Nuclear Blast from the Past

Story by James Gregory, Registrar at the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar

Images courtesy of the Stillwater History Museum Photo Collections

On August 20, 1964, a 200 bed, emergency Civil Defense (CD) hospital arrived in Stillwater. Through an agreement between Oklahoma Civil Defense and the U.S. Public Health Service, it was the first hospital of its kind in Oklahoma. A total of 725 crates that made up the hospital were stored in the basement of the post office. The supplies for this mobile hospital were capable of providing thirty days of care. In the case of an emergency, the hospital would be unpacked and set up in Donart High School (Stillwater High School).

The hospital unit contained the following sections: admitting and triage (sorting patients), operating rooms, wards, X-ray machines, a laboratory, a pharmacy, a central supply room, two generators, and a 1500-gallon water tank with a pumping unit, all of which allowed it to operate independently during an emergency. This Stillwater unit was one of 750 that was placed around the country. However, despite this number, no hospital unit had been fully tested. Stillwater’s Civil Defense was considered one of the best in the nation, therefore, they were chosen to conduct the first evaluation exercise of the emergency hospital.

The test was held on the 3rd and 4th of April in 1965, at what was then called Donart High School. The main objective that was tested was the identification of problems or deficiencies that may be encountered following a disaster, either natural or man-made. In the case of this test, the disaster tested was a make-believe explosion of OSU’s nuclear research reactor. It also acquainted the public and oriented civil defense personnel of the medical capabilities of Stillwater’s CD system for the community and adjacent areas. The test became a way to explain Civil Defense to the citizens of Stillwater through displays that were erected on the day before the test.

The first phase of the test was held on Saturday, April 3rd, and consisted of lectures from James A. Hundley, the assistant Surgeon General for Operations, and James K. Shafer, the health advisor for the Office of Emergency Planning. These lectures consisted of information about equipment use and local planning. The combination of the lectures and the exercise drew even more leaders from around the country. In attendance was Congressman Tom Steed, J. N. Baker, Oklahoma National Guard commander and president of Eastern A&M College, and representatives from the state governments of Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Texas.

The test also required many different participants from a variety of occupations. Oklahoma National Guardsmen worked on loading and unloading part of the hospital and its assembly, served as stretcher-bearers during the test, and then reversed the procedure at its conclusion. OSU faculty members from the College of Veterinary Medicine assisted the seminar and test. Local area doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, X-ray technicians, radiological monitors, supply personnel, administrative clerks, and government officials also participated. Finally, more than thirty OSU students were enlisted to act as casualties for the test.

Town and Gown Theatre members applied stage makeup to the student “casualties” to create a as realistic an experience as possible. The makeup was so realistic that some of the volunteers at the test became queasy at the sight of the students. They were covered in “blood” (vegetable coloring in liquid) that oozed and pumped from severed veins. One victim was “disemboweled” and another’s leg had been blown off at the knee. They wore soft rubber molds that simulated the severe injuries. Charcoal powder, lipstick, and petroleum jelly simulated the burns on their bodies. The students also pretended to be in shock. They moaned and writhed as if in pain. One student, who had simulated burns all over her body, would not answer questions, instead, she moaned and cried while clutching her stomach as if in excruciating pain.

After their makeup was applied, the volunteers were rushed to the admitting ward of the hospital by an ambulance. There, they were sent into the triage ward to be examined and sorted according to the injury. They were given radiation checks, as some patients had harmless radioactive tablets hidden on them to train radiation teams. When a radioactive patient was found, they were sent to decontamination before entering the main hospital complex. Wards set aside for burns, shock, dental services, X-ray, post-operative, and operations received patients. The test took thirty-five minutes and ended when the last patient had been admitted and treated.

The next day, Sunday, April 4th, the public was invited to the test site from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Technicians, who explained the function of the representative units, staffed the emergency hospital. A radiation demonstration was also given, and static displays were scattered throughout the high school parking area and gymnasium. Finally, a mobile screening unit from the State Health Department was in the parking lot to take blood tests to screen for diabetes.

Overall, the test was a huge success. It was highly praised by the government officials who attended, with the various teams of volunteers commended on their work. The test became the example followed by other state Civil Defense groups as they tested their community’s ability to respond to a disaster with the mobile hospital.

To learn more about Civil Defense in Stillwater, visit the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar to experience the “Inside the Fallout Shelter” exhibit, which will be on display until summer of 2018.  The Museum is located at 702 S. Duncan Street and is open Tues. through Fri. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays and holidays. Admission is by donation. Learn more by visiting www.sheerarmuseum.org or call 405-377-0359.