In 1948 the Los Angeles Times company launched a tabloid called the Los Angeles Mirror to take on the city’s other afternoon papers—the Daily News and the Herald-Express. The Mirror was not an immediate hit, but once publisher Virgil Pinkley and managing editor Hugh “Bud” Lewis started emphasizing the tabloid staples of sex, crime and human interest crusades, the paper’s circulation quickly grew to 140,000 readers.
One of the Mirror’s specialties was over-the-top “journalistic” publicity stunts that used the city of Los Angeles as an unwitting foil. Two of these stories caught CONELRAD’s attention because of their outrageous exploitation of Cold War fears. The first concerns a feature timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the second addresses the prescient concerns of the paper over the danger of suitcase nukes.
CONELRAD is pleased to be able to share these examples of vintage Atomic Tabloid with you…
ATOMIC TABLOID # 1: ATOMIC PEARL HARBOR
“L.A. MOCK BOMBED” was the screaming headline of the December 6, 1951 “extra” edition of the Mirror that came complete with a mushroom cloud background. A note from the publisher in a front-page box explained the noble goal of the newspaper:
OPERATION WAKE UP
Today’s Mirror, on the eve of the Pearl Harbor anniversary, is dedicated to the high purpose of alerting Los Angeles to the grave need of civilian defense. The Mirror and the Civil Air Patrol “bombed” the city with 2,000,000 leaflets asking all sensible citizens to wake up to the insistent, personal demands of home defense—one of the most vital elements of national security.
-- VIRGIL PINKLEY, Editor and Publisher
Inside the paper the “bombing” was played big with several pages devoted to coverage of the wholly manufactured event. No self-congratulatory angle was left unexplored—including the very fact that an “extra” edition had been published in the first place:
THE MIRROR REPORTS L.A.’s BOMB MISSION
Scant minutes after “Operation Wake-Up” paper bombs hit Los Angeles, The Mirror’s civil defense EXTRA was on every “target street corner…”
At the center of all the breathless sidebars, though, was the more or less straight news story describing the actual “bombing.” It was headlined “38 CAP Planes Drop Grim Warning Leaflets” and it was reported by James Bassett:
Thirty-eight planes of the Civil Air Patrol “bombed” Los Angeles today.
Down from lowering slate-gray skies, exactly at 10:41 a.m., the first of 2,000,000 “paper block-busters” struck lower Broadway.
Three minutes later these leaflets, carrying a stark message to inhabitants of America’s third largest city, reached the heart of the downtown business sector.
Hurled from the CAP ships, which rumbled in V-formations over the unwary metropolis, the “bombs” inundated Civic Center, Boyle Heights, the Crenshaw district, Hollywood, the Miracle Mile, and a score of other key centers from Highland Park to San Pedro’s waterfront.
Each demanded bluntly:
“If the Civil Air Patrol, flying this warning mission in co-operation with The Mirror, had been the enemy, would YOU have been prepared?”
While “Operation Wake-Up” leaflets were still falling, City Council quickly moved to commend The Mirror and the CAP.
“Gentlemen,” said Councilman Ed Davenport, “Los Angeles is being ‘bombed’ right now!”
Civic leaders joined in congratulating the cosponsors of this dramatic projects [sic] aimed at alerting Southlanders to their lagging home defenses.
At Seventh St. and Broadway, a policeman declared:
“It’s high time the people woke up!”
Citizens scrambled for the crimson-colored “paper bombs” as they fluttered slowly earthward. In surprised queues, they gawked towards the morning skies to watch CAP squadrons pass overhead, puffs of leaflets trailing each speeding craft.
Another policeman said gravely: “It COULD happen here.”
The article droned on for another two columns about Los Angeles’s dire need for civil defense. The next day, of course, the Mirror published follow-up stories on how “Operation Wake-Up” had improved civil defense awareness:
…an estimated 3,000,000 had brand new realization of the dangers attendant on the Cold War—the strange conflict that may continue for years.
