Hunkering down in the bunker


by Mike Kroll

It is just two short weeks before the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and our nation’s response has in many ways mirrored cold-war induced paranoia from the 1950s and 60s. One image in particular that many of us will never forget is that of both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney allowing themselves to be whisked off to the safety of protective bunkers at undisclosed locations. Within days, political good sense returned to someone in the White House and Bush came out of hiding; Cheney remained out of sight for weeks.

Spiriting our nation’s leaders off to hide in the safety of a bunker is neither new nor uniquely American. Our enemies and allies alike have used such strategy to protect their leaders. Ever since World War II, plans have been in place to evacuate a select cadre of America’s top leaders from Washington, D.C. to "maintain the continuity of government" but this notion was taken to a whole new level when the Eisenhower administration initiated plans to relocate the entire Congress to its own bunker in the mountains of West Virginia.

Throughout the cold war it was reasonably assumed that Washington would be an early target of any nuclear exchange between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (a notion buttressed by America’s targeting of Moscow for nuclear attack). The concentration of so much of our Federal government and military establishment in one relatively small area made plans to relocate key military and civilian leaders in the event of hostilities a practical necessity, but moving 535 members of Congress and their key staff members was quite a different and much more challenging matter.

Within the Eisenhower administration was created the Office of Defense Mobilization (ODM) that was charged with the construction of what one official document labeled "the federal relocation arc, a series of facilities that runs in an arc from the District of Columbia to Pennsylvania, out to Virginia and West Virginia and south to North Carolina." The Eisenhower administration wanted to include all three branches of government in this ambitious plan, but of course the executive branch could not direct either Congress or the Supreme Court to participate.

Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, House Minority Leader Joseph Martin, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and Senate Minority Leader William Knowland were all called to a secret meeting with Eisenhower in August 1955. Eisenhower explained his plans for the top executive and military relocation and implored the Congressional leaders to get on board for the good of democracy. Obviously the president was persuasive, but he also convinced these men of the need for absolute secrecy even from Congress itself. The Congressional leadership authorized the ODM to covertly begin site selection and planning for a Congressional bunker that would circumvent any and all legislative oversight from the very branch of government it was designed to protect.

Among the first considerations was a key decision that would affect all those following it, should this shelter be designed to protect Congress from direct attack or merely provide remote facilities safe from the radiological aftereffects of attacks elsewhere but dependent upon the assumption that our enemies are unaware of the exact location and thus unlikely to target? The former design is much more costly to construct — especially in the size required to harbor the entire Congress. It should not be surprising that the second design approach was taken.

Picking a site was no less a delicate question. For this task, the ODM depended upon the Army Corps of Engineers to very quietly evaluate suitable alternatives. According to historian Robert Conte, "about a half dozen appropriate locations were identified by the Corps." Ultimately the site chosen was the Greenbrier Resort in the small southeast West Virginia town of White Sulphur Springs. Since 1978, Conte has been the official historian of this most exclusive of American resorts but he himself only became aware of Project Greek Island ten years ago.

In Conte’s book, The History of The Greenbrier — America’s Resort, he explains some of the rationale behind the site’s selection: "It was far enough away from potential targets so as not to suffer collateral damage in case of attack and yet still accessible by rail, air and ground transportation. …[I]t is situated in a small valley surrounded by mountains that would protect the site… [and] the Greenbrier offered an extensive physical plant so the shelter could utilize an existing support infrastructure, that is, shelter maintenance activities could be discreetly blended into the resort’s routine maintenance. There was also an intangible reason for selecting The Greenbrier: the earlier World War II relationship. The government had worked with The Greenbrier and its owner, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, to house foreign diplomats in 1942 and to create Ashford General [military] Hospital. In matters requiring an extraordinary level of cooperation and discretion on the part of a private company, prudence suggested working with an organization whose reliability was a matter of record."

Another obvious reason for the choice of the Greenbrier is that the posh resort had a long history of regularly catering to the needs of America’s corporate and political elite. Many members of Congress and all of the Congressional leadership were quite familiar with the lavish appointments, fine dining and world-class golf that characterized life at the Greenbrier. The history of this magnificent and exclusive resort date back to the years immediately succeeding America’s Revolutionary War when people came to "take the cure" in the mineral springs. There is no question that The Greenbrier is both a beautiful and expensive resort — well beyond the means of nine out of ten Americans.

Eisenhower attended a conference at The Greenbrier in March 1956 and while no written record was made, it is likely that then is when he proposed the idea of a Congressional bunker to Walter Tuohy, the president of the C&O Railway. The C&O, later to become CSX Corporation, is the owner of the Greenbrier. Soon thereafter, (March 28, 1956), an exceedingly brief and mysterious letter from the architect of the capital was received by Tuohy asking for his cooperation "…on matters of vital importance to the Congress of the United States" and signed by the four congressional leaders. In less than a year Greenbrier employees, guests and the people of White Sulphur Springs were told of the resort’s latest project to construct an exhibit all for heavy convention exhibits and indoor recreation. Interestingly enough there was more than a ring of truth in that statement, but only a small cadre of key officials knew of the full extent of the project.

