If the A-Bombs Burst (Jan, 1951)

If the A-Bombs Burst

Here is what to expect, what you can do today to prepare yourself, what you can do then to survive

By Clifford B. Hicks

8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945. A single plane flies over the city. The only warning is a blinding flash of light. A ball of fire explodes in the sky, hanging there for a moment as it grows in size and fury. Then in a crackling instant the world’s second atomic explosion races down to strike the earth at a spot called Hiroshima.

Sixty seconds later 70,000 Japanese are dead, caught above ground. The heart of the city has been blasted into rubble which still plummets down on the dead and dying.

10:15 a.m., January 2, 1950. A stenographer in Manhattan shrugs her shoulders over her mid-morning cup of coffee and says to her girl friend, “I’m tellin’ you, there’s nothing you can do to save yourself —just one bomb will wipe out New York. Me, I’m headin’ for the country if things get worse.”

At the same moment the sky above Chicago’s Loop is split by a bright flash of lightning from a sudden winter storm. A nervous executive freezes in terror for an instant, then smiles sheepishly as he returns to the morning mail. But he can’t help wondering whether the bomb would demolish his home and kill his family in a suburb 14 miles away.

Now, 4-1/2 years after the atom bomb dropped toward its first target, the threat of a nuclear fireball hangs over every major American city. The residents of New York or Gary, Washington or San Francisco must face the crushing reality that an atom bomb destined for his neighborhood might even now be winging its way across the curve of the world.

After Hiroshima, Americans soaked up the idea that they owned a superweapon. “There’s no defense.” Now, the Manhattan stenographer and the Chicago suburbanite shrug their shoulders in resignation. They are victims of a distorted belief that an entire city can disappear in a whiff of nuclear fission. If a bomb drops, the city dweller figures, there’s little he can do to save himself or his family.

There are a great many things he can do.

Hundreds of scientists, under guidance of the Atomic Energy Commission, have been groping into the unknown since 1945, working toward a realistic appraisal of the bomb.. With full respect for the awesome power of the weapon, they have found that:

No big city will disappear in the burst of one Hiroshima-type bomb.

There is much less danger from radiation than originally supposed.

Shelters are effective. (In Nagasaki, a few hundred people who were in tunnels almost directly beneath the burst of the A-bomb are alive and healthy today.)

There’s not much danger that a big area will be contaminated with radioactivity for a long time—at least from an air burst.

Given a few minutes’ warning, you probably can save your life even if you are fairly close to “ground zero,” the point directly beneath the burst.

The Manhattan stenographer wouldn’t have such a bleak, defeated outlook if she studied the facts uncovered by the AEG and if she digested the information published by the Office of Civil Defense of the federal government. She’d find that there’s not much that man can do to save his buildings, but there’s a great deal he can do to save his life.

Atom bombs kill people in three ways: by blast and its effects, by burns and by radiation.

Blast. In a bomb of the Hiroshima type, exploded at 2000 feet, virtually everything on the surface within 1/2 mile of ground zero is blasted into rubble. Draw an imaginary circle 1/2 mile around your home and you’ll get an idea of the area that would be completely destroyed. Above ground, your chance of staying alive would be virtually zero.

Severe damage ranges out for a mile, moderate damage to more than 1-1/2 miles, and very light damage, such as broken windows, to a radius of eight miles. Thus, a mile from ground zero you’ll be in serious danger. At 1-1/2 miles you probably won’t be hurt unless, through a freak of fate, a wall caves in on you or a chunk of debris strikes out for the spot you occupy. Beyond that radius your chances are good, though you may suffer cuts from splinters of glass.

About 50 to 60 percent of the fatalities from the two bombs dropped on Japan were caused by blast and its effects. But there is one fact of overwhelming importance: virtually every person killed was above ground. At Hiroshima, the radar operator failed to sound the alarm because he thought the plane he spotted on his scope was only coming over for reconnaissance.

Burns. The bomb explodes in a ball of fire with a temperature of 1,000,000 degrees Centigrade. The ball actually is so hot that it heats the surrounding air to luminescence, just as a fluorescent light glows. From this comes the blinding flash.

Out from the ball of fire rolls a wave of thermal radiation—heat —which can raise the temperature of a person’s skin 50 degrees Centigrade at a distance of more than 3/4 mile. This searing wave accounted for 20 to 30 percent of the casualties in Japan. It literally burned the skin off its victims. But the wave of heat can’t turn corners. All the flash burns in Japan were oriented to the direction of the bomb — anything in shadow from the bomb flash was not burned at any distance away. Many victims had their faces or arms burned right up to the point where their hats or sleeves came— and no farther.

It’s virtually certain that anyone caught unprotected on the surface within 1/2 mile of ground zero would be fatally burned, but this also is the radius of complete blast destruction. Beyond 1/2 mile there would be second-degree burns, fatal in some cases. The temperature of the thermal wave falls off rapidly beyond a mile.

