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Operation Greenlight
Oregon's Answer to the H-Bomb

The  Day Called X, which documented a large scale evacuation of Portland, Oregon, under the threat of a fictionalized H-Bomb attack, was one of the most widely distributed civil defense films during the Cold War.  Originally aired in December of 1957 as a CBS television special, the film is narrated by the late actor Glenn Ford and blends testimony from city officials and townspeople, with stock footage of Operation Greenlight.  A massive evacuation drill, Operation Greenlight was conducted in September of 1955 after years of state planning set up a defense plan focused on Portland.  Operation Greenlight sought to highlight the preparation Oregonians had put forth to ensure a safe existence for the population of their primary target city.

In the early 1950's, a survey conducted by the Federal Civil Defense Administration listed certain cities across the United States as "Critical Target Areas" due to their large populations, economic importance, and other factors which placed them at a high risk of enemy attack in the event of a nuclear war.  As one of the largest cities in the Pacific Northwest, an attack on Portland could have devastated the region's population, infrastructure, and economy and according to the Oregon Annual Civil Defense Report for 1955, Portland was deemed a Critical Target Area by this survey.  Portland was also given the full attention of Oregon civil defense officials, and as a result, the state's entire civil defense plan was structured around the evacuation and welfare of the city.  According to state officials, in 1955 Portland was the only realistic target for enemy bombers in Oregon.  To them, it made good organizational sense to allocate the state's resources to this vital economic and residential area.

Stemming from this initial reasoning came the second case for building a defense plan specifically for Portland.  In September, 1955 the Eisenhower Administration enacted a program which offered federal funding to any state based civil defense initiatives in areas which had been deemed Critical Targets. Incorporating several Oregon counties into the defense of Portland allowed state officials to claim those counties as Critical Targets too, generating more federal dollars from Washington to enlarge their civil defense funds.  With such a system in place, Portland's budget grew to nearly half a million dollars in federal aid, and plans were laid that would attempt to educate, feed, and shelter the city's nearly 600,000 evacuees.


The Plan of Action

Oregon Gives a Greenlight to Evacuation

Oregon’s plan was divided into two stages, each with its own distinct objectives.  The initial stage took the form of a public information crusade, striving to alert on everything from warning siren signals to evacuation routes.  Attempts to spread the basics of civil defense and evacuation to Portland manifested themselves primarily in the form of pamphlets and presentations.  A public affairs department, created to meet this goal, ultimately produced several leaflets to get the message out.  Among them were “Target Oregon”, “Your Guide to Defense Against the H-Bomb”, and “Pre-Attack Evacuation Plan” which, in that respective order, sought to guide the public through a nuclear crisis.  These publications were supplemented by presentations where the handbills were distributed to interested crowds and the finest in Oregon state civil defense was showcased.  Throughout 1954 and 1955 for example, the volunteer crews of Clark County’s seven rescue vehicles, which had traveled to Nevada to take part in atomic testing, toured a number of county fairs, American Legion conventions, and Armed Services Day memorials to demonstrate their techniques and incite participation. 

While this education program recruited thousands of volunteers to serve as everything from air raid spotters to engineering assistants, a much larger infrastructure was needed to establish the orderly evacuation the H-bomb required (3).  Throughout the early 1950’s, an evacuation infrastructure was planned and partially implemented.  This early plan saw the designation of staging areas for rescue personnel outside Portland as well as the construction of road signs to direct the flow of traffic.  According to the Annual Civil Defense Report, state planners began to reexamine the idea of providing evacuation routes to welfare centers outside the city while rescue workers both from the city and neighboring counties gathered in three strategic staging areas.  This was due in large part to the fear of an H-bomb’s increased power, and a revised plan was put out, tailored to the dangers of the Hydrogen age.

The basic evacuation formula stayed in place but the scope was enlarged.  Portland’s Critical Target Area was expanded to include Clackamas, Washington, and Multnomah Counties, and a total evacuation order within a twenty mile radius of a projected ground zero was implemented (4).  The entire state of Oregon was deemed a “Support Area” to take in evacuees and send any available rescue personnel and resources to the blast region.  Twelve “Reception Areas” in communities well outside the twenty mile danger zone were designated.  These small towns would play host to newly arrived evacuees while they register with welfare services and wait to be assigned more permanent quarters in counties further south.


A united front of organizations was assembled to ensure a safe passage for the stream of confused, displaced, and likely panicked or injured people who would be in exodus from Portland.  Highway crews to clear the roads, Red Cross kitchens to feed the masses, and engineering units to supply the emergency routes with basic facilities were among the departments on hand.  During the evacuation, a massive health service center was to be erected at Pacific University in Forest Grove, while Portland’s hospitals and medical personnel were to be strategically dispersed outside the city (5).  Showing the increased respect nuclear fallout had been given in1955, plans were in the making for several radiological monitoring stations to coordinate safe passage from the affected areas.  The stations were to be manned by volunteers trained in meteorological patterns and fallout detection.  All events would be connected through a communications network established by R.A.C.E.S. volunteers, and several other amateur radio operating services.  What the government hoped to establish through the combined efforts of these professional and volunteer services was to make the evacuation route as hazard free and quick moving as possible.

