It Happened in Windham: Blackouts, air raid drills once part of everyday life

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This photo, taken in Germany during WWII, shows the ravages of war after an air raid attack.

Many people reading this are lucky enough to never remember needing to take precautions for fear of an enemy attack on U.S. soil. But not so long ago, in the 1950s and ’60s and certainly in the 1940s during World War II, that was not the case.

As a child of the 1950s, I remember being taught to “duck and cover” in my elementary school. We would watch a cartoon featuring Bert the Turtle who taught us this method of personal protection to be used in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. We would get up from our desks, drop to the ground, put our heads under the desks and cover our heads with our hands. This would help protect us from falling ash and, more importantly, from flying glass from imploding windows that would fill the air after an atomic explosion.

In the 1940s, even more drastic measures were imposed due to the constant threat of a Nazi air attack that could happen at any time. I recently came across the town of Windham’s “Blackout, Air Raid, and Dim-out Regulations” that took effect in February of 1943.

It reads: “Houses, stores, mills, factories, and all public buildings should be blacked out on the Blue (blackout) signal which is given by the sounding of sirens, church bells, gongs, and the turning off of all street lights and remain blacked out until the White (all clear) announcement is made over the radio. Keep tuned in to your local radio station.”

Longtime Windham resident Anne Elder Berry remembers that in her neighborhood on River Road, a big bell at the top of the hill would sound. “We had special draperies on our windows that had to be drawn to keep the house as dark as possible should the Nazis invade. Our air raid warden, Charlie Batchelder, would come around in his hard hat after the bell had sounded to be sure we had complied with the blackout regulations,” she says.

During air raid drills, families would also be asked to shut off all appliances, such as stoves, ovens and furnaces. Water valves and valves for natural gas and propane would need to be turned off, and electricity disconnected. In some cases, people would be directed to go to a public shelter or to stay in their basements until the blackout was dismissed.

Even when blackout conditions were not in place, there were still dim-out regulations that citizens had to follow at all times. All window shades had to be drawn at least three-quarters of the way down, depending on the intensity and position of the light source inside. This was to be done from a half-hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise from Oct. 1 to May 1 and from one hour after sunset to one half-hour before sunrise from May 1 to Oct. 1. It was stressed that the morning period was as important as the evening and that if you really wanted to show your patriotism, you should draw all shades all the way down during these times.

Porch lights were limited to 15-watt bulbs that needed to be shielded to throw only a small downward circle of light. Opaque curtains were encouraged in all stores, industrial and public buildings. No white curtains or paper on windows was allowed. It was of the utmost importance to the town’s civil defense that these directions be followed as closely as possible to ensure the safety of citizens should an attack be imminent.

It was a scary time in our nation’s history and one we can only hope will never be experienced again. The world today is volatile, however, and seems to get more so every day. Let’s pray that our children can continue living their lives free of the threat of an invasion by an enemy on our homeland and remain safe for many years to come.

Haley Pal is a Windham resident and active member of the Windham Historical Society. She can be reached at haleypal@aol.com.

This photo, taken in Germany during WWII, shows the ravages of war after an air raid attack.

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