Radiation. This danger from the bomb has been overpublicized because it is unfamiliar. Though it caused many deaths in Japan, it was directly responsible for no more than 15 percent of the total fatalities. Three types of radiation can injure you: Gamma rays cause destruction inside the body. They have great powers of penetration but they can’t render radioactive the material they penetrate. Unprotected persons within 1/2 mile of ground zero would be killed by gamma rays—but this, again, is the radius of complete blast destruction and fatal burns. The danger from gamma rays falls off rapidly with distance. Although there might be a good many cases of radiation sickness beyond 1/2 mile, there would be few fatalities.

Neutrons, the split particles of atoms, also cause death. They render radioactive the materials they strike, but they haven’t the driving penetration of gamma rays. They are effective only at shorter distances, so anyone protected from gamma rays also is protected from neutrons.

Fission products from the bomb can contaminate an area. This is the radioactive dust which settles down from the bomb and is called the “fall out.” Man can survive a certain amout of exposure to these particles, but he can’t work near them for long periods. A “lethal dose” is gradually built up in his body.

The big danger is that these particles from the fall-out will enter the body through the nose, mouth or open wounds. Inside, they continue to emit radioactivity until the lethal dose has been achieved— and the man dies.

It is significant that these three effects of the bomb—blast, burns and radiation— all reach out to a danger limit, on the surface, of no more than two miles. Beyond that, except for freaks of coincidence, a man’s chances of surviving are excellent even though he may be above ground.

Because distance is man’s best protection, the first question anyone should ask is “How close am I to an A-bomb target?”

According to one estimate, an atom bomb costs from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000. These blue-chip weapons won’t be wasted on poor targets. The National Civil Defense Office considers you a potential A-bomb victim if you live in one of the critical target areas which have been designated.

About 67 percent of the nation’s population live in these industrial and metropolitan communities.

The Manhattan stenographer, the Chicago Loop executive, the steel-mill worker —all are potential victims. They have a vital stake in civil defense. And as they become familiar with the destructive pattern of the bomb, some important questions pop into their minds. Information from the AEC and the Civil Defense Office contains the answers:

Q. All these facts and figures are from the Hiroshima-type bomb. I read somewhere that bombs are being made bigger. Couldn’t a bigger bomb destroy all of New York, or Chicago?

A. Suppose that the already unbelievable power of the bomb were doubled. This would increase the radius of serious danger by only one fourth—from 2 to 2-1/2 miles. Thus, for protection from more powerful bombs, you must be slightly farther away or slightly better shielded in order to survive.

Q. You keep talking about an air burst. Why figure on that? Can’t somebody drop a bomb on the ground or in the harbor off New York or Seattle and “contaminate” an area right up to my doorstep?

A. It’s just simple mathematics that an air burst, in most cases, will cause the greatest destruction. There’s only a limited amount of energy available in any bomb— atomic or otherwise. If the enemy explodes a bomb at ground level, he causes greater destruction over a smaller area. Instead of using his energy efficiently to reduce a big area to rubble, he wastes it by reducing a small area to dust. It’s no accident that the first bombs were exploded 2000 feet above Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was the height precisely calculated to cause heavy damage over the widest possible area. Contamination of a small area adjacent to water is quite possible—but there’s a very slim chance such a technique would be used except in areas where there are vital port facilities. Such port cities, of course, should consider the possibility of underwater bursts.

Q. Won’t water be contaminated?

A. According to Col. James P. Cooney of the AEC, evidence accumulated so far indicates that, “after passing through a modern Alteration plant, the water at the tap would be safe to drink.”

With these facts to go on the city dweller can prepare to save his life.

If you live in a potential target area, assume that attack is inevitable—even though that is far from the case. You’ll be fully prepared if the time comes.

Now, before the attack.

Volunteer for duty in your local civil-defense organization. More than 15,000,000 citizens must be trained in civil defense. An article in next month’s issue will tell you how you can find a niche in the nationwide civil-defense plan.

Then—prepare yourself, your family and your home. Find shelter. The AEC says that “judging from observations made during tests … it is, in fact, not very difficult to design atom-bombproof structures which will enable life to survive directly below an air-burst bomb . . .”

British experts believe that a small steel shelter of the “Anderson” type, which proved so effective in the last war, is one answer. Covered with three feet of packed earth, this shelter, they believe, would ward . off all three effects of the atom bomb, even if the burst were almost directly above.

An air burst wreaks a terrible destruction on the surface, but it causes little more than a shudder underground. The AEC calculates that a layer of 30 inches of earth at slightly less than 1/2 mile from ground zero would reduce the radiation dose below the lethal level. And, of course, an underground shelter in most cases will protect occupants from the blast and flash burns.

At this stage not many American families will consider an Anderson shelter, or even a cave in the back yard. The next best bet is to prepare the strongest spot in the basement of your home or apartment building as a shelter. Likely this will be in one corner of the foundation, where you’ll have the protection of two strong structural walls. If you don’t want to pour a concrete ceiling, strengthen the joists overhead. Be sure the spot you choose has two exits, as a single exit can be clogged with debris if the building caves in.

