Editor's note: On Dec.11, 1816, Indiana became the 19th state in the Union. Lake, Porter and Newton counties originally were one, but on Jan. 28, 1836, Porter County was created. A year later, on Jan.18, Lake County became independent. As the state celebrates its bicentennial, the Post-Tribune will be taking a regular look back at the history of Northwest Indiana.
In the spring of 1955, the United States was continually on alert in preparation for an attack by our enemies. The Cold War raged quietly and citizens were told remain vigilant against the threat of Communism.
On June 15, 1955, the nation was put to the test: a national Civil Defense exercise called for a mock atomic bomb attack on 50 U.S. cities — including Gary, Fort Wayne and Chicago.
The exercise, "Operation Alert 1955," was a test to determine the readiness for a "near saturation assault" on industrial regions in the Midwest, Northeast and Pacific areas of the country.
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President Dwight D. Eisenhower participated in the mock state of emergency and was whisked away from the nation's capital by car to a "wooded mountainous area," according to news reports at the time.
Gary Civil Defense estimated the rescue operation would take 26 hours and would be directed by county staff. But a "what-if" article featured in the Post-Tribune offered a harrowing account of what might have happened in Gary if the simulated bombing of Gary had been real.
According to the story, "Thirty-thousand were reported dead and upwards of 40,000 injured in the atomic holocaust which engulfed Gary at 2:22 this afternoon. Nike battalions were reported to have downed 15 enemy bombers over Lake Michigan but one slipped through to hit Gary with an atomic bomb believed to be five times as powerful as the one which leveled Hiroshima. From Griffith, the atomic cloud could be seen rising up to 40,000 feet."
Gary Mayor Peter Mandich and Civil Defense Director Z.R. Bardowski remained in the city to observe the test, but other city employees relocated to a county highway garage near Crown Point.
The day kicked-off in Gary with a leaflet drop by the Gary-Hobart Civil Air Patrol of 60,000 pamphlets telling citizens they "are helping the Reds" if they aren't cooperating with the Civil Defense organization. The leaflets were to target the downtown area of the city, but wound up in other areas.
The first siren sounded at 11:03 a.m. to warn that simulated enemy planes had been detected over the Arctic region on their way to the U.S., according to a Post-Tribune article. The take-cover alert came at 2:12 p.m., and the police department aimed to clear the streets of pedestrians. "Motorists, while complying with police orders to stop, did not get out of their cars to take cover. This was due primarily to the fact that many were out-of-towners who didn't know what the test was all about," the Post-Tribune reported.
Though today there are renewed fears of a terrorist attack on U.S., local defense operations have changed quite a bit.
"In 1955, the (Porter County) Civil Defense was a one-man operation," said Russell Shirley, director of Porter County Emergency Management and Commander of the District 1 Task Force.
Emergency Management evolved from the civil defense program and "now we have two full-time staff members a part-time secretary and 30 volunteers. The District 1 Task Force has more than 300 volunteers throughout Jasper, Lake, LaPorte, Newton and Porter counties," said Shirley.
The district volunteers come from all walks of life, said Shirley, and they include police officers, firefighters, EMS and citizens —men and women. "There's one female on the hazmat team and about 100 women on the District Task Force. Porter County has 10 women volunteers — one of our volunteers is a psychiatrist," Shirley said.
One of the biggest differences between today's Emergency Management and the Civil Defense effort is the ability to deploy to other areas using the District 1 Mobile Command Center. The vehicle is equipped with computers, radio, camera and other high-tech tools. The Mobile Command Center is booked locally throughout the summer and can be seen assisting with security at event in the various counties.
"Mike Webber, deputy director, has been to Alaska. He was there as a learning opportunity during wildfires and to assist," Shirley said. "We would never have done that in the 1940s and 1950s."
In addition, the district also has a mobile canteen truck and trailer unit donated by Task Force Tips, a Valparaiso-based national maker of firefighter equipment
Recently, Porter County Emergency Management overhauled its tornado siren system.
"The old sirens were anywhere from 10 to 50 years old. Some were from the World War II air raid sirens. We have 57 locations, mostly in the north as that is more populated," Shirley said. "They get tested at 2 a.m. every day. They rotate and we make sure they are in good working condition. ... On the first Tuesday of each month, there is a sound test."
The Greg Phillips Emergency Services Center in Valparaiso includes a radio room where radio operators can "communicate with people anywhere in the world," said Shirley.
Nancy Coltun Webster is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.