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The Terrible Weight of Cold War History

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I am underground and the electricity that once illuminated this place was shut off decades ago; the only light comes from my headlamp and the flash of my camera-phone. I walk carefully through the antechamber, where a sign gives instructions on how to remove and discard my clothing, then into the dressing room where racks of HAZMAT suits once hung. Then I pass through the airlock into the main corridor, where row upon row of bunk beds, packed tightly together, line the walls.
 
The awfulness of it all overwhelms me: not the darkness or the close space or the echoes, but the purpose of this place: in the event of a nuclear war, 84 U.S. Navy sailors would have huddled together here, waiting for word that it was safe to return to the shattered world above. I am on an abandoned nuclear-fallout shelter on Adak, Alaska.
In the summer of 1942, 4500 soldiers of the U.S. Army waded onto the shores of Adak Island in the western Aleutians. This began more than fifty years of U.S. military history on Adak: first as the major forward base in the war against Japan, then as the center of the U.S. Navy’s presence in the North Pacific during the forty years of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. At its peak late in the Cold War, Adak was home to six thousand people. Then, with the Cold War over, in 1996 the U.S. Navy withdrew from the island, like the Roman legions leaving Britain. Today Adak is a small commercial-fishing port, home to about two hundred year-round residents, living amongst the detritus of a mighty, departed military empire.
There are many, many stories to be told about the strange sights on Adak—the faceless wizard and his three orbs; the old radio equipment where birds have taken roost; the Navy’s efforts to transplant generic small-town American suburbia to the remote Aleutians laid bare by the winds.
The story I want to tell, though, is about that fallout shelter. The place profoundly impressed me, jarred me, filled me with existential dread, left me with a deep pit in my stomach days after my visit. In that place, I finally understood the terrible weight felt by everyone who lived through the Cold War and above all by those who served on the front lines of the national defense during those years.

Cold War math: There are two fallout shelters (both right across the street from the Navy’s headquarters building). Each has eighty-four cots. There were six thousand people living on Adak during the Cold War.
The questions that arise are blood-curdling: Who had the job of assigning bunks? Was there space allotted for the thousands of spouses and children who lived on the island? Had it really happened—this-is-not-a-drill-report-to-the-fallout-shelter-immediately-over-and-out—would it have been orderly, or would there have been a mad rush to the doors, with sailors stabbing each other with screwdrivers for a chance to get inside before the mushroom cloud went up? What would it have been like to be the eighty-fourth person into the shelter and to close the door behind you, maybe leaving someone right outside, and not knowing when the doors would come open again? What would it have been like to lie there, day after day, night after night, without even the tiniest glimpse of sun and sky, waiting? If there had been a full-scale nuclear war, who would have told the people in the bunker that it was safe to come out again? And when they did, what would it have been like to come out onto an island full of corpses, a tiny ruined corner of a world that had been laid utterly to waste?

A detail: There were sanitary napkin dispensers and urinals in each of the shelters, from which one can infer that the shelters were designed to house sailors of both genders. Contemplating the horrifying implications of this fact is left as an exercise for the reader.

Last summer, I wrote about my involvement in Friends of Nike Site Summit, an organization dedicated to preserving a unique aspect of Alaska’s Cold War heritage here in Anchorage; I wrote about the debt of gratitude all of us who live in this post-Cold War world owe to the men and women who served the national defense during those years.
But as I contemplate the utter horror of the shelter and all that implied, I think I really understand what was at stake. For 40 years, Alaska and the world stood on the brink of nuclear destruction; only a few mistakes by national leaders or a rogue Soviet battalion commander or a U.S. Air Force pilot who made a bad decision or a Navy radar operator who thought he saw something he didn’t see, and civilization as we know it would have ended in a fiery holocaust, with a hundred and sixty-eight sailors out in the remotest Aleutians huddling for shelter inside dark bunkers and not knowing what would come next.
There is a tendency among many people to idealize the past, for a number of reasons. We associate the recent past with childhood’s happy days; the world was simpler and safer-seeming to us, and it seems to logically follow that it must have been a simpler and safer world. This is especially true of the Cold War: certainly the narrative of two great superpowers and their allies squaring off in a global conflict is easier to understand than the multi-polar, confused, terror-ridden world in which we live. It’s a mistake, I think, to judge the past too much in terms of the present, to assume that the present and those who inhabit it are better than the past and its people. But having been down in that that shelter and felt the weight of the Cold War pressing down on me in the darkness, I feel confident in saying that the present is safer than the past, at least the past of the Cold War. And for that we must all be grateful for all those stood, served, and brought the Cold War to a peaceful resolution: those who tracked the Soviet fleet from Adak, who flew the interceptor jets at Eielson Air Force Base, who went to sea in nuclear submarines, who monitored the skies over Anchorage at Nike Site Summit, and countless others who contributed to the defense of their country and the free world during those shadow-darkened years.

I reach the end of the long corridor and turn into another antechamber. This one houses the air-recirculation system–the shelter could not have used air from the outside in the event of a nuclear strike, as it would have been radiation-contaminated. Then I walk up the ramp and through the heavy steel doors and come back above ground, back into the fresh air. I am underneath the gray but vast Aleutian sky, back in the present; back in a world that survived the Cold War.

1 COMMENT

  1. It’s scary to think of so many people having to hide in that bunker. Way too close for comfort 🙁

  2. Very interesting Ivan. And well written. Have you ever been to Greenbrier in WV? Above ground is a beautiful, stately resort/hotel. Underneath is a bunker they build for Congress in case of war. It’s totally freaky. What I noticed is there were originally enough beds for each member of Congress and 1 staff. Really? 1 staff and no family? I decided then and there, I’d never go underground in a situation like that. I’d not want to come out and have all my friends and family gone–AND be stuck with 535 members of Congress! 🙂 Read about it if you haven’t. And if you’re in the area–it’s a must visit. Their pool is spectacular!
    http://www.greenbrier.com/Activities/The-Bunker.aspx

  3. This reads like a lost season of the Walking Dead! Thank you for sharing — AMC should be calling any minute now. LOL.