“Well, we were all young and crazy and it was fine, what’s another magazine? Starting something that never existed before is already exhilarating.”
-- William C. Sturgeon on starting Civil Defender in 1955
Elevator World, Asphalt, General Dentistry, Waste News – unless you're a working participant in the various fields that these publications cater to, you've probably never even heard of them. Indeed, the “trade” or “industry” periodical is that mainstay of publishing that remains mostly invisible to the greater public, but is studied and archived by its grateful target readership. With the exception of Daily Variety, Advertising Age and a few other titles, the majority of these magazines never see the light of day on a newsstand, but each serves a significant purpose to its core audience. Moreover, when an industry is displaced due to technological advances, economic reasons or cultural changes, the back catalog of the particular journal that covered it automatically becomes an invaluable historical document, a chronology of an era. Some, obviously, are better than others.
Given the enormous focus placed on the subject of Civil Defense in the 1950s, it should come as no surprise that there was a trade publication devoted to the topic. Perhaps the only shock is that there was only one magazine tackling this panicky beat. From August of 1955 to December of 1957 Civil Defender covered the Cold War from a unique perspective in its 27 issues. Any serious student of this period in our nation’s history would be sorely remiss if they did not read every edition of Civil Defender. For within its covers, the reader is treated to an especially granular view of the Golden Age of Homeland Security. Where else, for example, would one find advertisements for Civil Defense sirens and warden firearms alongside reviews of the latest government-produced motion pictures on survival? Most importantly the Defender preserves a record of many of the otherwise unreported volunteer efforts that took place during the brief era when Civil Defense seemed viable. CNN may have produced a 24 part series on the Cold War, but even this seemingly definitive program missed a lot of the delightful minutiae that makes Civil Defender such a fascinating and addictive read.
Archival copies of the Defender now reside in the bowels of the Library of Congress, but to really understand the full history of the magazine there is only one place to go and one man to see: Mobile, Alabama and William C. Sturgeon, Civil Defender’s founder and editor. CONELRAD’s Bill Geerhart made the trip back in 2006.
One of the first things one notices when meeting William C. Sturgeon is the surprising mobility and mental acuity that he possesses. Indeed, for a man pushing 90 (at the time of our interview) his intellectual prowess alone is nothing short of a revelation. The hundreds of history books that sit on the shelves throughout his home immediately convey to the visitor that this is a man who cares deeply about the past and has an unquenchable curiosity about the world.
Mr. Sturgeon’s deliberate, southern-tinged drawl is reminiscent of latter-day Jimmy Stewart, a vocal pattern he attributes to decades of traveling abroad on business where he would often have to speak very slowly to be understood. And that dash of a southern accent? That is courtesy of Sturgeon’s adopted hometown of Mobile, Alabama—the native New Yorker met his future wife there while serving as a trainer in aircraft warning systems during World War II. After the war, the newly discharged Army captain set down roots in Mobile to build up his in-laws’ elevator contracting firm. It was while turning the family company into a regional powerhouse that Mr. Sturgeon realized a trade publication for that industry was desperately needed to link vendors and other industry professionals. So in 1953, on the second floor of 56 St. Michael St. (since demolished), Elevator World was born. Both Elevator World and its younger print sibling, Civil Defender, were supported, initially, by the thriving elevator contracting business that was headquartered just across the street.
Mr. Sturgeon admitted during an aside to our interview that he initially found the South hard to adapt to. After 60 years of civic, cultural and economic contributions that he has made to the Mobile community, there can be little doubt as to where this retired businessman’s heart lies.
We conducted our interview at Mr. Sturgeon’s residence where he was kind enough to spare a couple of hours talking about his eventful life and career. He also discussed some of the atomic tests that he has personally witnessed. Never out of view during our discussion was a large, plain bound book that contains every original issue of Civil Defender.
CONELRAD: How did you come to be Civil Defense Director of Mobile, Alabama in the early 1950s?
