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Inside JFK’s Secret Doomsday Bunker

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Smithsonian Magazine

Jenn Morson

February 6, 2023

The president’s Nantucket nuclear fallout shelter could become a National Historic Landmark—but efforts to preserve its history have stalled

In November 1957, Soviet Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev bragged to an American reporter about the effectiveness of his country’s long-range missiles. Issuing a taunting challenge to the United States government, he said, “Let’s have a peaceful rocket contest, just like a rifle-shooting match, and they’ll see for themselves.”

Four years later, in 1961, the threat of nuclear war loomed large over the U.S. While Khrushchev had directed his comments at Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, the question of how to handle America’s increasingly contentious relationship with the Soviets was now in the hands of newly elected president John F. Kennedy.

That May, Nelson Rockefeller, then-chair of the Civil Defense Committee of the Conference of Governors, encouraged Kennedy to initiate a national fallout shelter program. After securing $207 million in funding, the federal government started surveying schools and other public buildings to determine their suitability as potential bunkers. Once identified, these shelters were marked as such and stocked with supplies.

In addition to establishing public shelters, officials emphasized individual responsibility in the event of nuclear attack. Students participated in “duck and cover” drills at school, practicing how to protect themselves from an explosion. Some citizens built privatebunkers in their basements and backyards, following instructions laid out in government pamphlets. While most of these makeshift shelters would do little to shield those inside from an initial blast, they ostensibly offered some protection against radioactive fallout.

Kennedy encouraged but didn’t subsidize construction of these private bunkers (though his administration did implement a fallout shelter loan program). Addressing the nation in a televised speech on July 25, he said, “In the event of an attack, the lives of those families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved—if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. We owe that kind of insurance to our families—and to our country.”

The president himself wasn’t exempt from this call to action. For decades, Kennedy and his extended family had vacationed in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a Cape Cod town where his father had bought a home in the 1920s. The Kennedy Compound, as it was known, became an American institution as JFK ascended to the presidency. It was featured in magazines and on television programs, a symbol of Camelot, where first lady Jackie Kennedy would often stay with the couple’s two young children, and the president would visit as often as his schedule permitted.

Just like the White House, the small hamlet would naturally be a potential target of any Soviet nuclear attack. Due to the security risk, officials decided to build a bunker on nearby Nantucket, an island 30 miles out to sea. A second bunker was installed on Peanut Island, near Kennedy’s vacation home in Palm Beach, Florida, so the president would have a place to continue to run what was left of the country and its government wherever he might be at the time of a missile strike.

Today, both shelters are in a state of disrepair—but efforts are underway to preserve their history, perhaps by turning the sites into museums or securing their designation as National Historic Landmarks.

Building JFK's doomsday bunker

In the early 1960s, Nantucket’s Tom Nevers Naval Facility was a top-secret submarine listening post. At the time, the island had around 3,500 year-round residents, and the space around the military base was not yet developed. “No one lived out in [the] Tom Nevers area, so it was way out there for the locals,” says Robert Young, a third-generation resident.

Young recalls delivering milk to the facility when he was a teenager. “There was a guard station I had to approach each day,” he says. “You’d have thought they would eventually wave me through since I was delivering necessary supplies daily, but not a chance. I had to stop every single time and get cleared to pass.”

Because of its location east of the continental U.S., Nantucket was uniquely positioned to monitor ships and submarines passing through the Atlantic. As Bruce Percelay, a real estate developer and the publisher of N magazine, explains, “There’s a web of copper wires right next to the site of the bunker that stretches way out into the ocean to detect submarine propellers.” With this infrastructure already in place, a bunker could be built quickly and quietly, without drawing the attention of year-round residents.

The plan was this: In the event of a nuclear attack, Kennedy, his family and 20 members of his cabinet would be whisked away by submarine or helicopter to the bunker, where they would ride out the first 30 days post-attack, hopefully escaping any nuclear fallout. According to Bradley Garrett, author of Bunker: Building for the End Times, escapees would have at most 30 minutes to flee after receiving warning of an impending blast.

Naval builders initially hoped to construct the Kennedy bunker underground. But Nantucket is a relatively small island, so they couldn’t dig down without hitting water. Instead, the team crafted the bunker out of various bits of Quonset huts—prefabricated wartime structures that were developed in 1941 to meet a growing need for quickly assembled shelters. Workers then encouraged Nantucket’s scrubby brush to grow over the galvanized steel.

“A shelter only needs three feet of dirt on top, and you can stay there safely until the radiation levels have come down,” says Garrett.

Per the Providence Journal, construction of the shelter took less than two weeks. Spanning 1,900 square feet, the partially underground bunker has a relatively simple layout, consisting of a long metal corridor that ends in a three-way juncture. The right side opens into a mechanical room, while the left leads to the central gathering space.

Originally, the bunker boasted a decontamination chamber with showers, where anyone entering would have been cleansed of nuclear materials. Contaminated clothing would be left outside, with new clothing issued through a barrier wall. “It’s a lot like Dr. Strangelove,” a popular 1964 film that satirizes the Cold War, says Percelay. Overall, the shelter offered few amenities. It had no permanent bathroom facilities, only portable toilets.

