Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter

Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization
The National Concrete Masonry Association

The concept of do-it-yourself projects took an interesting turn in the late 1950's when it was accepted that adequate shelter would be needed for Americans to remain safe from the harmful effects of fallout radiation in the event of an enemy atomic attack.  A new government agency, The Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, spread the message of fallout protection while making it clear the Eisenhower administration had no intention of funding a public shelter program.  Instead, an information campaign of literature and films was launched to push for privately built shelters in individual homes.  The centerpiece of this campaign was a pamphlet titled The Family Fallout Shelter, which instructs readers on how to construct several different types of shelters both efficiently and economically.  Walt Builds a Family Fallout shelter, a 1960 film produced in part by the National Concrete Masonry Association, features this publication while offering a step-by-step demonstration on how erect a basic fallout shelter based on plans in the pamphlet.(1)  When introduced, host Walter Durbahn is giving the neighbors a tour of his newly constructed home shelter, perhaps to dispel the belief that if aware of the shelter’s presence they would kick down the doors to occupy it.  Describing the process he followed, Walt modestly remarks “I spent a few evenings on it (the shelter) and a couple of weekends.  It’s not so hard, anyone who’s not all thumbs can do it.  And here’s the way for anybody to do just what I did!”

Flashing back a few evenings and a couple of weekends ago leaves the viewer and Walt in an empty basement with a stable, windowless corner soon to be modified into a home fallout shelter.  Walt makes it clear that the entire set of plans he followed were taken from the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization's guide book, The Family Fallout Shelter, which provides material lists, measurements, and supply tips.  He also references a much more obscure pamphlet entitled Mr. Atom and his Sinister Blanket.  Exactly why this publication is presented is not discussed in further detail, but was likely one more source of getting information on fallout and its dangerous presence.  Walt begins to demonstrate the techniques of shelter building from the ground up.  Stressing extensive planning before permanently setting a single stone, Walt's shelter effortlessly rises.

Following the Masonic tradition of laying the corner stone first, the bespectacled Walt shows he has mastered more than a layman's knowledge of the contracting profession.  In actuality, Walter Durbahn was a master carpenter, author and host of his own television show, Walt's Workshop.  Each week, he would walk audiences through a new woodworking project.  Once the foundation is set, Walt takes a time out from his handiwork to present a sales pitch for concrete blocks as the most effective means of blocking radioactive rays, no doubt a stipulation added by the National Concrete Masonry Association.  A trade organization promoting solid building materials, the National Concrete Masonry Association recognized the market opportunity which existed in the construction of fallout shelters.  Co-sponsoring films such as this then, likely served as inexpensive business promotion.  Walt continues by supporting the ceiling of his shelter with heavy timbers and uses the leftover concrete blocks, already noted for their ability to block radiation, to further increase fallout protection.  Walt urges the do viewer to build the shelter around the larger supplies found inside, such as bunk beds, shelving, or tables.  His shelter complete, Walt signs off by lighting his pipe, and conceding that he must paint the outer walls to please his aesthetically minded wife.  To conclude the film, O.C.D.M. director Leo A. Hoegh speaks from his Washington office to explain that no home can be considered modern without a fallout shelter.  Although federal agencies would continue to promote private fallout shelters throughout the Cold War, Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter would be declare obsolete by 1965, likely because it makes no mention of the National Fallout Shelter Program, which was the main objective of American civil defense policy in the mid 1960's.(2)

Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE.

1. Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.  1960 Annual Report.  U.S. Government Printing Office.  1960.  12.
2. Office of Civil Defense.  Civil Defense Motion Picture Catalog.  U.S. Government Printing Office.  May 1966.  32.