On December 10, 1951, the Mirror published letters from readers praising the paper for its civic leadership:
Your Operation Wake-Up—the paper bombing of Los Angeles—and the tremendous spread you gave civil defense in the Mirror last Thursday was terrific. The people of Los Angeles owe you thanks.
Since you published my “Warden Needed” letter on Nov. 15 many fine people have called me, ready to do their part.
One dangerous man called me and asked, “How do I know we need civil defense?” There are plenty like him who do everything they can to discourage civil defense. That’s what the Communists want.
--Joseph L. Friedenthal, Los Angeles
I remember Pearl Harbor, that fateful day the Japanese bombed it.
This morning when the CAP “bombed” Los Angeles my mind went back to that day and in the faces of Angelenos I could almost see the people of Honolulu once again.
If bombs really fell on Los Angeles, without a doubt the people would react just as the people of Honolulu did, dashing madly around the streets asking the same question I heard thousands of times that day, “What shall I do?”
My answer then was, “Nothing. It’s too late!” But today let’s open our eyes to reality and lock the door before the horse is stolen.
Let’s don’t run around in the streets after it’s happened asking the silly question, “What can we do?” Let’s find out NOW.
--Bob Roderick, Los Angeles
ATOMIC TABLOID # 2: ATOMIC EASTER EGGS
Several years later, the Mirror executed another blockbuster example of participatory journalism. The inspiration for this particular “story” was the revelation in March of 1954 that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had, several months earlier, issued a warning to law enforcement about the possibility of atomic bomb components being smuggled into the United States by enemy agents.  The Mirror took the portable atomic weapon angle and ran with it.
Within two weeks of the news of the FBI’s advisory becoming public, the Mirror had put together a multi-article feature headlined “I SMUGGLED MOCK A-BOMBS INTO L.A.” The alarmist copy was accompanied by a photograph of reporter Sid Hughes (1908-1958) with “bombs” in his car and an artist’s conception of what a portable nuclear weapon might look like.
The following is a transcription of the main article:
PLANTING OF 10 ‘A-BOMBS’ TOLD BY MIRROR REPORTER
By Sid Hughes, Mirror Staff Writer
I was assigned to pose as an enemy agent and smuggle imitation baby A-bombs across the border into California.
It was ridiculously easy.
In three days I planted 10 suitcase bombs—actually harmless pieces of pipe—in vital defense centers and in heavily populated industrial areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
At the moment the “bombs” are hidden on the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, in Lockheed’s Burbank plant, International Airport, Los Angeles Harbor, two strategic water and power dams and downtown L.A. They are numbered and easily can be identified—once they are found.
If I were an enemy agent, you—or someone you know—would be dead, Los Angeles and San Francisco would be in flames and their defense industries crippled.
California’s two major cities would be in a state of panic. Roads and exits not blocked by the bombs would be clogged with people and vehicles stampeding for open country. A possible enemy follow-up by super-bombs, launched from submarines or intercontinental bombers, would find the cities’ defenses paralyzed.
The enemy well might be able to save his H-bombs and giant A-bombs for other targets.
According to defense authorities, suitcase saboteurs, acting simultaneously throughout the country, could be the agents of a Pearl Harbor of World War III.
The FBI has warned against easily transportable miniature A-bombs with their horrible capabilities. The warning—and a description of the suitcase bomb—was issued as a means of alerting citizens to the dangers of saboteurs and to spurring Civil Defense measures.
My assignment was to dramatize the FBI warning.
The editors of the Mirror—and the nation’s defense leaders—believe the American people must be steeled to live with the atom. To do this, we must have knowledge of its strategic applications and be prepared to use every safeguard and countermeasure against it.
The purpose of this story is to:
- Publicize the peril of new atomic weapons in metropolitan areas.
- Stimulate lagging Civil Defense preparations.
- Spotlight the need for tighter security measures at our borders.
- Point up the necessity of perfecting evacuation procedures and emphasizing the alarming lack of exit roads in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
- Assist the FBI.
According to the FBI, the miniature A-bomb may be housed in a steel tube no longer than 2 ½ feet with a bore diameter of 2 to 12 inches and a simple breechblock at either end.
