City of Alameda Defense Council Chemical Warfare Bulletin No. 1

Leigh Anne Oliver Grey    It would’ve been a different run on the stores back in 1942 when the City of Alameda released a guide on how to protect oneself from gas warfare.

Alameda wanted 1942 residents ready for gas attack

A folded bundle of faded, mimeographed copies of a single-page, double-sided bulletin dated April 18, 1942, sat in a drawer for years until my husband cleaned it out as part of a massive de-cluttering effort during shelter-at-home at our house. I had picked it up at an estate sale because the title was so strange. 

The procedures read like the simple, logistical disruption to life that we find in our world today. The rules are simple; they are meant to save lives. It seems that the City of Alameda prepared for an event (albeit just prior to World War II) that could’ve created conditions quite similar to what we experience now during the coronavirus pandemic.

The date is the same as that of the Doolittle Raid, which was the first retaliatory strike on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Alameda’s native son, Jimmy Doolittle, led the mission from here on the U.S.S. Hornet deep into the Western Pacific Ocean. 

Further research shows that a city ordinance set up the Alameda Defense Council in 1941 “for the purpose of enabling the city to go along with World War II” (City Council Minutes, May 19, 1950). This was the first bulletin that they printed.

“If you remain indoors there is very little likelihood that you will be splashed. However, if you have been caught out of doors and have been splashed with mustard or lewisite liquid, act quickly!” states the bulletin. “Do not breathe deeply. Enter first house that is available. Before entering house, remove clothing and shoes and leave them outside.”

The instructions give an eerily similar feel to what we just went through to prepare for the pandemic. Stay home. Wash your hands. Sew yourself a mask. 

“In the event you have been in an area where it might be possible that you have breathed gas, be sure to get out of the area, remove outer clothing and shoes, wash thoroughly with laundry soap and water, lie down, keep warm, call a doctor,” state the instructions.

As one reads through the bulletin, it becomes clear that the tools for survival — just as now — are the most basic.

It feels a lot like we are fighting an unseen war right now. There is no immunological protection, so we adjust our behavior in the face of a new virus that confronts our mortality. 

Although we will not walk into the nearest home to wash toxic chemicals from our skin as suggested to Island residents during World War II, we cannot escape our mutual need for safety.  To win this war, we work together. For my household, we cry for connection with the outside world. Especially now, when it is not allowed.

“Put on clean clothing and lie down. Keep warm. Be examined by a doctor.” When things feel overwhelming in this war, keep it simple.