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Shining some light on World War II blackouts

Gloversville’s successful February 1942 blackout test would have confounded any enemy bombers intent on winning the war by crippling America’s glove industry. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

This time of year, drivers sometime worry about whiteouts, but at least they don’t have to deal with blackouts, those World War II civil defense exercises during which residents of entire cities and even counties turned off every light in their house, business, or factory and temporarily sat in complete darkness to practice denying enemy bombers any opportunity to see targets.

Hindsight suggests such drills were a waste of time, considering no German or Japanese airplanes of that era carried enough fuel to reach inland targets. But, after all, the enemy had managed to bomb Pearl Harbor, hadn’t it, so why not Fulton County too? It was far better to be over prepared than under.

All over America, the ability of cities to go 100 percent dark was tested throughout the war, and on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 1942, Fulton County’s first test occurred.

Wednesday’s Morning Herald gave a full report:

“The effective manner in which Gloversville was blacked out last night was praised by J.J. Farrell, Deputy Director of Civilian Defense for Northern New York. The blackout extended over all of Fulton and Hamilton counties and the western part of Montgomery County. The program was effective all over the area, except for a few scattered lights in rural sections.”

How did authorities know some lights remained lit in rural homesteads?

“Observers flew over the counties in airplanes, which operated from the Perth Airport.”

Policing the effectiveness of these blackouts in Gloversville was mostly the work of 43 volunteer ground observers known as Sector or Air Raid Wardens, walking house-by-house through pre-assigned city blocks, deputized to report anyone discovered with a light on, and these wardens weren’t alone.

There was also a larger group called the General Mobilization Squad which consisted of “sixty-four men covering twelve different posts, plus seventy-six police, regulars and specials.”

Nor were the Boy Scouts, a very helpful wartime organization, left out.

“Sea Scout Troop 110 in uniform reported to City Hall to serve as messengers. Another group of Boy Scouts delivered reports from the Air Raid Wardens.”

While Deputy Director Farrell was pleased with Gloversville’s overall performance, it wasn’t without a few hitches. One airplane reported a light visible on Kingsboro Avenue that turned out on investigation to be a sewer dig road flare.

“Traffic lights in Johnstown were visible, and Gloversville’s street lights accidently came back on sooner than intended.”

There was at least one intentional violation, apparently committed by someone not fully in the spirit of the thing.

“An automobile was driven along Second Avenue and through Kingsboro Avenue with lights on in spite of warnings shouted by air wardens and special police. The driver nearly ran into two air wardens at one corner. The license number was turned over to police.”

Nearby in Johnstown things were just as black.

Johnstown housed an important component of Fulton County’s blackout drills, the District Air Raid Warning Center, located in the basement of City Hall.

In this old-time, cell phone-free world, this was another coordination and communications center to and from which Johnstown Boy Scouts communicated with that city’s beat-pounding Air Raid Wardens.

Meanwhile, notices alerting our cities and villages that the “raid” was on arrived by telephone.

“Gloversville notified Bleecker, Johnstown called Broadalbin, Broadalbin called Northville, Northville called Lake Pleasant, etc.”

A certain comical element entered the scene when “a plane from Perth Airport flew over the rural districts sounding a siren, but the siren wasn’t loud enough to be heard over the noise of the motor.”

Should this have surprised anyone? The pilot and his observer gave the highest praise to Mayfield, stating that when they flew over this village, “it was so dark they couldn’t pick it out at all.”

Amsterdam didn’t have its first air raid drill until Monday, April 20, and when it did, things didn’t go so smoothly.

The April 21 Recorder reported that success was “spoiled by four small businesses which haven’t yet completely cooperated with blackout requirements and by seven residents who left their homes unoccupied with lights burning inside. Publicity or fines may be indicted in the future.”

And there were other problems, such as when, “synchronization of the public warning system failed due to misinterpretation of signals at Fire Station Number Three.”

Finally, “the city’s communications system was overloaded by an unnecessary and considerable increase in telephone traffic.”

It appears everyone wanted to talk about it, even sitting in the dark.

Amsterdam’s “public warning system” was certainly sure to alert entire neighborhoods to instantly de-light their houses.

It was the detonating of a scary, universally-detested explosive device known as an “aerial bomb” designed to simulate the sound of a real bomb dropped from an airplane.

In cities having multiple fire stations or grade schools, the devices were set off outside. They were horribly loud and no one, save the totally-deaf, could pretend they didn’t hear one. They terrified animals and children, myself included, and it didn’t help that we lived just up the block from the Market Hill section firehouse.

By contrast, all-clear signals, such as church or school bells, firehouse sirens and factory whistles, were most welcomed, bringing with them the universal rush for the nearest light switch, but I’ll never understand why those cursed bombs always seemed to explode just when Fibber McGee on the radio was about to open the door to his closet.