Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Cold War moment

Sept. 22, 1959 - At about 10:30 PM, the White Sox won the American League pennant. In celebration, Chicago air raid sirens were sounded. I remember hearing the sirens, but not much else. My older brother later said he expected to see mushroom clouds over downtown.

From the Chicago Tribune, Sept. 24, 1959:


Protests Pour in at City Hall

Mayor Daley and the Chicago civil defense corps received an avalanche of protests Wednesday over the sounding of city air raid warning sirens to celebrate the White Sox baseball pennant victory.

The 5 minute wail of more than 100 sirens at 10:30 p. m. Tuesday sent thousands rushing into the streets and caused near panic in almost every section of the city and Evanston, which is tied into the Chicago warning system.

Irate citizens telephoned to the City hall at the rate of 1,100 an hour Wednesday to protest the action, for which Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn, acting defense corps director, assumed full responsibility.

Daley Explains It

Mayor Daley, reached in Troy, N.Y., where he flew to speak at a Democratic political meeting, said the sirens were sounded "in the hilarity and exuberance of the evening."

"I regret if anyone was inconvenienced," he said, "but after 40 years of waiting for a pennant in the American league I assume that everyone who was watching the telecast was happy about the White Sox victory."

Robert M. Woodward, Illinois civil defense director, asked the federal office of civil defense mobilization to investigate the siren scare. Robert Tieken, United States attorney, announced his office also would determine if Chicago authorities had violated any federal law.

"Just a Tribute"

"This was intended as just a tribute to a great little team that brought Chicago a pennant," said Quinn, "and there was certainly no intention to frighten the people.

"I feel bad about this. If it inconvenienced any people or upset them, then I am sorry."

Quinn said he failed to reach Mayor Daley before giving the order to sound the sirens, but that later the mayor gave his approval, citing a city council resolution as authority. The resolution urged that "bells ring, whistles blow, and bands play" when the White Sox clinched victory but made no mention of air raid sirens.

Calls It "Shocking"

Quinn added that the siren alarm clearly demonstrated that people did not know their civil defense instructions. If they did, he said, they would have tuned into the civil defense frequencies on their radios [640 and 1240 kilocycles] and learned there was no cause for alarm.

Woodward termed the use of the sirens "shocking." Federal regulations, signed by the city when the sirens were purchased with 50 per cent federal matching funds, clearly state, he said, they may be sounded only in case of an enemy attack, for test purposes, or in case of a natural disaster in order to "save life or property."

Unaware of Intention

Division Marshal Gerald Slattery, C.G.D.C. coordinator, said he understood the sirens were to be sounded only in case of enemy attack, and added he had been unaware of any intention to use the warning system.

In Evanston, City Manager Bert W. Johnson said its 80,000 citizens were shocked and dismayed that public officials would use so important a warning device to celebrate a ball game. Evanston, he added, may seek a way of unhooking its own sirens from the Chicago system.

The sirens' blast, which awakened thousands, brought the Illinois Bell Telephone company its greatest overload since the ending of World War II. Newspapers, radio, and television stations were swamped with calls from people asking if the Russians were attacking.

Rush Into Streets

Men and women rushed into the street in residential neighborhoods. Many told of herding hysterical children into basements as shelter from an expected bombing. Almost everyone directed his ire against Mayor Daley "or whoever is responsible."

Ald. John J. Hoellen [47th] said that at the next city council meeting Oct. 2 he would demand an official investigation by the council and censure of whoever ordered the sirens sounded.

"The whole neighborhood was panic stricken," Mrs. Frances Sarafin, of 207 N. Kolin av.[sic], told THE TRIBUNE. "It's a horrible thing that Chicagoans should be subjected to this."

Calls it Disgraceful

"Using those sirens as a toy is disgraceful," said Mrs. Kenneth Morgan, 201 E. Walton St. "You wonder about teen-agers doing wrong and then find public officials using such poor judgment."

"Responsible officials should not be permitted to shift the blame," Mrs. Norma Bufhord [sic], 7216 N. Ozman [sic] Ave., said.

