FOCUS ON HISTORY: Duck and cover — Amsterdam and the atom bomb


Edward F. Cushman, Amsterdam’s school superintendent, issued instructions for surviving an atomic bomb attack in October 1950. It was the year the U.S.S.R. got the bomb.

Cushman had become superintendent in 1943 and served until 1959, when he and his wife left for jobs with the Christian Children’s Fund in Richmond, Va.

Atomic bomb drills then involved getting under our desks, and sometimes meant lining up against a basement wall at Amsterdam’s Vrooman Avenue Elementary School. In 1950, I was in Mrs. Campbell’s kindergarten class at Vrooman Avenue. 

Amsterdam native Richard Sidlauscus found Cushman’s memo while preparing for a move in 2006.

“I was six years old and in first grade in Irene Balz’s class in the old Arnold Avenue School,” Sidlauscus wrote. “Why I have this [memo], I can’t recall. I think we found it among my mother’s stuff after she passed away.”

Cushman cited information from the State of New York, “At the suggestion of the State Education Department of Albany, we are handing out directions for pupils in case of an unexpected atomic bomb attack. While there seems to be no probability at the present time of such an attack, these atomic bomb attacks might come without warning and the State Education Department feels that parents should have some information immediately regarding possible safeguards and treatments. Further information undoubtedly will be supplied by the local Civilian Defense Authorities.”

Amsterdam had a civil defense office in the city hall annex, a small building on the grounds of City Hall on Church Street. 

Students were advised to take cover if an air raid warning was given before the attack — a public shelter, the nearest building, your own cellar, even a tree “to shield you from burns” or a thick wall that was to protect against gamma rays.    

If there was no warning and just a blinding glare in the sky, the advice was to turn your back on the blast “and drop to ground with face on arm, eyes closed” for a full minute.

If indoors, the memo said students should drop to the floor or under desks, tables or beds with their backs to windows, “because of breaking glass.” If there was time, the advice was to run to the basement. In any event, the memo said to stay down for at least one minute.

There were many points to remember after the attack, which was probably the encouraging news of the memo — the idea that boys and girls would survive the atomic bomb!

“Wash yourself hard, all over,” Cushman wrote. “Lacking soap and water, rub with paper or cloth. This cuts radioactive contamination [most likely after an underwater burst or if wind or rain spread air-burst radiation].

“Eat and drink nothing that has been exposed to radioactivity. Tight containers—probably cans—are the one sure protection. A Geiger counter will spot radioactivity in food or clothing.

“Obey directions of proper authorities. They must aid wounded, put out fires, clear streets, repair communications and so on. In the first hours of a burst, you can help by doing just as you are told.” 

In January 1951, a pamphlet entitled “You and the Atomic Bomb” was distributed to Amsterdam parents. That March a film called “You Can Beat an A-Bomb” was shown at a citywide meeting. Also screened was “A Tale of Two Cities,” showing the devastating effect of America’s 1945 atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

The powerful hydrogen bomb was developed in 1952. There was news coverage of a nuclear bomb drill in 1955 involving a mock attack centered in the town of Florida.

Categories: Opinion, Opinion

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