Cinema History from the Cold War!

Operation Doorstep

Federal Civil Defense Administration
Byron, Inc.
1953

In early 1953, the United States commenced with Operation Upshot Knothole, a series of nuclear tests spanning three months at the Nevada Test Site.  On March 17th, members of the press converged outside of Las Vegas to report on Shot Annie, the first of eleven scheduled atomic detonations.  The 16 Kiloton device lit up the early morning sky while reporters and cameramen looked on from nearby "News Nob".  From a trench much closer to ground zero, Federal Civil Defense Administration director Val Peterson spoke with newsmen while the graphic explosion was recorded for national television.  Peterson was on hand to oversee Operation Doorstep, a massive experiment conducted by the F.C.D.A. during Shot Annie to observe the effects of atomic blast and fire on suburban homes, vehicles, and shelters.  Footage captured before, during, and after the bomb's impact was quickly edited into a short film emphasizing how simple preparedness measures taken during peacetime mean the difference between life and death in a surprise enemy attack.  The film, also titled Operation Doorstep, was released by the F.C.D.A. and Byron, Incorporated in June of 1953. 

                             

To prepare for Operation Doorstep, F.C.D.A. officials constructed two houses at varying distances from ground zero and filled them with standard domestic items, many of which were donated by manufacturers eager to see how their products would fare under atomic attack.  Vehicles, too, were strategically placed around the test site to determine if they could offer any type of protection.  The most visible and haunting addition to the Shot Annie test, however, were the pale mannikins which populated the test houses.  Hoping to simulate what would happen to families caught unaware by an enemy attack, civil defense officials arranged plaster men, women, and children (weighted with sand and dressed in donated clothing) into elaborate scenes including a formal dinner party and a family gathered around a living room television.  To demonstrate the benefits of being prepared, mannikin families were also placed inside different types of shelters.  First responders to the remnants of the F.C.D.A. houses found shredded clothing, dismembered plaster, and broken mannikins pock-marked with shrapnel.  Operation Doorstep's narrator is quick to point out, however, that despite complete destruction of the homes, basement shelters remained intact and the faux families inside remained unharmed.  Even simple lean-to shelters offer some protection, though the film suggests that underground, outdoor style shelters afford the most shielding from both blast and fire. 
                            

Civil defense officials and members of the media were only permitted to observe the first detonation of Upshot Knothole, and while the film version of Operation Doorstep was being edited, several more tests took place.  The penultimate bomb, Shot Grable, was fired over the Nevada Test Site in the form of a massive artillery shell while infantry troops preformed tactical exercises under the shadow of its mushroom cloud in a maneuver dubbed Exercise Desert Rock V.  Desert Rock was an eight part exercise which took place between 1951 and 1957 in order to test the viability of atomic weapons in ground warfare.  Footage from early segments was made into a film of the same name in 1951.  The presence of military personnel is only briefly mentioned in Operation Doorstep, which argues that rescue workers could conduct similar operations in the immediate aftermath of an enemy attack.  Also only briefly mentioned is the danger of radioactive fallout, which is said to disperse quickly from the testing area.  This dismissal of the fallout threat would lead to the film being declared obsolete by 1959, when the government recalled all copies of it and encouraged private owners to cease screenings.  For six years, however, Operation Doorstep remained a short, succinct, urgent call to action, asking the American citizen to rise to the challenge of civil defense preparation.  "Or will you, like a mannikin, sit and wait?" 

Operation Doorstep May be Viewed in its Entirety HERE.