One of the stranger civil defense measures resorted to during the early Cold War was the practice of having school children wear emergency identification dog tags in preparation for an atomic attack. Annabeth Gish's character models one of these unsightly survival accessories for her appalled aunt played by Ellen Barkin in the 1950-set film . CONELRAD also posted real life testimony from veteran dog tag kid Laura K. Graff back in 2003.
A lesser known, but infinitely more bizarre initiative that was promoted during this same panicky period was the tattooing of blood-types on citizens in anticipation of the sure-to-be chaotic medical triage environment that would follow an enemy bombing. CONELRAD's research into this poorly documented plan indicates that various incarnations of the program took place in the northern region of Indiana and in isolated pockets of Utah and Idaho. However, there are almost certainly other places in the U.S. where the program was tried.
A massive blood-typing and tattooing project that was approved for Chicago on July 31, 1950, apparently never got off the ground. On August 1st of that year, the Chicago Tribune announced the program to its readers and featured a disquieting graphic of a woman with a raised left arm and an "x" where the blood-type was to be placed. It is interesting to note that all records collected by CONELRAD for this Atomic Secret point to the left underarm as being the generally preferred epidermal real estate for this type of ghoulish branding. Evidently, it was thought that this spot on the human anatomy would survive just about anything—including close proximity to "A-blasts."
The officially sanctioned scarification of Americans that is described in this Atomic Secret is made all the more creepy by the historical precedent of the concept. During World War II, members of the SS's Death's Head Battalion were required to have their blood-type tattooed under...wait for it...their left arm. Strangely enough, this horrific factoid was omitted from the contemporaneous pro-civil defense reportage on the U.S. implementation of the German "innovation." Of course, we liked their rocket scientists, too, so why not their body art?
The best, most comprehensive evidence (aside from the actual tattoos and the recollections of those who bear them) of this odd Cold War phenomenon resides on ancient, vinegar-scented microfilm reels at the public library in Logan, Utah. The Utah chapter of this story begins on August 18, 1950 on the pages of the (Logan) Herald-Journal newspaper with a report on a civic meeting featuring two doctors as guest speakers:
Serious and important matters were on the docket as part of the program of the Logan Rotarians at their luncheon period this week. An over all view of the civil defense program, with special reference to blood typing and tattooing, with demonstrations, was presented.
Dr. Omar Budge, chairman of the committee in charge of the blood typing program for Cache county, explained the life-saving advantages of having every person's blood tested and the type of his blood recorded on the person's skin by a simple tattooing process...
The article goes on to describe the preparations for emergencies and then conveys the admonishments of the speakers:
...Both the doctors emphasized the importance of a prompt and willing response on the part of every citizen to the blood testing program, and to every other call made by civil defense authorities, as a patriotic duty...
According to the newspaper account, most of the assembled Rotarians duly heeded this invocation to action by availing themselves of the doctors' services before the end of the meeting. For while one doctor spoke to the audience, the other demonstrated the process to volunteers (Lunch and a tattoo!).
The following year, on May 17, 1951, a full-fledged "Walking Blood-Bank Drive" was announced to the residents of Logan in the pages of the Herald-Journal. This time, however, the term "tattoo" was nowhere to be found in the promotion of the event. Instead, the more benign phrase "permanent imprint" was employed:
This area's first civil defense measure, sponsored by the Cache Valley Medical Association will insure exact blood-type and Rh factor of all persons living in Cache and Rich counties...
...Cost of the program will be $1 per person. This includes blood type, Rh factor, and a permanent imprint of blood type and factor in the skin under the left arm...
The Herald-Journal's May 22, 1951 cover featured a photo of ElRay L. Christiansen, president of the Logan temple, getting his blood typed. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made an allowance for the Logan tattooing program and even permitted blood-typing to take place in the basement of the Christiansen's tabernacle. The unusual dispensation eventually found its way into official church writings. Indeed, the following passage appears in the book "Mormon Doctrine" by Elder Bruce R. McConkie on page 775 of the second edition (1966):
Tattoos are permanent marks or designs made on the skin by puncturing it and filling the punctures with indelible ink. The practice is a desecration of the human body and should not be permitted, unless all that is involved is the placing of a blood type or an identification number in an obscure place...
