Monday, January 16, 2012

WARNING RED: Maryland’s Civil Defense Movie

Lo-Joseph Cunningham-Warning Red

“My shelter was just finished a couple of days ago. I thought people would laugh, so I kept it quiet.”

--Mrs. Gray, dowager / civil defense savior in the short film Warning Red

Warning Red (1956) portrays the atomic odyssey of suburbanite Martin Dale who, while on his way home from buying some ice cream, sees the bright flash of the Bomb. Once he gets up from the rubble and puts on his charred fedora, the thirteen-minute film moves forward with its agenda to convey all of the clich├ęd civil defense lessons about remaining in one’s shelter, avoiding contaminated food and staying tuned to CONELRAD. Of course, Mr. Dale ignores most of these rules (“It’s my life I’m risking, I don’t care!” he declares at one point to a tired survivor) by running through the fallout and fire-filled streets trying to find his family.

During Dale’s journey—that seems to take less than five minutes of dramatic time—he encounters a stunned family sitting at a table by candlelight, a man cooking milk on an open fire and a psychotic woman trying to give her baby away. He finds his beloved wife, Karen, and son, Davey, when his older neighbor, Mrs. Gray, appears out of nowhere and leads him and his radioactive clothes into her secret (and giant) bomb shelter. There the Dale family is happily reunited while Mrs. Gray cradles the crazy woman’s infant.

The official coda to the movie is that “You will have a greater chance of survival in an enemy attack or natural disaster if you know what to do…To learn how you can best protect yourself and your family in such an emergency, contact your nearest Civil Defense Office.” The unofficial coda to the movie is that these civil defense-loving survivors will soon be eating ice cream again (even if the scoop girl who so brazenly ignored the CONELRAD alert in the first minutes of the film is probably dead).

Although the very entertaining Warning Red was nationally distributed through the auspices of the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), it is a Maryland movie at its core. The production was filmed at the National Civil Defense Training Center in Olney and its cast—including lead Joseph Cunningham (as Martin Dale)—was made up of local actors from the Sandy Spring Theatre Group. When the movie was completed and ready to screen, it was feted with a Silver Spring premiere and the following press coverage in the Montgomery County Sentinel:

Lo-Sentinel Headline

CD Movie Made in Olney

Warning Red Stars Local Talent, Sites

Twenty Sandy Spring area residents will get a chance to see how they look in the movies tomorrow evening, when “Warning Red,” a Civil Defense Administration motion picture filmed in Montgomery County, has its national premiere at the Viers Mill Theater.

Most of the sequences in “Warning Red” were made at the Olney CD facility and the majority of the cast are members of the Sandy Spring Group, all amateur actors.

The premiere of the film at 8:30 tomorrow evening will have a dash of Hollywood—floodlights bathing the front of the theater, officials of local and Washington Civil Defense offices and the Sherwood High School band.

Joseph Cunningham, a Washington businessman who lives with his wife and three children at Spencerville, stars in the movie.

He appears as a typical suburban homeowner, searching for his family among the flames, smoke and debris that follow an enemy air attack. The film illustrates the things one should do and not do in such a situation.

Other members of the cast include Mrs. James Anderson, Phillip Boyd Martin, Mrs. Mildred Dowd, Mrs. Mary Reading Miller, Fred Joiner, James Sanders, Robert Miller, Rev. David L. Watterworth, Mrs. Marion Sanders, Melvin Scheidt, Mrs. Julia Bailey, Bonnie Bonifant, Elizabeth Cunningham, Richard Cunningham, Elizabeth Anderson, Sam Bailey, Bill Bailey, Sari Hines and Alan Johnston.

“Warning Red” was directed by Nicholas Webster of Manassas, Va., who has won several Hollywood awards for his direction of documentary films.

It was produced for the Civil Defense Administration by Phillip [sic] Martin, of Norwood Studios. Mr. Martin is a former associate producer and film editor for several major Hollywood studios. He won an Academy Award in 1947 for the year’s best short subject, “The House I Live In.”

F. William Hart was assistant producer, and the script was by Kirby Hawkes. The motion picture was produced with the facilities of Capital Film Studios of Washington.

