Operation Green Light and Wailing Willies

October 30th, 2009

I spent another productive day at the Stanley Parr Archives and Record Center (SPARC) last week researching Portland’s civil defense efforts for my Cold War documentary. During my previous visit, I focused on the Kelly Butte bunker. For this last visit, I researched Portland’s network of super sirens and the mass evacuation of downtown dubbed Operation Green Light. So here is what I discovered about these historical footnotes.


Super Siren

The network of seven super sirens, often referred to as “Wailing Willies” by the general public, operated for about 11 years - from 1952 to 1963. The sirens existed at the following locations:

  1. Northeast corner of N. John and Princeton
  2. N. Emerson and Maryland
  3. NE 56th and Sandy
  4. SE corner of SE 54th and Boise
  5. SE Milkwaukie and McLoughlin
  6. SW 31st and Nevada
  7. Top of American Bank building (downtown)

These jumbo sized sirens were built by Chrysler and featured a V-8 “HEMI” gasoline engine (but were probably powered by propane). The sirens connected to the electrical grid for power to keep the batteries charged, but the sirens could operated independently in the event of a power failure. These sirens could be controlled remotely from the bunker at Kelly Butte or manually on site. The Wailing Willies were tested once a month and created a wail that topped out at 138 decibels. When Portland soured on civil defense in 1963, the system was abandoned.


Operation Green Light

On September 27th of 1955, the City of Portland conducted a simulated mass evacuation of our downtown core. This event was later reenacted for the CBS television production “A Day Called X”. Dubbed Operation Green Light, around 29,000 vehicles and over 100,000 people evacuated a 1,000 city block area of downtown. During the test, all traffic lights in the evacuation zone were converted to display a fixed pattern of green or red.


All photos courtesy of SPARC. Special thanks to Brian Johnson for all his help.

Entry Filed under: The Cold War

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