Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Wartime Wednesday: The Office of Civilian Defense

Wartime Wednesday: The Office of Civilian Defense

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Because aviation was still in its infancy, the United States didn’t have to worry about attacks from other countries during World War I. However, the government established a Council of National Defense to coordinate resources for national defense and to boost public morale. The organization helped set up local defense councils to direct efforts in health, welfare, and other activities, but the volunteer needs were small.

By the second world war, that changed. Airplanes were advanced enough to be able to reach the United States. Air raids and other attacks in populated areas of Europe gave rise to fear that similar attacks could happen in the US. More than six months before America entered the war and prompted by a letter from New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, President Franklin Roosevelt set up the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) to coordinate state and federal measures to protect citizens in war-related emergencies.

Roosevelt appointed LaGuardia as the organization’s director. The four operating divisions were as follows:

  • Federal-State Cooperation: provided a link between the federal government and local governments to foster communication in order to handle individual needs that resulted from war such as health, housing, volunteers, recreation, welfare, and child care.
  • Protection Services: trained and organized volunteers in the efforts required to protect citizens such as organizing evacuations, blackouts, auxiliary police and fire services, and outfitting protective buildings.
  • Protective Property: loaned protective property and equipment purchased by OCD to local communities.
  • Industrial Protection: helped protect industrial plants against dangers such as fire and enemy sabotage.
There was only seventy-five paid staff in the OCD. The rest of the work was done by the more than
eleven million volunteers that made up 14,000 local defense councils around the nation. In order to volunteer, individuals had to meet age, citizenship, and training requirements, then volunteers were given positions based on their skills and interests. Once accepted, the volunteer was required to take an oath of loyalty. Youth under the age of sixteen could join the Junior Citizens Service Corps.

People could volunteer in fire protection (responsible for extinguishing incendiary bombs), communication (air raid drills, blackout, relaying messages by bicycle and radio in the event the telephone system was disabled), evacuation (coordination with the army to move people to safety), shelters (distributed flyers explaining the different types of bombs, designed shelters, and trained in tunneling and other protective techniques), and gas (distributed gas masks and protective clothing, taught the public how to identify different gases and instructed people on emergency decontamination measures).

In addition, the OCD had efforts in place to restore transportation, communications, and other services after an attack, prepare emergency hospitals and mobile medical teams, and keep watch for enemies in the sky.

After the attack at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt replaced LaGuardia with Harvard Law School professor (and New Dealer) James Landis to head the organization. He reorganized the agency, moving what he saw as “superfluous” departments to other agencies, and recruited new personnel. After a year of no air raids or enemy threats, Landis recommended that the organization be abolished. The president didn’t agree, but Landis resigned, so Roosevelt appointed Deputy Director John Martin as acting director. Upon his resignation in 1944, Lt. General William N. Haskell was put in charge until the agency ceased operations in 1945.

Check out this promotional film from 1942:


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Aubry DeLuca storms the beaches at Normandy, then wakes up in the hospital, his eyes bandaged. Will he regain his sight? Will the only woman he’s ever loved welcome him home or is he destined to go through life blind and alone?

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