
There is no evidence that any bombs were dropped or shots fired from the air. The most likely explanation is that the damage was done by anti-aircraft fire as it plummeted back to earth.
The alarm system finally passed muster in 1943, when the “gargantuan siren on the roof of The Times’ building roared defiantly along with other giant steam whistles that tied into the public alarm system,” the newspaper reported.
Sirens howled out good news Aug. 14, 1945 -- V-J Day, when the Japanese surrendered and ended the war.
“It was quite a time,” recalled Gene Stanton, 76, a retired high school teacher in Glendale. Stanton, then 14, and his parents “took the streetcar from Glendale to Los Angeles, stopping at Pershing Square,” he said in a recent interview. “There was a lot of hoopla going on, firecrackers going off and everyone jumping and yelling and screaming. People were hugging and kissing each other. It was really quite spectacular.”
After the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, the United States established the Federal Civil Defense Administration to develop standards for fallout shelters and for warning the public about a nuclear attack. Old sirens were reconditioned and reactivated. The system was expanded with 165 newer models.
Everyone knew the sirens’ wail would mean imminent nuclear attack. People were to flee to the nearest fallout shelters in underground garages, basements, film vaults, tunnels and the mile-long subway -- Los Angeles’ first, built in 1925, with an underground station at 4th and Hill streets.
The subterranean trolley route ran from the Pacific Electric Building at 6th and Main streets to the Belmont Tunnel, where the trolley emerged near the intersection of Beverly and Glendale boulevards. For a while, the tunnel housed 329,700 pounds of soda crackers, intended to keep 69,940 people alive for 14 days in the event of a nuclear war. The crackers were transferred to Utah after the tunnel sprang a leak during heavy rain in 1969.
Later, the Belmont Tunnel was used to store automobiles confiscated in narcotics arrests. Today, much of the old subway is blocked by the foundations of nearby buildings.
Duck-and-cover drills were part of schools’ curricula. Miraleste Elementary School in Rancho Palos Verdes tested its emergency system each day at 9:30 a.m. On Oct. 30, 1962, a “yellow alert” sounded at 8:40 a.m. -- which meant an enemy attack was probable within an hour.
The telephone company insisted that there was no malfunction.
The principal announced on a bullhorn, “Teachers, move your groups home!” The Times reported. “The groups started off briskly, some pupils to be dropped off a door away, others to walk as far as 2.3 miles -- for what? To be with loved ones -- those who could get home -- on this, maybe the last day of the world.”
Ten minutes later, the telephone company realized it had been a false alarm after all. School officials retrieved the teachers and children.
By 1980, then-Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess reported that the sirens were “virtually useless.” The federal government stopped providing for the sirens’ upkeep. Officials discovered that parts were hard to find, that many sirens no longer worked, and that removing them would cost more than $250,000.
Monthly siren tests were silenced in January 1985 by order of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Then-Supervisor Kenneth Hahn said the system gave citizens a “false sense of security” and false alarms “panic[ked] people at 2 o’clock in the morning.”
There are less disruptive ways to alert people today, Stanley said. “With the help of the phone systems, we need to start using new-age communications, like cellular paging systems, text-messaging and blogs.”
The sirens stand like aging sentries, symbols of jittery times.