The numbers were chilling: Local Civil Defense officials said that if a 50-kiloton atomic bomb were detonated 2,500 feet over Spokane, 5.75 square miles would be totally destroyed and 8,000 lives would be lost.
During the Cold War, atomic bombs were on everyone’s mind.
Would the Russians attack without warning? If there were warning of an imminent attack, could lives be saved by getting people out of the city core?
Spokane was chosen as the first city in the nation to attempt a complete evacuation of its downtown area, about 70 square blocks, to see if it were feasible.
At 9:35 a.m. on April 26, 1954, after weeks of publicity, sirens on the Old National Bank building echoed through downtown streets, starting Operation Walkout.
Offices, stores and restaurants emptied into a light drizzle and an estimated 18,000 civilians strode purposefully out of the area bounded by Monroe and Division streets and Third and Boone avenues.
Fighter jets screamed over the downtown area.
Soldiers took up positions in the streets, in tanks and on rooftops. An anti-aircraft gun crew on top of the Newberry’s store fired a handful of blanks. Nurses gathered at designated aid stations.
Leaflets bearing the message “This could have been an H bomb” were sprinkled from bombers. Police surrounded a car driving on closed streets, only to find a TV station employee delivering equipment to a crew. Gene Swift, an insurance salesman and war veteran, said the sirens and empty streets reminded him of German V-2 rocket attacks he had seen in London.
In a real emergency, the crowds would have been told to get on buses and trains to flee the central city areas. Clyde J. Chaffins, the Spokane County Civil Defense director, said that to be safe, the population needed to be moved 10 miles from the target area.
A minute-long siren signaled “all clear” at 10:05 a.m. and the crowds filtered back.
Department stores, which stayed closed that morning, finally opened their doors, and locals packed into cafés and stores to talk about how the evacuation had gone.
Hi Jackson, the Civil Defense director of Clackamas County, Oregon, was in Spokane to observe the walkout and said it was the most effective and well-staged exercise he had witnessed.
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