In 1957, the Soviets orbited the first Sputnik, bringing a new dimension to the Cold War; and a British engineer and author living in Australia published a popular novel that brought up a new fascination and dread about the nuclear threat. The author was Nevil Shute Norway, writing under his first two names, and the novel was On The Beach. The book was absolutely grim, describing the destruction of the world by nuclear war.
Shute’s Novel – Nuclear Exchange and Extinction of Human Race
A conflict between Albania and Italy (nothing ages faster than world politics) leads to a general nuclear exchange between the great powers. The Northern Hemisphere is poisoned by radiation, with no one left alive. The cloud of radiation is working its way southward through the tropical convergence zones to spread across the Southern Hemisphere and complete the extinction of the human race.
The novel is centered in Melbourne, with the population awaiting its inevitable demise. People act out, singly or in groups, in different ways. The Australian government provides suicide doses to all who want them, as an escape from the grim fate of radiation poisoning. An American submarine conducts a patrol of the American west coast to track down a mysterious radio signal. Does life indeed persist? It proves to be a broken window tapping against a radio key in the wind. The hydroelectric grid has outlasted its builders. In the end, all die, mostly by their own hands.
Alas, Babylon, A Rebuttal To Shute’s Novel
Sixty years ago this summer, a newspaperman named Harry Hart was busy writing a rebuttal to Shute’s novel. It would be published the next year, 1959, under the name Pat Frank and with the title Alas, Babylon. Frank’s vision was of a world where multitudes perished in nuclear conflict, but more multitudes survived, though many would die in the aftermath. Minimizing deaths both during and after nuclear war was the theme of his novel. It was a thinly veiled appeal to the government to get serious about Civil Defense and to individuals to make appropriate preparations for possible conflict.
The lead character of the book is a Korean War vet and lawyer named Randy Bragg. He’s a minor playboy in a small central Florida town who’s just badly lost a local election, drinks a lot, and seems to be in a general decline. His best friend is the town’s physician, Dr. Gunn.
One day he gets a telegram asking him to meet his older brother Mark at McCoy AFB, where he’ll be making a stopover that afternoon.ii The message ends with “Alas, Babylon”, their private code for disaster. Mark is a senior colonel in Air Force intelligence and a sober family man, so Randy treats the matter seriously and goes to meet Mark.
He is told that the world is on the brink of nuclear war, though it seems unknown to the public. Mark gives him a check for five thousand dollars, the price of a new car then and makes him promise to take care of Mark’s wife and children when they fly in commercially later. He doesn’t want them anywhere near the SAC headquarters at Offutt, where he will be over the following days. Mark reluctantly agrees, and his preparatory shopping that afternoon consists of eleven shopping carts of groceries and a few cases of liquor.
He picks up his relatives early the next morning, and just a few hours later a prolonged series of huge flashes in the sky signal the beginning of the war. The remainder of the book takes the story of the town of Ft. Repose forward through the months until contact is re-established with the rebuilding United States.
The war itself is largely a puzzle to the townspeople, though rumors are common over the months of isolation. The threats to the town are from the failure of medical support, from hunger, from radiation poisoning, and from outside criminals and addicts. The flow of outsiders resupplying in the days just after the event cleans out much of the town’s supplies, but the transients mostly move on. Ft. Repose is not their destination.
The loss of medical support beyond the local clinic’s resources dooms many retirees with chronic conditions as they lose control of their medical situation. Dr. Gunn does his best and continues to come up with improvised/primitive tools and medicines. Eventually, he is ambushed and robbed of his supplies by a small gang of bandits. In turn, the robbers are lured into a trap and exterminated.
The Minorcans and Race Relations
At one point, there’s a mysterious outbreak of illness in an area of town that traces back to jewelry looted from contaminated areas. This is a neighborhood of poor whites and an ethnic group Frank refers several times to as the “Minorcans”. This is a real population group that came to east Florida from the Mediterranean in the mid-eighteenth century to work on indigo plantations. They remain today as a distinct group in the area of St. Augustine, an interesting bit of local history worked into the story.
There’s a fair amount of race relations commentary in the story, since Frank is writing at a time of tension over these questions. He seems to feel that everyone will get along fine, given that they’re ultimately neighbors sharing the need to cope with a common disaster. This theme of Americans together facing a great challenge is his Big Idea in the story.
Shortwave Receiver Powered With Car Batteries
A retired admiral has a shortwave receiver that he powers with car batteries cycled through the doctor’s vehicle to recharge. While the news from outside seems to interest everyone, it never does have any practical utility for them. The doctor’s vehicle is a Model A, borrowed for its fuel economy. In the late fifties, this would have been a real possibility. Today, a dual-sport motorcycle or an early eighties econobox might be a reasonable equivalent.
