Atomic Tattoos

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Producer Liza Yeager recently did something that will become pretty common with the next generation of kids. She asked her grandma to show her her tattoo.

Liza Yeager:
Can you just describe what the tattoo looks like?

Roman Mars:
That’s Liza …

Carol Fischler:
Oh, the tattoo.

Liza Yeager:
And that’s my grandma Carol Fischler, showing me her tattoo.

Carol Fischler:
It’s very tiny. I think it’s maybe five-eighths of an inch and it looks like a little hand mirror.

Liza Yeager:
Although it’s definitely not a hand mirror.

Carol Fischler:
It’s a little circle, and then a line going off to the side of it and then there’s a cross over that line because my blood type is O+.

Liza Yeager:
It’s a tiny tattoo of her blood type, right on her rib cage and just under her left arm.

Liza Yeager:
Okay. So do you think that you can just walk me through step by step, the whole process of getting the tattoo?

Carol Fischler:
Oh, well, it was pretty straight forward. All of the kids whose parents had signed the little slip were taken, marched out of our classroom and down the hall.

Liza Yeager:
Yeah, this was in school. This happened in Lake County, Indiana. It was 1952 and my grandma was 16.

Carol Fischler:
At the first station that you came to, they pricked your finger and squeezed a little drop of blood onto a little card and determined what your blood type was, and then you proceeded inside the library.

Roman Mars:
Inside the library, Carol discovered a few makeshift privacy booths set up, and inside each booth, an administrator waiting with a tattoo gun, ready to draw a tiny O+ or AB or A- on row upon row of waiting students, and always in the same place, on the torso, just under the left arm.

Carol Fischler:
It was sort of like an inkjet printer. They took seconds, and it went “zzz-zzz…zzz-zzz”. And that was it.

Liza Yeager:
My grandmother and the other students that day were part of an experimental program called “Operation Tat-Type”. It was administered by the county and the idea was simple but also kind of terrifying.

Carol Fischler:
The goal of this was to make it easy to transfuse people who had been injured and who needed a blood transfusion in case of an atom bomb.

Roman Mars:
At the age of 16, Liza’s grandmother’s body was permanently marked in anticipation of a nuclear catastrophe.

Liza Yeager:
In 1952, the Cold War was in full swing, and the government was busy developing civil defense strategies, things ordinary citizens could do to help protect the home front. In this case, the thinking was that, in the event of a Russian attack, the tattoos would make for quicker transfusions if children were incapacitated or didn’t know their blood type.

Carol Fischler:
But they would also have what they were calling a “walking blood bank”.

Roman Mars:
So instead of having to extract blood from people, store it and keep it cool, you just have a cohort of potential donors walking around with their blood types written on their sides.

Carol Fischler:
If you needed some A+ or AB- or something, you would just check all these people, and then when you found what you needed, you’d plug them into the person that needed the blood and do an immediate transfusion.

Liza Yeager:
You would just lift up somebody’s arm.

Carol Fischler:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, yeah. I’ve got one here. This is what we need.

Liza Yeager:
You can maybe hear this from how she’s talking, but for my grandma getting this tattoo was not a big deal. Not at the time, not now. The way she tells it, it was a totally normal day, at least for a Hoosier.

Carol Fischler:
This was Indiana. Nobody gets all that excited about every little thing. You stood in line, you took your turn, you went back to class and finished your mathematics or whatever else you were doing at the time.

Roman Mars:
But as trivial is it may have seemed at the time, Carol’s tattoo was more than a weird little Cold War oddity. It was one of the smallest and most personal manifestations of a much larger idea that deeply influenced how the United States fought the Cold War. The concept of survivability.

Liza Yeager:
The idea that with enough canned food, shelters, fearlessness, and sometimes, tattoos, the American people would be able to survive an atomic attack and that it was only logical to prepare for it.

Roman Mars:
Today if we remember anything about the idea of survivability, it’s probably this.

Duck and Cover Jingle:
“…He ducked, and covered. Ducked, and covered…”

Liza Yeager:
It’s the “Duck and Cover” jingle, the song that goes along with this grainy black and white film that was distributed by the Federal Civil Defense Administration. It shows a little hand drawn turtle docking under his shell. He’s teaching kids to hide under their desks during a bomb.

