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. 

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Operation Tat-Type

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 bloodtype 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).


Despite these successes, when community officials proposed Operation Tat-Type to other areas around Chicago, they faced widespread refusal from citizens, including some on religious grounds. The United States military passed on bloodtype tattooing for all service members, in part because of its substantial cost.

The medical profession itself stalled the operation further; doctors didn’t trust the barely-legible tattoos because they didn’t trust those doing the bloodtyping, a procedure rife with errors. At the same time, the Korean War trickled to an end, tying a tourniquet on the drain of traditional blood banks in the United States. Operation Tat-Type quickly came to a close


Facing the Futility of Full-Scale War

Operation Tat-Type, and other dramatic measures in civil defense, tapered off after both the invention of the hydrogen bomb and the reality of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both the US and Soviets fully acknowledged the horrors of mutually-assured destruction. The panic of imminent nuclear war subsided and diplomatic relations improved. Many Americans began recognizing the absolute futility of civil defense in the face of a global thermonuclear exchange.

Today, many of those that that participated in Operation Tat-Type still reside in the Region and willingly relate painful stories of the tattooing, although most of the tattoos are now illegible.  Operation Tat-Type faded as well, becoming another odd episode in Hoosier history.

Want to Know More? 

For those wanting to know more about Operation Tat-Type, including its partial inspiration by the tattoos of Nazi SS members, here’s “The use of blood-type tattoos during the Cold War” from the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology.

Like to learn just how crazy American civil defense became during the early Atomic Age? Watch ‘Atomic Cafe’, the definitive documentary on America’s nuclear war denial.