Stock your chosen shelter with items you may need—a shovel, rope, jack for lifting beams, an ax, a hose, a flashlight and a fire extinguisher or container of sand. Get rid of fire hazards in your home. At Nagasaki, the heat wave ignited dry materials as far as 10,000 feet from ground zero.

Fix a screen or cloth inside your windows to stop flying glass.

Stock your shelter with medications, especially bandages for cuts and ointment for burns. Store some drinking water in sealed jars, as the water pressure likely will fade to zero in an atomic attack. Open food may be contaminated by the fall-out so keep enough canned food in your shelter to last you a few days.

When an alert sounds.

Don’t use the telephone. Don’t rush outside in panic. Turn off the gas and water where they enter the house and check the pilot lights to make sure they are extinguished. Pull the master electric switch. Then join your family in the shelter.

Lie down on your stomach against the wall. If you notice a sudden bright light, the bomb has burst. Immediately cross your arms over your head.

If the alert sounds while you are away from your shelter.

Head for a subway if one is near-by. If you are in a building where no shelter has yet been designated, strike out for the basement and hug the foundation wall or an interior load-bearing wall. If you are in a skyscraper and fear you won’t have time to reach the basement, get as close as you can to the center of the building, against a wall. Driving your car? Stop immediately, turn off the ignition, leave the keys in the car and head for the nearest shelter.

If you are caught in the open without an alert.

The only warning you’ll have will be a brilliant flash of light, so bright you can’t mistake it. Don’t look! Whether you live or die may depend upon what you do in the next second.

If shelter (a doorway or wall, a ditch or tree) is within two steps, leap for it. If not, pivot immediately so your back is to the bright light, dive to the ground and pull your coat up over your head. Cover your hands if possible.

If you are in a home or office building, dive immediately to the floor and crawl beneath a table or desk, at the same time covering every possible inch of exposed skin.

After the bomb explodes.

Stay where you are. About half the destructive radiation is over within the first second of explosion. The remaining 50 percent dissipates within the first minute. Thus for 60 seconds you will be in danger from radiation.

Cement and timber, glass and steel may cascade down long after the radiation and blast wave have raced past. For that reason, stay under cover until you hear no more falling debris. Then extricate yourself in a hurry.

If you are within 1/2 mile of ground zero, move out of the area immediately. Otherwise, do what you can to help fellow victims. There’ll be a lot of people pinned under wreckage.

After most atomic explosions, a “fire storm” sweeps the area. The blast and fires leave a vacuum around ground zero. About 20 minutes after the explosion you can expect winds to start sweeping in toward the destroyed area from all sides. The wind will reach a height of 30 to 40 miles per hour about two to three hours after the blast. This fire-storm phenomenon aids the community, in a way, by blowing the fire back toward the ruined sector instead of spreading it. But the narrowing ring of fire likely will burn to death anyone trapped in the wreckage. It is essential that victims be evacuated before the fire storm strikes, so help anyone who is helpless. Then move toward a less-damaged area of the city.

If you have been reasonably close to ground zero—say within a mile—or if you have been downwind from the explosion, wash yourself thoroughly as soon as you can reach the facilities. Don’t smoke, drink or eat anything until you’ve washed. The reason for the bath is to get rid of any radioactive particles which may have fallen and lodged on your skin. They are just dirt, no more difficult to wash off than any other dirt, but you must eliminate them before they enter your body.

Scrub yourself five or six times, paying particular attention to the hair and fingernails. Then put on clean clothes and get rid of the ones you were wearing.

Remember that scrubbing and decontamination do not get rid of radioactivity— they merely transfer it somewhere else. If you burn clothing which contains radioactive dust, the ashes or smoke become radioactive. If you boil water that has caught radioactive dust, you merely make it more potent by reducing the amount of dispersion.

Put on a pair of gloves and carry your old clothing to a spot where you can bury it. Drop the clothing into the hole, drop the gloves in, and kick dirt over the hole.

Then see if there is anything further you can do to help others.

None of these precautions can prevent ugly scars from appearing across the face of American cities. They can’t save buildings or homes, they can’t protect green parks or broad streets. But they can save lives—by the hundreds of thousands.

5 comments
  1. Stannous says: March 26, 20078:17 pm

    Not a single mention of brain-eating zombies!

  2. jayessell says: March 28, 200712:37 pm

    Go to http://www.archive.org and search for “Duck and Cover”.

    Covers pretty much the same material.

    By the way…

    The science fiction radio dramas of the era seemed to assume nuclear war a certainty.

    Although aptly initialed, “Mutual Assured Destruction” seemed to have worked despite sabre-rattling and accidental close calls.
    (The Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t the worst, just the most famous.)

  3. Emcha says: April 7, 20072:24 pm

    Duck and cover! Sure helps you lot…

  4. Jeffery Wright says: October 23, 20076:29 am

    its just a dugout that my dad built, in case the reds decide to push the button down…

    http://www.youtube.com/…

  5. […] (Images via Modern Mechanix) […]

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.