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Communist ‘Red Scare’ stoked fear of saboteurs in Sarnia

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Phil Egan

In the 1950s, the Red Scare was everywhere.

It was the age of Joe McCarthy, spy plots, stolen government secrets and bomb shelters. People expressed fear that our way of life was under threat of assault by Communists determined to conquer the world. The Soviet Union had begun testing nuclear weapons.

As a child playing in my schoolyard I can remember classmates in the early ‘50s warning me that Sarnia was infested with Commie spies planning to blow up Polymer and Imperial Oil.

But it wasn’t only school children who feared impending doom.

“Fifty Saboteurs in Sarnia Now,” screamed a headline in a November 1950 issue of The Observer.

The Sarnia Civilian Defence Committee had met to formulate a “master plan” to be put into effect immediately after a natural disaster or wartime attack, the newspaper reported.

Sarnia was still recovering from two frightening explosions that August at the Polymer rubber plant. The impetus to create a new master response plan had brought together seven categories of city and county services. These included the fire department under new chief Robert Armstrong, Chief of Police John Cranmer, and representatives from medical services, city council, communications and industry and volunteer aid.

The Cold War fear of sabotage loomed large over the new civilian defence organization. Colonel S. Stokes, the chief security officer for Imperial Oil Limited, stressed that if war with the Soviets came the greatest threat to Sarnia wouldn’t be from aerial attack, but, rather, from the mob of saboteurs known to be lurking in the city and preparing to strike.

“They won’t waste a bomb on us,” he argued.

Others wrung their hands at the prospect of explosions erupting across the city at the hands of trained saboteurs. Alderman W.H. Wright, the group’s chairman, fretted to Mayor W.C. Nelson that Sarnia “would be practically helpless” should such an incident occur.

“We would have to depend on outside aid,” Wright said.

Despite the prevalent fears, especially about saboteurs, the group despaired of getting citizens to volunteer for instruction in civil defence.

“They are simply not interested,” Colonel Stokes told reporters. “The day the bomb falls is the day the citizens will be interested in civil defence.”

Despite the group’s plan, a horrific explosion at Polymer the following year would reveal a true lack of emergency response. The blast, heard as far away as Detroit and London, resulted in some people fleeing the city in panic while others rushed to the Chemical Valley, clogging roads and preventing first responders from quickly accessing the scene.

Only then did Sarnia’s emergency preparedness really improve for the better.


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