The fissionable material can either be processed uranium or plutonium, or both. The steel tube can be coated with lead to prevent detection by Geiger counters.
Total weight need not be more than 100 pounds. There would be no clock mechanism to give off a ticking sound, and the short barrel and cylindrical shape would make it relatively simple to hide in hand luggage, golf bags, cardboard cartons or sea duffel.
The suitcase A-bomb is reputed to be more than the A-bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki—with the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.
The Mirror had imitation midget A-bombs made in a Los Angeles machine shop. Two feet long with a bore of slightly over two inches, they looked like the real thing.
I had no difficulty crossing and recrossing the border at Tijuana. It was shockingly simple.
Once in Mexico, I removed the “bombs” from the trunk of my car and placed them in the back seat—in full view of any inspecting eyes. It was a waste of time. No one looked.
I crossed the border at 9:25 a.m. on a week day with photographer Gene Hackley, who accompanied me on the “smuggling” trip. The customs inspection was routine.
“Where were you born?”
Hackley answered “Missouri.’ I was born in England and it was necessary for me to show my naturalization papers. I might add that credentials or the lack of them are no handicap to a saboteur. Forged papers are obtained easily in Tijuana and at a dozen other places on our border.
The “inspection” took 40 seconds.
Six hours later I planted the mock A-bomb—Number 153—at mammoth Parker Dam, which supplies water and electric power to Los Angeles and most of the Southland.
For a reporter it was relatively easy. For a trained secret agent it would have been child’s play.
I parked at the edge of the dam site, carried the bomb to the center of the dam and hid it in a crevice of a towering column. No one stopped me. I doubt if anyone even saw me. The only two persons in the area were workmen about a quarter of a mile away.
One car passed as Hackley was taking a picture of me planting the bomb. “Hey,” the driver shouted, “don’t you know you can’t take cameras in here?” We ignored him and he drove on.
I walked away from the planted “bomb” with the uneasy feeling that an enemy agent actually had destroyed one of L.A.’s lifelines with a single midget bomb having a destructive radius of two miles.
Planting the other nine “bombs” was similarly easy. Here’s the itinerary and time schedule of a saboteur bent on wreaking death and destruction throughout the State:
HOOVER DAM, Bomb 154, mid-morning – There were a half dozen armed guards at the dam site but not one noticed me as I carried the “bomb” into a maintenance closet adjoining the men’s restroom on the Nevada side and secreted it behind a cabinet. As I left, a loud-speaker was proudly heralding the 5,000,000th admission to the guided tour.
SAN FRANCISCO’S GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE, Bomb 152, 10:30 a.m., second day—It was raining when I placed the third “bomb” behind a 4X4 wooden bracing on the bridge railing 35 feet from the suspension tower on the Marin County end. Nearby, a sign warned: “Military Reservation. No trespassing.”
OAKLAND-SAN FRANCISCO BAY BRIDGE, Bomb 151, two-hours later—I planted two “bombs” on the Bay Bridge although one would suffice to cut this vital link in the industrial complex and bottle up what shipping it didn’t destroy in San Francisco Harbor.
I planted the first “bomb” in a concrete blockhouse on the bridge’s upper level. Then, as a further test of public vigilance, I put a second “bomb” behind a massive iron brace directly opposite the bridge approach to the Navy’s Treasure Island.
MAIN HIGHWAY JUNCTION L.A., Bomb 145, daybreak, third day—I placed this “bomb” six feet from the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s main link to the north near the junction of Highway 99 and 6 and in sight of the spillway and aqueduct for the Owens Valley water supply. This was intended to sever two of the most important evacuation roads in the Los Angeles area and cut off water.
LOCKHEED AIR TERMINAL, Bomb 146. 7:30 a.m.—Call Thornwall 6-9203 and ask anyone who answers to look on top of the phone booth. There you will find the seventh of my A-bombs. The public booth is but a stone’s throw from the assembly lines where many of the nation’s war planes are made.
And in the immediate vicinity are acres and acres of homes and tens of thousands of people. An A-bomb would destroy the factory totally. Few residents in the blast area would survive.
