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Surviving the Apocalypse: Fallout Shelters and Secret Bunkers of the Cold War


Welcome to West Virginia / It's been a long time...

WARNING: The world as we know it could end before you finish reading this article.

Okay, I am not trying to be pessimistic or morbid. I just want to point out the type of thought that entered into our consciousness with the beginning of the nuclear age.

These signs have become icons of the nuclear age
The U.S. introduced the first nuclear weapons late in World War II with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. The build up of nuclear weapons brought new fears to the world, particularly the citizens of the United State and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers involved in a military rivalry that intensified into what is called the Cold War.

Before the nuclear age, we had weapons of destruction-weapons that could threaten the survival of a person or a group of people. But now we had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the survival of the entire human race. This threat became an ever-present fact of life following World War II, and was even reflected in popular culture-everything from television to magazines to comic strips bearing such titles as "Will the atom blow the world apart?"

The New England Journal of Medicine in 1962 described the effects of a nuclear explosion over a major city like Boston. Within 1/1000th of a second, a fireball would envelop and reach out for two miles in every direction, temperatures would rise to 20 million degrees Fahrenheit, and everything--buildings, trees, cars and people--would be vaporized. This level of destruction would obviously lessen as the distance increased…but even at 40 miles away, anyone looking in the direction of the blast would be blinded by burns on their retinas.

Within minutes 1 billion people would die, but the fatalities would not end there. Radioactive fallout-the vaporized earth lingering around after a nuclear explosion-could spread over thousands of square miles, covering a much greater area than that endangered by the initial fire and blast. Radiation sickness could then cause the death rate to skyrocket.

Who would think that an elaborate Cold War bunker was built underneath this fancy resort?
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy wrote a letter in Life magazine telling the American people about the necessity of preparing for nuclear war. Classrooms around the country began practicing "duck and cover" nuclear bomb drills (perhaps similar to earthquake or tornado drills you've experienced in your own schools). Fallout shelters were built all throughout the country, both in private homes and a variety of public buildings.

Although shelters were meant to provide safety (or at least the illusion of it), their widespread appearance also acted to alter people's psyches. As another Life magazine editorialized in 1962, "Shelters are simply an admission that a nuclear war, however unlikely, is not an impossibility."

When I found out I was going to check out an old fallout shelter, I was picturing a small basement-like structure perhaps stocked with some canned goods. Little did I know that I would be visiting an elaborate, fine-tuned operation 3 stories high and over 100,000 square feet in size. For this was no ordinary shelter, but instead a huge concrete and steel bunker designed to house the United States Congress in the event of a national crisis.

Linda stands at one of the bunker entrances, where
In 1953, when both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed atomic and hydrogen bombs, President Dwight D. Eisenhower began making plans to keep the government functioning in case of an emergency. These plans included construction of several shelters to act as relocation facilities for the different branches of government.

The Congressional bunker, also known by the code name "Project Greek Island" was built between 1958 and 1961. It is located in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia underneath a very beautiful resort called the Greenbrier. When I arrived, I met a wonderful woman named Linda Walls who took me up an elevator to the bunker. (Yes, even though the shelter is 70 feet underground, it is built into a hill… so we really did go up to get to it). And from there, my amazement at the complexity of the operation began.

Neda probably wouldn't look so happy in this decontamination chamber if she were really covered with radioactive material
My first question was, "Why the Greenbrier? Why build a nuclear shelter under an extravagant hotel?" It turns out the location was key-a four-hour drive from D.C., it was far enough away from potential targets that it probably would not be damaged in case of attack. The surrounding mountains would also work to protect the site. But on the other hand, it was accessible enough that it was still easy to get to by air, rail and ground transportation. The Greenbrier also had a previous relationship with the government when the hotel was used during World War II to house foreign diplomats and to act as the site of an Army hospital.

The utility of the bunker was dependent on its secrecy. If potential enemies knew it existed, it too could become a target. And indeed, the bunker was kept a secret from an entire generation of people. It was not until 1992, over 30 years after its construction, that the Washington Post finally uncovered the story in an article. Now, my question is, how do you hide the construction of a humungous concrete and steel bunker? Wouldn't somebody have noticed? phoneroom.jpg: This phone room could be used to communicate with other fallout sites and local small towns

As Linda explains, the trick was to keep everything "hidden in plain sight." While building the shelter, a new wing of the hotel was also being constructed. So although people obviously noticed construction, they were just told it was all for the hotel. And indeed, parts of the new Greenbrier wing-the Exhibit Hall and a couple of meeting rooms-could have been sealed off by a disguised blast door to become part of the bunker.

