Operation Alert

In the 1950s, the US was in the tensest time of the Cold War. This new type of war brought a new variety of fears due to the weapons of mass destruction that were available. The most infamous being the atomic bomb. Civilian defense organizations were set up at the state and national level. Many towns were strongly encouraged to form their own in 1951. The McHenry Civilian Defense Board, which was headed by mayor George Freund, was broken down into three departments: Fire & Rescue, Law & Order, and Relief. The purpose of the board was to be prepared for any situation or attack that might be brought upon the city or assist a neighboring city if they were attacked.  

civil defense
Civic Leaders of McHenry & Skokie Go Over Plans In April 1959 Edition of the McHenry Plaindealer.

Operation Alert was introduced in 1954, calling for cities all over the country to take part in drills to make sure their community was ready if a possible attack were to take place. Despite being scheduled, all of the drills were to be conducted as if they were real threats, not only by the administrators but the citizenry as well. Citizens were given the loose time between 10am and noon, to add some surprise when the drill actually occurred. The drill started with blasts from the city’s sirens and would last intermittently for fifteen minutes. Members of the McHenry VFW acted as an auxiliary police force, offering direction and information for the people. Schools went on lockdown and fire departments responded to areas that were “attacked.” Main thoroughfares were kept open so that traffic wouldn’t bog down, but the remainder of the public was asked to stay indoors.

testing communications - 4 May 1961
Mayor Doherty & Chief Grobel testing communications outside of a tent at VFW in May 1961 Plaindealer.

In 1956, McHenry began to work with the city of Skokie in a drill that would be held annually for about five years. Skokie is about 12 miles from Chicago and if it were attacked, Skokie could find itself vulnerable to a fallout. While the evacuation of the citizenry of a town was the last resort, if necessary, the people of Skokie were encouraged to travel to McHenry. In July of 1957, McHenry Police Chief Joseph Grobel, Mayor George Freund and civic leaders of Skokie setup a drill. A caravan of about 200 Skokites left town in an organized manner and make their way up to McHenry. They were greeted at the VFW where everyone enjoyed a luncheon.

Picture from the McHenry VFW Post Dedication in 1948 from 27 May Plaindealer.


The mock evacuations would continue for the next five years stopping around 1962 and always reported to be executed rather well. Thankfully, the evacuations were never necessary, but now they give us a glimpse and one of the tensest times in our nation’s history as well as McHenry’s history.


“City To Welcome Skokie Evacuees.” McHenry Plaindealer 28 Apr 1960: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“Operation Alert In City Friday Fine Success.” McHenry Plaindealer 23 Apr 1959: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“Study City Chart.” McHenry Plaindealer 23 Apr 1959: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“Alert Proves Exciting For Entire City.” McHenry Plaindealer 2 Nov 1961: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“Civil Defense Alert In City.” McHenry Plaindealer 19 Jul 1956: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“Explain Civil Defense Plan For This Area.” McHenry Plaindealer 21 Sep 1961: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“List Committees On Local Civil Defense Board.” McHenry Plaindealer 28 Jun 1951: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“Observe Operation Alert In McHenry.” McHenry Plaindealer 10 Jul 1957: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“Operation Alert Observed By Local Civil Defense.” McHenry Plaindealer 3 Jul 1957: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“Successful Alert Program Brought To Conclusion Sunday.” McHenry Plaindealer 4 May 1961: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“Alert America.” McHenry Plaindealer 22 May 1952: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.
“Civil Evacuation To Be Last Resort.” McHenry Plaindealer 5 Apr 1951: 6. Newspapers.com. Web. 27 Jan 2018.