With the frightening wail of air-raid sirens, routine duck-and-cover drills and fallout shelters, the government prepared Americans for Japanese bombs during World War II and nuclear attacks during the Cold War.
In the wake of the recent killing rampage at Virginia Tech, governments and institutions are debating how to warn people of emergencies today.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 01, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Subterranean trolley: A story on old air-raid sirens in Sunday's California section stated that a subterranean trolley route began at the Pacific Electric Building at 6th and Main streets. It began at 4th and Hill streets.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Subterranean trolley: An article on old air-raid sirens in the April 29 California section said a subterranean trolley route began at the Pacific Electric Building at 6th and Main streets. It began at 4th and Hill streets.
Ellis Stanley, general manager for the city of Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Department, has fielded several calls over the years from people asking if the old sirens still work.
"Every time there's a disaster, people want to know if we can turn them back on," he said.
The answer is no. Never particularly reliable, the countywide system deteriorated decades ago. It was disconnected in 1985 and unstable sirens were removed. But at one time the system was state-of-the-art.
During World War II, hundreds of trumpet- and rocket-shaped air-raid sirens were installed atop traffic signals and buildings across Los Angeles County as part of the civil defense effort. Even then, the system short-circuited routinely, triggering false alarms and panicking residents.
The sirens were switched off after the war but were updated and reactivated in the 1950s because of the Cold War. On the last Friday of each month, the Sheriff's Department tested the system, sirens wailing for two minutes at 10 a.m.
One siren, shaped like a round birdhouse, perches on a two-story steel post at Temple and Spring streets. An identical one graces 3rd Street near LaBrea Avenue in Hancock Park.
Just six weeks after Pearl Harbor, the first siren was placed atop a traffic signal at 2nd and Hill streets, The Times reported. Soon, police began blaring warnings over loudspeakers: "This is an emergency. Take shelter."
Larger, more powerful sirens resembling rockets could be heard a few miles away. They were installed on several buildings, including Griffith Observatory and the Naval Reserve Armory in Chavez Ravine.
Only one-quarter of the city's sirens had been installed by Feb. 25, 1942 -- when, in the wee hours of the morning, radar stations picked up an unidentified object over Santa Monica Bay.
Alarms sounded. Searchlights swept the horizon. Thousands of volunteer air-raid wardens tumbled from their beds, grabbed their helmets and rushed into the night. Tens of thousands of citizens, awakened by the sirens and the popping of shells, jumped out of bed and, heedless of blackout regulations, began snapping on lights. It was chaos.
Sirens wailed for an hour and 1,430 shells were fired at the supposed intruder. Five people died -- three in car crashes and two of heart attacks -- and scores were injured during the blackout. Some homes, cars and streets were damaged by shrapnel in the so-called Battle of Los Angeles.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson first said there had been 15 planes operated by enemy "agents." A week later, he modified that to "three to five light planes launched from Japanese submarines." He never explained how these launches were accomplished.
To this day, it is unclear what happened. The Japanese deny that their warplanes ever flew over Los Angeles. Official U.S. wartime records are inconclusive. Military officials blamed the incident on jitters and a wayward meteorological balloon.
There is no evidence that any bombs were dropped or shots fired from the air. The most likely explanation is that the damage was done by anti-aircraft fire as it plummeted back to earth.
The alarm system finally passed muster in 1943, when the "gargantuan siren on the roof of The Times' building roared defiantly along with other giant steam whistles that tied into the public alarm system," the newspaper reported.
Sirens howled out good news Aug. 14, 1945 -- V-J Day, when the Japanese surrendered and ended the war.
"It was quite a time," recalled Gene Stanton, 76, a retired high school teacher in Glendale. Stanton, then 14, and his parents "took the streetcar from Glendale to Los Angeles, stopping at Pershing Square," he said in a recent interview. "There was a lot of hoopla going on, firecrackers going off and everyone jumping and yelling and screaming. People were hugging and kissing each other. It was really quite spectacular."
After the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, the United States established the Federal Civil Defense Administration to develop standards for fallout shelters and for warning the public about a nuclear attack. Old sirens were reconditioned and reactivated. The system was expanded with 165 newer models.
Everyone knew the sirens' wail would mean imminent nuclear attack. People were to flee to the nearest fallout shelters in underground garages, basements, film vaults, tunnels and the mile-long subway -- Los Angeles' first, built in 1925, with an underground station at 4th and Hill streets.