Museum exhibit highlights living with the bomb

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WICHITA, Kansas – When the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan to end the World War II, it also ushered in the atomic age and meant that the U.S. lived in some fear for many years after.

Once the Soviet Union got the bomb, the two superpowers engaged in a so-called ‘cold war’ for almost 40 years.  No atomic weapons were ever used on either side, but the threat was there, highlighted by the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 in which the two sides came close to war.

From the end of the second World War until the late 60’s, Americans had to live with the possibility that the atomic bomb would be used and to take precautions to deal with it.

A current exhibit at the Wichita Sedgwick County Historical Museum entitled “Be Alert, Stay Alive”  tells the story of a time in this country when “the bomb” was on many minds and our government made sure it stayed there.

The co-curator of the exhibit is Dr. Michael Scheibach who has written extensively on that period and whose memorabilia makes up the bulk of the exhibit. He says no America living then could escape talk of “the bomb.”

“There were about 400 million pieces of civil defense literature published between 1951 and the 1960’s” says Scheibach. “At a time when the population of the Unites States was about half what it is today.”

It wasn’t just volumes of printed material, it was also films. Those films told people how to take shelter in their basements, how to build a bomb shelter or a fallout shelter, how to stock those shelters and where to find public shelters in either schools or public buildings in their communities.

A great many people saw those films. Scheibach says if you were in school you couldn’t miss them.

“Art class, history class, social studies class, English class. You were hearing something about the bomb in almost every class in high school.”

Some of the films appear very funny today, almost laughable. But at the time were deadly serious.

One of them was called “Duck and Cover”. It starred a cartoon turtle named Burt who would retreat inside his shell when a stick of dynamite (think bomb) went off.  Adults and kids were told to duck down and cover their head in case of a bomb.

The precautions and public instruction on what to do in case of an Atomic attack were all well and good, but realistically, if the atom bomb was anywhere close, then all the ducking and covering in the world would make little difference. Scheibach says that was so and cites one brochure that probably said it best.

“One of the great civil defense brochures is if the bomb goes off, don’t be there. That’s the title of the brochure and that pretty much sums it up: don’t be there.”

You might think that none of this talk about the bomb really affected Wichita all that much. After all, then as now, we are far from major population centers. But Eric Cale, director of the museum, makes the point that Wichita might have been a major target.

“Boeing was making a great many planes for the military” says Cale. “Later on, a number of Titan missiles were based near here and McConnell Air Force base was a key base for the military, so this area would have been a target.”

It seems so long ago, a far different time, preparation for something that never happened, but might have. Today the main threat is terrorism, but it is possible a lesson for today can be learned from yesterday.

Scheibach says this: “My hope is by understanding that period and knowing that we did live through it and survived it that we can learn that life is OK. That you have to live with certain things that are realities. But we’ve survived these things before.”

The exhibit “Be Alert, Stay Alive” will be on display at the Wichita Sedgwick County Historical Museum until August 11th. 

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