Stayin' alive: A look at Cold War-era fallout shelters
By Bill Hand | Sun Journal, New Bern, N.C. | Published: March 22, 2014
Local historian John Green saw one when the Jaycees fairground was at the intersection of Neuse Boulevard and Glenburnie Road, where the Furniture Fair and Burger King stand today.
He was about 7 years old, he says, and it was probably 1962.
“I remember that amongst the various exhibits there was always an exhibit from the county health department and the civil defense department: how to deal with radiation, how to dig a shelter, how to survive an atomic attack,” he recalls. “One fall at the fair was this company selling prefab bomb shelters. It looked like a big tank, a big propane tank. A big cylinder on a trailer.”
Riverside Ironworks had built it and Skip Crayton, another local historian, said the builders “buried it … and they let people go down in it and back up.”
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Green was one who explored its depths. He recalled metal bunk beds and “some kind of device that you cranked to pull in filtered air from the outside. This thing was built to be buried in the ground with just an access hatch sticking out of the ground.”
City Attorney A.D. Ward bought it on the spot. And soon several fallout shelters of various kinds were cropping up here and there in town.
We have located three of those, in varying states of decay but still standing (or buried) in New Bern, and were able to explore the 50-plus-year-old structures.
What follows is a little of their story.
From the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 to the downing of the Berlin Wall in 1989, America and her allies were locked in the ideological Cold War with the Soviet Union, its allies and its puppet nations, creating tensions and fears that helped define a couple of generations.
Especially during the peak Cold War years of the late ’50s and early ’60s, New Bernians cast their wary eyes to Cherry Point Air Station. A direct hit on that base would drench the city in radiation; a near miss might leave it a crater.
The city selected a number of buildings as officially designated fallout shelters. Among them were churches, civic buildings and various commercial buildings with basements. One of the old fallout shelter signs still hangs outside the Bear Towne Java building. The sign features three triangles meeting at their point, within a circle, and the word “Fallout Shelter” neatly printed below. The faded sign is printed in yellow and black.
Those signs once hung on other buildings, including the Elks Building, the Federal Building/Post Office on Middle Street and the Shrine Temple.
Modern memories of these shelters are dim, but according to the Civil Defense Museum website, a two-week supply of food and water was usually stored in each. The reasoning behind this was that fatal radiation levels would drop enough to at least allow short foraging expeditions from the shelters after that amount of time.
By 1965, most government-sponsored shelters were abandoned and disposal of supplies left up to the building owners.
As noted above, some locals decided they would rather shelters be closer to home and, hopefully, more private.
The first shelter we tracked down was located rather prominently in a resident’s backyard. Made of cement block on a poured floor, it is 8 feet high with 4 feet of it below ground. The roof is a parapet, covered with earth and grass, with three pipes carrying air, sticking through.
It was built shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis by a man who’d navigated C-47s dropping paratroopers over Normandy on D-Day in ’44.
He said that the Cuban Missile Crisis inspired his wife to ask for the structure. “She was worried about it,” he said. “I had the attitude that ‘What will be, will be.’”
He designed the shelter himself and hired a local man to build it. “He didn’t do it for love,” he said of the worker. “He did it for money. Probably about $2,000.”
He had purchased particular items for it: a toilet, a crank and pump for air filtration, and supplies. At one time it apparently had a steel door.
When we found it, the steel door was gone and the bottom lay in 22 inches of water. The owner said it has always leaked. “It’s been a fiasco,” he said. “I tried draining it, pumping it out, but it seeps back in.” He said he would knock it down but that would take a bulldozer. If anyone can figure out how to remove it, he would gladly give it away.
“It’s been an eyesore,” he laughed, “and a conversation piece!”
We dropped a sump pump in and lowered the water level to 17 inches over a couple of hours. We went in, me with a camera and a Sun Journal news editor, Chris Segal, holding up lights.
The shelter is 20 feet by 14 feet and is accessed through steps dropping down into the sunken (literally, in this case) shelter. You walk along a shield wall to the left that then opens into the larger room.
There is a lighting system with a fuse box: in it, two fuses, a 30- and 20-watt. If there has been furniture or bunks, it is all gone. Two long boards lean against one wall and a raised platform shows where toilet would have gone.
The second shelter is located in the basement of a historic house in downtown New Bern, only a block or so from where the government-sponsored shelters stood.
New Bern resident Paul Switzer, a retired doctor who is active in the historical community, owned that home in 1998 when he came upon the shelter in the basement. He expressed some amazement at how it had been built, with a poured concrete floor and cinder block walls, including the blast wall one had to walk along and turn before entering the main room.
The concrete bears the initials of its builder and the date of 1961. At that time the home was owned by William and Carrie Duffy Ward. William was a prominent attorney in town.