Source: Montgomery County Sentinel, page C8, January 19, 1956


While most of the talent behind Warning Red faded into obscurity, the film’s auteur, Nicholas Webster (1912-2006), went on to launch the career of Pia Zadora by helming 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The director revisited the Red Planet in 1968 with Mission Mars without the assistance of Kris Kringle or Ms. Zadora. Webster spent most of the rest of his career working in episodic television including directing several episodes of the cult series The New People.

CONELRAD would love to talk to any of the surviving cast and crew members of Warning Red or their family members. If you fit this description, please contact us. If we hear from anyone, we will update this post.


Norwood Studios Presents
A Webster-Martin Production

Warning Red Titile 
Starring Joseph Cunningham as Martin Dale
Director: Nicholas Webster
Producer: Philip Martin
Assistant Producer: F. William Hart
Photographed by Bert Spielvogel
Script: Kirby Hawkes


Produced with the cooperation of The Federal Civil Defense Administration at the Capitol Film Studios
Washington, D.C.
Copyright 1956 Norwood Studios

Capitol Film Studios

Sunday, January 8, 2012


“For several months our staffs have been discussing the possibility of prepositioning at the Classified Location a suitable script for general broadcast immediately in the event of an emergency. We have also inquired as to the feasibility of prepositioning a recorded message which could be broadcast under specific circumstances.”

-- Excerpt from a government memorandum dated April 22, 1960

Document Callout

On October 21, 2011 historian and longtime friend of CONELRAD David Krugler emailed to us an intriguing and maddeningly incomplete Cold War era document. The 1960 memo with the subject line “Emergency Statements” proves that the United States government considered the use of prepositioned messages by the President for use in the event of a nuclear attack. Unfortunately, the attachment with the “prepared…text” that is so prominently called out by the document’s author is nowhere to be found.

When we asked Professor Krugler if he had the attachment he said that he did not and would have certainly copied it had he seen it in the early 2000s when he was researching his book. CONELRAD immediately hired a highly recommended researcher to go to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland to find the document.

As of this posting, the attachment has not been located in the folder or the box in which Professor Krugler originally found the memo. Our researcher is currently going through additional boxes in the Record Group, but the prospect of finding the “Doomsday Script” does not look promising. But while we are looking for this crucial part of the treasure map that may ultimately lead to the Arthur Godfrey Doomsday Tape (or, perhaps more likely, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Doomsday Tape), we thought we might as well share what we do have.


“Emergency Statements” is dated April 22, 1960 and was issued by Lewis E. Berry (1914-2005), Deputy Administrator of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization. It was rewritten by Eugene J. Quindlen (1919-1977), Assistant Director for Government Preparedness, Office of Emergency Preparedness. The intended recipient was Kenneth T. Downs (1909-1991), Assistant Director for Training, Education and Public Affairs for the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization (OCDM). Dean Pohlenz (1920-1993), one of the signatories, was an official with OCDM. “J. Scott,” one of the cc addressees, is Jack R. Scott (1921-2008), classified location director, OCDM. The document, which resides in Record Group 396, Box 5, Folder “Federal, State and Local Plans” at the National Archives and Records Administration at College Park, Maryland, is presented below along with a transcription.

Presidential Emergency Statements: 4/22/1960 Memo

April 22 1960

Assistant Director for Training, Education and Public Affairs

Assistant Director for Plans and Operations

Emergency Statements

For several months our staffs have been discussing the possibility of prepositioning at the Classified Location a suitable script for general broadcast immediately in the event of an emergency.

We have also inquired as to the feasibility of prepositioning a recorded message which could be broadcast under specific circumstances.

On various occasions rotating personnel to the Site have raised the matter for discussion. Mr. Heslep of the Atomic Energy Commission has prepared a possible text, the main feature of which is that it does not pretend that the President is delivering it “live.” This seems to be worth serious consideration, and I am, therefore, attaching Mr. Heslep’s material for such appropriate use as you might wish to make.


