More than 50,000 Seattle Public School students are sent home during air-raid drill on May 28, 1942.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 12/04/2007
  • Essay 8401
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On May 28, 1942, air-raid warning bells sound at 2:25 pm and more than 50,000 students at public schools throughout Seattle are immediately sent home.  Only civilian defense authorities and officers of the Fourth Interceptor Command are aware that the bells signal a practice drill rather than a genuine air raid.  Parents, students, teachers, principals, and the general public receive no advance warning, and many students report being terrified that enemy air attack is imminent.

Enemy Planes?

Even the school operators who sounded the alert that sent the students home were unaware that their warning was a drill -- they, too, thought enemy planes had been sighted heading toward Seattle.  The alert was code yellow, meaning that citizens had a half-hour before the arrival of enemy planes.

Most students proceeded home quickly but without panic.  Calls from parents, however, flooded the school administration switchboard for several hours after their children arrived home unexpectedly.  After determining that the event was only a drill, some parents voiced criticism of the unannounced drill on the basis that it had been unfair to frighten the children unnecessarily.

Seattle Public School Superintendent Ward McClure defended the surprise drill to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "'Air raid drills must become as automatic as fire drills.  We have a definite responsibility to handle the situation.  If we announce that a drill is to be held it is impossible to judge its success.  The system must function the same, whether the raid is real or not'" (May 29, 1942).

Practice Makes Perfect

The drill was unannounced, but the students had been practicing for such occasions and knew what to do.  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer explained:

"Immediately through Seattle school buildings, air raid warning bells sounded, youngsters lined up as they have been taught to do since danger of attack became imminent, and in less than five minutes buildings were clear.  The alert, giving half-hour warning of approaching planes, made it possible for nearly all of the city's students to go to their homes.  Those who go to and from school on buses or must wait for their parents at the end of the school day were ordered to air raid shelter stations in the buildings. 

"Had the alarm been another type of alert, only those students who can reach their homes in ten minutes would have left the buildings, and had the alert signaled immediate danger, all students would have remained in the buildings, taking safety stations" (May 29, 1942).

The All Clear signal came at 2:40 pm.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

A May 30, 1942, editorial in The Seattle Times compared the decision to manage the drill by allowing students and teachers to believe they were in imminent danger with the fable of the "The Shepherd's Boy," commonly known as the Boy Who Cried Wolf.  The shepherd in the fable "shouted 'Wolf, wolf' to fool his companions and wound up by double crossing himself ... we believe that a serious mistake has been made in this instance.  The inevitable result -- if the mistake is not corrected -- is that teachers will have less confidence in any future warning that may come from the school administration and that students and their parents will have less confidence in the teachers" ("Air Raid Drills"). 

The editorial called for clear distinction between practice drills and actual attacks, concluding, "then there will be efficiency without panic, if and when we get the message that the people of Honolulu did -- 'This is the real McCoy.'"

WTCN radio announcer Roger Krupp read what is regarded as the first, or one of the first, news flash announcements alerting the American public to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Krupp's announcement included the assurance "This is not a maneuver.  This is the real McCoy" ("Sotheby's to Auction...").

Crossed Signals

Lincoln High School, Broadway High School, and several elementary schools failed to participate in the drill.  The Seattle Star reported that the clerk who answered the telephone at Lincoln misunderstood the call to be a simple test and never announced the warning.  Broadway High students were already conducting their own internal air raid drill when the call announcing the citywide alert came.  A student took the call and misunderstood what the Star called "the terse instructions -- 'Air raid message: yellow'" (May 29, 1942).  Broadway High's 1,400 students finished their own drill and returned to their classrooms.

At Stevens Elementary the children were evacuated from the building and then immediately returned to their classrooms.  At John B. Allen Elementary the students were sent to air raid stations within the school building.

The Real Thing For Them

Most Seattle schoolchildren, however, cast worried glances skyward and hurried home.  The Seattle Star reported:

"Children were rushed out of their school buildings so rapidly that in many cases they went home without wraps, lunch boxes, and books.

'I was never so scared in my life,' said 14-year-old Dolores Devoice of Alexander Hamilton Middle School.  'We just moved here from Montana.  Over there we didn't even know there was a war going on.'  Dolores...went home with Lois (Jackie) Welch... 'We ran all the way,' said Jackie.  'Dolores cried on the way home and I started to cry after we got there'" (May 29, 1949).  Despite the tears, Jackie Welch's mother thought the experience was beneficial, telling the Star "'They don't take this war seriously enough.  It's a good thing to scare them a little.'"

Sources: "'Raid' Empties City's Schools," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 29, 1942; "Air Raid Drills," The Seattle Times, May 30, 1942; "Some Schools Fail To Heed Yesterday's Air-Raid Drill," The Seattle Star, May 29, 1942; James R. Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle Of Washington State In World War II (Seattle: History Ink, 2000), p. 17; "Sotheby's To Auction Teletype Report of Pearl harbor Attack," Pittsburg (Kansas) Morning Sun, June 25, 2000, website accessed December 3, 2007 (

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