Originally Published May 2014
Cleaning out the West End home I’d grown up in after both of my parents had died, I came across a white military-style helmet in the attic that I hadn’t seen in decades. It had served as my father’s Civil Defense helmet during World War II.
I was a small child during that war, having been born at it’s very beginning in Europe in 1939. But as I grew from toddler into early childhood, consciousness of the war grew with me, and I retain in my memory fragments of the war years: The rationing, the constant parental talk of the war, the window hangings of families whose sons were serving in the military, the uniformed personnel on the streets, the absent fathers of other kids, soldiers we knew who were killed in action.
And I remember times when my father donned that white helmet and ventured into the dark streets of Duluth to help supervise citywide blackouts, right here in the heartland of America. He was a Civil Defense leader in our extended neighborhood—west of Piedmont Avenue, east of Lincoln Park, from the waterfront to the top of the hill.
As a child, it was exciting to see my dad participating in these wartime defense activities, complete with a steel helmet. He was exempt from active military service on the basis of age—he was nearly 50—and because he had served in the U.S. Army during World War I.
Duluth had formed Civilian Defense Council in October 1941 just before America entered the war following the December 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That council, led by prominent citizens of the day, supervised the various neighborhood units throughout the city, one of which my father led in our neighborhood, backed by dozens other men whose charge was to be vigilant to subversive activities such as sabotage and, of course, foreign invasion.
I can recall two Duluth blackout drills when every home and business was ordered to douse or shield all lighting and the city blacked out its street illumination.
Why Duluth, so far away from both coasts? We are a port city. The steel that went into America’s war machine was smelted from ore mined on Minnesota’s Iron range and shipped through the Twin Ports. Duluth and Superior also had active shipyards, producing vessels for the war effort, not to mention a huge steel making facility in Morgan Park.
The local newspaper published large global maps showing the demonstrating how Japanese planes could hop to the Aleutian Islands, refuel there and fly across Alaska and Western Canada to bomb our ore docks. It would have been devastating to America’s war effort. And do I remember talk that the Germans might smuggle a submarine into Lake Superior to pick off ore shipping? I believe I do. There was plenty of paranoia to go around.
So Duluth was vigilant with a well-organized citizen corps, including people like my father who were referred to as “air raid wardens.”
Forty years after the war, working at the Duluth newspapers, I had the opportunity to review World War II era papers in the files, and read accounts of the blackout drills I had witnessed as a small child. One such account stands out.
If memory serves, the governor of Minnesota came to Duluth for the event, joining Civil Defense officials and others assembled on Skyline Drive from where they could review most of the city to see the effectiveness of the blackout.
And at the appointed hour, when the entire city was darkened, everything went black to their satisfaction, save for one business in the West End, the Ford automobile dealership known as Sterling Motors, located at 1632 West Superior Street, just west of Garfield Avenue. According to the newspaper account, while everything else was dark, the lights of Sterling Motors shone brightly.
They had to be turned off, even though this was just a test. Someone was dispatched to bring Sterling Motors into immediate compliance, and, lacking any other way to enter the locked building, a plate glass window was smashed and the lights turned off.
Finally Duluth was dark. And so was the mood of Sterling Motors owners, when they found out what had happened, according to the newspaper.
With the end of the war in August 1945 came the end of active participation involving thousands of citizens in Civil Defense efforts, although the program continued for years into the Cold War, headquartered in City Hall.
Well into the 1970s, the tunnel connecting Duluth City Hall with the St. Louis County Courthouse contained dozens of 55-gallon drums of water to be consumed if Duluth was ever subjected to a nuclear attack. It was believed the concrete tunnel, well below ground, would be protected from atomic destruction and radiation, and the water potable even after Lake Superior was contaminated.
You do wonder how many citizens would have benefited from a relatively few barrels of water.
But the last remnant of those wartime years for me was finding that white air raid warden helmet in the attic of my family’s homestead, long after its wearer was gone, and its purpose almost lost—forgive the cliché—in the mists of history.
Catch up on all of Jim’s recollections of growing up in Duluth’s western environs here.