Duluth was a target during World War II

Elaborate Civil Defense effort included citywide blackouts

Originally Published May 2014
This 1941 calendar hung in the basement of the Heffernan family home for 30 years, until Jim and his wife Voula had it framed. It shows the month of December (Pearl Harbor was attacked December 7) and depicts the Statue of Liberty beneath ominous red skies and a fleet of military planes bound eastward across the Atlantic above a convoy of warships. It’s inscribed, “Protect Us By Thy Might, Let Freedom Ring.” (Image: Jim & Voula Heffernan)

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.

Elaborate Civil Defense effort included citywide blackouts

15 Responses to Duluth was a target during World War II

  1. My Dad served in the Coast Guard at Duluth during WWII. He and my mother were married there. Dad trained attach dogs but never talked much about his time in the service. I have a few photographs from his time in Duluth.
    Dad passed away in 2014. I have just started to research our family and enjoy reading this article about Duluth. He also mentioned Sault Ste Marie frequently and as a child we traveled there to see the locks. Of course, I was just a child and not really that interested. Hope to go back some day.
    Thanks for sharing your stories.

  2. I was pretty young and don’t remember much about the war. My father was exempted for working in a vital industry. Worked for the Great Northern Railway for 49 years. Started when he was 16. My mother was a welder building Liberty ships at Baxter shipyards in Superior owned by Kaiser. I found ration tickets in my mothers’ belongings when she passed.
    In 1953, all us kids were given dog tags so our bodies could be identified when the Russians attacked, which we believed was imminent. I still have mine.
    The air raid sirens were tested I think it was the first day of every month at 3:PM. I think this testing lasted into the 1960s.

  3. What memories you have stirred! I grew up in Long Beach (CA) in the 1950s and we were always afraid we were about to get “hit” by the Russians. Amazing to think that people here and went through all that as well. Thank you so much for reprinting this wonderful article. I really enjoy Zenith City and reading anything Mr. Heffernan’s writes.

  4. I love this site and look forward to each post.

    I was born in Duluth in ’62, brothers in late ’50s). My father served in WWII. My sons love all things history and I enjoy sharing the stories found here. These personal stories make history even more interesting!

    Thank you!

  5. I really enjoyed reading your article about WW II. We lived at 18th Ave. West and I remember the blackouts, rationing, etc. My Dad worked at the newspaper, was involved in the Coast Guard and doing war bond fund raisers.

  6. My grandfather was a warden with the WWI-style steel helmet but not white. Here in Maine, particularly along the coast where I lived (Brunswick) and where German spies actually landed by submarine a couple times, we didn’t have blackout drills – it was blackout every night. Bath Iron Works shipyard just up the road. My dad tried enlisting in all five services, (let’s not forget merchant marine) but all five turned him down because each one said he provided an essential civilian service as a pharmacist. Later, my grandfather, a professional for Remington Arms, was sent to Florida to teach aircraft gunners how to lead enemy aircraft to shoot them down. My dad left the pharmacy to run my grandfather’s sporting goods store while he was in Florida. A year older then you, I have a lot of memories and even some ration coupons for gasoline and sugar that were left over. I even remember an event in 1941 when Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio was American League MVP for his 56-game hitting streak. I was three – and livid.

  7. My Dad was an Civil Defense Air Raid warden during WWII. His district was the area area around Portland Square on the lower East Hillside. He was 31 when the war started and married and worked in one of the Riverside shipyards. He was told that there were plenty of younger Duluthians for the draft, but he had to quit his job as a truck driver to take the shipyard job.

    I was born in 42 so don’t remember the war, but I did played with my Dad’s white “steel pot.” Unfortunately, he threw it away. He was an avid history reader, but I guess he didn’t think that his own life was part of Duluth’s history.

  8. Hello, Jim… Your memories of the Riverside shipyard are really interesting. I remember it only years after it had closed, but that huge building was still there. It’s all gone now. I once read in an old Duluth newspaper that during the war, Ingrid Bergman came to town with a war bond drive and she was brought to Riverside to speak to the workers. Maybe you were there. Best to Nancy. — Jim

  9. Hi Jim, I enjoyed reading about your memories of WWII. Growing up in Riveside over looking the shipyard was wonderful. I don’t remember if their were guards by the shipyard. My Dad owned and operated the Riveside Garage that leased two truck and provided the gasoline to the shipyard. It was a big day when a ship was launched. We got to go into the yard and watch. I was only nine years old when it opened in 1942. I made a few cents handing out Snuff to the workers when they left work. Lots of other memories about that period.

    Jim Janzig

  10. To Kathy — Thanks for your interesting note. You have a great memory for things that happened when you were very young. So do I, it seems. Comes in handy when I write these columns. I can remember an aunt whose back hall was stacked with flattened cans for the war effort. Fun to reminisce. Best to Denny.

    To Doreathea — Glad you found the Zenith City web site. There’s a lot of local history that even those of us who grew up here and live here don’t know. Thanks for writing.

  11. Absolutely fascinating! I love this website. I find out new things about my hometown all the time. Keep the memories coming, Jim! Thank you for posting.. I’m starting to have a new appreciation for Duluth.

  12. Catching up on Zenith City e-mails, I read your account of Duluth and WW2 it brought back memories I hadn’t thought about in fifty some years; pictures of soldiers in ours and other families windows,tearing labels off tin cans so they could be flattened and used for war machines, black outs, and being so scared sitting in the dark with my Mother and baby. brother. It was interesting reading about the Civil Defense drills etc, something I never read about later in life. In happier times,I remember blowing on coke bottles to make loud noises when the war ended, and seeing my Dad and Uncles returning from the war.
    Thanks Jim..

  13. Thanks to John and Jan for your responses… These aspects of Duluth history are disappearing fast, at least those who experienced them are disappearing (not too fast, I hope). It’s fun to reminisce. Thanks again. — Jim

  14. Jim, I too, remember the Air Raid Drills. Homes blacked out by blankets over the windows, or all lights out. I was downtown more than once when a drill took place. One, I remember, was when I was about in front of the Sellwood Building with my mother and brother. We dashed across the avenue and into the Glass Block if I remember correctly. Had to get off the street anyway.

  15. During a tour of the Thompson electrical generating plant on the St. Louis River in Jay Cook State Park the park ranger pointed out the blackened windows high above the plant floor. They had never been cleaned off, another eerie reminder of WW11. I also recall the barrels of water located in many places throughout the city. I remember them as a product of the very foolish Cold War between the US and Russia that included bomb shelters and squatting in school hallways with our hands protecting our necks!

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