Waiting Out Armageddon on Campus, Eating Crackers

By Brian Brennan

Today it is hard to fathom that some buildings on the Youngstown State University campus were once places of sanctuary in the event of a nuclear exchange. In the 1960s, yellow and black signs depicting a circle with three inverted triangles and the legend “Fallout Shelter” confirm this was true.

The Cold War that produced the fear that inspired these signs is now history. Instead of public buildings, they now decorate dens and dorms. Reproductions are even available for purchase online. Yet, the meaning behind these placards should not be taken lightly.

Fallout is the airborne, radioactive material created from dirt and debris when a nuclear device explodes. Distributed by the winds, it descends back to earth, poisoning ecosystems and bringing illness and death to those with whom it comes into contact.

Eventually, levels of radioactivity diminish, but slowly. In the meantime, survivors must wait things out in a safe space free from contamination. This temporary haven is called a fallout shelter.

In 1961, the Kennedy Administration conducted the National Fallout Shelter Survey, which identified existing facilities for use in this capacity. Basements in public buildings, businesses and other areas that could support large numbers of people came to be designated as fallout shelters, identified by the once-ubiquitous and ominous yellow and black signs described above.

These shelters would be stockpiled with food, water, medical supplies and other items deemed necessary for survival, such as flashlights, batteries, sanitation items and Geiger counters, for up to two weeks. Food usually consisted of high-protein crackers, biscuits and carbohydrate supplements in the form of hard candy, ensuring that each sheltered person would receive a ration of 700 calories per day.

It must be noted that these facilities were not bomb shelters, as none offered protection against an atomic blast. Fallout shelters only shielded survivors from radioactive contamination beyond the blast area — theoretically; fortunately, none were ever put to the test.

At YSU, fallout shelters were located in the basement levels of Jones Hall, the University Library, which is now Tod Hall, and Ward Beecher Science Hall.

These could accommodate 427 people and were stocked with 2,184 pounds of crackers, 87 drums of water at 17.5 gallons each, 10 sanitation kits, 8 medical kits and 3 sets of radiological measuring devices. Later, the engineering science building, now Moser Hall, was also designated as a fallout shelter and was similarly supplied.

Ten years later, fallout shelters were no longer a campus priority. Times, and the world, had changed. Funding was allocated elsewhere.

In 1971,  Ray Orlando, the director of the YSU physical plant and a certified fallout shelter analyst, decried the sorry state of the university’s protective facilities, but to no avail.

Shelter spaces were completely forgotten as they were remodeled and used for other purposes.

Today, with North Korea’s testing of atomic weapons, President Trump’s abrogation of the Iran nuclear agreement and America’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty, one can only wonder if Mr. Orlando was correct in his concern.

YSU would probably remain open, regardless.

For further reference, visit these websites: http://hdl.handle.net/1989/3883; http://hdl.handle.net/1989/2530; and http://www.civildefensemuseum.com/index.html.