STURGEON: Part of the response to the Cold War was the establishment of the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA). Cities that were presumed to be targets were urged to appoint CD Directors and form an organization that would prepare inhabitants for attack. A retired General, Jimmie Mollison, who had been Base Commander at Brookley Field in Mobile, was hired as Director at a very nominal salary and budget. When the budget was cut he left the position. He also may have seen the handwriting on the wall.
How I replaced him as CD Director is a long story. I had enlisted in the US Army some time before Pearl Harbor. My father had been a career Navy man, well versed in history and could read signs that the US would eventually enter the war. He urged me to enlist and I finally served five years filling every grade and rank from Private to Captain. I had worked for Niagara Hudson Power Company in Utica, New York as a lineman – no money for college – and the recruiting officer who signed me up probably used this as an excuse to place me in the Aircraft Warning Service. I was in the cadre that formed the 1st Aircraft Warning Company at Mitchell Field in Long Island. With radar from the British and MIT being short, we spent much of our time setting up filter and operations centers manned by civilian women plotters. Those in the Ops Center were to watch the simulated plots of enemy aircraft – we were based upon the British system which did have nearby bombers to contend with. On-looking representatives of the Air Force, Anti-aircraft and Civil Defense were to take appropriate action when something was spotted. We also made trips into the field to train aircraft spotters who would report into the centers as back-up for radar.
I was a Tech Sgt at the time of Pearl Harbor, operating out of the 2nd Aircraft Warning Company in Tampa and had previously set up plotting centers in Raleigh, Columbia and Charleston. All our officers were out on the West Coast for maneuvers when the Japanese struck which, many years later, made me think that there was knowledge in high places that a strike was imminent in the Pacific. I immediately hitched a bomber ride to Charleston where the women had already opened a plotting center. After a few weeks it could be seen that an attack on the continental US was not coming and we shifted our attention to training companies and battalions for overseas work. This was accomplished at the Aircraft Warning Training Center (AWTC) in Tampa. I made one more training move to the Ops Center in Mobile where I met my future wife.
CONELRAD: You eventually went to Iwo Jima. What did you do there?
STURGEON: For the Iwo Jima operation we were responsible for landing with the Sea-Bees and getting communications as soon as possible to the first airstrip and to place long-range radar on Mt Suribachi. We guided many bombers to Japan and back to the Marianas, and to Iwo Jima when they couldn’t make it home.
CONELRAD: What did you do immediately after the war and how did that lead you into the Civil Defense role?
STURGEON: Two weeks after mustering out I was in the elevator contracting business but I was still enthused about the military, so I joined the National Guard as a Company Commander. Joe Langan, the regimental commander became a friend. After I resigned from the Guard due to business pressures Joe became a Brig. General and later Mayor of Mobile. He was Mayor when General Mollison left Civil Defense and talked to me about becoming CD Director. I had just finished as Chairman of the Citizens for Eisenhower. Mobile went Republican for the first time since the Civil War in ’52 and I had a good rapport with a number of civic leaders. By the way, I had met General Eisenhower at the Taft Hotel in New York City when he was running for President and I was very impressed. Anyway, I told Joe that to get volunteers for Civil Defense I would have to be a volunteer, as well, so I accepted the post. Then it was a case of trying to find out what the national policy was.
CONELRAD: Did you ever meet Val Peterson, the first Director of the FCDA?
STURGEON: I met with him a number of times. He had been a good Governor for Nebraska and served in the Air Force. He was a hail-fellow-well-met type who was a good listener and a believable speaker. No doubt he was a political appointee, but he was no hack and had administrative experience.
CONELRAD: Your strategy of needing to be a volunteer yourself in order to recruit other volunteers for Civil Defense worked. Who were some of the officials who joined you?
STURGEON: We staffed up with the Police and Fire Chiefs, the Welfare Director, Red Cross and others who would be defense factors.
CONELRAD: Tell us about how you approached your job as CD Director.