Naturally, there are stories from this weird episode in Logan history that have surfaced only recently. In August of 2006, one of the few surviving physicians involved with the program, Dr. Merrill Daines, told Herald-Journal reporter Lexie Kite that the tattoos were "questionable, but never questioned." He added that "we (the doctors) went along with this because we were asked to do it, first of all, and second, we were afraid the Russians would bomb us..." Daines also revealed publicly to Kite for the first time that neither he nor members of his family were ever tattooed.
Dr. Daines's dubious assessment of the program was in agreement with the Committee on Blood Banks of the American Medical Association which contended the procedure was "inadvisable, costly and hazardous."
In 1998, Logan resident Col. T.C. Skanchy wrote a compelling first-person recollection of his own 1951 blood-typing experience that occurred when he was in the 7th grade (the Logan Board of Education had joined the campaign by this point). Skanchy remembered the events as they unfolded after he obtained his signed permission from his parents for his branding:
...We were organized in the same manner the military gives mass vaccinations to GIs. Long lines of excited, chattering students snaked toward the little semi-private booths. The blood type and Rh factor were determined – with questionable accuracy. We then moved to another booth where the tattoo was painfully etched into the skin with an ink smeared device that looked and felt like a wood-burning iron. The boys were quite stoic, able to muffle any cries of pain. We lads relished hearing some of the girls letting out lengthy owwwwws. It was a festive and exciting day. All seemed proud to have entered the atomic age...
According to Kite's invaluable reporting on this otherwise lost piece of Cold War history, by the end of 1952 when the program's popularity was waning, "every resident of Cache and Rich county who wanted one – from toddlers on up – was sporting a blood-type tattoo that varied in size, but usually measured an inch or two in height and width."
Are blood-type tattoos still administered today? Not really, but a call to Hollywood's own "Atomic Tattoo" parlor yielded this response to our question on how much it would cost to have the blood-type "O –" tattooed under the left arm of an adult male: "Depends on how big – between 60 and 100 bucks," said the representative who answered the phone. When the rep was asked whether he had ever been asked to execute such a "design," the halting response was "No, not personally."
We would like to conclude this edition of Atomic Secrets by asking all readers 50 years of age and older to raise their left arm in front of a mirror. If you have a blood-type tattoo and an interesting, formerly repressed memory to go along with it, we'd love to hear from you. German war criminals need not reply (Ho-gan!).
1 Cold War era blood-typing/tattooing in Northern Indiana has been independently confirmed by CONELRAD with a source in the medical community in the Chicago area. Evidence of blood-type tattooing in Idaho is limited to an online letter to the editor of Standard.net by Roy G. Gamble (http://www.standard.net/standard/86646) published on August 23, 2006. Gamble claims in his letter that he received a blood-type tattoo in the Preston (Idaho) High School gym in 1956. [ ]
2 According to the August 1, 1950 Chicago Tribune article, Dr. Andrew C. Ivy and Dr. Herman N. Bundesen were the physicians spearheading the city blood-typing effort. Aside from a couple of Tribune follow-up articles on August 2 and October 27, 1950, nothing further was reported and it does appear that the program was carried out. It should be noted that Ivy was later unsuccessfully prosecuted for fraud in connection with a cancer treatment drug called Krebiozen (Time magazine, "The Krebiozen Verdict," February 11, 1966). [ ]
3 The document "U.S. District Court Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, Case No. 1:99CV1193, Findings of Fact: U.S.A vs. John Demjanjuk" (page 36) makes specific reference to the tattooing of SS soldiers from the Death's Head Brigade. Other books, including "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Paleopathology" by Langsjoen Odin, Arthur C. Auferheide and Conrado Rodriguez-Martin (Pg. 49), refer to tattooing of SS soldiers in general. Gerald Posner and John Ware also reveal in "Mengele: The Complete Story" (pp 62-63) that Josef Mengele's lack of a tattoo enabled him to avoid closer scrutiny during his initial capture and interrogation following the war. During his induction into the SS, Mengele successfully convinced his superiors that he did not require a tattoo. [ ]
4 "Sign of the Times" by Lexie Kite in The (Logan) Herald-Tribune, August 2, 2006. [ ]
5 "Bars Blood-Typing Action," The New York Times, October 14, 1950 [ ]
6 "Remembering the Cold War" by T.C. Skanchy in The (Logan) Herald-Tribune, October 21, 1998. [ ]
7 "Sign of the Times" by Lexie Kite in The (Logan) Herald-Tribune, August 2, 2006. [ ]
8 Bill Geerhart inquiry to Atomic Tattoo, 5903 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA (October 28, 2006). [ ]
Got a blood type tattoo or related story you want to share? Contact us
and we'll post your account here.
