Preparing for nuclear annihilation wasn’t fun. That didn’t mean it had to be uncomfortable.
In the early 1950s, Summit County officials developed an underground bunker where experts could contemplate survival strategies, devise warning systems and map out disaster relief after an atomic bombing.
An attack seemed likely — if not inevitable — to many observers in local government.
U.S. defense leaders considered Akron, the rubber capital of the world, to be a prime target if the Soviet Union ever invaded the country.
Army Col. Fred G. Cain, 48, a veteran of World War II, was hired in 1950 as civil defense director of the county. He replaced Clair B. Alexander, who resigned after only 15 days.
“We may never need the organization we are setting up,” Cain said. “But we must assume that the worst is going to happen in the way of a war emergency in Summit County and that it is coming shortly.”
A tall, dapper, pipe-smoking gentleman, Cain earned $9,600 a year (about $90,600 today) to coordinate civil defense programs, including evacuation, emergency welfare and transportation. He and his colleagues spent a considerable time imagining Akron in ruins.
“After a disaster, a family may be left on the street without housing or adequate clothing, with no place to eat, wash or sleep, with no means of transportation and perhaps without money or the ability to care for immediate needs,” Cain told the Beacon Journal.
Dr. Melvin D. Ailes, Akron health director, added: “Our role will be to control communicable disease, combat bacteriological warfare, detect spoilage of food and to make certain that what people eat and drink after a bombing is free of radiation. Even our pest and rat control experts will have important parts to play in getting the city back on its feet in event of bombing.”
The Summit County Civil Defense Office sponsored local screenings of the upbeat movie You Can Beat the A-Bomb, promoted duck-and-cover drills in schools, established a sky watch for enemy aircraft, organized stockpiles of food and water, and supplied blueprints for bomb shelters in backyards.
Under Cain’s leadership, the office established 32 air-raid shelters downtown, including in the Akron Armory, Akron Art Institute, Central Garage, City Hall, First National Tower, Ohio Edison, Orpheum Arcade, Quaker Oats and the YMCA.
The office ordered 500 metal signs — black letters on a white background — to mark shelters. About 200 were posted downtown while the rest went elsewhere in the county.
“The cities in Summit County will be the first in Ohio with signs and among the first in the country,” Cain noted in 1951. “As far as we know, only New York City already has them.”
A major accomplishment during Cain’s reign was the opening of an underground headquarters for civil defense operations. It was a highly secure bunker under the old Summit County Jail, a stone fortress built in 1903 between South Broadway and High Street in downtown Akron.
Jail custodian Joe Crano recruited prisoners to remove debris from an old storage room, scrub floors and repaint walls. The project cost $50.
Surrounded by thick stone walls, the control center was 60 feet long and 25 feet wide with a steel-and-concrete ceiling directly below the four-story cellblock.
The “nerve center,” as Cain called it, was equipped with a short-wave radio, two emergency telephones and a giant county map on a back wall. A tunnel from the courthouse basement led to the bunker. The passage could double as a bomb shelter for more than 500 people, officials said.
Two parallel desks — long and narrow — were topped with signs identifying the dignitaries who would sit there: director of operations and training, the communications officer, the director of personnel, the director of information, the director of supply, the director of health, the director of Red Cross, the air officer, the director of water supply and the message center chief.
Cain said the control room was “the best in the state.”
“Of course, we hope we’ll never have to use it because we hope never to be the target of an enemy attack,” the colonel said. “But we’re going to get used to it so that we’ll be able to handle any disaster with a minimum of confusion.”
Siren test is failure
The first project in the bunker was to organize an air-raid warning system. Officials arranged for factories to sound whistles and firefighters to blare sirens at a designated time. Akron radio stations agreed to issue alerts.
“We must emphasize that the test is for practice only,” Cain explained. “We want no one to suffer nervous prostration waiting for a bomb to explode after the countywide warning. This is only the first in what will become a series of practical tests for all phases of civil defense.”
Whistles blew and sirens wailed at 6:05 p.m. May 11, 1951.
The test was a disaster — no pun intended. Civil defense officials intended for the cacophony to alert the entire county.
“Preliminary reports show the whistles were not heard several miles from the downtown areas,” Cain lamented.
For more than a year, Cain tried to persuade Akron officials to spend $12,000 to install air-raid sirens. The city was suffering a budget crunch, though, and refused.
In April 1952, Assistant Director Robert Lorenz was laid off at civil defense headquarters, leaving Cain “and two office girls” to run the program.
Two months later, Cain’s salary was reduced from $800 a month to $200 a month. He had fought the Germans in World War II, but he wasn’t prepared for an army of bureaucrats.
The colonel resigned at the end of 1952.
“It has been a frustrating experience,” he said. “We had to battle government and public apathy every step of the way.”
A few weeks after the colonel quit, a state shipment of civil defense equipment arrived, including boxes of Geiger counters to detect radiation after an atomic bombing. It was too little, too late.
The underground bunker was abandoned.
Civil defense programs continued under new leadership. The headquarters moved several times, but the program never regained its former clout.
After the Russians tested a hydrogen bomb, Akron Mayor Leo Berg declared in 1954 that “all existing notions of an adequate CD program are obsolete.”
Akron residents prepared for the worst and, fortunately, the worst never arrived.
A demolition crew tore down the old jail in 1965. Today, the Harold K. Stubbs Justice Center stands on the site.
Ultimately, wreckers proved that the underground bunker wasn’t as secure as officials had hoped. The shelter was meant to withstand the force of an atomic blast. It couldn’t even survive a wrecker’s ball.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a new book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to email@example.com.