Blackout drills – Central Pennsylvania prepared itself for enemy air raids in 1942

A little after 9:40 PM, sirens rang and lights all over central Pennsylvania began to blink out until the entire region was blanketed in inky darkness. It was Wednesday, May 20, 1942.

With the weather warming in the spring of 1942, volunteer civil defense units became active across America and began readying the nation for war.

In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, volunteer units were formed across the country to prepare the United States for an attack by enemy forces. In towns and cities of all sizes, volunteer air raid wardens and auxiliary emergency workers signed up to help defend their communities.

In the communities of Pennsylvania’s Williams Valley, air raid wardens prepared for their first blackout drill in May 1942. Blackouts were coordinated to turn out lights across vast swaths of territory in case of an air raid by enemy aircraft. In an air raid, a coordinated blackout would confuse enemy pilots attempting to navigate by the tell-tale lights of communities on the ground.

Air Raid Precautions
Produced by the Mass. Committee on Public Safety, 1942 (Universty of Missouri-Kansas City)

In Williamstown, the first meeting of the local Defense Council was held on May 12 at the American Legion Post on Market Street. “Arm bands will be distributed to air raid wardens, fire wardens, and police wardens,” wrote a reporter for the Harrisburg Telegraph.

Air Raid 1
A poster for the Pennsylvania State Council of Defense (Library of Congress)

The first blackout drill was scheduled for northern Dauphin County on Wednesday, May 20, 1942, followed by a Schuylkill County drill on Monday, May 25.

Williamstown, Tower City to Have Two Blackouts

Williamstown in Upper Dauphin County will have a blackout test next Wednesday night, with the rest of the Harrisburg area, and so will Tower City, which adjoins Williamstown, but is in Schuylkill County. 

When Schuylkill County has its blackout test Monday night, May 25, Williamstown also will join. Thus the two boroughs will have more such tests than the average town. 

The plan has been adopted because the street lighting systems of the adjoining towns are on the same electrical switch, located at the sub-station in Williamstown, and one town cannot have a blackout without the other. Defense groups say it would be costly to relocate the switch and that war restrictions probably wouldn’t release enough wire for such an undertaking. 

At 9:40 PM on a Wednesday night, the planned blackout drill began across Dauphin County. For 20 minutes, nearly all lights in the county were extinguished. “From high vantage points, few lights or reflections were to be seen,” wrote a reporter for the Harrisburg Telegraph viewing the occasion in the state capital. “At the first alert signal lights in windows of homes, stores, and other business places and on display signs began to disappear. By the time the ‘raid’ signal was given, the Harrisburg area was practically shrouded in darkness.”

Harrisburg Blackout
Harrisburg Telegraph, May 21, 1942

When the lights clicked back on at 10 PM, this first drill was considered to be a success.

“[T]he test was almost perfect and the volunteers and residents did a wonderful job considering many difficulties,” reported Captain Ralph Flynn, the chief air raid warden for Pennsylvania. Officials considered the drill to be a 99% success. A few protesters against the drill were noted in the Harrisburg vicinity, and were dealt with accordingly.

In Northern Dauphin County, the drills were reported as “practically 100 percent success… Wardens, auxiliary police and firemen experienced some difficulties in patrolling many of the outlying districts but they surmounted the obstacles.”

Air Raid Poster
An air raid poster sponsored by the WPA. (Library of Congress)

Air raid drills were to become a normal part of the landscape in the industrial heartland of Central Pennsylvania, including the Williams Valley region of northern Dauphin County and southern Schuylkill County.

While the region’s men and women were off fighting the Axis Powers, their families at home were ensuring their hometowns were prepared for the worst. Thankfully, the worst never came.

Featured Photograph: Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Interested in stories from the home front during World War II? Check out these links to more information:

The World War II Home Front by Allan M. Winkler 

The WWII Home Front by Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park

America on the Homefront by the National Archives

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