STURGEON: I thought communications was the first order of business and we did get matching funds for two-way radios in our fire and police vehicles. At the time, I felt that we needed more support and intelligence from the upper layers of government. However, in the next real war the military would be stretched thin and the civilians would have to take up the slack. People had a messianic faith in Eisenhower’s leadership. That helped. I think the faith in political leadership has since waned and the military is looked upon far more favorably than the politicos. Civil Defense authority varied with the States, Counties and Cities as the responsibility was delegated to them. FCDA had no power to enforce anything and whereas the military budget was in the hundreds of billions, FCDA had an appropriation of two million dollars in a good year. As Gov. Peterson once said, “We are like a fighter with a deadly right hand and a glass jaw!” Civil Defense was a planning and educational entity; we were also getting mixed messages regarding the nature of the enemy threat. At first it was “duck and cover”. Then it was evacuation and last of all – shelters. And we had little idea of what was being accomplished in other city programs. So, not only was tactical communications necessary on the local level; we had to know what others were accomplishing in other home defense organizations.
CONELRAD: Speaking of evacuations, you were involved in some historic evacuation exercises such as Operation Scat (1954) and Operation Kids (1955) in Mobile. Could you tell us about these activities?
STURGEON: Evacuation we could do without much funding. It just involved people. At first we merely emptied out the center of Mobile and many people walked out to a perimeter (Editor’s note: This was Operation Scat). This enabled us to test our communications and receive needed publicity. The next evacuation was to take the 55,000 schoolchildren in the County system out of the schools to designated areas 25 to 30 miles away from city center (Editor’s note: This was Operation Kids). We had the full cooperation of the School Board and Superintendent and each child, parent and teacher was given a map showing the pick-up area, direction of motion and route to the receiving point. If parents could not pick their kids up, then neighbors, taxis and other volunteers had their assignments. One problem was psychological – parents did not wish to be separated from their children. They would live or die as a family. We cited the fact that British children had been moved from the target areas to the countryside. But, then, the British were actually involved in a real war. Also, the small towns’ designated reception areas were not prepared to handle this many children and drivers. The test evacuees merely turned around and came back. A number of FCDA officials were on hand to observe as well as CD Directors from a few other cities. Our communications were improving and our alternate control room was in a trailer located on high ground west of the city. At this time the FCDA policy was shifted from evacuation to shelter-building. The signals from higher levels were mixed. But then the enemy threat was increasing faster than plans for countermeasures. The DEW (Distant Early Warning) line had been seen as early warning for aircraft delivered nuclear weapons but then the ICBMs would come with little warning. Martial law was much discussed but the Joint Chiefs had gone on record that their job was offense. I think FCDA knew that it would be martial law in case of a national catastrophe.
CONELRAD: Did you yourself have a family shelter?
STURGEON: I never had a shelter for myself and family. We established some central shelters (for public use in Mobile) and stored rations in them.
CONELRAD: Is the information/communication gap that you saw in the elevator contracting business what gave you the idea for Civil Defender? If so, the impetus would seem to be similar to Elevator World’s start.
STURGEON: Yes. When the elevator magazine started it filled a big hole. (It was as if) Why didn’t we do that before? It’s such a welcome thing. It seemed to me that Civil Defense was about the same situation. You have a lot of people scattered all over the country but they couldn’t exchange information with each other. The information was coming down from Battle Creek. It might have stopped in the state capital if they didn’t have a hotshot man. And then it might have gotten down to city or county and it would either take or wouldn’t take, but the Civil Defense people weren’t talking to each other. The value of Elevator World was for the first time contractors and suppliers could talk to each other about their experiences because the good stuff always comes up from the grass roots in the field.
CONELRAD: So, you were inspired to start Civil Defender on this model?
