Touring the secret Cold War bunker that Congress never used | Michael Smerconish
President Dwight Eisenhower initiated the construction of what became the go-to fallout shelter for the entire Congress in the event of a nuclear strike by the Soviet Union.
A recent speaking invitation from the West Virginia Bankers Association became a no-brainer once I learned the venue. As a result, I have just crossed another item off my bucket list. Last week, with my family in tow, I visited the venerated Greenbrier in West Virginia and toured the bunker buried beneath.
Fifteen years ago I made the trek only to find the bunker closed for "renovations." That didn't make sense at the time, and even today, 26 years after the exposure of this national secret, there are many things that still fascinate and puzzle me about this Cold War relic.
What's long been openly known is that Greenbrier is a spectacular resort. It has reigned as a preferred vacation destination for many U.S. presidents, one of whom, Dwight Eisenhower, initiated the construction of what became the go-to fallout shelter for the entire Congress in the event of a nuclear strike by the Soviet Union.
As detailed on the Greenbrier website, hidden behind four blast doors were: decontamination chambers; 18 dormitories, designed to accommodate more than 1,100 people; a power plant with purification equipment, including three 25,000-gallon water storage tanks and three 14,000-gallon diesel fuel storage tanks; a communications area, including television production area and audio recording booths; a clinic with 12 hospital beds; medical and dental operating rooms; laboratory; pharmacy; intensive care unit; cafeteria; and meeting rooms for the House and Senate. And for more than three decades, it was maintained as an active facility complete with a regularly rotated food supply to house its potential inhabitants for up to six months.
Responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the bunker fell to a group of communications experts operating under the cover of an in-house television repair outfit called Forsythe Associates. According to my tour guide, 20 percent of Forsythe's work really did involve fixing TVs in hotel rooms – but the remaining 80 percent was dedicated to the bunker.
Then, in 1992, Ted Gup, a freelance journalist on staff at Time magazine but working for the Washington Post, blew the lid off Greenbrier in a Sunday Magazine cover story titled "The Ultimate Congressional Hideaway."
Among his interviewees was the first general manager of Forsythe's Greenbrier operation, John Londis, then 76 and retired in Florida. Gup reported that Londis had been a cryptographic expert with the Army Signal Corps with a top-secret security clearance while stationed at the Pentagon. When confronted by Gup with the writer's knowledge of the bunker, Londis remained steadfast, claiming his only work was to provide television service to the hotel.
And when Gup presented his evidence to then-Greenbrier president Ted Kleisner during a walking tour, the property executive dismissed the story Gup was about to write as "bizarre," "fantastic," and utterly untrue. Even when Gup showed Kleisner five large steel hinges protruding from a wall that concealed a blast door, Kleisner laughed and said he was looking at "an expansion joint."
That was one of the geniuses of the bunker – how portions hid in plain sight for so many years, incorporated into the design of the West Virginia Wing of the resort. My speech to the bankers was just down a corridor from what's called "the Exhibit Hall," which for years doubled as one of the resort's conference facilities.
Our tour last Sunday cost $39 per person and was worth the price, even if as a taxpayer, I thought I'd already paid for what I was about to see. The would-be meeting space for Congress, a decontamination chamber, and communications center were remarkable, each as they were in a bygone era given new relevance by today's headlines regarding Russia.
But the more I saw, the longer my list of questions. If the bunker is roughly two underground football fields, why did we see no more than half the square footage? Today, we were told, the bunker is used for data storage by CSX IP, a division of the successor of the C&O Railroad that once owned Greenbrier. (The resort is now owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.) Did data storage alone really necessitate the recent replacement of the power generators, or the constant filling of the water tanks, or the maintenance of 42,000 gallons of diesel fuel?
I asked Garrett Graff, author of Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan To Save Itself While the Rest of Us Die.
"I guess I always took it at face value that it was all data storage, but you're probably right to be suspicious," he said. "What better place to hide some relocation facilities than on the site of a place where you've publicly said you've retired the relocation site?"
With my mind racing after the tour, I returned to my Greenbrier cottage and decided to email Ted Gup. Was it possible that the bunker was still hiding in plain sight? I asked.
"Indeed it could … the perfect cover: both decommissioned but operational at a moment's notice," he replied. "Why not? (Personally don't think so, but I have often wondered.)"