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‘We interrupt this program’: The day the Cold War put Fort Wayne on edge

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - In February of 1971, the Vietnam War was raging, Richard Nixon was in the White House, and the Cold War meant nuclear annihilation could come at any moment.

Pres. Richard M. Nixon

In Fort Wayne, a young Art Saltsberg had just begun working at Westinghouse radio station WOWO. Little did he know this day would offer him some of the scariest moments of the Cold War.

"It was just a very frightening time," said Saltsberg. The world was on edge."

On the morning of February 20, 1971, Saltsberg was on the road with his car radio tuned to WOWO. Bob Sievers was behind the microphone that day -- as he was most Saturdays. Sievers had just introduced "Doesn't Somebody Want to be Wanted" by the Partridge Family when an alarm sounded in the WOWO newsroom.

"He heard the bell go off 10 times," explained longtime WOWO host Ron Gregory.

Code Word: CAULIFLOWER

Sievers immediately turned to the teletype machines clicking and clacking rapidly. The typewriters furiously tapped out a message: WARNING WARNING CHECK CODE WORD.

An airman first class operates a teletype machine for the Emergency Broadcast System.

In those days, some broadcast stations charged with staying on the air during a national emergencies kept sealed "books" near their studios. These books were to be cracked open upon the receipt of a government-issued warning. A slip of paper inside the book would reveal a code word. If the code word matched what was being transmitted by the government, the alert was real.

On this day, the code word at WOWO -- CAULIFLOWER -- matched.

"When he ripped open that sealed envelope it said CAULIFLOWER. He thought it was the real thing," recalled Gregory. "His responsibility was to go on the air and warn the public of incoming Russian missiles."

Within moments, Sievers cued his microphone and began to speak:

"WOWO received this emergency announcement just moments ago. We have to verify, we have verified the special message and this is a special action directed by the emergency network and directed by the President."

Bob Sievers

Sievers' voice was steady and strong. He continued:

"WOWO will remain on the air here in the Fort Wayne area to broadcast any emergency information that is coming in. We have been asked to broadcast this emergency information immediately we will bring you other emergency information the moment we receive it."

As the moments ticked by, the WOWO audience grew nervous.

"This appeared to be the real thing. And the real thing to anybody listening meant that missiles had been launched, probably from Russia, headed for the U.S."

"I was freaking out."

Art Saltsberg was still in his car as Bob read those words.

"It shook me up" said Saltsberg, "I was freaking out."

Sievers made a plea to any WOWO employees who were listening.

"At this time I would personally like to urge all members of the WOWO news staff, any in the area and listening, to report to us immediately."

"I was trying to decide if I should turn around and head in," Saltsberg recalled.

In those days, nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from Soviet Russia, could strike the United States in 20 minutes. Missiles were likely targeted to major cities, like Chicago or military bases. Fort Wayne was an industrial center at the time, but nobody knows for sure if the Summit City was ever on a Soviet target list. But during these tense moments, nobody seemed to care. They just wanted answers.

"Disregard, Disregard"

"Again ladies and gentleman, please do not call us to ask what is the matter we are endeavoring to find out ourselves," Sievers admonished on the air.

Moments later -- which felt more like hours to those involved -- an update finally came surging down the wires and into Bob Sievers' teletype.

"The word came by: disregard, disregard," Ron Gregory explained.

READ MORE: The origins and demise of the EBS

Seconds after that, an audibly relieved Bob Sievers cued his microphone.

"And so [laughs] if you think this hasn't been something here at the studio, the Air Force evidently then at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado put the wrong message tape on the wire," announced Sievers.

And with that, Bob Sievers carried on with his shift. No word if he replayed the Partridge Family's latest hit.

In their own words: Hear more from those featured in "We Interrupt This Program"

Art Saltsberg, retired

Kayla Blakeslee, current WOWO morning host

Ron Gregory, retired

Brien McElhatten

Brien McElhatten anchors the evening weekday newscasts at ABC21.

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