STURGEON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. So I went up to Battle Creek and talked to Val Peterson. To digress, I think one of problems was that for strategic reasons they put him outside of Washington. And I showed him some copies of Elevator World and told him I had this little staff of about four people and he thought about it for a while. He wanted it to be a private magazine, but I didn’t have the names of the people (potential subscribers) in the first place. They gave me a list of 20,000 names. They had one of their PR men assigned to me and he came down from Battle Creek and spent about three days in Mobile. And he was gathering information on the national level and I was trying to pull it in from the grass roots. And they paid the printing bill and we provided the staff because they had the extra time.
CONELRAD: So the Elevator World staff did double duty?
CONELRAD: Why did Val Peterson want it to be a private magazine?
STURGEON: I think he felt psychologically that if the editor was going through the same problems and it was being written by someone at the grass roots then the other grass roots people wouldn’t think it was being put out by the bureaucracy and they’d put more faith in it.
CONELRAD: You have some advertising in the magazine. Was it enough to support the staff?
STURGEON: No, we tried to get advertising to support the magazine. We did get some, but it never was enough.
CONELRAD: Did the FCDA cover printing costs for the entire run of the magazine?
CONELRAD: What about the mailing?
STURGEON: The mailing and the printing costs were covered, but the staff was not.
CONELRAD: Who were the original subscribers?
STURGEON: The FCDA gave me that list of 20,000 names of those considered to be activists in the program, nationwide.
CONELRAD: Was Civil Defender ever available on newsstands?
STURGEON: We were never able to place it on the newsstands.
CONELRAD: How did your Elevator World staff react to their new duties?
STURGEON: Well, we were all young and crazy and it was fine, what’s another magazine? Starting something that never existed before is already exhilarating.
CONELRAD: Did they develop an interest in Civil Defense?
STURGEON: Yeah, I think so. I think so.
CONELRAD: Did you have editorial meetings once a week?
STURGEON: Yeah. It took a while for the magazine to come out to generate feedback where we would have other story ideas.
CONELRAD: Did you clear the content of the magazine with Val Peterson?
CONELRAD: The cover of the December 1956 issue has a rather arresting image of the Hollywood starlet Elaine Stewart holding a cut-out of cartoonist Al Capp’s Civil Defense mascot “Mister CD.” Did you meet Ms. Stewart?
STURGEON: Unfortunately, I never was even close to Elaine Stewart!
CONELRAD: How did you come to decide to put her on the cover?
STURGEON: Well, as you can tell by the covers, it wasn’t easy to find something dramatic to put on the cover. So if you have a real good picture of somebody like that, why you just put it on there. Sometimes we were really reaching for material.
CONELRAD: One of our favorite features of the magazine is the “New Films” sections in which the newly issued Civil Defense films would be discussed. Did you and your staff watch all of the films?
STURGEON: No, as they were made available we’d just advertise them and said what the content was.
CONELRAD: How many atomic tests have you personally witnessed?
STURGEON: Three out at Las Vegas and then the Hydrogen. We made several trips (in Las Vegas) to Frenchman’s Flat, a proving ground. I don’t think the servicemen knew (about the awesome nature of the Bomb). On one test I was in the trenches with them and when the shot came through it felt for an instant as if the ground had become liquefied.
CONELRAD: The fact that Las Vegas exploited the Bomb is well known. When you went to see the tests did you notice this?
STURGEON: When you’re out there to see the Bomb you didn’t have time to see any shows or anything like that because it must have taken at least an hour or an hour and a half on the busses to go out to the test site. So you’d either stay up or get up at about 2 in the morning. The shots would usually go off at 4AM. And maybe you’d go out and it wouldn’t go off. It would be canceled. Then you’d go back and go to bed.
CONELRAD: You went to these tests in your capacity as a Civil Defense official, correct?
STURGEON: Yes and some of my staff would go, too.
CONELRAD: Could you describe what it was like to see your first atomic explosion? Was it mind blowing?
STURGEON: It must have been pretty small. Not knowing how big the shell was, I didn’t know what to make of it. You could feel the heat, you could feel the wind. You could hear the thunder as it passed over.
CONELRAD: In the trench?
CONELRAD: Were you worried for your own safety?
