Secret Bunkers of the Cold War
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy wrote a letter in Life magazine telling the American people about the need of preparing for nuclear war. Classrooms around the country began practicing "duck and cover" bomb drills (like earthquake or tornado drills you've experienced in your own schools). Bomb shelters were built all throughout the country, both in private homes and public buildings.
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.
In 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower began making plans to keep the government functioning in case of an emergency. These plans included construction of several shelters 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).
Welcome to West Virginia / It's been a long time...
My first question was, "Why the Greenbrier?" 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.
But no one could know of the bunker. If potential enemies knew it existed, it too could become a target. And indeed, the bunker was kept a secret from everyone but a small handful of people. It was not until 1992, over 30 years after its construction, that the Washington Post finally uncovered the story. Now, my question is, how do you hide the construction of a huge concrete and steel bunker? Wouldn't somebody have noticed?
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.
Those who were involved with the project underwent extensive security checks by the F.B.I.
Another good way to keep the operation secret was to make sure that none of the workers knew what they were really building. As Linda puts it, "You can't talk about what you don't know."
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 small 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. The eighteen dorm rooms could house 1000 people.
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!
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!
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.
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