At the time of the bunker’s construction, tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were high. Soon, this mutual distrust culminated in the Cuban missile crisis, a 13-day standoff in October 1962 over the Soviets’ installation of nuclear-equipped missiles on the Caribbean island. The crisis ended peacefully, with Khrushchev agreeing to remove the missiles in exchange for the U.S. removing its own missile installations in Turkey.

Despite coming dangerously close to nuclear war on multiple occasions, including in 1962 and 1983, when the Soviets mistook a NATO military drill for an impending missile strike, the Cold War failed to reach the heights anticipated by bunker builders and other doomsday preppers. Kennedy never needed his Nantucket fallout shelter; as far as local officials know, the president didn’t even visit the site before his assassination on November 22, 1963. Following Kennedy’s death, the bunker was left largely untouched until the naval facility’s closing in 1976.

The fact that Kennedy had a bunker at all, albeit an unused one, placed him in the minority in terms of preparedness for nuclear war. In 1961, a Gallup poll found that 93 percent of Americans had no plans to build their own fallout shelters. Some cited the financial cost of construction, while others pointed out they didn’t have enough space on their property for a bunker. Many more said they had no desire to live in a world ravaged by nuclear war—a viewpoint summarized by Bob Dylan in a 1962 song whose chorus states, “Let me die in my footsteps / Before I go down under the ground.”

Preserving the fallout shelter

In the decades since the Nantucket base’s closure, the bunker has served as a storage closet, a clubhouse for local hunters and a lookout point for spectators of demolition derbies held in the fields that once housed the naval facility.

For the most part, the space is underused—26 acres of oceanfront property purchasedfrom the U.S. Navy by the Town of Nantucket in 1980. The bunker itself is closed to the public. It currently sits empty, its doors tightly secured and surveilled after repeated break-in attempts, mostly by local teenagers looking for a place to hang out with friends. In December 2021, a vandal ripped the shelter’s metal door from its hinges, likely with the aid of a vehicle.

Percelay, whose magazine published an article about the long-neglected bunker in 2018, would love to restore the site. He’s asked his friend Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the 35th president, for her support should the opportunity present itself.

Another relative, Kennedy’s grandnephew Joseph Kennedy III, says, “The bunker is an important piece of our nation’s history during a profoundly dangerous time. Preserving it for the public to see and experience will be a benefit to anyone eager to learn more about that time.”

Last October, the National Park Service released a study that mentioned both the Florida and Nantucket bunkers as Cold War defensive sites that may be eligible for National Historic Landmark designation. But Charles Polachi, parks and recreation manager for the Town of Nantucket, says local officials have received no further information on the matter from any federal agency.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Polachi’s predecessor, Cheryl Emery, collaborated with island residents to develop a plan to rejuvenate Tom Nevers Park (also known as Tom Nevers Fields), including the historic bunker that sits on its grounds. When Emery started working on the revitalization project, she was unsure how the bunker would fit into her vision. “I actually Googled ‘what to do with a bunker,’” she says.

Emery’s search led her to Anthony Miller, who used to run a museum out of Kennedy’s Florida bunker. Known as the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, the venue featured a mix of objects from the bunker itself—including a ham radio, ashtrays, gas masks and a rocking chair—and miscellaneous artifacts connected to the president. The museum shuttered in 2017 following “years of disagreements” with the Port of Palm Beach, which owns Peanut Island, “and concerns over the … condition of the property,” per local news outlet WPTV. Though the site remains closed, Palm Beach County, which took control of the bunker after Miller’s lease ended, hopes to reopen it to the public within the next few years.

When Emery reached out to Miller, she learned he was similarly interested in speaking with Nantucket officials. After all, his museum’s collection, which includes cans of water, Geiger counters, bunk beds and K-rations from the Nantucket shelter, was in need of a new home.

Eventually, Miller would love to start a Nantucket bunker museum and bring some of his artifacts back to their original home. Robert McNeil, former director of Nantucket’s Department of Public Works, also hopes a bunker museum comes to fruition. “This is an opportunity to unveil a bit of history,” he says. “And it’s tied to the Kennedy legacy, even if [the president] never visited it himself.”

In November 2020, the Town of Nantucket approved the rejuvenation project spearheaded by Emery as part of its parks and recreation master plan. The pandemic placed this plan’s implementation on hold, but officials hope to resume work at Tom Nevers Park in the next three to five years. The town will not, however, manage the bunker specifically. In a statement to Smithsonian magazine, staff said the town “does not have the resources to manage or maintain something like that, and it is not a priority use at the site.”

Miller has visited Nantucket and had several meetings related to managing a museum on the site. But he says “politics” are preventing the project from moving forward. Emery is similarly frustrated, adding, “Many other facilities on the island are leased out, so I don’t see why the bunker couldn’t be.”

Percelay emphasizes the importance of preserving the site before it falls into an even more dilapidated state.

“This wouldn’t be just for students of history, but rather would serve as a somber reminder of the toll of international conflicts,” he says. “Nantucket has this amazing Cold War connection, and this piece of history is on the verge of disappearing.”

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