Those who were involved with the project underwent extensive security checks by the F.B.I. Only a handful of people received top-secret clearance, while others received more limited authorization. About 60 members of the Greenbrier staff were cleared to work in the bunker, along with a group of employees contracted by the government. These workers were part of a cover-up company called Forsyth Associates and disguised themselves as T.V. repairmen while on the job.

Weapons and congressional documents were kept in this high-security room
Another good way to keep the operation secret was to ensure that knowledge of the bunker was compartmentalized. This meant that an electrician or a construction worker would only know about the job he or she was working on so that very few knew about the facility as a whole. As Linda puts it, "You can't talk about what you don't know."

For three decades, the bunker was kept in a state of constant readiness, all set to go on a few hours notice. Practice sessions and lock-up drills were conducted, but only for short periods of time so as not to arouse suspicion.

No privacy here-each dorm room holds 58-60 beds
So what would have happened if a nuclear attack did occur? Members of Congress, who were not even aware the place existed, would have been brought over to the bunker by those in the know. They would have entered through one of four access points, each protected by a large door designed to withstand a modest nuclear blast and prevent radioactive fallout from entering when sealed off. Passing through a long corridor, the next step was to go to the decontamination areas. Here, they threw away their clothes, showered and were issued new garments and a small bundle of toiletries. Then it was off to the dormitories, where men and women would be separated (although Democrats and Republicans slept side-by-side). The eighteen dorm rooms could house 1000 people.

The bunker was stocked with fatigues of the appropriate sizes for each Congressman
And let me tell you, the place was stocked! There was a 60-day supply of food (i.e. canned scrambled eggs or cottage cheese…just add water!) and a cafeteria designed to feed 400 people at a time. The shelter also boasted a self-contained power plant with enough diesel fuel to last up to 40 days, three 25,000-gallon water tanks, an incinerator that could burn 500 pounds of waste an hour, and a clinic stocked with medical supplies. If the bunker was ever activated, it had also been arranged for all the medications of the Congress people (i.e. if someone had diabetes or some special condition) to be brought over. They thought of everything!

The underground facility was more than just a place to live and eat; it was a place to conduct business. Two 85-foot radio towers and four miles of cable, all encased in concrete, helped provide the structure with a sophisticated communications system. Meeting rooms were available, including one with T.V. cameras and a mural of the Capitol building to be used as a backdrop for official addresses to the nation. In fact, there were several pictures of different scenes of nature on the walls throughout the bunker. Linda explains, "The murals and the soothing colors were an effort to make people more relaxed."

The clinic included a 12-bed ward, intensive care unit, dental chair, x-ray area, and pharmacy
Hmm, I don't know about you but if I were under nuclear attack, it would take a whole lot more than sea-green walls and pictures of mountains to calm me down. She pointed out a few more features-the relatively high ceilings, the good lighting, and the abundance of clocks-meant to accommodate people in high-stress situations.

Fortunately, the shelter was never put to use. The closest it came was in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis-only a few days after the project was completed! Click here for more on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The day after the Washington Post exposed the secret bunker, the facility began to be phased out, a process completed in 1995. In fact most fallout shelters have by now faded into the past, what with the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in 1991.

The leaves in this picture could be changed to different colors to fit in with whatever season it was
So now that the Cold War is over, has the nuclear threat disappeared? Most definitely not! The United States and Russia still deploy more than 6,000 nuclear warheads each, while China, England and France also have nuclear weapons. And according to Wade Boese of the Arms Control Association in Washington D.C., "One of the problems is that the number of nuclear countries is increasing rather than being reduced." India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Israel is suspected of being in possession. North Korea, Iraq and Iran are also seen by some as a threat. There have been efforts to dismantle weapons, to put weapons on lower alert levels (so they couldn't be launched so quickly) and to stop a national missile defense program. Unfortunately, progress is slow and even Wade admits, "Arms control has had a rough time lately."

But Wade agrees with me that education is key and so he continues to work hard to promote awareness and increase public understanding of arms control policies.

It may be a tough battle, but it's definitely one worth fighting.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


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