How the Office of Civilian Defense Worked

Office of Civilian Defense Volunteers

The Office of the Civilian Defense conducted aluminum donations like this one in Times Square.
The Office of the Civilian Defense conducted aluminum donations like this one in Times Square.
Anthony Potter Collection/Getty Images

The OCD had only 75 paid staff members [source: National Park Service]. Its numbers and its strength instead came from a massive volunteer workforce. By 1943, the organization had 14,000 local defense councils throughout the country, and more than 11 million volunteers [source: Foster].

To volunteer, interested citizens had to meet age, citizenship and training requirements. (Children under 16 were able to volunteer under adult supervision in the Junior Citizens Service Corps.) Volunteers were given positions based on their skills and interests. For example, fire fighters were sent to auxiliary fire service positions, while retired World War I pilots worked for the Civil Air Patrol. Each member had to say an oath of loyalty when he or she was admitted to the corps.

People could volunteer in the following areas:

  • Fire protection: If incendiary bombs were dropped on American cities, volunteer fire fighters would be trained and ready to extinguish them.
  • Communication: This group was in charge of volunteer communications during air raids, drills and blackouts. It would help relay crucial messages from the War Department to local defense personnel and the public. Amateur radio operators were on standby in case the telephone system was disabled. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers were readied as messengers.
  • Evacuation: The Army was in charge of actual evacuations in advance of bombing attacks, but OCD volunteers were available to help move people to safety.
  • Shelters: These programs distributed flyers explaining the different types of bombs, helped design shelters and were trained in tunneling and other protective techniques.
  • Gas: Poisonous gas was a dangerous reality during World War II. In anticipation of a potential gas attack against an American city, the OCD helped distribute gas masks and protective clothing, taught the public how to identify different gases and instructed people on emergency decontamination measures.

The OCD also had volunteer efforts in place to restore transportation, communications and other essential services after an attack; prepare emergency hospitals and mobile medical teams to care for bombing victims; and keep watch for enemies in the skies.