Marcia Gaughan provides this vivid recollection of her first grade atomic tattooing:
"I was another "victim" of this program. I was in the first grade at the Whiting, Indiana primary school in the spring of 1953 (May, I think.) The experience was so horrendous that I remember, in detail, everything that transpired."
"First, we were given permission slips to take home for our parents to sign. There was even a charge for the procedure--50 cents. On the day of the ordeal the first thing that happened was that we stood in a long line to have our thumbs pricked with a needle. They then squeezed our blood onto a 3"x5" card that had three circles on it, each circle containing a different drop of fluid and, ultimately, a drop of our blood. This must have been how they determined our blood type. After the fluid and blood had enough time to dry, the cards were put into a plastic sleeve and given to us. (I kept mine for years but finally threw it away when I found it in a desk drawer decades later.)"
"At some point we were also given a metal dog tag on a chain and told that we were to wear the dog tags all the time (presumably so that our bodies could be identified after a nuclear attack.) The dog tags had our name, blood type and RELIGION and maybe our adddress embossed in raised letters. The back of the tag had a piece of paper with lines on it and, I think, the same information that was in the raised letters. We then took the dog tags and the 3"x5" cards into a large room that had about 20 little chairs in a line along the wall leading to an area behind a curtain. We were told to sit in the chairs."
"The kid closest to the curtain was told to go inside the curtained area, and the rest of us moved up one chair closer. We then heard a buzzing sound similar to a dentist's drill, and a lot of screaming and, a few minutes later, the kid emerged from behind the curtain, crying, and then next kid took his place. The wait probably took about an hour, and during that time, as we inched closer and closer to the curtain, we had to witness each of our classmate's enter the curtained area and come out crying, so you can imagine how frightening it was."
"Once behind the curtain I had to take off my clothes above the waist and show my card and dog tag to the two people in there. Once held me still and the other stuck what looked like a power drill into my left side, turned it on and held it there for a minute or two. Naturally I was screaming and struggling just like the other kids before me."
"I still have my atomic tattoo (O-), but, as I grew it got distorted, so it's pretty illegible today. The tattoo caused a lot of comments during bikini season after I went to college and later moved to Ohio, where no one had seen anything like it. After I moved back to northwest Indiana I tried to search some public records but was never able to find any evidence of the program."
"Naturally, there are still a lot sixty-something atomic tattooed people in northwest. I have met some of them and have learned something more about the program: evidently it was widespread throughout Lake County. I have met people from Hammond, Hobart and Gary who have atomic tattoos, and most of them can vividly remember the day it happened to them because it was such a terrible experience that they never forgot it."
"One interesting thing: all of the people with atomic tatoos I have met are either my age or older. None are younger. That suggests that the program was discontinued after that one year (1953). I have heard that one of the reasons they pulled the plug on it was that some of the children had blood types that did not match either of their parents, so the guys who were thought to be their fathers... uh..really weren't, so in the interest of family unity they decided to nix the whole thing. Thank goodness."
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