A dormant and unrecorded lease agreement was written and signed by both Congressional and C&O officials in 1958 that, in effect, turned the entire resort over to the Congress in the case of national emergency. The magnitude of this project was huge. While portions of the project were openly disclosed for the previously mentioned convention purposes, more than 100,000 additional square feet of secret hidden bunkers were also included in this delicate project. It would be impossible to hide something so big so construction of this secret facility was hidden in plain sight!

All of the costs were paid by the U.S. Government out of secret appropriations, not only for the secret bunker, the semi-secret meeting and exhibit halls, but also for the entire above-ground wing of the resort. By December 1958, a local sawmill began clearing trees from the designated hillside and within weeks excavation began. Construction took better than two years and was referred to by locals as "the big hole." The subterranean construction alone consumed over 50,000 tons of concrete and one of the Greenbrier’s nine-hole golf courses expanded to 18 as a result of the sudden availability of massive quantities of fill dirt.

Obviously, maintaining a secret such as this would be nigh to impossible, even in remote West Virginia. As early as February 1959, an article in the Charleston Gazette speculating that the project was a "presidential hideout." Of course officials of both The Greenbrier and the C&O Railway immediately denied such reports (honestly one might add) taking the official position that would not change for the next 33 years. Everything changed in 1992. The cold war was over and freelance reporter Ted Gup exposed the secret in a controversial article published in the Washington Post Magazine.

Gup’s article instantly rendered the facility essentially useless, if one presumes the political and international sea changes hadn’t already done so. Titled "Last Resort," Gup laid out a compelling story. "A warren of rooms and corridors took shape where there had been a hill. The walls were two feet thick and reinforced with steel. Later the entire structure was covered with a concrete roof and buried beneath 20 feet of dirt. At each entrance, cranes hung humongous steel doors, as if giants were to inhabit the underground structure. …the Greenbrier facility was custom-designed to meet the needs of a Congress-in-hiding, complete with a chamber for the Senate, a chamber for the House and a massive hall for joint session."

No longer a secret, a flood of other newspapers and television news programs quickly followed up on Gup’s article. The Congressional response was predictable; they acknowledged the site’s existence and also acknowledged "it was always clear that if the secret of the facility’s location were to be compromised, so too would be the viability of the congressional facility." By June 1, 1992, House Speaker Tom Foley sent a letter to then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney recommending that the Greenbrier lease be terminated.

Soon the Defense Department began a process that would take three years: to inventory and remove tons of government property ranging from bunk beds to medical and kitchen equipment to communications gear and food supplies. In his book, Conte reports that at least 29 semi-trailer loads were removed from the facility. The next history-making event was when NBC’s Dateline program prevailed in the bidding battle to offer the public their first glimpse inside the hidden bunker. Five days of taping were distilled into 15 minutes of broadcast time aired in November 1995.

Public tours were begun days after the Dateline broadcast, first for Greenbrier employees, then resort guests and finally the opportunity was extended to any tourist who signs up for the twice-a-week $15 tours offered on Sundays and Wednesday’s. This past July, almost exactly ten years since Gup’s exposure, my son, Preston, and I stopped at the Greenbrier for our own look-see. I contacted Lynn Swan (not the former Steeler receiver but the Greenbrier’s Director of Public Relations) and asked about a tour. After a little checking, she graciously agreed to accommodate us.

Swan met us in the magnificent front lobby of the resort and the three of us then traveled by Greenbrier bus to the isolated west tunnel entrance, still disguised as some kind of electrical equipment area. Swan opened this "cover" door to reveal the 25-ton blast door behind it. Conte was on the other side of this blast door, custom-made for the project by the Mosler safe company. He easily opened the carefully balanced door exposing a 430-foot long tunnel leading into the bunker. When operational this tunnel’s walls were lined with survival food; originally military C-rations but later freeze-dried foodstuffs. Such fare hardly qualifies as haute cuisine but was a necessary sacrifice if Congress was to spend months within the bunker.

Swan closed the door behind us to a very loud metallic clunk. The four of us walked down the long tunnel until we came to the decontamination area. It was presumed that some late arrivals might have been exposed to nuclear fallout on their trip to the Greenbrier. In this area, Congresspeople would turn in their street clothes (to be incinerated), shower and dress in green Army fatigues and sneakers. I was struck by the notion of 500 fashion prima donnas trading sartorial splendor for the look of a third-world despot. I suspected there might have been some objections.

"The total project construction cost in 1961 dollars was $14 million," explained Conte. The West Virginia wing above accounted for $3 million with the bunker proper costing roughly $11 million. As we walked through the facility it became clear that this was built for economical function rather than the aesthetics we normally associate with official Washington. Not only would Congressmen dress like military recruits but they would sleep not in private suites but dormitories packed full of institutional bunk beds and relatively small personal lockers. For all the plushness of the resort above us these were surprisingly no-frills accommodations.

