“Wait! Watch! Pray!” – The Cuban Missile Crisis

Americans found themselves glued to their television screens and radios as an international crisis unfolded off the coastline of the Eastern United States in October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the very brink of nuclear war, one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War.

In the rusting industrial towns of Pennsylvania’s Coal Region, citizens watched and listened and hoped for the best.

“While we watch, wait, and pray that the war will not come,” wrote Helen P. Miller, editor of the West Schuylkill Press and Pine Grove Herald, “America’s demand for the complete removal of the missile installations in Cuba will be carried out by the United Nations…”

JFK Address
President Kennedy addressing the American people about the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 22, 1962

As tensions heated, residents of communities in western Schuylkill County braced themselves for the worst, as millions of people did across the United States.

In Pine Grove, local leaders decided to take action. They scheduled a public meeting about civil defense in the Cold War. Civil defense focused on how Americans could shelter themselves and survive a nuclear war. Across America, civil defense units worked with local leaders to create plans, stockpile supplies, and prepare Americans for the horror of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union.

Cuban Missile Crisis
Headlines from the Press-Herald during the Cuban Missile Crisis (“Wait! Watch! Pray!” upper left corner of the October 25, 1962 edition)

Dr. Sidney Melnicove served as a Pine Grove’s Civil Defense Director and planned the meeting for November 1, 1962 at the town’s Fire Company No. 1. He planned to brief residents about the town’s civil defense strategy and hand out copies of a pamphlet called The Handbook for Emergencies. 

The West Schuylkill Press provided a detailed description of the evening’s presentation:

When President Kennedy reported to the nation that Russia installed missile bases in Cuba that could fire nuclear warheads at the United States, Dr. Sidney Melnicove, Pine Grove Civil Defense director, announced that a public civil defense meeting would be held in Pine Grove on Thursday, November 1.

The few citizens who attended the meeting (only six in all) learned from Dr. Melnicove that, in case of nuclear attack on this country, it will be “each family for itself” in small communities like Pine Grove.

There will be no public shelter program in Pine Grove, Dr. Melnicove said. Less than ten buildings were inspected in the public shelter survey program and none of these meet the minimum standards of providing shelter for 50 persons. Therefore, no money will be received from the federal government for stocking emergency supplies in Pine Grove public shelters.

This means that each family must provide its own shelter and its own emergency food and water supplies, etc. This, Dr. Melnicove stated, will be true in all communities of less than 5,000 population.

Stressing that “we are now in a crisis that may be with us for a long time to come,” Dr. Melnicove said something must be done now. This includes the public considering any warning may be received being a true warning. For this reason, he pointed out, the town must establish a system of communications.

It will be necessary, he said, to have a radio receiving set capable of receiving this warning, in the event the telephone system should become inoperative.

“People in Pine Grove will have to dig for themselves, no one is going to dig for them,” said the Civil Defense director…

Local physicians have First Aid pamphlets in their waiting rooms. Each family must provide for its own shelter, stock it with supplies, and learn first aid measures.

Action to be taken for the protection of school students and teachers is at the discretion of the school board, according to Dr. Melnicove. The alternatives are to send the children home or to keep them at school, with the former recommended.

The Civil Defense director said, “The time for action is now. Find out what fallout radiation is, and how to protect yourself from it. The real challenge is to apply your knowledge to minimize casualties and to recover effectively. A large number of casualties can be averted by protection in fallout shelters.”

Families may obtain shelter and mission aid pamphlets at Snyder’s Furniture Store, the PRESS-HERALD Office, Pine Grove National Bank, A.A. Achenbach Insurance Agency, and the Pine Grove Post Office.

Though few people turned out for the meeting (it occurred days after the crisis had peaked), it stoked the passionate support of those who did attend.

Phyllis Hesser, a resident of Pine Grove, attended the meeting and submitted a letter to the Press-Herald about the importance of civil defense awareness and the poor attendance by the public.

To the Editor: Last week I attended the Civil Defense meeting which the general public was urged to attend. The program was well prepared, the report of which may be found in this paper. The two main points that impressed me were the Federal government does not intend to help towns under 5,000 (that’s us) and “It’s much later than we think.”

There was something missing at meeting! John Q. Public was conspicuous, as the saying goes, by his absence. It was hard to conceive that only a handful of people were interested in survival and I wanted to know why. So I asked a lot of people why they were not there.

The majority fell into three groups. First, those who did not care, this group was small; second, the largest group had a feeling of outright hopelessness; and the third group had already bought their piece of insurance – a few cinder blocks and several weeks supply of food and water.

To the second group of people – please pick up your booklets – you have a real good chance to survive and live a perfectly normal life.

We have to remember the new bombs are made, not like the first ones that scarred the earth and laid waste to the lands for years, but primarily to kill the greatest number of people by radiation. Those who would try to take this country want its richly blessed fields and mountains, not a wasteland. We have no fear of death with these bombs, but they do hold the fear of a living death caused by burns and “radiation sickness” which is a slow agonizing death. It is doubtful that there would be a direct hit on Pine Grove because we have no vital interests here. But we do have something most important to us, some pretty wonderful people who may die needlessly.

We need things here such as a separate siren system and, if the Federal government isn’t going to help us, we had better help ourselves. And isn’t this the way the people have always done in Pine Grove?

One more thing we must remember – Castro, Khrushchev and nuclear bombs are not just a bad dream, they won’t just go away – they represent destruction and disease. So please read the article in the paper today, pick up your booklets, and be present at the next meeting.

Yours truly,

Phyllis Hesser

As November 1962 got underway, fears of an imminent nuclear assault on America had receded. After a tension-wracked blockade forced the Soviets to turn their missile carrying ships back from Cuba, the crisis ended and the existing missiles were dismantled. These fears were still present, they just left the forefront of people’s thoughts. These fears retreated, for the most part, to a place where they still remain today.

Though the Cold War is over, the nuclear sword of Damocles remains hanging precariously over all of our heads. And many of the lessons being taught in a public meeting with the Civil Defense Director of Pine Grove are still relevant for us in the 21st century.


Featured Image: Missiles in a photograph from the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 (CNN)

Have your own memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the Coal Region? Please share them below in the comments and they may be featured in upcoming stories! 

Read about an earlier plan to use abandoned coal mines as bomb shelters in Hazleton 


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