Roman Mars:
People make fun of “Duck and Cover” a lot. It’s considered the number one example of the kind of Cold War-era propaganda that seems totally ridiculous now. Kitschy and absurd and sort of unimaginably naive.

Duck and Cover Jingle:
“… and you and you and you. Duck, and cover!”

Susan Lindee:
There are a lot of jokes made and I think ridicule of “Duck and Cover”, and even today people joke about it and say you wouldn’t be protected at all. It wouldn’t make any difference.

Liza Yeager:
Susan Lindee is a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the Cold War, and she says that when we make fun of the usefulness of a tactic like “Duck and Cover”, thinking it couldn’t ever work, were actually just wrong.

Susan Lindee:
Those films were in fact, based on the individual experiences of persons who had been exposed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Liza Yeager:
In September of 1945, just one month after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. military sent a team of American doctors and geneticists to Japan to interview people who’d survived the attacks. They were looking to understand both the short and long-term effects of radiation. That program would eventually be named the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, or the ABCC.

Roman Mars:
It would also prove to be highly controversial because the researchers weren’t there to treat the survivors.

Liza Yeager:
They were there to study them, and only to study them.

Susan Lindee:
The reason to study the survivors was because that they were surrogates for future American populations that would be subjected to exactly this kind of urban attack in a future nuclear war.

Roman Mars:
It was American lives, not Japanese, they were hoping to save. To understand who would survive and who would not when an American city was hit with an atomic bomb.

Susan Lindee:
So when the American scientists and physicians arrived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what they wanted to do first was to track down how many survivors there were.

Liza Yeager:
They were looking at lots of things – cancer rates, irregular pregnancies, heart disease, but also critically, they asked every survivor they interviewed …

Susan Lindee:
Where were you at the moment of the detonation? How close had they been?

Liza Yeager:
Because before the ABCC researchers arrived, the physicist who had developed the bomb had assumed that they wouldn’t be finding survivors anywhere close to Ground Zero, what they called the “hypocenter”.

Susan Lindee:
But what became clear is that some people could be very close but weren’t exposed to significant levels of radiation because they were shielded. Within about three blocks of the hypocenter at Hiroshima, there were people in a basement in a fairly large concrete building who survived.

Roman Mars:
Further out from the hypocenter, researchers discovered that people who had taken cover even momentarily didn’t just survive the immediate blast. They seem to be healthy.

Susan Lindee:
So there’s a very famous story about Nagasaki, which involved young boys who were swimming and they were diving off a cliff into a lake. At the moment of detonations, five of them were standing up on the cliff and one of them had just hit the water and went underwater. All five who were on that cliff were dead of leukemia by 1952, and the one who had been underwater did not get sick. Anyone who had been behind even a tree, was more likely to be alive five years later than someone who had been out in the open, and the logic of this is that the key exposure to radiation, the most important moment, lasts less than a second.

Liza Yeager:
It’s not that there weren’t other sources of radiation to be avoided, but what mattered most was being shielded at the moment of the blast. During the blast wave that followed, it was the people who were standing up who were most likely to be killed by shattering windows or falling debris. People who had been lying down when the blast wave hit much more often survived.

Roman Mars:
The lesson seemed clear. In the event of an atomic bomb, if you could stay low and stay shielded, in other words, if you ducked and covered, you might just be okay.

Liza Yeager:
American civil defense planners had already began to wonder, if “duck and cover” could help the population of a city survive a nuclear attack, what else might work? They were studying things like psychology and group dynamics and infrastructure to see how society as a whole might hold up under a nuclear attack.

Roman Mars:
The civil defense policies that emerged from this research all stressed that America could survive, but only if everyone, not just the authorities, but everyday citizens, did their part.

Informational Clip:
“With the knowledge of the first atomic explosions to guide us, our chances for survival will be far better than those of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if we act on our knowledge and are prepared.”

Liza Yeager:
Like practicing proper home maintenance.

Informational Clip:
“I am going to show you how protective measures can help guard your home against the heat effects of an atomic explosion.”

Liza Yeager:
And air raid drills.

Informational Clip:
“Number aircraft, unknown. Warning is flashed along the Civil Defense Network and in every target city preparedness gets as concrete of a test as possible, short of actual bombing.”

Liza Yeager:
Even learning how to deal with irradiated soil.