Because it is in a basement, the shelter is dry. It is also quite roomy, with six bunks built into recessed walls. It seems to have no air filtration system, and its ceiling appears to be only the floorboards of the room above. However, the 18th century house has walls that are nearly 3 feet thick, and the owners may have relied on that for protection from above.
There appears to be no plumbing, but there is a hand-operated water pump mounted to bring water from a well.
We also found storage shelves along the front wall. Switzer remembered, “When we got in there were boxes of old tin cans full of fruits and vegetables, most of which had deteriorated and ruptured.”
He threw those items out but, more interesting were two military-style wooden footlockers. In them: toothpaste, snacks, crackers, vitamins, reading materials including religion, Agatha Christie and Frank G. Slaughter.
The boxes also held military-style helmets, small arms ammunition, a military-style pistol holster but no pistol, batteries, a gas mask and a small portable Geiger counter. Many of those items were still there when the current owner, Mike Lentz, allowed us to have a look.
Nancy Ward Hanf, granddaughters of the original builder, remembered other supplies.
“Years ago my husband, maybe as much as 20 or 22 years ago — Grandma asked him to go down in there… there was a bottle of old bourbon and cigarettes,” she said. “One of my husband’s workers lit it up and it went up like flash paper. About singed his eyebrows off!”
Apparently the old bourbon was greatly enjoyed.
The last shelter was installed by Ward’s son, A.D. Ward, who had purchased it from the above-mentioned fair. He installed it in his own front yard, then built a carport over top of it.
Two of his children, Attorney Dec Ward recalled its arrival. “It was cool,” he said. “We used to go down there and play in it. We were the only ones in the neighborhood that had it.”
His father was not completely satisfied, however: Access to the shelter was through a 3-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep vertical tube. Its heavy metal iron lid was sealed from the outside with bolts: what if someone replaced those or something fell on it, trapping the family inside?
“My father had it modified,” he remembered. “He had them weld, into the side at a 45 degree angle a vent, a square tube so you had a way to crawl out of that tube.” The escape door opened inward and was 3 or 4 feet beneath the surface. The idea was to open it and dig your way out.
This was the last of the shelters the Sun Journal found and explored: the house has changed hands a couple of times and the shelter has remained unused for at least thirty or forty years.
Located in a riverfront community, the lid is still secured with bolts as a rule. The owners were well aware of its existence and harbor some hopes of possibly restoring it in the future.
Hauling the lid aside, we looked shined a light down: the bottom lay in 3 feet of water. Angling toward the house, we could just see the top of the entrance way into the main shelter. This entrance way was a round tube through which anyone would have to crawl or walk through, scrunched down on his or her haunches.
Undaunted, we dropped a sump pump down the hole and, the next afternoon it had dried enough to allow our entry.
Sun Journal Editor Randy Foster assisted with lights and went down the shaft and through the narrow entrance way: it wasn’t dry by any means, with an inch or so of yellow-orange muck wherever water had been and still three or four inches of liquid on the floor. To say we got ourselves dirty is an understatement by any rule of measure.
Inside we found things pretty much as had been described by Green and Ward: we stood in a steel drum on its side, about 12 feet deep by perhaps eight wide. A set of metal bunks line either wall: their mattress supports are metal rods rather than springs. The bottom bunks, which have spent a fair time under water, are covered with muck but the upper bunks are dry.
At the far end of the shelter is the manual air pump; just inside the entrance on the right a metal water tank is bolted to the ceiling. That added shaft also climbs upward from here to our left.
From the ceiling there is a lone light bulb, looking brand new. The current owners had long ago cut off the electricity to the shelter as it kept shorting out.
On one side old bottles, canned goods (corroded) and bottles of baby food (in surprisingly good shape) set on the lower and upper bunk; a plastic cup lies upside down on the floor.
Otherwise the only items laying about are a short shovel and a plastic garbage can, full of clear water.
Had there been a nuclear strike, it is anyone’s guess how well any of these shelters might have worked, either in the immediate aftermath of the attack or in the long days after.
Wandering through them, I was struck at how dismal the situation would be for families packed together. In the two that were not in basements, the families would almost certainly have been sitting in the dark for days once the batteries ran out.
Nuclear weapons had reached a power far greater than “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” had on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the early ’60s and there is a question whether those shelters would have even briefly protected families from anything but a distant blast.
Then there is the psychology of such an attack and the fear of too many neighbors trying to get into the shelter. The prefabricated shelter had a method to lock the manhole from inside. As to the half-sunken shelter, its builder said he had no idea how neighbors would be kept out — morally or physically.
Besides, he agreed, surviving a nuclear blast isn’t really a practical thing. “What will happen will happen,” he said. “There’s no way I can protect myself from it.”