Wartime Blackouts: From Drills to Reality

November 20, 2018

Relations between the United States and Japan were quickly deteriorating. The rulers of Japan wanted to occupy more and more of China and Southeast Asia. The United States sought to prevent this expansion, but to do so meant taking actions that Japan would find unacceptably intrusive. It was no secret that Japan was displeased with the American actions, and fears of an attack on the West Coast started to grow, especially as the war in Europe continued. To combat the risk of a coastal attack, cities and states along the West Coast began drilling the civilian population on nighttime blackouts that they hoped would keep them from being targeted in the event of an enemy air raid.

Cities Go Dark

Blackouts poster from Oakland, CA ca. 1941

Blackout poster from Oakland, CA ca. 1941

Cities including Seattle adopted rules for a complete citywide blackout as early as March of 1941; Washington and Oregon followed with statewide policies in October. During these drills, cities would go completely dark by 11 PM, making it difficult for potential attackers to spot major population centers. Households were mandated to turn off all lights, and tens of thousands of volunteers—including women and children—worked to make these drills efficient. By the fourth quarter of 1941, coastal cities were prepared for the worst, although they were hopeful that they’d never have to implement these drills.

Then came December 7, 1941. Everything that was once theoretical became reality when Japan launched a strike on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Oahu. Whether Japan would continue the trek across the Pacific to hit the West Coast was on everybody’s mind, and one incident a day after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor showed just how fearful people were.

On the evening of December 8, more than 1,000 residents of Seattle gathered after the 11 PM blackout deadline in front of a downtown clothing store. Unlike many of the buildings in the city, the clothing store’s signage was still lit up and clearly visible. To achieve total darkness, the crowd threw rocks at the sign’s light bulbs hoping to extinguish the glow. This continued for an hour, until a store employee showed up to turn off the lights, though there will other storefronts still illuminating the streets. The mob continued to break into local businesses to turn off any lights, stopping for a moment to sing “God Bless America” before returning to what they felt was justified vandalism.

Enforcing the Blackouts

Residents across the country installed blackout curtains

Residents across the country installed blackout curtains

In response to the incident in Seattle, civil defense authorities passed regulations to prevent gatherings of more than five people and the sale of alcohol during the mandated blackouts. Despite the tension that coursed through the West Coast, the Seattle riot was the only of its kind in the Northwest.

Aside from a false alarm on December 10 in Longview, WA, the West Coast remained quiet. The blackouts were a preventive measure that gave residents some semblance of peace of mind.

The nation did get to see the effectiveness of the blackouts on June 21, 1942 when a Japanese submarine, I-25, surfaced near Fort Stevens, Oregon. The Japanese sub was able to inflict minor damage before a complete blackout was instituted. With no visible target, I-25 fired blindly on the area for 15 minutes before giving up.

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