The bunker was designed to be self-contained and independent of regular utilities. It had its own water well and stored treated water in three 25,000 gallon steel tanks. Likewise, Conte showed us three diesel generators and three 14,000 gallon fuel tanks, enough to power the generators an estimated 40 days. Also present were air scrubbers based on the same technology in use in nuclear submarines. While the bunker had air inlets to provide fresh air survival made it important that radioactive fallout following an attack not contaminate the bunker. A whole range of sensors were built into the bunker design, along with exterior cameras and even two 80-foot tall radio towers that are hidden in underground silos until the need to use them.

Beyond simply survival the bunker was designed to permit Congress to continue ‘business as usual’ while safely tucked away. AT&T installed elaborate communications systems providing for telephone, radio and television reception and broadcast. There are multiple radio studios and a television studio complete with a backdrop view of the Capitol dome on the wall behind the podium. It wouldn’t do much good to maintain government if the citizens weren’t aware that their Federal government continued to operate during the crisis. Cabling was installed to television and microwave towers installed high atop nearby mountains.

"Security was the number one issue with all the Greenbrier staff," Conte told us. "Both construction workers and regular Greenbrier staff involved with the facility in any way were screened by the FBI and required to sign secrecy agreements. All of the regular maintenance throughout the 30-plus years of the facility ‘standing by’ was handled by regular resort engineering/maintenance workers or employees of Forsythe Company."

The Forsythe Associates operated in plain sight at the Greenbrier as the resort’s audiovisual consultants. Their true mission was to handle operation and maintenance of all the complex technical equipment in the bunker but they also set up movies for Greenbrier guests, fixed televisions and ran the P.A. system during meetings. Actually, the group of civilian Federal employees was composed of mostly retired military communications specialists. All through the 1960s and 70s, this sensitive and complex equipment was updated and replaced as newer equipment or capabilities became available. More than just the stockpiled food had to be rotated.

Speaking of food, life in the official bunker demanded a lot of support services. All of the food was purchased directly by the resort and perishable items were stored for a period of time until they were replaced and served to resort staff in the employee cafeteria. "From time-to-time we would be told that the kitchen staff had made a fabulous purchase as fine meat and seafood replaced the typical cafeteria fare," commented a smiling Conte. Both fresh and frozen food was regularly stored in the bunker avoiding the need to subsist on C-rations or freeze-dried provisions for the initial week or two underground. The shelter’s own cafeteria was designed to seat 400 at a time. Meals were to be served in shifts to accommodate both Congress and the staff.

To care for the Congressmen and their staff, both medical and dental facilities were included. An operating room along with isolation and treatment rooms were present as well as a small 12-bed clinic. A large and extensive collection of medical equipment and drugs were stored to permit the medical staff to be as self-sufficient as possible. Few possibilities were left to chance. For example, the same incinerators that burned contaminated clothing and waste also would have been used to cremate casualties in the bunker.

It was also recognized that there would be free time and so a small library of both fiction and non-fiction was maintained along with an assortment of current magazines and best-sellers. The bunker was expected to be ready within two to three hours’ notice and calendar pages and reading materials were kept current. The entire facility was constantly cleaned and fresh bed linen sat folded on each bunk bed.

Congressional dependents were not accounted for. There simply wasn’t room for wives and children within the bunker. Throughout its existence, less than one percent of Congress was informed of the bunker’s existence or the planned methods of relocation. The assumption was always that sufficient warning would be available to do so in an orderly fashion by train, airplane or motor vehicle. A huge imponderable was always how each Congressman would handle the need to leave their loved ones in harms way while they were whisked off to relative safety.

It is hard to believe that the secret remained so secure for so long a period. Surely, Greenbrier staff themselves had to have suspicions. "There were always rumors," admitted Conte. "But most people understood that it wasn’t something to inquire about. I myself only found out after the Washington Post article. Sometime after it was all made public, one Greenbrier staff member admitted that she had searched covertly for years for evidence of such a bunker, unsuccessfully. When she took the employee tour, part of the genius of the disguise was made clear. She never considered the possibility that access to an underground bunker was made from the resort’s second floor!"

Such is the uniqueness of the West Virginia mountains that the underground bunker in one hillside was actually level with the second floor of the main resort. In between was the huge convention hall and two suspiciously well supported "theaters" plus a dining room. All of this was part of the deception and used daily by regular Greenbrier guests and staff. If the bunker were ever activated, Congress took over the entire resort and both physical access and environmental controls permitted the sealing of these areas for Congressional use.

In his article, Gup reports that secrecy was never as solid as claimed by either government or Greenbrier officials. "One former government official says he was told that so many people in the White Sulphur Springs area knew about the facility that the government dispatched two men who had not been briefed on the project to mingle with the locals, posing as hunters, to learn just how much was known and what was being said. "The two returned to Washington a few days later with so many details about the facility that they had to be given top secret clearance."

We are undoubtedly quite lucky that the need to put this facility into use never arose. What Conte considers "one of the great secrets of the cold war" may in fact have been little more than self-delusion by Congressional and military leaders. Nevertheless, a walk through the bunker was more than evidence enough for my 15-year-old son of the national mood of paranoia during the cold war. Like the duck-and-cover drills of my youth, perhaps there is some value in thinking one might survive nuclear Armageddon however improbable that outcome might be.