50 years ago, Seabees built a nuclear fallout shelter for the president in the Intracoastal Waterway off Riviera Beach.
Peanut Island – Fifty years ago, during the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, this corrugated hole in the ground was designed as – and may have come close to being – a last resort in case of a nuclear attack ”It’s the place where President John F. Kennedy would have run what remained of the free world,” said Anthony Miller of the Palm Beach Maritime Museum The Kennedy Bunker, as this relic fallout shelter is known, is forever associated with Cold War hysteria. Only months after its construction in 1961, the world appeared to be on a precipice. Fidel Castro had seized and held power in Cuba. The Bay of Pigs invasion had failed, as had other clandestine CIA efforts to topple the communist regime. The Soviets resented and feared American nukes based in the United Kingdom and Turkey – and presumably aimed at them. Tensions and brinksmanship came to an international head in October 1962, when Kennedy confronted the Russians with photographic evidence shot from spy planes of secret missile bases in Cuba. Those Soviet missiles in Cuba could easily have reached Washington, D.C., New York, and most other major U.S. cities – and Palm Beach and the Kennedy family home, to which the president frequently retreated. Eventually, of course, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reached a deal, the missiles were removed from Cuba and a détente was achieved. But scholars say that period may be the closest we’ve come – at least that the public knows about – to a nuclear shootout, the first time when “mutually assured destruction” loomed in absolute reality. Navy Seabees took just two weeks in late December 1961 to build the bunker, a few hundred yards from the Coast Guard station erected in 1936 and about five minutes from the Kennedy estate by helicopter, 15 minutes by boat. ”They pretended they were installing tanks, for oil or water, I don’t know, for the Coast Guard station,” said Miller, who holds the federal lease for the six acres where the bunker and station are situated. “It was all top secret.” Larry Millwood was there, 18 years old at the time, one of several Seabees brought in to do the finish work – painting, staining and partitioning the living space into rooms – after private contractors had set the bunker into the ground. Millwood, now 69 and retired in South Carolina, was at the time a part of the Seabees’ “Detachment Hotel” unit, which built hideaways for many presidents, including a second one just like this on Nantucket, also for Kennedy. After a visit in the ‘90s to the bunker he helped build, Millwood sent along copies of his orders – top secret when issued – which now are displayed on a bunker wall. ”I was pleased to be a part of it, pleased to be doing something for the President of the United States,” he said. “I was quite impressed with the whole thing.” He never saw the president, Millwood said, but did at times see the Honey Fitz, the presidential yacht, tooling around Peanut Island and tied up at the Coast Guard dock. The scuttlebutt, Millwood said, was that Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and other cabinet members were among those onboard, planning who knows what. Entry to the bunker, and to a time past, is through a tunnel of corrugated metal tubing, hardened overhead like the rest of the structure with concrete bags, lead and up to 12 feet of earth. At tunnel’s end, to the right, squats the diesel generator (not the original he painted, Millwood said) that would have provided power for lights and air scrubbers. To the left, a decontamination room, with Geiger counters to detect radiation, and showers that presumably could wash away deadly radioactive particles. The shower opens to the command center, a fortified Quonset-like hut that would have slept 30 people up to 30 days and provided communication to the outside world via ham radio. Those souls hunkering inside would’ve had to contend with no air conditioning, portable toilets, military rations and water in lead-lined cans. ”This place wouldn’t have survived a direct hit,” Miller said. “It was a fallout shelter that presumably would have protected them from radiation until a sub or ship could have come to Peanut Island to pick them up.” Peanut Island, now about 88 acres, was created in 1918 with material dredged to create the Lake Worth Inlet. Plans to use it for a peanut oil shipping operation failed in the 1940s, but the moniker stuck.
