News

Kennedy’s Cold War island bunker now a museum

Kennedy’s Cold War island bunker now a museum

JFK: Former United States President John F. Kennedy sits onboard the U.S. Coast Guard yacht Manitou off the coast of Maine, in this handout image taken on Aug. 12, 1962. Photo: Reuters/Robert Knudsen

By Zachary Fagenson

PEANUT ISLAND, Florida (Reuters) – The dingy, cavernous steel fallout shelter hastily built on a man-made island off Florida’s east coast is a stark reminder of the harsh realities President John F. Kennedy faced from the first days of his presidency at the height of the Cold War.

As the Kennedy family vacationed minutes away at the Palm Beach compound known as the Winter White House, the shelter’s main chamber sat ready at a moment’s notice with 15 sets of bunk beds, a desk for the president and a conference table.

The heavily protected hideaway, fully stocked with military K rations, barrels of water and radiation detection kits, could serve as home for 30 of Kennedy’s family and key staff for a month in the event of a nuclear attack.

EXTRA: Dallas police archives from JFK assassination online | Website asks people to share stories of JFK legacy

“They tested bringing him here,” said Anthony Miller, general manager of Palm Beach Maritime Museum, which maintains the shelter. “It was 10 minutes from his front door on Palm Beach to here.”

Shortly before Kennedy took office in January 1961, Navy Seabees undertook “Operation Hotel” and in 10 days piled 25 feet of earth, lead and concrete above the corrugated steel bunker.

Half a century after Kennedy’s assassination during a Dallas motorcade, his memory lingers in Palm Beach.

EXTRA: JFK funeral announcement | White House memo on JFK assassination

From his boyhood on, Kennedy’s family was a fixture in the ritzy, oceanside enclave where billionaire investors like William Koch rub shoulders with wealthy entertainers such as singer Jimmy Buffett.

The Honey Fitz, the yacht that served Presidents Truman through Nixon, still moors in the waters near the once-secret shelter. The 80-year-old wooden boat is a floating museum and travels regularly between Palm Beach and Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

“All the footage you see of JFK out on the water during his presidency was on this boat and all of the still photos were taken on it,” said Paul Ocepek, the Honey Fitz’s first officer.

ESCAPE HATCH, HELIPAD

Getting to the fallout shelter’s main living quarters required passing through a series of narrow passages that held a generator, air pumps and filters, a radiation detector and a sterilization chamber.

At the back of the largest room was an emergency escape hatch that led to a helipad in case the shelter itself came under attack. The U.S. government did not acknowledge its existence until 1974.

The island where it sits was dredged up from the Palm Beach inlet in 1918 to serve as a port for peanut oil shipping.

Although that business failed, the name of Peanut Island remained. It was closed to the public from the time the Coast Guard took it over in 1936 in preparation for World War Two until 1995, when the museum secured a 45-year lease on the property.

At the time, the shelter was partially flooded and in disrepair, Miller said. Nearly all of its contents had been removed or destroyed.

The museum opened to the public in 1999, and efforts continue to restore the bunker to its original condition.

The steel hatch that leads to a dark, downward sloping steel tube was once hidden from sight by a thicket of trees. Miller said he planned to replant the trees, which for visitors will recreate the dramatic effect of stumbling upon the entrance in a small hill.

Despite the long-lasting interest in the Kennedys and their fairy-tale image, maintaining the shelter remains a challenge. It sees about 12,000 visitors annually and relies on volunteer efforts to help with maintenance.

It receives no financial contributions from the federal government or the Kennedy family, even though Ethel Kennedy, the widow of slain former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, visits the bunker almost every year with her grandchildren.

Recent Headlines

in Weird

Australian farmers could have world’s woolliest sheep

Fresh
Six-year-old Shaun the merino sheep may be the world's woolliest sheep. He had likely never been shorn in his life, but was due to have a date with the clippers in the next few days, farmers said.

Shaun the sheep was found wandering the Australian countryside with what is estimated to be a 55 lb coat.

in Sports

Tony Stewart returns to NASCAR racing after fatal accident

Fresh
Tony Stewart smiles as he speaks with his crew before the start of the rain delayed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 race at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, February 27, 2012.

Tony Stewart will return to racing this weekend at the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first time since he struck and killed a young racer at a dirt track earlier this month.

in Sports

Mismatch fears over Paul McGinley dispelled

Fresh
Europe's Paul McGinley of Ireland watches his shot on the third hole during the second day of foursomes competition against Asia at the Royal Trophy golf tournament in Chonburi province, near Bangkok, January 10, 2009.

Four-times European Tour winner Paul McGinley won the Ryder Cup in 2002 but Phillip Price says next month's matches at Gleneagles could end up defining his career.

in Sports

Dream run over for Catherine Bellis as big guns advance

Fresh
Aug 28, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Catherine Bellis (USA) hits to Zarina Diyas (KAZ) on day four of the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic were forced to take a backseat to 15-year-old Catherine Bellis, who hogged the Flushing Meadows limelight once again.

in Trending, Viral Videos

TODAY’S MUST SEE: Johnny JamBoogie

Fresh
18-overlay8

If football doesn't workout, "Johnny Football" always has this to fall back on.