Clip:
“For detailed information, get your free copy of ‘Your Livestock Can Survive Fallout.'”

Roman Mars:
In Lake County, Indiana, they opted into a little pilot program to indicate their blood type with a tattoo, all predicated on the belief that in the face of an atomic attack, a person and a society might just survive.

Liza Yeager:
My grandma, she says she was pretty much on board.

Liza Yeager:
You don’t have any particular memories of your first impressions of the program?

Carol Fischler:
Yeah, they were all positive. I thought this was a really good idea.

Liza Yeager:
She says, for one thing, it was a time when more people still trusted the government.

Carol Fischler:
Well, you were just coming off this big war, which is impossibly complicated in all parts of the world, and yet somehow it had all come out all right, and so you felt that somebody was in charge that knew what he was doing.

Liza Yeager:
Plus, the place she lived in northern Indiana was a huge railroad hub and it was a possible target. She didn’t know whether the tattoos would help her survive in attack, but she also genuinely believed that they might. They were worth getting.

Carol Fischler:
Because if people were injured and would not be able to be assisted because you didn’t know their blood type, well, that’s a no brainer. Just go ahead and write it on them.

Liza Yeager:
Remember, this was a voluntary program. My grandmother signed up for it and so did most of her grade. She wanted to do her part to be prepared.

Carol Fischler:
Because who knows? Who knows? In the Japanese cities that were bombed, there had to be a next day. What do you do the next day? What do you do to save as many people as possible? The unthinkable thing, when it happens, you have to somehow react to it.

Liza Yeager:
When I really listened to my grandmother, this made sense to me. It made sense that people believed that the risk of an attack was real and believed there was a way to be at least somewhat prepared. The problem is that not long after she got that tattoo, the premise behind it, survivability, stopped making sense.

Roman Mars:
Even as children were learning to duck and cover and farmers are learning how to protect livestock from fallout, the very idea of what a nuclear war might look like was changing, and with it, our chances of survival.

Liza Yeager:
In 1950, just two years before Operation Tat-Type, the Soviet Union had a grand total of five nuclear warheads. Five. By 1960, they would have over 1600, many of them thermonuclear weapons, hydrogen bombs exponentially more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By then, Susan Lindee thinks that civil defense tactics like the school tattoo program, they might still have been valuable in the event of a limited engagement, in which perhaps only a small number of cities were hit.

Susan Lindee:
So it’s not that blood transfusion wouldn’t have mattered at all …

Liza Yeager:
But in the event of a global thermonuclear war where it’s not just your city that’s destroyed, but the entire infrastructure of the United States …

Susan Lindee:
You’re not imagining a still functioning society outside of that city. You’re imagining that there are no doctors to be rushed to the scene. Nobody can come from a neighboring city.

Liza Yeager:
In that case, what are these children going to do?

Susan Lindee:
Yeah. What are they going to do…?

Roman Mars:
Still, government agencies like the Civil Defense Administration continued to promote the idea that the country could survive a full throated nuclear attack, in part because the gospel of survivability, however imaginary, still served other functions.

Susan Lindee:
Sure, imaginary things matter a lot, especially in propaganda.

Liza Yeager:
Because a lot of military and civil defense planners, they didn’t just worry there would be a war. They were convinced war was coming.

Susan Lindee:
The Department of Defense, the President, Congress, reached the conclusion that developing and stockpiling ever larger, ever more powerful, nuclear weapons was absolutely crucial to the security and the future survival of the United States.

Liza Yeager:
Which is why by 1960, the same year the Soviet nuclear arsenal topped 1600 warheads, the United States had more than 18,000.

Roman Mars:
Those weapons were controversial almost from the beginning.

News Clip:
“In one week in June, demonstrations took place in more than a dozen countries and at 50 locations throughout the United States.”

Susan Lindee:
There were always protests. Within 24 hours of the dropping of the bomb, there were critics all over the world saying that the United States should not have used it.

Critic:
“If this keeps up, then where does it stop? Do we live under the sword of Damocles forever?”

Susan Lindee:
There were theologians who said, this is an immoral form of warfare.

Theologian:
“What’s happening here is immoral and that we in faith must resist it.”

Liza Yeager:
That made the logic of survivability doubly useful. Things like lessons in school and evacuation drills and tattoos.