Water is provided by an artesian well for the Bragg household. We’re not told what others are using as a source. They could have dug shallow wells at a distance from the river and had an acceptable supply.
Happily for the town, the attack happens in early December, so they have the entire winter to eat the local citrus production, along with the fish they get from the river. The question of food is probably the least successful part of the story. As existing supplies run out, some people begin planting corn and vegetables. Chicken and eggs are mentioned and hunting is discussed in an uninformed way. Game, such as deer, turkey, quail, and waterfowl, are mentioned, and eventually the group starts eating armadillos. Randy looks at an alligator swimming in the river and wonders if it could be eaten. Well, sure, along with turtles, snakes, possums, squirrels, raccoons, bullfrogs, every kind of bird, et cetera.iii
Tools and Weapons
Another oddity is the lack of interest in tools and weapons. The late fifties were a time when mechanical ability was taken somewhat for granted. It’s worth remembering that the fifties was also the peak of American small farming. We produce much more food today on less land and with less manpower. How long this kind of modern agriculture can continue is unknown, but small farming was still the norm in Frank’s time. Similarly, weapons were taken for granted, but probably not as noticed as today. A few firearms would have been part of almost every household’s equipment in Ft. Repose, along with the basic tools to keep things working.
Ultimately, the town is discovered by a helicopter-borne survey team and pronounced the best-preserved place in the Florida contaminated zone, and thus it will be the future base of recovery operations.
A Huge Success
As an encouragement to public and especially private disaster preparation, the novel was a huge success. With the Cuban Missile Crisis following its publication by just two years, the bomb shelter business was quite a going thing during the sixties.
The Real-Life Ft. Repose
Intriguingly, Frank’s home town of Mt. Dora, Florida, the real-life Ft. Repose, had a group of wealthy residents who banded together and had built a large fallout shelter. Twenty-five families had a local contractor build an elaborate facility under an orange grove. Both the contractor and Frank himself declined the group’s invitations to participate, due to the group’s firm rule that once the shelter door closed, no-one else would be admitted. They preferred to take their chances with family outside. The group had an agreed upon covenant for their conduct, and they stayed active, keeping the facility up for about twenty years.iv
Some of the lessons learned from the book:
- Preparation and foresight can make the difference between life and death, and better or worse conditions for the living. A brief forewarning of disaster might be all one gets, or none.
- Local agriculture can provide a huge food stock for those prepared to make use of it– one of the themes of Cresson Kearney’s “Nuclear War Survival Skills”.v And consider the rations provided to livestock. They may have all kinds of additives and/or be dull at best, but this food source might be a key to survival.
- Refugee flows through your area may be a huge problem.
- The loss of medical support is likely to end more lives prematurely than just about anything else. Consider those with addictions, those on mood-altering or mood/controlling meds as well.
- Motor fuel probably won’t last long. Today’s citizens of Ft. Repose would have the option of solar-charging deep-cycle batteries to run electric bicycles or trolling motors.
- The book brings up salt starvation, a real threat in the long term. Bags of pool salt or water softener salt would be a low-cost backup.
- The author kept coming back to alcohol, specifically hard liquor, as important. Tobacco didn’t seem important to him. Alcohol isn’t hard to produce, and it has a number of medical uses. Tobacco is pretty easy to grow; why people who use it pay the outrageous taxes on the stuff is a mystery.
- Assorted military surplus rifles and .357 revolvers seem to be enough for the town’s defense. Recall that this was sixty years ago, and evaluate your situation accordingly.
- Good foraging skills may be a key advantage in the long term. The novel One Second After dwelt at length on food rationing and supplies, but the novel’s setting is in the midst of mountains covered with acorn-bearing oaks.
- Luck of the draw with the winds and the attacks themselves saved the town from fallout. If the complex of naval bases at Jacksonville, or the Air Force bases at Canaveral had been attacked, the town might not have been so fortunate. A good basic shelter with a week or two of supplies would have been a good preparation. Tornado/hurricane shelters are available commercially, so are plans for building your own. Cresson Kearney’s manual, mentioned in the endnotes, has even more info on the subject.
- One of the most striking scenes involves the town banker. Unable to face a world where money means nothing, he takes his own life. How many people will simply give up?
Ultimately, Frank is correct; it is possible to make it. If not, it’s worth the fight to try.
Note that both novels are available free online. Also, McCoy AFB was the successor to the Army Air Corps bombing school at Pinecastle Army Air Field #2. It was active from 1949-1976. Deactivated, it was turned over to the city of Orlando and became the current municipal airport there, thus that airport is MCO and not ORL. A local article revisits the old shelter.