Survival under atomic attack (1950)

In 1950 the US government’s Civil Defence Board released a short booklet, informing civilians how they should response to a nuclear attack in order to increase their chances of survival:

Executive Office of the President
National Security Resources Board
Civil Defense Office
NSRB Doc. 130

You can survive. You can live through an atom bomb raid and you won’t have to have a Geiger counter, protective clothing, or special training in order to do it. The secrets of survival are:


To begin with, you must realise that atom splitting is just another way of causing an explosion. While an atom bomb holds more death and destruction than man has ever before wrapped in a single package, its total power is definitely limited. Not even hydrogen bombs could blow the earth apart or kill us all by mysterious radiation. Because the power of all bombs is limited, your chances of living through an atomic attack are much better than you may have thought. In the city of Hiroshima, slightly over half the people who were a mile from the atomic explosion are still alive. At Nagasaki, almost 70 percent of the people a mile from the bomb lived to tell their experiences. Today thousands of survivors of these two atomic attacks live in new houses built right where their old ones once stood. The war may have changed their way of life, but they are not riddled with cancer. Their children are normal. Those who were temporarily unable to have children because of the radiation now are having children again.


If a modern A-bomb exploded without warning in the air over your hometown tonight, your calculated chances of living through the raid would run something like this:
Should you happen to be one of the unlucky people right under the bomb, there is practically no hope of living through it. In fact, anywhere within a half mile of the centre of explosion, your chances of escaping are about one out of 10. On the other hand, and this is the important point, from one-half to one mile away, you have a 50-50 chance. From one to one and a half miles out, the odds that you will be killed are only 15 in 100…

Naturally, your chances of being injured are far greater than your chances of being killed. But even injury by radioactivity does not mean that you will be left a cripple, or doomed to die an early death. Your chances of making a complete recovery are much the same as for everyday accidents. These estimates hold good for modern atomic bombs exploded without warning…


Even if you have only a second’s warning, there is one important thing you can do to lessen your chances of injury by blast: Fall flat on our face. More than half of all wounds are the result of being bodily tossed about or being struck by falling and flying objects. If you lie down flat, you are least likely to be thrown about. If you have time to pick a good spot, there is less chance of your being struck by flying glass and other things. If you are inside a building, the best place to flatten out is close against the cellar wall. If you haven’t time to get down there, lie down along an inside wall, or duck under a bed or table. But don’t pick a spot right opposite the windows or you are almost sure to be pelted with shattered glass. If caught out-of-doors, either drop down alongside the base of a good substantial building – avoid flimsy, wooden ones likely to be blown over on top of you – or else jump in any handy ditch or gutter…


Flash burns from the A-bomb’s light and heat caused about 30 percent of the injuries at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Near the centre of the burst, the burns are often fatal. People may be seriously burned more than a mile away, while the heat can be felt on the bare face and hands at four or five miles. To prevent flash burns, try to find a shelter where there is a wall, a high bank or some other object between you and the bursting bomb. You can expect that the bomber will aim for the city’s biggest collection of industrial buildings. A little bit of solid material will provide flash protection even close to the explosion. Farther out, the thinnest sort of thing – even cotton cloth – will often do the trick. If you work in the open, always wear full-length, loose-fitting, light-coloured clothes in time of emergency. Never go around with your sleeves rolled up. Always wear a hat – the brim may save you a serious face burn.


In all stories about atomic weapons, there is a great deal about radioactivity. Radioactivity is the only way – besides size – in which the effects of A or H bombs are different from ordinary bombs. But, with the exception of underwater or ground explosions, the radioactivity from atomic bursts is much less to be feared than blast and heat. Radioactivity is not new or mysterious. In the form of cosmic rays from the sky, all of us have been continually bombarded by radiation every hour and day of our lives. We all have also breathed and eaten very small amounts of radioactive materials without even knowing it. For over half a century, doctors and scientists have experimented and worked with X-rays and other penetrating forms of energy. Because of all this experience, we actually know much more about radioactivity and what it does to people than we know about infantile paralysis, colds, or some other common diseases…


Should you be caught upstairs or in the open at the time of a bombing, you might soak up a serious dose of explosive radioactivity. Even so, the first indication that you had been pierced by the rays probably wouldn’t show up for a couple of hours. Then you most likely would get sick at your stomach and begin to vomit. However, you might be sick at your stomach for other reasons, too, so vomiting won’t always mean you have radiation sickness. The time it would take you to get sick would depend on how strong a dose you got. The stronger the dose, the quicker you would get sick. For a few days you might continue to feel below par and about 2 weeks later most of your hair might fall out. By the time you lost your hair you would be good and sick. But in spite of it all, you would still stand better than an even chance of making a complete recovery, including having your hair grow in again.


