From the Wabaunsee Co. Signal-Enterprise January 14, 2010
With the recent increase in airport security due to potential terrorism activities, we might think that Wabaunsee County is far afield from needing to heighten their level of alertness. Lake Wabaunsee already has a history of increasing their involvement in drills for citizens affected by potential ‘threats.’
It happened during the Cold War, one warm day in June that 3,000 airmen, their wives and dependents descended upon Lake Wabaunsee in a day never to be repeated in Wabaunsee county historical annals.
“Operation Alert 1955”, held on June 15, 1955 was a day that the nation theoretically suffered millions of casualties during a mock atomic attack. President Dwight Eisenhower and key government workers hurried from the nation’s capital and went into hiding. 61 strategic U.S. cities were hit with atomic or hydrogen bombs. Civil defense officials described the theoretical losses 7,636,000 “dead”, and 5,002,000 “injured”. Whining air raid sirens sounded in all major cities. Cities attacked included New York, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Paul, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Atlanta, as well as Guam, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal Zone.
In the mock drill, an atomic bomb that was dropped on Kansas City resulted in a complete damage zone 4.1 miles in radius. Because of the proximity of Forbes Air Force Base to Kansas City, evacuation was ordered for the airfield.
Topeka authorities were notified that Kansas City has been crippled from the effects of an ‘atomic bomb’ dropped at 16th and McGee streets. Notification was given that Kansas City had 31,000 ‘dead’ and 33,000 ‘casualties.’
1,700 to 1,800 airmen and civilian workers and an approximate 1,200 wives and dependents were ordered evacuated from the Forbes Air Force Base to Lake Wabaunsee. According to the Topeka State Journal of June 15, 1955, “Hospital patients left on motor pool trucks and a few liter cases were put on ambulances. Children in the base nursery and dependent families without cars were evacuated by bus.”
“Other dependents either left in family cars or assembled at the baseball diamond where private cars picked them up. Air police at the gate stopped any cars not fully loaded and sent them back to the baseball diamond.”
“The bulk of the vehicles on the base were on their way within 15 – 20 minutes. Complete evacuation was scheduled for one hour after the siren sounded.”
“Dependent families took evacuation kits of caned foods and drinking fluids, blankets, first aid equipment and camping gear. Some also took a supply of cash and the family papers, pointing out that these also would be necessary in case of a real attack. All evacuees were instructed to take along provisions enough for four days in the woods.”
The Kansas Highway Patrol estimated 1000 cars journeyed from FAFB to the Wabaunsee County destination.
According to The Topeka Daily Capital on June 16, 1955, “K.A. “Cap” MacKenzie, owner of a fishing lodge at Wabaunsee, said the group of 3,000 was by far the largest crowd I’ve ever seen here at one time.”
“The only near-mishap of the day came when A/1C Jim Burris ran across a 1 ½ foot rattlesnake in the grass near a group of airmen. The snake struck Burris’ field boot but did not penetrate to the skin. Proving to the attack, S/Sgt Charles E. Longfellow swung his carbine and pinned the snaky felon while M/Sgt. R.L.Redfield decapitated the rattler with his Air Force field knife. Two other rattlers were killed near the lake shore during the day, but no snake bites occurred. Minor cuts and bruises comprised the extent of physical injuries.”
“Topeka did not participate in the “Operation Alert 1955 evacuation” but Forbes was required by Strategic Air Command Headquarters to vacate the base. Every other SAC base in the United States conducted similar evacuations.”
“Despite the seriousness and business-like manner in which everyone carried out the mass move, there was still the pleasant side of the day’s activities. Mothers and youngsters spread gaily-colored picnic cloths on the ground for family lunches while Airman Pop joined his buddies inline for ‘tempting’ C-ration dinners.”
“For those who wanted to order outside the menu, there were tow mobile base exchange units and the Lake Wabaunsee Lodge Restaurant. Every eating establishment did a steady business.”
The local paper, The Independent, had a short article that stated Dick Harrold and Dick Duling stood on the corner at the intersection of what we know as K-4 and K-99 highways. The boys had counted over 700 cars turning west, before they grew tired and gave up counting.
Pictures from The Daily Capital and later reprinted in The Independent show a nonstop convoy of cars turning into the gates of Lake Wabaunsee. The pictures were taken from the hilltop now owned by Bob Widau.
Realize that this was previous to the era of satellite communication. This military operation depended upon ham radio operators to convey information from the base to the lake and into SAC headquarters. Much has changed in planning, as well as communication abilities.
Although, I know the military is always prepared for the masses of people, I puzzle over exactly where all the cars were parked, along with the military vehicles. I wonder about the sanitation facilities. Pictures of the multitude of vehicles turning into the lake do not show cars parked in the grassy areas next to the highway. For one day, 54 years ago, Wabaunsee County housed refugees from what we would now call a ‘mock terrorist attack’.
By Bengie Foster, Wabaunsee Co. Historical Society