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Saturday, November 24, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fallout shelters, sky-watcher efforts recall communist threat

The Wenatchee World

WENATCHEE — Lynn Polson was 9 when his parents dug a big hole in front of the family's Waterville-area home for a nuclear-fallout shelter.

It was 1962 and the threat of the Soviet Union launching nuclear weapons on America was real for many people.

The Polsons, although they lived outside a farming town in sparsely populated Douglas County, felt the threat.

Their steel shelter wasn't big; roughly 8-by-11 feet.

A 15-rung ladder stretched down into the ground to the shelter's floor.

Polson wasn't impressed.

"When they put the shelter in, my brothers and sisters and I wished they would have put in a swimming pool instead," Polson said.

The family's fallout shelter is still there, but it's now used to store only a couple cans of paint.

Shelves that once held emergency rations are now empty.

Also missing are a couple of flip-down bunks that hung on the shelter walls.

The only remaining reminder is a hand-cranked air system.

Today, the Sept. 11 attacks have Americans more fearful of foreign attacks than they have been in decades.

The government is responding with more security, terrorist alerts and by urging citizens to live normal lives.

Forty years ago, the Polsons and dozens of others dug deep, leaving small time capsules of Cold War fear throughout North Central Washington.

There are other reminders — from abandoned missile silos in Grant County to the 50 boxes and barrels of fallout-shelter supplies that still sit in the basement of Wenatchee's Apple Valley Baptist Church.

The church was part of a network of at least eight public fallout shelters in Wenatchee.

Some designated shelters still have faded yellow and black signs posted inside and outside the buildings. The signs are recognizable by the triangular radiation symbol.

Besides the Mission Street church, other shelter sites included the two Bank of America buildings on Wenatchee Avenue, the Cascadian Hotel, the city sewage-disposal plant and what is now the annex building of the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center.

Public shelters were stocked with water, food, medical supplies and sanitation kits that included toilet tissue, waterless hand cleaner, a commode with liner and sanitary napkins.

The shelters weren't designed to withstand a direct nuclear blast, but instead provide a haven from the ensuing fallout if a nuke fell on Seattle, Spokane or Hanford, said Jack Harrington, Chelan County Civil Defense director from 1956 until his retirement in 1977.

"We didn't figure Wenatchee would be a target for one of those bombs," said Harrington, now 86 and living in Moses Lake. "We were more worried about fallout if a bomb fell on Seattle or somewhere else close by."

Civil Defense was responsible for community preparedness in the event of an attack, nuclear or otherwise.

Harrington said local defense efforts included a volunteer corps of 1,000 who took their roles seriously.

Volunteers would attend weekly or twice-monthly meetings, where they would learn everything from first aid to how to use a Geiger counter, said Jim Lynch, former Wenatchee mayor and Chelan County commissioner.

"It was a craze back then," said Lynch, a Chelan County deputy prosecutor in the 1950s.

"People were just positive the Russians were going to do it to us. We had grand (Civil Defense) meetings. Looking back, it's hilarious. But, at the time, the mood was dead serious."

Charles Cone, Chelan County prosecutor between 1955 and 1960 and later a Superior Court judge, said everyone knew what effect a nuclear bomb could have after seeing newsreel footage and photos of the two U.S. bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.

The threat of communist Russia doing the same to the United States was constant during the 1950s and into the 1960s, Cone said.

"Most people figured if an attack came, the ones who survived would end up envying the dead," he said. "They weren't pleasant thoughts."

Besides Civil Defense, there was also a Ground Observer Corps that kept track of airplane traffic crossing North Central Washington skies.

The sky watchers kept a 24-hour vigil between 1953 and 1959.

There were lookout posts on top of the 10-story Cascadian Hotel in downtown Wenatchee and on top of the Douglas County Courthouse in Waterville.

One Wenatchee couple, the late Cathie and Ernest Benson, logged more than 6,500 hours of sky-watch time between the two of them.

Bob Hensel had the 10 p.m.-to-midnight shift at the courthouse every Thursday night.

He lived across the street from the courthouse.

"We were worried about the dams being bombed," said Hensel, former Douglas County prosecutor and now a semiretired Waterville attorney.

At night, sky watchers became sky listeners.

Hensel said there was a microphone reflector set up to pick up the noise of airplane engines.

If observers heard or saw a plane, they were instructed to pick up the observer post phone, which had a direct connection to an Air Force "filter center" in Spokane.

Hensel remembers the late Ross Wilkinson had the watch shift right before his.

"I'd go up there during his watch and he'd stay during my watch and we'd play four hours of cribbage," said Hensel, 79. "We never saw or heard any airplanes as far as I can remember.

"It was a tossup as far as the cribbage games. Ross was a pretty good cribbage player. We wore out a couple decks of cards, that's for sure."

Fear that faded following the end of the Cold War has returned after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing anthrax attacks.

But many say this time it's a different kind of fear.

"Nuclear war was the overwhelming threat to America back then," said Tom Green, chairman of the Washington State Emergency Management Council. "Today, in comparison to those times, is more disconcerting because of the unknown nature of what will happen next."

Green was a Wenatchee Valley College sophomore during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

The 13-day period is perhaps the closest the United States has come to an all-out nuclear war.

"Yeah, I remember it as an intense time for everyone," he said. Hensel, the former sky watcher, said today's fear is entirely different, partly because of the intense media coverage.

"We weren't as well-informed back then," he said. "We also had an identified enemy. Everyone knew it was Russia that was against us. Now, it's like chasing a ghost going after those terrorists."

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