FREEWAY CLOVERLEAF, CIVIC CENTER, Bomb 147, 10:00 a.m.—A stalled auto on the freeway is no cause for alarm. Happens every day. I had a “breakdown” on the lower level of the freeway stack downtown—just long enough to plant an “egg” off the roadside and cover it with refuse and debris.
That “bomb” could blow the heart out of L.A., and cripple emergency and law enforcement agencies.
INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Bomb 148, noon, same day—I planted this “bomb” in an air conditioning unit box on the upper deck of the main administration building. International is the hub of our airplane manufacturing industry. In addition to North American Aviation Co. and Hughes Aircraft Co., the area within the blast radius of the midget A-bomb would encompass the majority of aircraft subcontractors and suppliers.
LOS ANGELES HARBOR, Bomb 149, 2 p.m.—Remember the Bikini A-tests when the exploded bomb sent up clouds of radioactive spray which rained on nearby test ships? I placed the last “bomb” under a locked green tool chest eight feet from the water’s edge.
The tool chest is 50 feet from the headquarters of the Police Harbor Patrol and directly across the narrow channel from the Mobil gas plant. BOOM! And then flash burn, radiation and the added horror of fire fed by an outpouring of gas and fumes from the oil-rich area.
That’s the story of 10 pieces of pipe and what they could have done if they were the real thing—and I am an enemy agent.
It’s the story behind the FBI warning against baby A-bombs that can be smuggled into the United States if the people are not informed and alert.
As it did with the atomic leaflet story in 1951, the Mirror milked another day out of the “mock” bomb stunt by reporting on the “recovery” of the “weapons” and the reaction that the exercise had generated. Not surprisingly, everyone commended the paper for its efforts in raising awareness. The following are excerpts from the Mirror’s back-patting:
Mirror Praised as All Planted Imitation A-Bombs Recovered
Civil Defense and police chiefs praised The Mirror for alerting the public to the dangers of saboteurs and stimulating interest in Civil Defense…
Val Peterson, Federal Director of Civil Defense, took time out from a speaking engagement here to commend The Mirror for making the public “Civil Defense conscious”
“The Mirror has shown very graphically it is possible to smuggle A-bombs into this country and to disperse them,” Peterson declared. “But it cannot be done with the H-bomb—if that is any consolation,” he added.
Mayor Paulson [of Los Angeles] — “The Mirror has shown that it is vitally essential that we re-study the problem of our internal security.”
Police Chief [William] Parker — “The demonstration by staff members of The Mirror clearly established that widespread sabotage is possible here. It further demonstrates that every resident of this community has the responsibility of reporting to police any and all suspicious circumstances that may come to their attention.”
Publisher Virgil Pinkley summed up the mission of the “bomb” story in his April 7, 1954 editorial excerpted below. It is an amusingly cool-headed assessment coming from a man who had just sent a reporter and photographer out on a 2,000 mile trek around the southwest planting fake atomic bombs…
Be Alert! That’s ‘Bomb’ Message
A Mirror reporter-photographer team has brought 10 dummy “A-bombs” across the Mexican border and planted them at strategic spots around California.
It was ridiculously easy. That fact should disturb every citizen—especially our public officials.
We’re not trying to scare people. Hysteria and hand-wringing solve nothing in this fantastic age. Neither does that fatalistic sigh, “So what? We can’t do a thing about it.”
As President Eisenhower said Monday night, war is unlikely unless a madman touches it off. Perhaps we can’t prevent insanity, but we can reduce its effects. That’s the prime purpose of civil defense, and the goal of this mock bomb project.
The Mirror (which had become the Mirror-News later in 1954) folded in 1962. In retrospect, this was probably the perfect year for the tabloid to end. After all, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, and Vietnam provided Angelenos with all the real-life hysteria they could handle.
 “Contents of Atom Bomb Warning by FBI Told,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1954.
Note: A portion of the FBI’s December 21, 1953 advisory document can be seen here: http://documents.nytimes.com/declassified-cold-war-documents-show-familiar-worries-over-nuclear-weapons?ref=world#document/p16