When Air Raid Sirens Sounded over Ypsilanti

October 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

On a summer evening nearly six decades ago, Ypsilanti went dark.

It was a citywide blackout—on purpose. No cars moved on the streets. Homes and businesses were quiet. Families brought their newspapers, books, and sewing to their homes’ “blackout rooms,” whose windows were lined with heavy fabric to block any leaking light.

During World War II, Ypsilanti residents, like those in other Michigan cities, took precautions for hometown civil defense should enemy planes appear overhead. Of course the city seemed like an especially vulnerable target due to its nearby bomber plant.

Not long prior to the city’s first test blackout, the City Council had passed an ordinance detailing the rules relating to blackouts and air raid procedures. The ordinance specified that all lights within a home must be extinguished. It   also said that for any home displaying light under blackout conditions, police had the right to enter the home “using no more than reasonable and necessary force” in order to extinguish the illumination. Violators could be fined $100 [$1,300 today] or jailed for 90 days, or both.

Furthermore, citizens were barred from making any siren or horn sound similar to the air raid signal siren.

The main air raid siren stood on top of the Hotel Huron, now the Centennial Center at Pearl and Washington. It consisted of four large horns pointed in four different directions. The Hotel Huron’s horns were augmented by hand-operated mobile sirens at such outlying locations around the city as Prospect and Forest streets.
The air raid sirens sounded one of four signals as mandated by Michigan’s State Director of Civilian Defense.

The initial “Blue Warning,” signifying that an air raid was probable, consisted of a two-minute steady blast of horns, sirens, or whistles. Civilian defense personnel were mobilized, lights were turned out, and traffic switched to low-beam headlights.

Next could come the “Red Warning,” meaning that an air raid was imminent. The horn would sound a series of short blasts. All lights had to be extinguished, traffic except for emergency vehicles had to stop and turn off lights, and the public was to take shelter.

If the immediate danger was past, another alert, also confusingly named a “Blue Warning,” would be sounded. This signified that “Raiders May Return,” and although traffic was allowed to move again, with low-beam lights, homes and factories remained dark.

The all clear signal was three one-minute blasts, at which sound lights could be relit and normal conditions resumed.

For local Civil Defense workers, the U.S. Citizens Defense Corps of Michigan prepared a booklet of “Tactical Training Operations.” The work consists of sixteen scenarios involving war strikes in various parts of the city and were meant as mental training exercises. The apocalyptic scenarios likely approximated some city residents’ fears.

A crude hand-drawn map accompanied the first scenario.

A crude hand-drawn map accompanied the first scenario.

It is 2:15 a.m. Ypsilanti is in blackout. The [pictured] map above shows the area which you are patrolling.

A bomb has exploded on the pavement of Woods Road at the corner or intersection of Summit Street, blocking Woods Road entirely. An incendiary bomb has started a fire at 117 Linden. A bomb exploded in the lawn beside Woods Road, where a party had been in progress. At least 20 people were known to [have been] in the house. A corner of the house is blown in. No fire. By the light of an incendiary burning on the street nearby you can see the building might collapse. Women scream behind the wreckage. You cannot tell if anyone is injured.

Another scenario reads,

A raid is in progress. It is 2 p.m. Traffic has stopped and the only people to be seen are two air raid wardens bravely making their rounds. One of then suddenly stops as a man calls to him from the doorway of 603 Emmet Street, shouting, “We’ve been gassed!”

A wind is blowing from the South. The warden notices a strong, very pleasant smell in the air, like the fragrance of green corn or new mown hay. Another man in the house begins vomiting. He appears dopey, and cannot tell what is the matter. A neighbor rushes up and offers the sick man a drink of whiskey as a stimulant.

A third reads,

Bombs exploding at the intersection of River and Cross Streets have demolished the building on the southwest corner. Rubble blocks the railroad tracks, a section of which is torn up. Windows are broken from the O. E. Thompson building and a small fire is starting at the bottom of the railroad watchman’s tower.

Each scenario ends with the question, “What would you do?”

On the night of Thursday, June 25, the city made a trial blackout run. The newspaper had run instructions the day before, including the warning to refrain from smoking a pipe, cigar, or cigarette where it could be seen from the air.

At 10:27 p.m. the initial signal sounded. Citizens had three minutes to make sure all was dark by 10:30. Drivers pulled over their cars and shut off their lights. Air raid wardens, who had met a half hour ago at the 20 air raid stations around the city, set off walking on inspection rounds to ensure compliance.

Finally, at the all-clear signal, cars were restarted and windows lit up. The sound of a radio came drifting through a screen door.

But for fifteen minutes, the city had been still and dark, practicing for the dread sound of approaching bombers in an enemy air raid which thankfully never came.

Have an old-time story to share? Contact Laura at [email protected]


One Comment on "When Air Raid Sirens Sounded over Ypsilanti"

  1. cmadler on Mon, 18th Oct 2010 8:55 am 

    I’m confused about when this took place. Was it during World War II (65+ years ago) or was it in the early 1950s (nearly six decades ago)?

    Based on the scenarios (concerns about incendiary bombs, gas, etc. rather than atomic bombs), it sounds like World War II.

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