Susan Lindee:
The advice is increasing the acceptability of nuclear weapons and increasing public belief in the idea that even if a nuclear war came, there would be strategies that would permit those who were properly prepared to survive.

Liza Yeager:
Did it work? Did people feel less scared?

Susan Lindee:
I think that some people did. Maybe most people. Because when you look at surveys of people in the ’50’s about nuclear weapons, people believe that they’re necessary. If you believe it’s necessary, then you have to believe that it’s also practical, that it’s not insane. You have to believe it’s not insane.

Liza Yeager:
The year that my grandma got her tattoo, 15,000 other Lake County residents also got their blood type checked through the tat-typing program, finger-pricked, drop of blood on the card. Two-thirds of those people opted for a tattoo.

Roman Mars:
But Operation Tat Type didn’t go far outside Lake County. Despite all the survivability fervor, it never made it beyond the pilot program.

Liza Yeager:
When I talked to my grandma though, I can kind of hear it – the thing Lindee talks about – the psychological impact of programs like this.

Liza Yeager:
Did getting a tattoo make you feel safer?

Carol Fischler:
Yes, I guess so. I thought that I had done the thing that was available to do, to help in case of a total disaster. I thought I had done the right thing.

Liza Yeager:
But maybe more importantly, it was just doing something that made her feel better. It was hard to imagine the bigger picture.

Carol Fischler:
No. No, I didn’t dwell on all of that. I didn’t envision myself lying there and a doctor coming up and throwing up my arm and saying, “Aha, O+. Transfuse this child with O+ blood.” No, I never played that all out in my mind.

Liza Yeager:
She says she was way too busy. She was talking with her friends about boys or what they were going to do over the weekend. Daily life, the life she was living, was much more attractive.

Carol Fischler:
Otherwise we’d go crazy if we had to deal intensively with all of these terrible threats. It’s a certain amount of stuff, I can’t think about that. You just got to keep going and do other things. I think that’s one of the great capacities we have.

Roman Mars:
Today, the legacy of survivability is hidden behind a new series of titles, acronyms, and other obfuscating symbols. The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which studied the effects of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, eventually became the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a joint American-Japanese venture that has continued to study the long-term effects on the survivors of the bomb and their children nearly 75 years later. The Federal Civil Defense Administration, after several name changes, was combined with various other agencies to form FEMA in 1978. It’s strategies have been adapted to deal with hurricanes, earthquakes, and yes, possible nuclear attacks. Then there’s the tiny legacy of survivability inked on the torso of Carol Fischler, just under her left arm, a faded tattoo that says “O+” but looks like a picture of a little hand mirror.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks to professors Tracy Davis and Anne Laumann at Northwestern University, whose voices we did not get to include, but who provided us with invaluable information during our research for this story.

Credits

Production

Producer Liza Yeager spoke with her grandmother, Carol Fischler, and Susan Lindee, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the Cold War.

Special thanks to professors Tracy Davis and Anne Laumann at Northwestern University whose voices we did not get to include but who provided us with invaluable information during our research for this story.

Comments (19)

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  1. Michael

    In the epilogue you talked about the movie WarGames and the game Global Thermonuclear War. You mentioned the website NUKEMAP as a good game to represent it. There is another game called DEFCON that is a more “gamey” version of the same concept. Check it out!

  2. Chris Kantarjiev

    “Duck and Cover” drills continued into the 60s, at least; I remember doing them in 1965 or so. But that might have been at least partially because I was in Alexandria, VA at the time – close proximity to Washington, DC. We moved the next year and I don’t remember doing the drills again, and it’s hard to say if the program ended or it was a regional thing.

  3. Neill Thornton

    These types of tattoos in fact live on, at least in the US Marine Corps. They are called “meat tags” and are in the exact same location. Left side of the torso. While they have more information than just a blood type, it’s the same general idea.

    While they are not mandatory, it’s not uncommon… I have one as do many others. There has always been speculation on when the tradition might have started, and no one really ever seemed to know. Maybe this was the genesis.

  4. Jeff G

    Read the book Raven Rock. All of the Civil Defense stuff was propaganda, because that’s all CD could afford. The money was spent on continuity of government, not American citizen survivability. And this spending disparity continues even today.

  5. Jessi

    I believe Franklin County, Idaho, was the (only) other location that did the blood-type tattoos. My grandmother would show us her tattoo.