Lewis E. Berry


Rewritten: 350/EJQuindlen/kes/x3235/4-22-60
Central Files – 2
Mr. Berry
Mr. Quindlen
Mr. Scott

[Note: Document is actually signed by E.J. Quindlen and Dean Pohlenz]

Heslep Portrait-Lo


The man so notably mentioned in the document as the writer of the sample emergency “text” is a Richmond, Virginia native named Charter Heslep (1904-1963). Heslep, at the time of the memo, was the Chief of the Program Review and Analysis Branch of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of International affairs based in Germantown, Maryland. Before the doomsday scribe’s lengthy employment began with the AEC in 1949, he worked in news reporting and editing capacities for the Washington Daily News, NBC, the Mutual Broadcasting System and Congressional News Quarterly. During World War II he served as the chief radio news censor for the U.S. government. Along the way he collaborated on Admiral William D. Leahy’s memoir I Was There [V. Gollancs, 1950] and assisted in the writing of his friend Estes Kefauver’s book, 20th Century Congress [with Jack Levin, Essential Books, 1947].

During Heslep’s long career with the AEC, he witnessed a number of atomic tests and received the strange souvenir “diplomas” presented below to prove it. In 1952 he helped execute the world’s first televised atomic detonation. And in 1955 and 1958 he coordinated press coverage for the Atoms for Peace Conferences in Geneva, Switzerland.

Heslep collage

Heslep also had the opportunity to listen to Edward Teller privately disparage his scientific rival J. Robert Oppenheimer as Teller prepared for his role as a witness against Oppenheimer during his notorious 1954 security clearance hearings. Heslep summarized his conversation with the model for Dr. Strangelove in a memo to AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss. That correspondence is excerpted on pages 532-533 of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin [Knopf, 2005]. In the memo, Heslep states that it will be difficult to “unfrock [Oppenheimer] in his own church” in summing up Teller’s belief that Oppenheimer still had the backing of the scientific community.

On July 29, 1963 Charter Heslep, who resided in Silver Spring, Maryland, died in a Berkeley, California hospital following a heart attack. He had been in the San Francisco Bay area on a business trip in his role as the Assistant to the Director of Public Information for the AEC. His wife, Margaret, passed away ten years later. CONELRAD was able to locate Heslep’s son, Thomas C. Heslep in Oregon, but not his daughter, Sara, who may or may not live in Florida.

Thomas told CONELRAD that he recalls his father going on an extended business trip to a presidential bunker in the mountains, but that there were “a lot of things [his father] couldn’t talk about.” The son was not surprised to hear that Heslep may have written an end-of-the-world script for President Eisenhower, but stated that he had no direct knowledge of it. When asked if he had any of his father’s papers, Thomas told us that the last remaining family records are in a safety deposit box in Chicago under his only sibling’s control. He believes that his sister Sara, whom he has not had contact with in over twenty years, is deceased and that he is trying to obtain access to the safety deposit box. If there is a doomsday script or recording, it may well be found in a Chicago bank vault, because it doesn’t appear to be anywhere else.*

* CONELRAD has contacted several different institutions that house portions of Charter Heslep’s papers (The Harry S. Truman Library, Oregon State University and the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming) and none contain the painfully elusive attachment to the memo featured in this post.

CONELRAD also contacted the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library where we were told by a senior archivist that they do not have any material on “Emergency Messages.”

When we asked the Department of Energy to check their AEC records on correspondence by Charter Heslep for the period in question, we were told that nothing on Heslep or the topic of prepositioned emergency messages could be found.


CONELRAD derived its biographical information on Charter Heslep from the following sources:

Interview with Thomas C. Heslep conducted by Bill Geerhart on October 25, 2011.

“Charter Heslep, AEC Executive (Obituary),” Washington Post, July 31, 1963.

Biographical Sketch, Charter Heslep, Charter Heslep Papers, President Harry S. Truman Presidential Library Website:

Biographical/History Info, Charter Heslep, Charter Heslep Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming:

Biographical Information contained at the conclusion of “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: The Story of the First Live Televising of an Atomic Detonation” transcript of an address by Charter Heslep on May 9, 1952:

Atomic “Diplomas” accessed from the Charter Heslep Papers at Oregon State University.


CONELRAD is once again indebted to David Krugler for providing us with such a fascinating lead. If we ever find the attachment containing the Doomsday Script, he will be the first to know. And you’ll be second.

Thanks to Michael Ravnitzky for his assistance in identifying “J. Scott” in the memorandum.