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February 20, 1971

World War III Began During a Partridge Family Song

America Panics as Emergency Warning is Broadcast in Error

 

“…[My] longest five minutes in radio.”

–WOWO broadcaster Bob Sievers reflecting on what it was like to be on the air waiting to announce the end of the world.

On the morning of Saturday, February 20, 1971, Wayland S. Eberhardt, a civilian teletype operator, was going about his routine duties at the National Emergency Warning Center at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. One of the functions of “the Mountain” during this era was to send out the weekly Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) test directive to the nation’s radio and television stations. They were, of course, also responsible for sending out the real warning. When stations received these messages they compared it against a card to determine what action to take.

At 7:33 a.m. local time on that fateful Saturday, Mr. Eberhardt, a fifteen-year veteran of his job, fed the wrong tape into the transmitter and set off a panic that is remembered to this day. He was later quoted by the New York Times as saying “I can’t imagine how the hell I did it.” But he did.

The teletype message that went over the wires read:

MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS/HATEFULNESS

THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION (EAN) DIRECTED BY THE PRESIDENT. NORMAL BROADCASTING WILL CEASE IMMEDIATELY. ALL STATIONS WILL BROADCAST EAN MESSAGE ONE PRECEDED BY THE ATTENTION SIGNAL, PER FCC RULES. ONLY STATIONS HOLDING NDEA MAY STAY ON AIR IN ACCORD WITH THEIR STATE EBS PLAN.

BROADCAST EAN MESSAGE ONE.

MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS/HATEFULNESS

20 FEB

Station managers, broadcasters and listeners across the country were thrown into a tizzy. David Skinner, the news director of WEVA in Emporia, Virginia recalled the experience for a reporter: “I thought I was going to have a heart attack trying to open that damned envelope [containing the code words that authenticate the message from Cheyenne Mountain]. I haven’t felt that way since John Kennedy was killed.”

Ten bells, and not seven trumpets, announced the apocalypse on February 20, 1971. It was 10:33AM, and teletypes in every single radio and TV station across the country rang those bells to announce an incoming message that nobody had received before.

It was a message that announced the end of the world, sent by the North American Aerospace Defense Command—NORAD.

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It told everyone that any broadcast had to be interrupted and emergency protocols had to be activated—a non-descriptive way of saying that, from that moment, the United States of America was at war with the Soviet Union.

A neutral way of saying that nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles were, at that time, flying to drop multiple atomic warheads over their targets all over the planet.

The teletype contained the correct password that authenticated the message. It was real. For the thousands of news people who received it, the teletype was sent by NORAD. It wasn’t fake. It wasn’t a drill. The birds were flying and the world was ending.

Fortunately, it was a mistake. Various teletypes sent later repeatedly told everyone that it was an error. That the world wasn’t going to end, after all.

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But for the people who received them, it was very real for a few moments. Like Mike Anderson, who scanned all these amazing documents. This is what was in his mind:

Not good, I thought. Definitely not good. I was not only a station part-timer but also in the Army, an NCO in the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood. If this was true, if we were really at war, I’d have to hotfoot it to back to 2ADHQ or at the very least desert the military and spend the remaining few moments of the end of the world with my wife and one-month old daughter.

Mike also scanned the United Press International story by a journalist called Andrew McGill. It came later that day, and it explained what happened and the reaction of the newsmen of the time.

If the United States were being attacked, the emergency action notification system would tell you about it.

 Through that system, civil defense alerts radio and television stations across the country in a matter of seconds.

Those messages are sent by civil defense officials at the North American Air Defense Command Headquarters near Colorado Springs—via the teletype circuits of UPI and the Associated Press—to thousands of radio stations.

And—like all systems—this one must be checked occasionally so civil defense authorities schedule tests twice a week.

One is scheduled for Saturday mornings—ant his morning’s turned into a tragic mistake that left ht country breathless. A civil defense teletype operator sent the wrong message—a message saying there was a national emergency… that that—by order of the President-all normal broadcasting should cease immediately.

In most places, it didn’t.

And while that’s a good thing in this case—it has led to some cause of alarm over the entire emergency notification system. The broadcasters should have stopped their normal programming immediately, hundred out of several thousand did.

this United Press International story by a journalist called Andrew McGill. Here's the transcript of his report (sic implied throughout). If the United States were being attacked, the emergency action notification system would tell you about it.

This United Press International story by a journalist called Andrew McGill. Here’s the transcript of his report (sic implied throughout). If the United States were being attacked, the emergency action notification system would tell you about it.

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If it had been an authentic mergence, that would have caused trouble.

But there is an explanation.

Today, there a was chaos in virtually every newsroom across America. No one had ever seen an actual emergency authenticator before. Some stations went off the air immediately—others didn’t.

There were several reasons.

In the first place, the message itself was incomplete. It should have been needed with a row of “X” and 10 bells. It wasn’t.

In the second place, UPI and the AP were quick to advise broadcaster with bulletins that the report was erroneous.

But most cause for concern comes over the third reason. There was a discrepancy over which authenticator word was the proper one. Authenticator words change daily and broadcasters have lists giving the words. The word transmitted with today’s message was “hatefulness”. It was the word on most lists. But some broadcasters couldn’t find that word on their lists… some couldn’t find their lists… some never received any lists… and hundreds never received the transmission.

Also complicating the problem was that the message came at the usual test time… and many broadcasters ignored it, thinking it was the test.

All this caused speculation that the entire notification system should be overhauled.

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Among the comments from broadcasters were these:

This confusion “shows the whole darn (system) won’t work. They could’ve been dropping H-Bombs on us.”

An El Paso, Texas station service 300-thousand listeners never received any message—either the emergency notification or the cancellation. “What if it had been the real thing?” a newsman there wondered.