  6. Malthus

    Science doesn’t really support the nuclear extinction theory. No doubt many would die from a nuclear war, but hundreds of war heads have been tested on earth’s surface and clearly were all here to tell about it — among many other reasons.

  7. Cristiano

    For a nice style termonuclear war videogame experience, take a look at a game called “Defcon (everybody dies)”

  8. Oleg Lugner

    Very interesting episode, I definitely liked the story.
    The only question I have is why do you call Soviet Union as Russia? Was it on purpose?

  9. The cold war was scary at times. In 1985 I was driving with my months old daughter when the emergency broadcast tone came on my radio and the papermill lunch whistle sounded, which was also the air raid siren. We lived equally near a Strategic Air Command Air Force Base and the Idaho backcountry. I seriously considered which way to go. Towards the SAC base and die in the blast or the Idaho backcountry and try to survive. It was terrifying. Then the radio went on to say it was a “only a test…”

  10. Frank

    “Duck and Cover” is still good advice! If you see a flash in the sky, get down and away from windows…it means something big exploded, and effects are on the way. Several teachers in Chelyabinsk, Russia saw the flash of the meteor exploding, remembered their training and yelled to their students to get under their desks….seconds before the shock wave blew the windows out

  11. Hannah

    I always love 99pi episodes, but this one was closer to home than usual. It stopped me mid-jog. My grandfather (Sgt. John Archambault) was a chemist on that first medical team to travel to the bomb sites in Japan, the beginning of that commission that eventually dreamed up ‘duck and cover.’ John died years before I was born, but I have always been curious about what his experience must have been. There is a very dated but still interesting account of that early mission in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine from 1965 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2591311/). (Beware, troubling images)

  12. Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) was founded in 1981 as a response to threat of thermonuclear war. ADPSR spoke out for the design professions expressing the view widespread throughout the country and the world (but largely missing from the story) that the appropriate response to the threat of nuclear weapons (especially, but not exclusively, the larger thermonuclear weapons) was disarmament, a ban on nuclear weapons, and a redirection of war-planning and war funding towards socially responsible development. In fact, one of ADPSR’s earliest documents was a poster of monuments of world architectural history silhouetted in front of a mushroom cloud.

    As the threat of nuclear weapons turned into the global annihilation promised by H-bombs (as in the movie Wargames, also featured in the story), U.S. authorities promoted civil defense in a way that can only be considered domestic propaganda — trying to convince Americans that we could fight and win a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union in order to bolster support for belligerent Cold War policies and a bloated military industrial complex, including enough H-bombs to destroy the world hundreds of times over.

    We at ADPSR are generally big fans of 99 PI, but feel that this episode ignored much important history from the Cold War Era. To see some of our history, check out: https://www.adpsr.org/blog/2019/1/26/nuclear-nightmares-with-99-percent-invisible

    1. Simeon Hope

      Your comment expresses my thoughts exactly. I thought this episode approached a degree of stubborn perversity in its seeming conscious refusal to consider that the best way to avoid the catastrophe of even the smallest nuclear attack is to get rid of all nuclear weapons. We see the results of this attitude expressed across the world when countries such as Iran attempt, quite legitimately, to develop the weapons that their self-declared opponents such as Israel possess with the support of the USA, the nation with vastly more nuclear killing power than the rest of the planet combined. Yet, somehow, Iran is seen by the media and your president as a threat.

      Even Reagan had the sense to reduce nuclear weapons stocks in conjunction with the USSR. It’s time that the USA resumed good faith negotiations. This episode was disgracefully irresponsible in failing to give even one sentence of acknowledgement of the need to disarm.

  13. Daniel R Przybylski

    I learned “Duck & Cover” in elementary school in the mid-seventies as a strategy to survive earthquakes, and had no idea that it went back to the early cold war until I saw some of those old films.

  14. Stephen Miller

    This episode reminded me of my edition of the “Joy of Cooking” cookbook.
    The section “About Water” has a section on water purification, which reads: “If water has been exposed to radioactive fallout, do not use it. Water from wells and springs, if protected from surface contamination, should be safe from this hazard.” It then goes on to explain how to properly treat and store water in your bomb shelter.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=C4_5MCUd6ucC&pg=PA520&lpg=PA520

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