"It was childish regression on the part of the mayor to resort to sirens that should be used for national defense," said Mrs. Eleanor Johnson, 2452 N. Harding Ave. "The mayor should be impeached."

Used in Weekly Test

The rising and falling warble of the sirens is the normal civil defense post-attack signal. It is used in the weekly siren test at 10:30 A.M. Tuesdays. The "take cover" signal is a steady 1 minute blast.

A city ordinance provides a fine of $200 and six months in jail for any use of the sirens not authorized by the mayor. The mayor, in a companion ordinance, is authorized to sound the sirens for testing purpose or when an enemy attack warning is received from military authorities.

Any warning of impending air attack would come over a "hot" wire, direct from the air defense command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. Chicago is one of nine key alarm centers in the state.
from Chicago Days: 150 Defining Moments in the Life of a Great City, edited by Stevenson Swanson, Contemporary Books:

Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn ordered a celebratory five-minute sounding of the city's air-raid sirens. The late-night wail, at a time when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's threat to bury America was still fresh, frightened tens of thousands of area residents. Many rushed to the streets. Others herded hysterical children to shelter. "We had seven children under 9 and woke them all up when the sirens screamed," said Mrs. Earl Gough of the South Side. "We said Hail Marys together in the basement."

Quinn apologized but also argued that the incident provided "a very good test" of the area's readiness, which he found wanting. Mayor Richard J. Daley claimed Quinn acted in accordance with a City Council proclamation that "there shall be whistles and sirens blowing and there shall be great happiness when the White Sox win the pennant."
1959: A great year -- even for Sox turncoat, Tome McNamee, Chicago Sun-Times, Oct 3, 2005:

The Sox won the pennant on Sept. 22 in 1959, clinching it with a 4-2 win over the Indians in Cleveland, and it was like a gift.

All over the South Side, we jumped up in front of our TVs and stumbled out onto our front stoops -- moms and dads and kids -- and laughed and smiled in the night like rich people, as if nobody had to get up before dawn to go to work.

I, of course, recall almost none of this. I was 5 years old and no doubt sound asleep at that very moment when the Sox got the final out against the Indians and the goofy fire commissioner, Bob Quinn, whooped it up by sounding the city's air raid sirens, which scared half the town.

But real Sox fans, not pathetic future turncoats like me, remember it like yesterday, even if they weren't born yet.

"I'm sitting in the front room with my dad and the sirens went off," says Ed Mucha, who was 25 and living at home with his folks in Gage Park. "My dad had fallen asleep in his chair and now he wakes up and starts shutting off the lights. I say, 'Hey Dad, the Sox won the American League pennant and they're going to the World Series.' He says, 'Oh, I thought we were being attacked.'"
From Disaster Study Number 12, Disaster Research Group, Division of Anthropology and Psychology: Symposium on HUMAN PROBLEMS IN The Utilization of Fallout Shelters, Held at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D. C., 11 and 12 February 1960 (Google Books link)


The Incident
After forty futile attempts in forty successive years, the Chicago White Sox finally won an American League baseball title in 1959. The pennant was clinched when the White Sox won a night game from the Cleveland Indians on September 22, 1959. The game was broadcast and telecast from Cleveland.

Just a few days earlier, the Chicago City Council had "... resolved that bells ring, whistles blow, bands play and general joy be unconfined when the coveted pennant has been won by the heroes of 35th Street." The evening of the ball game, the fire commissioner (also acting director of the city's civil defense corps) decided to sound the civil defense sirens to add to the spirit of the city council's proclamation.

The baseball game ended at 9:50 P.M. Chicago time. Live telecasts and broadcasts from the dressing room of the victorious team were received for about 15 to 20 minutes immediately afterward. Then at 10:30, some forty minutes after the game had ended, the air raid alert signal went off. A steady blast for a full five minutes sounded, a signal which means that an air attack is possible but is not expected for at least 31 minutes.

Prior to his sounding of the siren, the commissioner properly notified the police and fire departments, the public utilities, and all radio and television stations and newspapers. But only a very few minutes elapsed between the arrival of this notice and the sounding of the siren. Thus, the public had no warning of the event. ...

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