The Day Called X

CBS Television
Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization

"This is the land.  Between the mountains and the sea.  Between the snow-capped crater of Mt. Hood and the Pacific. It's tall timber country. And this is the city, largest dry cargo port on the Pacific Coast. And its people are friendly, and rugged in the tradition of the Oregon Trail. The population? About 415,000 more or less. More or less about the size of Hiroshima.  And this is what happened, or could happen, on a certain day called X."  Late actor Glenn Ford narrates this flattering description of Portland, Oregon, accompanied by equally enriching cinematic shots of the landscape and bustling industry, while giving ominous hints as to what awaits Oregonians on a day called X.  Presented as a CBS television special in December of 1957, The Day Called X is a compilation of stock footage captured during Operation Greenlight, a massive civil defense exercise conducted in 1955 which saw a partial evacuation of Portland, and staged demonstrations filmed by CBS.(1)  The film weaves personalized stories of actual Portland residents to create a chilling narrative. First to be featured are paperboy Joe Fodak who delivers a morning edition of The Oregonian weighted with global tensions, and Mrs. Colleen Stupfel who skips the "scare headlines" to make breakfast for her children.

Elsewhere, a number of ordinary citizens continue their daily activities while a serene musical score creates a relaxed atmosphere. Ray Matthews, longshoreman, is loading steel. Stern faced Elsie McLinden leads her kindergarten class in a sing-along. At the fire station local crews scrub hose and wash trucks. The city government is immersed in mundane civic issues and the council votes on sewer maintenance. Similarly, the police department tackles the peaceful crisis of everyday life.  "Code 126, Cat in a tree."  While highlighting this humorous exchange between the police officer and a concerned citizen, Ford takes time to explain the National Warning System (NAWAS) which connects Portland emergency centers to radar stations throughout the United States and Canada, providing early warning of any enemy bomber flights. Seconds later, the National Warning System light begins to flash and buzz. A voice erupts over the intercom. "Attention all stations, you heard it, this is an air raid warning and CONELRAD radio alert. REPEAT. This is an air raid warning and CONELRAD radio alert. Enemy aircraft are over the Aleutians.  Time to Seattle: Two Hours Thirty Minutes."  At this point, so as not to alarm the viewing audience, the caption AN ATTACK IS NOT TAKING PLACE, appears at the bottom of the screen.

Jack Lowe, Portland civil defense coordinator, informs Mayor Terry Schrunk of the developing emergency. Acting accordingly, Mayor Schrunk adjourns the council meeting to reconvene at the local emergency operations center.  With air raid sirens ringing, the aforementioned citizens freeze and look skyward before preparing to evacuate the city. Ben Conrad, mechanic, who has "heard the sirens before in practice", does nothing except wave his hat in frustration at the interruption Others such as Tom Cook, power load dispatcher for a grid covering most of the Pacific Northwest, are forced by the necessity of their positions to remain in the target area.  Fortunately, most Oregonians who can leave take the threat seriously and a steady exodus of bicycles, cars, utility vehicles, and pedestrians flows from the city center.  "When the sirens sound, some cities go underground, particularly if there is little warning. But Portland evacuates according to a well thought out plan."  The city government relocates to a bunker in Kelly Butte, then six miles outside of the city, and charts the progress of the evacuation through commentary provided by local sportscaster John Carpenter.  Evacuation routes are marked by green traffic lights.  Portland's civil defense plan calls for all emergency and municipal services to gather at "remote staging areas" strategically placed well outside the city.  There, they are joined by rescue personnel from around the state.  Following an attack, organized sorties would venture into the remnants of Portland to begin recovery work.

The film concludes with an eerie scene.  Motorcycle policemen cruise empty streets while dust kicks up and a stray dog runs about the streets in the last view of Portland. Returning to the bunker, Jack Lowe grimly announces that if enemy bombers are headed for Portland, they would be over head at that moment. The message AN ATTACK IS NOT TAKING PLACE again flashes on the bottom of the screen. Just when the tension seems unbearable, Ford intercedes, announcing it will be up to the viewer to decide what happens on the day called X.  In January of 1958, CBS provided prints of the film to the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization for distribution across the United States.(2)  This government endorsement of the film would not last, however.  Citing changes in policy and information, the Office of Civil Defense had declared The Day Called X obsolete by 1965.  All government copies of the film were ordered to be returned to regional archives.(3)  In May of 1959, CBS Radio would release a segment of the radio program The Hidden Revolution which was also titled The Day Called X.  Host Edward R. Murrow examines the civil defense preparations of Princeton, New Jersey, while discussing the fears many Americans were feeling at the end of the decade.(4)

The Day Called X may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE.

1. "Television: Review". TIME Magazine.  Dec. 1957.
2. Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.  Motion Pictures on Civil Defense.  United States Government Printing Office, July 1959.  3.
3. Office of Civil Defense.  Civil Defense Motion Picture Catalog.  United States Government Printing Office, Sept. 1966.  31.
4. The Digital Deli.  The Hidden Revolution, Dec. 1, 2014.  Accessed Mar. 31, 2015.