In February of 1951, the newly formed Federal Civil Defense Administration officially sanctioned the production of nine films concerning emergency preparedness. The films would be the first to enjoy the full approval of a government agency and while they were meant to address a number of dangers facing the American public, all but two of them dealt with the subject of atomic warfare. To be included in the series was a film explaining how to aid the victims of "war gasses". A blanket term used to describe poisonous vapors dispersed in large quantity, war gas was the subject of a 1942 film produced by the Office of Civilian Defense and the same threat was believed to carry over into the Cold War. Between 1951 and 1953 seven of the nine films saw release, among them were Survival Under Atomic Attack, Duck and Cover and Our Cities Must Fight. It would take six years,
however, for an updated film focused on gas attacks to be created. In
1957, the F.C.D.A. teamed with pharmaceutical giant E.R. Squib and Sons
(now Bristol-Meyers Squib) to release Nerve Gas Casualties and Their
The film opens with a brief
monologue by Dr. John M. Whitney, health director for the F.C.D.A.
Whitney, who speaks in a deep southern drawl, had previously authored a
comprehensive report concerning medical and rescue services before, during, and
after an enemy attack. Here, he ranks nerve gas as a threat equivalent to
the atomic bomb, explaining its rapid effects, which interfere with nerve
signals to the muscles. To visualize the danger, a laboratory worker
subjects a rabbit to miniscule amounts of the gas. The camera remains
focused on the rabbit as it spasms uncontrollably, succumbing to death within
three minutes. The immediacy of death prompts a generic civil defense official
to lecture a volunteer crowd on the importance of quickly obtaining a protective
mask.Several masks on display, meant
for women, children, and infants, are described as commercially available,
though they were never distributed en mass through any civil defense program.
The official's lecture is interspersed with clips from an armed forces training film centered on two infantrymen who are exposed to nerve gas on the battlefield. Unbeknownst to them, each describes the early symptoms of exposure, burning eyes, blurry vision, and tightness of the chest. They fare far better, however, then their squad mate, who is in the later stages of exposure. When discovered, he is vomiting, gasping for breath, and suffering urinal incontinence. According to the official, the only chance humans have at this stage is a syrette of atropine which, if administered in time, can reverse the effects of the nerve agents. To conclude the lecture, a civil defense squad demonstrates the proper course of action needed during a nerve gas attack. While a mock victim lies unresponsive, several volunteers enter, clothed in protective masks and denim coveralls. Through a unique form of artificial respiration and an atropine injection, the man is kept alive long enough to be evacuated from the room on a makeshift stretcher. Thanking the actors, the official concludes by addressing the viewing audience. "The more you, a civil defense worker, know about nerve gas, the less a potential enemy will profit from using it against us!"