STURGEON: No. We didn’t know what there was to worry about. We didn’t have any of the radiation badges or anything like that.
CONELRAD: Subsequently, when you learned more about radiation, did you worry about exposure?
CONELRAD: Did you have yourself examined by a doctor for cancer?
STURGEON: Oh, I have. A number of times. Apparently it had no effect.
CONELRAD: It must have been strange to see the tests in the backdrop of Sin City.
STURGEON: Yes. I think it was having it so close to Las Vegas where there was so much frivolity and gayety and business as usual, let the good times roll, and then you’d get on the bus and you’d be out in the dark desert.
CONELRAD: Quite a contrast.
CONELRAD: What was the size of the H-bomb test you witnessed?
STURGEON: I think it was 30 megatons (Editor’s note: the test that Mr. Sturgeon witnessed, Operation Redwing, Cherokee Event—the first air delivered drop of an H-Bomb—had an estimated yield of 3.8 Mt).
CONELRAD: So clearly the H-bomb test that you witnessed was more impressive than the Vegas tests.
STURGEON: Ohhh, yes. Hiroshima was about 17 Kilotons. It would be hard to describe the hydrogen bomb. It just filled up the sky. I have a color picture of it at the office at five miles altitude from another plane. It is just unearthly, I guess is the best way to describe it. I think I wrote once that it returned material, people, sand, water back into the basic elements that existed in the beginning of the cosmos.
CONELRAD: You were on board the USS Mount McKinley when you witnessed it. Did the ship move?
STURGEON: It pushed back. We were holding onto the handrails.
CONELRAD: Was there a verbal response to the explosion among the other witnesses? Or was it silence?
STURGEON: Silence. I can’t think of anyone who said anything. It was just too much to take in. We just went below to write our stories. It was a turning point in my life. There was no defense.
CONELRAD: This contributed to your decision to fold Civil Defender?
CONELRAD: Who succeeded you as CD Director in Mobile?
STURGEON: The assistant Police Chief who was my Communications Director.
CONELRAD: You closed the magazine and resigned as CD Director at approximately the same time. Did you keep in touch with people from the Civil Defense era of your life?
STURGEON: No. I was pretty much done. I was doing a lot of traveling then. Overseas. I just didn’t keep track of it. I was pretty busy.
CONELRAD: You’re biggest contribution to Civil Defense were the evacuation tests?
STURGEON: That and the magazine… we just didn’t know what to tell anybody anymore. You know a magazine has to have a policy.
CONELRAD: Have you followed the educational efforts of the Department of Homeland Security?
CONELRAD: Does it surprise you that people still talk about Civil Defense?
STURGEON: I haven’t heard people talk about Civil Defense in many years. I think people are numb to it—put it out of their minds.
CONELRAD: You finally decided to fold Civil Defender in 1957 because…
STURGEON: I couldn’t tell anybody anything positive.
CONELRAD: Did you feel the urge to get back into Civil Defense during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
STURGEON: No. My daughter was in college then. She was very upset. And I was trying to calm her down. At that time it would have been mutual destruction. The atomic age changed everything.
CONELRAD: Last question. There was a wire service article from 1955* that we came across in our research that described you as follows: “Sturgeon, a severe-looking man who accents a resemblance to Napoleon by brushing his hair forward.” Do you have any reaction to this description?
STURGEON: I’m taller than Napoleon!
Wiliam C. Sturgeon still contributes to special projects for his beloved Elevator World which is now in its 57th year of publication. The magazine remains under the steady hand of the Sturgeon family.
The foregoing interview was conducted on April 8, 2006. Some content has been edited for continuity and clarity. CONELRAD would like to thank Mr. Sturgeon for his time and hospitality. CONELRAD would also like to thank Ricia S. Hendrick, Mr. Sturgeon’s daughter, for her time.
Note: Images that accompany this article are used with the sole permission of Mr. Sturgeon and may not be used for any other purpose.
* INS Wire Story, March 6, 1955