It is only wise to figure that the upper floors of most buildings near the explosion will be pushed in. This means the basement is probably the safest place to be. If you have a basement and time to get down to it, lie flat along the outer wall or near the base of some heavy supporting column. You would be even safer under a cellar workbench or heavy table. Stay away from the middle of the floor where failing beams and other objects are most likely to strike you. Naturally, you run a risk of being trapped in the wreckage, but your overall chances of escape from the bomb in most cases are many times greater than they would be upstairs. If your basement has two exits, you will be in less danger of being trapped… If you have no basement, look around your immediate neighbourhood for a nearby shelter you can get to quickly in an emergency. Such a shelter might be a culvert, a deep gully, or another building within easy reach. If you live in rolling country, there is probably a hill close to you. Even a high bank will offer some protection from most bursts if it is between you and the explosion. In choosing your shelter, assume that the enemy will aim for the industrial buildings…


Knowing how to protect yourself from blast, heat, and explosive radioactivity, only one major problem remains: That is how to avoid harm from lingering radioactivity. Explosive radioactivity bursts from the bomb at the time of explosion and lasts for only little more than a minute. Lingering radioactivity remains for a longer time, from a few minutes to weeks or months, depending on the kind of radioactive material. Lingering radioactivity may become a danger when atomic bombs are exploded on the ground, underground, or in the water. Air bursts leave no dangerous lingering radioactivity. Most lingering radioactivity comes from left-over bomb wastes, or “ashes,” technically called fission products. They consist of countless billions of fragments, or pieces, of atoms split up in the explosion. Smaller, and usually less dangerous, amounts of lingering radioactivity may be thrown off by scattered atoms of uranium or plutonium that fail to split up when the bomb goes off…


A few simple steps will go a long way toward keeping your house from being contaminated by lingering radioactive wastes scattered about in some bombings. As a rule, it is far easier to prevent radioactive pollution of a household than it is to remove it. Keep all windows and doors closed for at least several hours after an atomic bombing. In fact, better leave them shut until civil defence authorities pass the word that there is no lingering radioactivity in your neighbourhood. Should you get an official report that there is serious contamination in the vicinity, better cover all broken windows with blankets or cardboard…


To prevent harm from accidentally eating or drinking radioactivity, throw out all unpackaged foods that were lying around where dust from ground bursts or mist from underwater bursts might have settled on them. And before opening canned or bottled goods, wash the outside of the containers thoroughly. That will remove most of the pollution that may have gotten on them. Also be sure that all cooking utensils and tableware are scrubbed clean in order to remove any invisible, radioactive dust. Food and utensils that were in closed drawers or tight cupboards will be all right. If it was an air burst, don’t worry about the food in the house. It will be safe to use. Be careful of drinking water after atomic explosions. There is little or no chance that water actually inside household pipes at the time of attack will be made radioactive, If a little is drawn off right after the burst and placed in clean containers with covers, it should tide you over the immediate post-raid period…


Neither explosive nor lingering radioactivity has any effect on the operation of most mechanical or electrical devices. Unless the wires are down or there is a power failure, both your lights and telephone should continue to work. But don’t rush to the phone just to find out how Aunt Susie may have weathered the attack. Leave the lines open for real emergency traffic. The bomb’s radioactivity will not interfere with the operation of your radio. In the event of attack, be sure to turn it on. It may be your main source of emergency instructions. And don’t forget: Battery-operated portable sets, including those installed in automobiles, will continue to work even if the city power goes off. Television reception, like radio, won’t be jammed by radioactivity.


One more household suggestion: In times of emergency don’t park the family automobile on the street. Leave the way clear for emergency traffic. Keep the windows rolled up to prevent possible contamination of the interior by underwater or ground bursts and don’t worry whether or not it will run. Radioactivity won’t interfere with operation of its fuel or ignition system.


To sum up, always remember that blast and heat are the two greatest dangers you face. The things that you do to protect yourself from these dangers usually will go a long way toward providing protection from the explosive radioactivity loosed by atomic explosions. While the lingering radioactivity that occasionally follows some types of atomic bursts may be dangerous, still it is no more to be feared than typhoid fever or other diseases that sometimes follow major disasters. The only difference is that we can’t now ward it off with a shot in the arm; you must simply take the known steps to avoid it.

If you follow the pointers in this little booklet, you stand far better than an even chance of surviving the bomb’s blast, heat, and radioactivity. What’s more, you will make a definite contribution to civil defence in your community, because civil defence must start with you. But if you lose your head and blindly attempt to run from the dangers, you may touch off a panic that will cost your life and put tremendous obstacles in the way of your Civil Defence Corps.