When our nation entered World War II, I was enrolled as a first-grader at John Eaton Elementary School in the District. During the early months of 1942, I seem to recall being issued a gas mask by the school staff. It was [for] but a short period of time, however. Can you help clear this up for me, it being 70-plus years ago?
In January 1942, Walt Disney came to Washington and met with civil defense and chemical warfare officials. Disney wanted to check the progress of a gas mask he’d designed. With large glass eyes, a snout and big, round ears, the mask was shaped like Disney’s signature character: Mickey Mouse. It was meant to calm terrified children.
About 1,000 Mickey Mouse respirators were eventually produced, but the civilian gas mask — for children or adults — was not really a notable presence on the home front during World War II.
Things were different in England. In January 1943, a Washington Post reporter interviewed Santosh Mahindra, daughter of the head of the Indian Supply Mission. She had recently arrived in Washington from London, where she had been stranded since the start of the war.
Miss Mahindra had her own burning question for the reporter: “But don’t you all have to wear gas masks here?” she asked.
That was certainly the case in London, where every child was issued a respirator, which was carried in a cardboard box on a string slung over the shoulder.
Of course, there was a difference between the two capitals. One was mere miles from the enemy and had been bombed numerous times. The other wasn’t and hadn’t.
Even so, two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, director of the Office of Civilian Defense, had proposed that the government order 50 million gas masks. The Post explained: “The masks would cost $3.75 each and would be supplied in five sizes — one for babies, one for children 2 to 3 years of age, one for larger children, another for small adults and the ‘universal adult mask.’ ”
Even 50 million wouldn’t be enough to outfit every citizen with a respirator. Instead, LaGuardia explained, they would be issued only to people living in coastal areas that were prone to attack.
Over the course of the following year, estimates of the number of gas masks needed was continually revised downward. In April 1942, Col. Lemuel Bolles, the District’s defense director, explained that the policy was to issue equipment — first-aid kits, flashlights, arm bands, whistles — only to local air raid wardens. Eventually they would get steel helmets and gas masks, too.
By the one-year anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, 300,000 gas masks had been shipped across the country, allotted on the basis of the vulnerability of an area.
This is not to suggest that D.C. children were not exposed to the war. Youngsters were encouraged to go through their houses looking for scrap to donate. A tire, it was noted, could make 12 gas masks. Said an official: “They will feel pride in the fact that they are playing the part of volunteers behind the lines and that they are helping to defeat our country’s enemies.”
In May 1942, Uline Arena was filled with military gear for a school safety patrol rally. The highlight came at the end of the evening, when 4,000 youngsters streamed “down onto the floor of the arena, scrambled over the equipment, honked jeeps’ horns, fired rifles, machine guns and other light artillery, donned helmets and gas masks, and played war until a bugler sounded taps at 10:45.”
A year later, families gathered at Griffith Stadium for a simulated air raid. A lone bomber was picked out by searchlights, and mock buildings on the field were blown into the air. When “gas!” was shouted, air raid wardens strapped on their masks.
The crowd cheered when the announcer said: “If you get gas on your clothes, remove your clothes. There is no false modesty with mustard gas.”
As it turned out, there wasn’t any mustard gas, in Washington or in London. Why? Why didn’t the Germans — or the Allies, for that matter — use poison gas in World War II? The consensus seems to be that military leaders on both sides didn’t think it would be effective. Explosives were much more useful at destroying infrastructure and terrorizing the civilian populace.
So, long story short: Answer Man thinks you definitely would have seen a gas mask early in 1942. You might even have tried on a gas mask. But he’s not so sure you would have been issued one.
More and more right-thinking Washingtonians are getting on board the Elvis Express, supporting the notion that the National Zoo’s giant panda cub should be named after the King of Rock and Roll.
As District punster Phil Frankenfeld puts it, “The new panda at the National Zoo should be named Elvis because it is the King of Rock Creek role.”
Surely you have a question about the Washington area. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.