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Blackout

August 2022
2min read

In the summer of 1943 I was a 1st lieutenant serving in the station complement of Fort Bragg, an immense artillery post in North Carolina. Each day we had two Officers of the Day, a senior one from the field and a junior one from us peasants. At the end of our normal day’s duty we had to report to post headquarters to man the desk and phones until duty hours began the next morning. If all was quiet, the senior OD could take off for his quarters about 10:00 P.M. , leaving the post and the war in the hands of a single lieutenant. The quiet allowed the junior OD to undress down to his Skivvies, snuggle under a blanket on a folding cot in the office, and catch whatever sleep he could.

On the wall behind the adjutant’s desk there was an air-alert telephone tied into the network of aircraft spotters all along the East Coast. Its activation demanded immediate attention, in accordance with well-practiced alert drills. The usual scenario was a “practice yellow alert,” followed by a “practice blue alert,” then by a “practice red alert,” which required the officer of the day, aided by the sergeant on duty, to start pushing warning buttons and making phone calls. Then came the call “All clear,” allowing the OD to resume normal duties—that is, forty winks.

During one of my tours as OD, I had disrobed down to my undershirt and shorts and hit the sack around 11:00 P.M. , all being quiet as usual. Just as I found sleep, that damned airalert phone sounded off and woke me. Sleepily I stumbled over to answer it and was astounded by the caller’s “Red alert!” I said, “Don’t you mean ‘practice red alert’?” He said, “Repeat, red alert!” My weariness disappeared immediately. The war had reached us here in the continental United States, and it seemed to be in my hands. I shouted for the on-duty noncommissioned officer, and the two of us took the steps we had practiced—pushing buttons, phoning everybody, and blacking out the post, Pope Field, and heaven knows how much else. I didn’t even have time to put on my pants. The big brass began to fill the small office to see what all this was about: the commanding generals of Fort Bragg, the CG of at least one infantry division, and a member of artillery-units commanders.

The air-alert phone jangled again. The spotter on the North Carolina coast confirmed that a German FockeWuIf twin-fuselage fighter had been positively identified coming westward from the Atlantic across the Hatteras shore. Speculation erupted all around me on how a single fighter plane could make it that far over water. Had it been launched from a submarine?

Meanwhile, I was initiating the blackout of the East Coast of the United States from Cherry Point, North Car- olina, to New York City. Navy ships were putting out from ports. Interceptor planes were taking off, and from what I learned later, President Roosevelt was taken from his bedroom down to his underground shelter.

Then the air alarm rang “All clear!” It was all a mistake. We were not being invaded. We spread the word, and the lights came back on in the East. The subject plane was found to be an Army Air Corps P-38 whose pilot had failed to respond to the radio challenge.

In a flurry of ribbons and braid, all the captains and the kings my alert had summoned now departed. All was quiet again. I had participated in a bit of World War II history—in my underwear.

—John F. Reynolds lives in Westerly, Rhode Island.

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