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Wartime Blackouts Were a Patriotic Duty in the 1940s

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Life during the early 1940s was no easy task. Already fearful from tense relations between the United States and Japan, Americans were on edge. By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, worry spiked. The very sound of an airplane caused panic for some.

As those fears grew, government decided that one solution was to let the public take matters into their own hands by conducting nighttime blackouts – similar to those used during the London Blitz of 1940.

Blackouts are intended to minimize outdoor light, especially upwardly directed light. The idea was to prevent enemy aircraft from identifying targets by sight. Street lights were turned off, and all windows of homes and businesses were covered. It was commonly organized along coastal regions, which also helped protect ships from being seen in silhouette along the shore.

Americans generally liked the obligation of defending themselves and helping in any way they could by participating in blackouts. Anyone of a certain era remembers blackouts as a way to ease fears and empower civilians by making them feel involved in the cause – although it didn’t always work out that way.

Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain] / Wikipedia

Britain the innovator

During Britain’s imposed blackout regulations, all windows and doors were to be covered at night with heavy coverings such as curtains, cardboard, or paint – items sometime provided by government. External street lights were turned off or dimmed, and traffic lights were fitted with slotted covers to direct beams downward.

American cities try blackouts

Locations along the Pacific Ocean began adopting rules for blackouts even before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Those proactive measures, it was hoped, would keep the public from being a war target. Thousands of volunteers helped to ensure cities were dark by 11:00 p.m. during drills. Along the Atlantic coast, many resisted blackouts due to its effect on tourism. Eventual blackouts were held in mainland cities even after the real threat had diminished. Most saw blackouts as a patriotic duty.

Enforcement

Though it only lasted a mere four years, the Office of Civilian Defense was set up to coordinate state and federal measures for protection in case of war. Its work include coordinating blackouts, which included drills that required residents to practice their response time to an air-raid alarm. After the alarm sounded, about 6 million wardens drove America’s roads and streets to ensure no light was visible.

Blackout methods

Not only were lights turned off and windows covered, families were also required to shut off appliances, disconnect electricity, and turn off water and gas lines. The blackout drill might even have included moving to a public shelter, bomb shelter, or one’s basement until the blackout ended.

Problems

Though blackouts were a preemptive move by government and generally a success, some found blackouts to be burdensome. Many turned out to be false alarms and, as such, unnecessary. In some ways, blackouts disrupted their activities. Restrictions were enforced by civilian wardens who offered legal penalties for noncompliance. Factories with large glass windows and roofing found it difficult to install temporary panels to black out light. Blackouts also increased the danger of night driving, and consequently, fatalities increased. The increased darkness also increased crime and murder in some locales.

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