In Portland, Oregon, there is a man who dresses as Darth Vader wearing a kilt that also rides a unicycle and plays the theme to “Star Wars” on the bagpipes.
By the way, his bagpipes spout flames.
In a more staid U.S. municipality, he’d at least get a visit from the fire marshal. In Portland, he’s just part of everyday life, a life summed up by the city’s unofficial motto: “Keep Portland weird.” I can’t imagine anything today that would get Portland’s eccentrics to march in lock step for any reason — and I have lived in Oregon a long time.
But in 1955, Portlanders conformed in droves when it came to a Cold War evacuation drill that emptied the downtown core of more than 100,000 people in less than an hour. It was called Operation Greenlight, and the drill was the first of its kind in the nation.
What’s more, it worked. If Soviet bombers laden with nuclear weapons were on their way to lay waste to Portland, Operation Greenlight proved to its planners that given enough warning, Civil Defense officials could save many lives otherwise destined for vaporization in a nuclear fireball.
At first, the evacuation plan had the broad backing of the community, elected officials, and business owners. But by 1963, Portland changed its tune. The city was the first in the United States to reject the national civil defense program as well as shut down its local civil defense efforts. The arms race and the growing belief that no one could survive a nuclear war convinced city officials that an evacuation plan during the age of the H-bomb was pointless.
Today, Portland is considered a hipster paradise — although the city’s earth-friendly, organic granola, chanting-and-swaying culture is frequently skewered by the television show Portlandia.
But Portland is also a really great drinking city, a feature I indulge in whenever I am there. I recently contemplated Operation Greenlight while at my favorite downtown Portland watering hole, the bar at Jake’s Famous Crawfish Restaurant.
Jake’s opened in 1892. It is the second-oldest continually operating restaurant in the city and has a traditional saloon without equal in the Pacific Northwest.
There is a “loungey” atmosphere with wood paneling on the walls, and white linen on the tables. But as Hemingway said, why sit at a table when you can stand at the bar — or in my case, sit at the bar?
“Have you ever heard of Operation Greenlight?” I asked my bartender while he brought me my drink (A Glenfiddich — neat).
He looked puzzled. “Is it a construction project?” he replied.
I briefly explained Operation Greenlight to him, how on Sept. 27, 1955 at 3:05 p.m., air raid sirens wailed in downtown Portland, signaling the beginning of the drill. By 3:59 p.m., Civil Defense officials determined that 29,423 vehicles and 101,074 people in the urban core were gone — they all had driven away in an orderly manner and without incident.
“I never heard of it before,” he replied. “Frankly, I think it’s amazing. Just getting two people in Portland to do the same thing today is like herding cats.”
The fact that no one remembers Operation Greenlight doesn’t surprise Brian Johnson, probably the one man alive who knows the most about the drill.
“I seldom hear anyone speak of it,” Johnson, the archives and records management coordinator for the City of Portland Archives & Records Center and a historian who contributes articles to The Oregon Encyclopedia, told Molotov Cocktail. “This is one of the Portland stories I know that I cannot remember any older people speaking of participating in.”
During the 1950s, Portland developed a thorough civil defense program with definite Cold War aims. The city made plans that would coordinate public safety and public works services in the event of a nuclear attack, and put in place a continuation of government plan that would activate if three or more city council members were killed or incapacitated during an attack. Furthermore, in 1956 the city built a command post beneath Kelly Butte, a gigantic plug of ancient lava in an extinct volcanic field, at a cost of more $670,000 — the first completely underground self-sustaining civil defense emergency operations center in the United States. It could house as many as 250 city officials and government workers for up to two weeks after a nuclear attack.
As the decade progressed, Portland’s civil defense officials wanted to prove that some kind evacuation plan could save lives. By 1955, they developed the idea for Operation Greenlight.
Remember, in the age before Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles the flight time of bombers could be measured in hours, and the U.S. military at least hoped they would detect incoming aircraft quickly enough to give civil defense officials some kind of warning.
There were other reasons for the drill — the Cold War politics of federal funding for local civil defense. A successful evacuation drill might convince the federal government to help fund construction of the new civil defense emergency operations center under Kelly Butte.
“The city used Greenlight as a demonstration of their organization and abilities to show the federal government that our plan was sound and effective,” Johnson said. “Our construction of the Kelly Butte Civil Defense building was reliant upon the Feds buying into and supporting our plan and continuing to fund it. Greenlight was a massive success and the Feds used [Portland] as a model to emulate.”
