On Sept. 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, which marked the beginning of World War II.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned the United States would eventually enter the conflict. More than two years later, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise military attack and bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, which immediately drove the U.S. into the war. Roosevelt, his administration and the nation’s military leaders quickly went to work planning domestic military production (equipment, arms, ammunition, etc.) and strategies for overseas military operations.
On May 20, 1941, more than six months prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8757 setting up the Office of Civilian Defense. The main task of this U.S. federal agency was to coordinate state and federal measures for the protection of civilians. The OCD also organized the Civil Defense Corps, which recruited and trained approximately 10 million civilian volunteers to perform essential tasks such as firefighting, first aid, road repair and air raid wardens in case of a war emergency on the home front.
The OCD was the catalyst that invited citizens to participate in their own defense, which inspired unprecedented teamwork and mutual aid around the nation.
The OCD’s handbook, The United States Citizens Defense Corps, explained the importance of civilians joining the war effort:
Who Should Join – All able-bodied, responsible persons in the community—men and women, housewives, laborers, business and professional people—for the mutual protection of all. Boys and girls, and elderly people too, have work to do. The program is broad; the tasks are many; the time is now! . . .
Qualifications for membership require enrollment, physical and mental aptitude, recognition of obligation to study duties, take required training courses, and subsequently attend periodical group practice.
Lebanon County, being located near the major steel producing center of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and housing large steel-producing factories itself, was potentially a target for enemy air attacks. During World War II, Pennsylvania’s steel manufacturers produced one-third of the United Sates’ steel supply. Many civilians in the area were justifiably frightened about being bombed by enemy aircraft. The county, just like most other localities in the U.S., began mobilizing its own civilian defenses as it formed the Lebanon County Council of Defense on June 12, 1941.
A front page article in the Lebanon Daily News on Jan. 16, 1942, announced that James L. Atkins, executive officer for the Lebanon County Council of Defense, coordinated air raid warden training at three county locations. Night school training at Palmyra Junior-Senior High School, Myerstown High School, and St. Mary’s auditorium in the City of Lebanon provided instructions for war-time activities. More than 500 civilians in Lebanon County participated in the air raid warden system.
The number of air raid wardens was calculated to be one for approximately 500 people. The article also stated that “it was the duty of each warden to learn to know the people in his neighborhood, to ascertain how many people live in each house, whether there are invalids or deaf people who would be helpless in case of an air raid, etc.”
One Lebanon County air raid warden was the author’s grandfather, Harold J. Bensing (1911-1986), who was a Junior Warden assigned to Post No. 14 in the borough of Cleona. He was an ordinary and lifelong citizen of Lebanon County who worked at the Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s Lebanon plant as a production parts inspector, and volunteered to help protect his community during the turbulent times of war.
World War II air raid wardens were typically equipped with a steel helmet and arm patch (with the air raid warden’s blue circle with a triangular red and white striped insignia), police whistle, flashlight, translucent eye shade, small first aid kit, notebook and pencil, and a pad with report forms.
Air raid wardens had several duties including the enforcement of blackouts (orders that required all windows and doors to be covered at night with suitable material to prevent the escape of any light that might aid enemy aircraft in spotting a ground target). As air raid wardens patrolled their neighborhoods they were often heard yelling “Dim those lights” and sometimes had to issue tickets to those who were not obeying public safety rules.
Air raid wardens were also designated as the first-responders in their neighborhood if bomb attacks did occur. The Handbook for Air Raid Wardens, published in 1941 by the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, states that an air raid warden is “not a policeman, nor a firefighter, nor a doctor, although your duties are related to theirs. As an air raid warden, you have a unique position in American community life. It is a position of leadership and trust that demands an effort not less than your best.”
A sign of the times in 1942 was a surprise bestseller book, which was not a detective story or romance novel, it was the American Red Cross First Aid Text Book, and it became required reading for all air raid wardens.
On June 23, 1942, Lebanon County staged its first surprise partial blackout from 10:30 to 11 p.m. All street lights were turned off, all motorists had to pull off the streets and turn off their lights, and all pedestrians were ordered off the streets. It was reported that the drill was mostly a success as 2,000 people assisted and demonstrated that the local civilian defense council had the ability to protect the county’s 70,000 civilians. Only a few minor and unintentional violations were reported.
Another such blackout drill was conducted in September 1943. Some violations for not turning out lights were reported. It was also discovered that there was some confusion about the air raid duties of the police force and various civilian organizations. To correct these issues, it was announced that there will closer cooperation between all the people and organizations involved in Lebanon County’s air raid defense system.
The Lebanon County Council of Defense occasionally staged surprise daylight air raid drills. One such drill was held on Oct. 14, 1942, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. It was reported to be mostly a success as school children and teachers responded perfectly. Public air raid shelters including the Elks, the Moose, and the Hook & Ladder firehouse were used by many civilians as air raid wardens, auxiliary policemen and firemen quickly reported to these facilities without prior notice. However, a few flaws were detected as many people looked out of windows, which would obviously be hazardous during an actual air raid due to broken glass and other flying debris. Other flaws were reported including several trucks and passenger cars that kept driving until they were forced to stop by policemen even though they heard the air raid sirens, and it was discovered that the city of Lebanon did not have enough sirens as many people did not hear the warnings.
By late 1943, Nazi Germany’s air power was significantly crippled by the Allies and was no longer deemed a threat to the east coast of the United States. Civilian defense air raid activities began to subside.
In November 1944, Pennsylvania’s air raid warden service began a reorganization into state disaster committees concentrating on non-war disasters such as fires, floods, and explosions.
On Sept. 2, 1945, World War II officially ended as U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri battleship.
On Oct. 23, 1945, the Lebanon County Council of Defense disbanded operations after more than four years of service to the community. At its peak during World War II, it enlisted 6,850 people.
“Its rolls showed air raid wardens, control center personnel, medical assistants, first aiders, auxiliary policemen, block leaders, salvage directors, ration board workers, at the inception of that program – in other words, men and women of all walks of life – all united for a common purpose: defense of the homeland.”
Fortunately, Lebanon County’s air raid wardens remained on alert for the duration of World War II and were never required to respond to an actual enemy air attack.
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