Remembering the Cold War: A Bomb Shelter Fit For Congress
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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.
And I’m Steve Ember. This week, we go inside what used to be one of America’s best-kept secrets.
Our story begins in the town of White Sulphur Springs, in the beautiful Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. Many people come to bathe in the mineral waters at White Sulphur Springs. These waters are on the property of a historic place, the Greenbrier Hotel. Other guests come to the hotel to swim or play golf, or just to have a quiet time away from busy city life.
But at the end of the nineteen fifties, some people came to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, for a very different reason. These people had a job to do.
Trucks brought tons of concrete and other building materials. Workers with heavy machinery dug a huge hole next to the Greenbrier Hotel.
Walls were built underground. But these were not average walls. These were thick and lined with steel. Steels doors hung at each entrance.
The Greenbrier Hotel built an addition over the mysterious hole in the ground. The hotel called the addition the West Virginia Wing. It was a good explanation when people asked about all the activity. It was better than telling them the truth: that the addition was built to hide a bomb shelter for members of Congress.
The government had its own name for the building project: "Project Greek Island." Today, it is difficult to find anyone who remembers why that name was chosen.
The government ordered "Project Greek Island" during a time of great tensions and fear. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were busy producing nuclear weapons. This was war -- the Cold War.
PRESIDENT DWIGHT EISENHOWER: "The Soviet Union has informed us that, over recent years, it has devoted extensive resources to atomic weapons. During this period the Soviet Union has exploded a series of atomic devices, including at least one involving thermo-nuclear reactions. If at one time the Unites States possessed what might have been called a monopoly of atomic power, that monopoly ceased to exist several years ago."
President Dwight Eisenhower, from his "Atoms for Peace" speech to the United Nations General Assembly on December eighth, nineteen fifty-three. He said the United States did not wish simply "to present strength but also the desire and hope for peace."
But the threat of nuclear war remained. American schoolchildren were taught to "duck and cover." They learned to hide under their desks and cover their heads with their hands if the Soviets ever attacked.
Some American families built bomb shelters and loaded them with food for a long stay. These families thought their shelters would protect them from the radiation of a nuclear strike.
The government also needed places to keep its leaders safe if America were attacked. Officials chose the White Sulphur Springs area to build a refuge for members of Congress. There were several reasons.
The town was a little more than four hundred kilometers from Washington, D.C., but away from other big cities. There would be fewer people to notice the building project. A railroad passed near the Greenbrier Hotel. And there was an airport nearby.
In addition, the Greenbrier Hotel had a long history of meeting other needs besides those of its usual guests. In the eighteen sixties, both sides in the American Civil War occupied the hotel. At different points in the fighting, both the Union and the Confederacy established hospitals or headquarters on the property.
The hotel closed again during World War Two. The State Department kept diplomats from Germany, Japan and Italy in the Greenbrier. After seven months, these diplomats were exchanged for American diplomats held overseas.
The United States Army bought the Greenbrier in nineteen forty-two. The military made the hotel into a hospital with two thousand beds. Doctors treated more than twenty thousand soldiers.
The Greenbrier re-opened to guests in nineteen forty-eight. Then, in nineteen fifty-nine, the bomb shelter was built. It remained secret to most people for more than thirty years. Then, in nineteen ninety-two, a story appeared in the Washington Post Magazine. The story told all about the bomb shelter under the West Virginia Wing of the Greenbrier.
In nineteen seventy, a man named Paul Bugas took a new job. Mr. Bugas, known as Fritz, had served twenty years in the military. He went to work for an organization called Forsythe Associates. This company was responsible for television services for guests at the Greenbrier Hotel.
But that was not all Forsythe did.
Fritz Bugas directed a team of government agents who kept food and medical supplies in the shelter fresh. And they kept communications equipment in working order, including television and radio studios.
The studios were built so members of Congress could speak to the outside world from the bunker. The television studio even had big pictures of the Capitol building, where Congress normally meets. The idea was to show that while America might have suffered an enemy attack, there would not be anarchy. Lawmakers could still carry on their responsibilities.
Had an attack taken place, the legislators would have been behind solid barriers. Doors weighing twenty-five tons protected against nuclear explosions.
Signs on doors leading from the hotel warned of a danger from electrical equipment inside. These signs were meant to scare away all but the people for whom the shelter was built.
On arrival in White Sulphur Springs, members of Congress would have entered the bunker through a long passageway. They would have had to quickly remove their clothes and pass through a high-pressure water system to wash off any radioactive materials. Then they would have put on clean clothes and begun life underground.
Come with us now as we step back in time to look inside the bunker. There are dormitory areas for hundreds of lawmakers and their aides to sleep. Beds are built one on top of another. The Senate majority leader has a private bedroom along with private meeting rooms.
The cafeteria is big enough to serve food to up to four hundred people at one time. And there is a fourteen-bed medical center. It has an X-ray machine, laboratory, intensive-care area and nurses’ call station. There are examining rooms, a drugstore and an operating room. A dental chair sits empty, awaiting a patient with a bad tooth.
Other areas of the shelter include telephone rooms and a room for processing messages.
A power plant occupies three levels of the bunker. Water tanks are on the lowest level. A defense system against radiation would operate from the power plant in case of a nuclear strike.
Guests of the Greenbrier Hotel sometimes entered part of the shelter without knowing it. People held business conferences and watched movies in the meetings rooms built for emergency use by Congress.
After the Washington Post described the bunker, officials removed all secret materials. In the middle of the nineteen nineties, the shelter was opened for hotel guests to visit. Restoration is currently in progress. The shelter is temporarily closed.
But in the spring of two thousand six, the public again will be able to step into this place built for a terrible event that never happened.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Faith Lapidus.
And I’m Steve Ember. Our programs are on the Internet at voaspecialenglish.com. Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.