What would a Russian nuclear weapon have done to downtown Portland in 1955? I’ll assume the weapon available would have been a Soviet RDS-4 plutonium fission bomb with a 30-kiloton yield, delivered by a Tu-4 “Bull” bomber on a one-way mission. I’ll set the hypocenter (the area immediately below the detonation) right above Jake’s, based on an airburst 1,600 feet above the ground. Finally, I’ll feed information about yield and airburst altitude into NUKEMAP, an online weapon effect calculator.
The results? A nuclear fireball with a radius of about 800 feet would have vaporized everything immediately below it. The blast wave of 20 psi would demolish even concrete or steel reinforced buildings up to half a mile away, killing nearly everyone in the blast radius. High-energy radiation from the weapon would kill up to 90 percent of the population within a radius of nine-tenths of a mile from ground zero. Intense heat from the fireball would cause third-degree burns on victims up to a mile-and-a-half away from the airburst; meaning people on the other side of the Columbia River would have been charred. The heat would also ignited wood-constructed buildings, causing fires that would have raged through the area.
As for casualties … it’s hard to estimate. But if there were about 100,000 people in downtown Portland on a workday in 1955, one guess is about 50,000 would have been killed, and the remainder badly wounded by traumatic injuries. So, Operation Greenlight might have been a lifesaver — but only if bombers were the sole way of delivering nuclear weapons.
In 1964, a ballot measure to continue civil defense funding went to the voters. It failed. By then, the city council also voted to end Portland’s participation in the national civil defense program. Was that the beginning of Portland’s trend toward bucking the tide and embracing non-conformity? Probably not, but contemplating Operation Greenlight left me wondering what I would do in 1955 if I knew Soviet bombers were on their way to nuke the Rose City.
Impending doom and figures like those above definitely warrant a drink, so in the spirit of “Keeping Portland Weird,” I’m pretty sure I’d have a cocktail while contemplating my dwindling options. Here are three options, three drinks:
It’s the last closing time: The Atomic Cocktail
There really is an Atomic Cocktail, a drink inspired by jazz musician Slim Gaillard’s humorous ditty:
“It’s the drink that you don’t pour
Now when you take one sip you won’t need any more
You’re small as a beetle or big as a whale
BOOM! — Atomic Cocktail!”
With nuclear Armageddon drawing near, I might want a drink that would knock my socks off. This one will knock off yours.
1½ Oz. Vodka
1½ Oz. Brandy
1 Tsp. Sherry (sweet or dry, your choice)
1½ Oz. Brut champagne
Stir the vodka, brandy, and sherry well with cracked ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and then add the ice-cold brut champagne. Garnish with a twist of lemon.
I, for one, welcome our new Soviet masters: The Moscow Mule
Better Red than dead, right? Maybe beet soup, re-education camps, and memorizing the sayings of Lenin won’t be so bad — if I survive the Bomb. So in the spirit of socialist solidarity, perhaps I’d drink to the new sheriff — er, commissar — in town with a vodka cocktail introduced during the 1940s when the Soviets were still considered allies.
By the way, Jake’s makes a wicked Moscow Mule.
½ Oz. Fresh Lime Juice
2 Oz. Vodka
6 Oz. Ginger Beer
Pour lime juice into a Collins glass (or a copper Moscow Mule mug ideally). Add 2 or 3 ice cubes, add the vodka and fill glass or mug with cold ginger beer. Serve with a stirring rod, if so inclined.
Wolverines! Or, “Don’t start the guerilla war without me”: Jungle Juice
Actually, I know I’d fight the commie bastards given the chance. After I grabbed my trusty M-1 carbine and M1911 pistol, loaded up my rig with supplies, and headed for the Oregon wilderness, I’d join up with other red-blooded Americans who’d probably make hooch as well as war.
Yes, moonshine, white lightening, pop-skull, and panther breath — you name it. It’s the key ingredient for a sweet cocktail made in bulk. And it’s American.
1 Qt. of any sweet beverage (fruit juice, Kool-Aid, Seven-Up, powdered drink mix from military rations, you name it. Mix several together if you don’t have enough).
1 Qt. Hooch
Mix it all together in a large container. Serve in a canteen cup while celebrating a successful attack on the People’s Re-Education Center. Do not consume before going out on patrol.
An award-winning reporter who covered the U.S. military and military policy for various daily newspapers, Paul Richard Huard writes about military history, military firepower, and the Russian military for a variety of publications. His work appears at War Is Boring, We Are The Mighty, The World, The National Interest, RealClearDefense, and RealClearHistory. You can follow him on Twitter @paul_huard.