Operation Tat-Type: Indiana’s Atomic Age Experiment
In the 1950s the relationship of the United States with its new nuclear arsenal was much like that of fumbling teenagers in the backseat of a Ford: enthusiastic, but woefully naive.
This was the era of luxury fallout shelters, Bert the Turtle‘s “duck and cover” and the M388 Davy Crockett…a horribly inaccurate handheld nuclear bazooka (seriously!). Not to be outdone, Indiana itself proved the setting for one of the earliest experiments in civil defense that remains equal parts ingenious and insane.
During the early years of the Cold War, one of the tasks of civil defense involved establishing reliable sources of blood in case of nuclear attack. With the Korean War raging across the Pacific, the United States suffered a substantial deficit in its ready supplies of blood, and the attempted solution included organizing “walking blood banks” in regions of the United States.
To establish these blood banks, citizens first had to be typed and then carry dog tags listing relevant information, including their blood type. After thousands were typed and issued dog tags, researchers discovered less than three-quarters complied regularly.
Although the program seemed a marginal success, civil defense committees, first in Chicago and then Lake County, Indiana, decided on a more intrusive but permanent method of marking blood sources, calling it Operation Tat-Type. In the 1950s, assertive adherence to civil defense measures became a badge of patriotism, and a substantial asset for elected officials. Lake County saw it as an opportunity.
The Lake County Medical Society introduced Operation Tat-Type during the Lake County Fair in 1951 and successfully blood-typed over a thousand people, with the majority volunteering for later blood-type tattooing. The program expanded to Hobart’s elementary schools and then most schools throughout the county from 1951 to 1952.
By the end of spring in 1952, thirty thousand Lake County residents had received the blood–type tattoos, which were about the size of a dime and placed on the left side of the chest, typically under the left arm (morbidly reasoning that limbs could be lost in an atomic attack).