Another newsman said: “this outgo to be exposed. The simple fact is, most personnel simply don’t know what to do in these cases.”

Another broadcaster decided not to go off the air “because we couldn’t find ‘hatefulness-hatefulness’ on our authenticator list.”

At one southwest station, a newsman admitted he was doing a radio show… came out… an ripped the message off his teletype machine. He said he didn’t even read it until a notice came canceling the alert.

Elsewhere… these were the reactions:

“I checked the authenticator and it was correct. I knew I was not supposed to question that, so I read the alert.”

From Dallas, one newsman reported: “this made us just as angry (as hell). You can’t play around with things like this. If we had gone on the air and broadcast the alert as being from the President of the United States, some old people would have checked it in right then.”

But the most hysterical person of all may have been the Texas newsman who riped open the notification envelope, and found it empty.

Some broadcasters said they ought it was a special unplanned civil defense test. In on man’s words… “I believe this was a carefully planned test to see just how the broadcast industry would react to the real thing.”

Said another:

“It’s a great way to see who’s on the ball.”

But—whatever the result—investigations after investigations are scheduled and many observers say it could result in changing the current system… staggering test times.. and, possibly, forcing broadcasters to comply more than they did today.

This whole stream of criticism comes because of the mistake of one man—a man named W.S. Eberhardt. It was Everhardt who put the wrong teletype tape in his transmitter and sent it to the nation’s thousands of broadcast stations.

One Civil Defense spokesman called it “a simple human error.”

But simplicity is hardly the word.

Wherever word of the alert message was broadcast, people panicked. Police and radio stations received thousands of calls from people wondering what the national emergency was.

And it was not until about 45 minutes after the alert started that Civil Defense official cancelled it.

For newsmen—and the people they give the news to—it was a frightening experience.

It made this day’s two authenticator words “hatefulness” and “impish” stand out in the minds of many.

And—in the words of one Virginia broadcaster—”(He’s considering billing NORAD for three sets of underwear.) The real bad part was when she opened the envelope and the words matched.”

Chuck Kelly of WWCM in Brazil, Indiana took his station off the air for twenty-two minutes and told a reporter, “I saw the authenticated message and thought, ‘My God! It’s December 7 [1941] all over again!’”

Corine Muldoon, 24, of Cambridge, Massachusetts told a Boston media outlet that she heard the alert when she was getting ready to go to work:

I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a joke. I thought I was dreaming. Then I switched the dial and some stations were playing music, so I didn’t know what was happening. You can’t believe how panicky I was. All I could think of was Laos,* that Nixon had pushed the wrong button. I feel I lost about ten years [off my life].

 Another distraught listener, Mrs. Peter Ori of Chicago, said:

I was absolutely terrified. It was so authentic. I just knew we were at war and the President would come on and say what had happened.

A spokesman for KIXL in Dallas told the New York Times that “This made us just angry as hell. You can’t play around with things like this. If we had gone on the air and broadcast this alert as being from the President of the United States, some old people would have checked in right then.”

President Nixon did not comment of the gaffe, but his Secretary of State, Melvin Laird, stated that there would be an investigation of what caused the false alert. The Pentagon released this statement that blamed civil defense:

The Office of Civil Defense is currently investigating the circumstances surrounding the transmittal of the erroneous message. The National Emergency Warning System is located within the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain complex but is not a NORAD function. It is operated by the the U.S. Army’s Strategic Communications Command. This is a civil defense action and not a military one.

Louis I. Smoyer, the chief of the warning center, said simply, “It damn sure won’t happen again. I’ve got to have time to sit up here and figure out how to make this thing fail safe.”

To his credit, Smoyer’s solution did not involve firing the hapless Wayland S. Eberhardt who was described as being “seriously shook up” over his mistake. Rather, the manager had a simple, low-tech remedy: He moved the tapes for the genuine alerts away from the transmitter.

The Greeley (Colorado) Tribune explained the new procedure to its readers on February 23, 1971:

…In the past three tapes, one for the test and two for actual emergencies, were hanging on three labeled hooks above the transmitter… In the future only the test tape will be left near the transmitter. The two emergency tapes [will be] be sealed in clearly marked envelopes and placed inside a nearby cabinet.

This decidedly analog fix seemed to work. And it appears that Mr. Eberhardt lived out the rest of his life in quiet obscurity. He died in Colorado Springs, Colorado on November 20, 1996. But in Cold War trivia circles, he will never be forgotten.

Partridge Family

Decades after the incident, broadcaster Bob Sievers (WOWO-AM, Fort Wayne, Indiana) referred to his time on the air after the alert as his “longest five minutes in radio.” Thanks to the folks at the History of WOWO website, these tense five minutes—Partridge Family lead-in included!—are preserved for the ages. With their permission, CONELRAD presents the audio below in a slideshow. Sievers, a Fort Wayne institution, retired from the station in 1987 and passed away at the age of 90 in 2007.

I wonder what would be the reaction if it all happened for real today. I imagine half the world would be calling it rubbish on Twitter while the other half take Selfies and Instagrams of the atomic explosions until HTTP 404 popped up everywhere, only to disappear a few seconds later, consumed by the atomic blaze.

Here’s a sample of what one of the radio stations broadcasted that day.

Video: WOWO EBS False Alarm: February 20, 1971

February 20, 1971: America panics as emergency warning …

CONELRAD Adjacent: Code Word “Hatefulness”: The Great …

In 1971, World War III began during a Partridge Family song

 


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  • Orca

    Occurring during a Partridge Family song must have made it seem all the more likely to be true. I can just imagine if the soviets had been listening into that broadcast, it could have tipped them over the edge: “Make it Stop, Make it Stop!”.

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