Missile crisis caused concern, not panic, in North Hills, Eld says
Worries about the potential dangers of the Cold War were at the top of many people's minds during the early 1960s.
John Eld, then a recent high school graduate, was fascinated by the U.S. Civil Defense logo with its red initials inside a white triangle and a blue circle. The McCandless man couldn't wait to join the local civil-defense team to keep his community safe.
Eld recalled his excitement when he presented a program on local civil defense June 13 at the Northland Public Library in McCandless.
He brought radiological instruments, pamphlets and a recording of President John F. Kennedy's address when the Cuban Missile Crisis began in October 1962. It was a time when fallout shelters were being built and children learned to “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear attack.
Asked if the nation was prepared, Eld, 71, said, “No, we were not. We would have all been toast” if, for example, a nuclear blast had occurred 35 miles away, spreading radioactivity and producing second-degree burns on exposed skin.
Eld became the radiological director for the Regional Civil Defense Council, which linked officials from Ross, Pine and Marshall townships, along with Franklin Park, Bradford Woods and McCandless.
They promised mutual aid in the event of an attack. There was no countywide plan.
“I got a badge and two lieutenant's bars,” Eld said.
When he was a University of Pittsburgh student in 1962, Eld helped Green Engineering Co. survey buildings for use as public fallout shelters. In all, 174 were selected.
“Civil defense was a bottom-up program,” Eld said. “It was a voluntary effort that worked with governments to protect self, families and homes.”
After Kennedy's televised speech during the missile crisis, a “high-alert” phone call sent Eld on an errand. He went to a McKnight Road hardware store to buy special batteries for his hand-held radiation detector.
When he told the clerk the country was under “national alert,” the man responded: “Are you gonna pay for them?”
At the time, military personnel staffed Nike Hercules missile and fire control sites that ringed Pittsburgh. Launch sites were at North Park; Dorseyville in Indiana Township; in Ohio Township, where Avonworth High School is today; and in West Deer Township. The missiles had a range of about 90 miles.
They were more advanced than the Nike Ajax missiles and anti-aircraft guns that preceded them, said Tom Koedel, 62, a Ross Township resident with an interest in military history.
“Even with the Nike Hercules system, there (was) always the possibility that one of the enemy's bombers or missiles might get through your defenses,” he said. “With a conventional warhead, this could be very bad, depending where the attack hits. With a nuclear warhead, the results could be much, much worse.”
Koedel's interest in Cold War air defense was piqued when he learned about the weapons site on his neighbor's property, Schramm's farm, where Ross Park Mall is today.
The 13-day crisis ended with no need to send local residents to their basements, or into shelters, where comfort wasn't an option. The 10 square feet allowed for each person was hardly enough room to lie down, Eld said.
“It was dark, damp, with no electricity, heat or communications,” he said. Those in shelters would have subsisted on about 10 crackers and two quarts of water a day — for two weeks.
“There was no panic, just concern in the North Hills” during the crisis, Eld said. It ended when Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered missiles in Cuba to be dismantled, Eld said.
“We had come close to Armageddon in a technologically primitive time with landline telephones, commercial radio and TV, teletype machines, manual typewriters, carbon paper, no 911 and no EMS,” he said.
But as everyday technology advanced, so did weaponry.
“What we worry about now is not a nuclear attack, but an EMP – an electromagnetic pulse, which fries anything with a circuit board,” Eld said.
Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or firstname.lastname@example.org.