Fallout from the Cold War

A cache of survival items from 1962 turns up in a Wayne State building


Call it a blast from the past. At Wayne State University (WSU), workers recently stumbled across a forgotten stockpile of Cold War-era emergency supplies in the basement of the Schaver Music Recital Hall, a building slated for renovation. Most of the barrels and cardboard boxes, issued by the Department of Civil Defense and squirreled away for decades inside a 3-foot-high crawlspace, are stamped with a date of November 1962. This was just weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis — which put the United States and the Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear war — convinced Washington that the country needed to be better prepared in case of an attack.

According to Jim Sears, associate vice president of facilities planning and management at WSU, the basement corridors of the music hall were intended to serve as the actual shelter. “It could probably hold about 200 people, uncomfortably,” Sears says. “The supplies were meant to keep them going for a couple of weeks after an atomic blast.”

Such finds are becoming increasingly rare. At its peak, Detroit had 1,67 designated fallout shelters, including 31 on Wayne State’s campus. They typically were located in basements and tunnels under schools, gyms, factories, and office buildings. However, as the risk of a Soviet attack greatly diminished over the years, many of the familiar Civil Defense signs that identified emergency shelters were taken down. A 1976 government directive authorized the disposal of the aging foodstuffs, though forgotten inventories, like the one at WSU, occasionally are uncovered. Sears says the cache will probably be given to the Detroit Historical Museum.

Here’s what the well-stocked bomb shelter of 1962 contained:

> Medical kits that included basic supplies (bandages, aspirin, eye drops, scissors, forceps) and such medicines as penicillin, phenobarbital, and sulfadiazine. Unfortunately, within a few years the medicines expired and the alcohol evaporated. Each kit was stamped: “This box contains no narcotics.”

> Steel barrels of water, double-lined with plastic. “There was no bottled water like we know it today,” Sears explains. Each 17.5-gallon drum was intended to supply five people with one quart each per day — enough water for 14 days.

> Sanitation kits that included toilet paper, sanitary napkins, plastic gloves, liner bags, and packets of toilet chemicals. The kits came inside a cardboard drum that, when fitted with the enclosed plastic seat, served as a temporary toilet until emptied metal water barrels could be employed for that purpose.

> Tins of cereal-based foodstuffs, principally crackers, biscuits, and wafers, along with nugget-size pieces of hard candy that actually were carbohydrate supplements. Shelter occupants were expected to follow a chart that limited each person to 700 calories a day.

Was the government-issue All Purpose Survival Biscuit as appetizing as its name suggested? Sears recently opened a tin and bit into one. “Pretty crunchy,” he reports. “They’re a little bit better than dog biscuits.” He decided against sampling the 48-year-old water. “The water was supposed to be regularly changed back then. But if you had to drink it today, you’d drink it.”

Edit Module
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Archive »Related Content

The Way It Was

1956, Hudson's Northland in Southfield

An Hour with ... Ricki Friedman

Founder, Break the Weight

Meet the Makers: Tait Design Co.

How an after-work hobby ascended to a booming business

Pick Your Performance

In its 202-year history, the German story of The Nutcracker has been translated and reimagined so many times, there now exists a production for all. Here, a few renditions coming to metro Detroit.

Legal Practice

A historic playhouse in Detroit teaches local lawyers how to get into character
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. The Makings of the Shinola Hotel
    When the Detroit brand’s first foray into hospitality opens its doors, it’ll offer customers...
  2. My Two Christmases
    An Armenian-Iranian, Detroit-based writer reflects on transposing the holiday across continents
  3. An Hour with ... Carmen Harlan
    Broadcast journalist and founder of the Carmen Harlan Collection
  4. New Year’s Eve, Brooklyn Style
    Tips for celebrating 2019 from the pros at Brooklyn Outdoor
  5. Hour Detroit and Detroit Home’s Downtown Living Tour 2018
    Hour Detroit and Detroit Home’s third annual Downtown Living Tour took place September 7th-9th....
  6. God-Given Talent
    A local choir sings its way to live television
  7. Cocktail Recipe: Toddy Incarnata
  8. Main Review: SheWolf
    Born in Detroit but inspired by Rome, SheWolf takes diners on a culinary journey
  9. Meet the Makers: Tait Design Co.
    How an after-work hobby ascended to a booming business
  10. The Art of Gifting
    Metro Detroit tastemakers from all walks of life offer a glimpse of what’s on their holiday...