As the civilian population moved out, National Guardsmen and public service personnel moved in.  Three massive Staging Areas were established in an arc around Portland.  Sandy, Forest Grove, and Aurora, provided the proper resources and appropriate distance from Portland to safely assemble for rescue operations.  Each area would be overseen by a director, for example, Stage 3 in Sandy was under the command of a high ranking Portland fire officer.  Under the original plan, each Stage Area would have been coordinated by the “Advanced Control Center” set up at the McMinnville high school (6).  The revised H-Bomb plan however, called for a state of the art 400,000 dollar control center to be placed in the hills outside Portland.  Completed in time for Operation Greenlight, this concrete bunker would be home to the Portland city Government, Mayor, Civil Defense Director, and the heads of all municipal departments.  Laden with the latest communications equipment and microfilmed copies of all vital city records, the bunker could hold the entire city emergency government for a two week stay (7).


Success of Failure?
The Execution of Greenlight

The results of Oregon's intensive planning were put to a limited test on September 27, 1955, when Operation Greenlight commenced in downtown Portland.  1,000 city blocks covering a 4 sq. mile section of the city were evacuated as Chrysler Victory sirens trumpeted an alert mode.  It was estimated that 200,000 people, one third the total number that would need to be evacuated, made up the daytime population of Portland's business district.  Consisting primarily of large businesses, arrangements were made for several of the participants to continue the evacuation to assigned welfare centers well outside the target area.  This allowed the volunteer staffing within the welfare communities to practice feeding and registering partial numbers of evacuees. For those emergency commuters who failed to do their homework on out of town escape routes, the way was marked with flashing green traffic lights.  These thoroughfares marked the main exits out of town and gave the operation its name.  As highlighted in A Day Called X, local radio stations broadcasted instructions and updates over the airwaves.  It was hoped that familiar voices coming from car radios would have a calming effect on the population in this stressful time. 

While residential areas were not included in Operation Greenlight, citizens were encouraged to sharpen their preparedness skills that had been tested during Operation Alert, in which the whole state participated.  Held over a two day span in June, 1955, Operation Alert was an annual, nation wide promotion of civil defense with many large cities across the United States participating.  The 1955 Operation Alert was criticized for its lack of participation and an overriding belief that no one took the evacuation procedures seriously (including President Eisenhower who was reported to have stopped his emergency motorcade to get lunch while on the way out of Washington).  Portland however, used the used the opportunity to test its command centers, police checkpoints, and communications equipment.  Operation Greenlight became the venue to test both the revised evacuation plan and the changes made after noting problems experienced during Operation Alert.

Depending on how it is viewed, Operation Greenlight could be seen as an outright failure, or an encouraging sign of success.  According to the Annual Civil Defense Report, 101,000 people were known to have evacuated the downtown area, 11,00 doing so on foot.  With participation suspiciously just over the halfway mark, officials were quick to note that a heavy rain and pre-knowledge of the drill reduced participation while stressing it only took 34 minutes to clear the target area.  Only a sixth of the total population found its way out of Portland during Greenlight, but of those that did, a tame progression was reported with only four minor traffic jams and one hospitalization.  All in all, an orderly spectacle took place, but the major flaw of the test, as critics readily pointed out, was that it was only a test.  Fear of an actual H-bomb would no doubt increase participation, but would also bring an order disintegrating panic.  Add to the mix parents looking for children, men looking for families, and a host of other self interests which would quickly take precedence over official evacuation plans, and a mess results.  However, Oregon planners chose to view the glass as half full.  To civil defense officials, the 101,000 evacuees were a sign that people were taking the plan seriously, and they were definitely moving in the right direction with their evacuation system.  They hoped that the image of several responsible businesses halting busy schedules for civil defense would promote a positive repertoire.  Concluding its analysis of Operation Greenlight, Oregon quoted a report of the situation compiled by the National Academy of Sciences which stated "when a city the size of Portland can act proud instead of foolish about a test of emergency capability, civil defense is coming of age"



1.  Oregon State Civil Defense Council.  "Annual Civil Defense Report". 
Printing Office, February 1956.  Portland, Oregon.
          This pamphlet, from which much of the technical data on this page comes from,
          was issued by the Oregon State Legislature, and provides a host of civil defense
          facts and programs, spanning both conventional and nuclear activities.

2.  Nearly 46,000 dollars went into Portland alone, while a matching amount of funds went into the surrounding counties.  Interestingly, Oregon developed a program which set aside several thousand dollars for an insurance compensation fund for volunteers killed or injured during training exercises.  13-14.

3.  According to the Annual Report, a two day training seminar was needed to become an engineering assistant.  The main focus of the event was to learn different ways of setting up water lines to quench the thirst of evacuees on the routes out of Portland.

4.  State planners projected in their hypothetical attack on Portland that ground zero for the H-bomb's detonation would be at the intersection of SW Broadway and Morrison streets, directly in the heart of the city.  The distance which evacuation zones and staging areas could be safely established was judged by using these coordinates and spanning outwards.

5.  As of February 1956, this plan was still on the drawing boards.  It was likely that Forest Grove was chosen because Pacific University's infrastructure would have allowed a substantial medical facility to be established with less investment than smaller communities.  Its existing facilities could also have been utilized had an attack occurred before proper arrangements were completed, and still been an effective center.

6.  After the completion of the Portland City Government Bunker, the McMinnville high school was to be the headquarters for the Auxiliary Police program and safety resource center.  Under the direction of operators at this center, auxiliary police were to man checkpoints to stop incoming traffic to Portland within three to five minutes after an alert was received.

7.  Extensive shots of the bunker and its features are provided in A Day Called X, while narrator Glenn Ford highlights the history of civil defense in Portland, and stresses the preparedness of its population.