The shelter, about 1,500 square feet in all, was abandoned after JFK’s assassination in 1963 and was close to ruin when the Palm Beach Maritime Museum took over in the 1990s. Several feet of mud and debris were removed, the curving walls were cleaned and painted and artifacts – bunks, medical supplies, hand cleaners, deodorants, gas masks and other items true to the period if not to the bunker itself – were installed. The Presidential seal was painted on the concrete floor. The red phone on the government-issue desk jumps the gun a bit; that kind of direct line to the Soviet Union didn’t exist until after the crisis had passed. A rocking chair evokes the image of Kennedy’s solution for his bad back, but it’s not one he actually used. It’s not entirely clear how familiar Kennedy was with his refuge. Documents and published reports say he visited at least twice, during drills. Maybe, Millwood said, he was on the Honey Fitz as it motored around the area. Miller said the president and Jackie often left their water skis here on Peanut Island, for better access to smoother water. “It was a convenience,” Miller said. That second Kennedy shelter, a replica of this one and also built in 1961, is in private hands on Nantucket Island, Mass., not far from the Kennedy residence in Hyannis Port. It is not open to the public. Millwood is not convinced this bunker, or any, was a direct result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Seabees unit he served in during the 60s built many shelters for presidents over the years, he said, including one for Dwight Eisenhower at Camp David. ”Wherever the president was, whoever the president was, you always had a safe place where the president would be well protected,” Millwood said. Even so, the lore surrounding the Kennedy Bunker survives. But its future, caught up in legal wrangling for 10 years, is uncertain. The Palm Beach Maritime Museum operates the Palm Beach Maritime Academy, a West Palm Beach charter school that uses the old Coast Guard station, which closed in 1996, as part of its campus and curriculum. The Museum also runs the tours to the bunker and station. Miller said the tour operation has been running at a loss for years. He’d like to add full meals and maybe alcohol to the menu in the former Coast Guard boathouse, now a snack stand and souvenir shop. With that in place, he said, he could secure loans to upgrade the bunker and station, adding audio-visual displays, more access for the handicapped and generally sprucing up the six acres he leases from the federal government. Palm Beach County Commissioners, though, have voiced concerns about alcohol sales and commercialization over the years. The county spent about $13 million in 2005 to transform the northern perimeter of the island, which the county controls, into Peanut Island Park, with camp sites, bathrooms and showers, a manmade reef, a fishing pier and boat docks. On weekends and holidays, the island and the warm shallows teem with boaters and swimmers. ”We’re a victim of our own success,” said Palm Beach County Commission Chair Marcus. The aim, she said, is for a family atmosphere for the entire island. Miller says the tours he runs already are family-friendly. “We’ve never had any problems on the south side of the island,” he said. Meanwhile, as that debate plays out, the Kennedy Bunker still squats there, a piece of Florida and international history. Would it have worked? Would the bunker have ensured the President’s safety and survival had nukes rained down? Millwood thinks yes. Probably. ”I suppose so,” he said. “It was designed to be self-sustaining, at least for a short time. It would have served its purpose. ”I’m glad to know my letter’s still there, too, and that people are still coming to see the bunker.”
If You Go
Palm Beach Maritime Museum What: Tours of the former U.S. Coast Guard station and President John F. Kennedy’s Bunker, located on the southern end of Peanut Island. Where: Peanut Island is in the Intracoastal Waterway near the Lake Worth Inlet and in close proximity to Phil Foster Park, the City of Riviera Beach and the Port of Palm Beach. You’ll have to take your own boat or hire a water taxi to get there. (See information following about water taxis.) Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Sunday Fees: $10 adults, $9 seniors, $5 students and free for children under 5. Admission fees do not include the cost of water taxi transport. Phone: 561-832-7428 On the Web: www.pbmm.org Peanut Island Park What: A county park, with swimming, fishing, boating and camping comprising the outer perimeter of Peanut Island, not including the Maritime Museum parcel. Hours: Sunrise to sunset, 24 hours for reserved camping. Camping fees do not include the cost of water transport. Phone: 561-845-4445 or toll free at 1-866-383-5730 On the Web: www.pbcgov.com/parks/peanutisland/ Swimming: Swimming area, with occasional lifeguard coverage, around a man-made reef. Changing tides can foster strong currents on the island’s east side. Boating: Fourteen first-come, first-served boat slips for day use. At night, only campers may use the slips. The area’s privately-operated water taxis drop off and pick up from the end of this dock. Camping: Twenty tent sites, $27 per day. Campers can also set up at no cost on the sand on the western side of the island. All campers are required to sign in with their drivers license or other official picture ID at the park office and provide the names of all individuals staying on their site, as well as a cell phone number (if available). Fishing: Permitted from the fishing pier, but not the boat docks, lagoon or tidal basin. Food: Picnic pavilions and grills are operated on a first-come, first-served basis. There are no stores or snack bars in the park.
Captain Joe’s Peanut Island Ferry Riviera Beach Marina 200 E 13th St., Riviera Beach 33404 Round-trip cost is $10 for adults, $5 for children age 14 and under. Call ahead or visit the website to confirm rates and hours of operation; hours of operation can vary with the seasons and weather. Phone: 561-339-2504 On the Web: www.captainjoeswatertaxi.com Palm Beach Water Taxi Sailfish Marina 98 Lake Drive Palm Beach Shores 33404 Round-trip cost is $10 for adults, free for children age three and under. Call ahead or visit the website to confirm rates and hours of operation; hours of operation can vary with the seasons and weather. Phone: 561-683-8294 On the web: www.sailfishmarina.com/water_taxi.html
Philip Ward is editor of FortLauderdaleConnex.com, and formerly a writer and editor at the Miami Herald and the Sun Sentinel in South Florida.
This article was formerly released on www.VISITFLORIDA.com.