Monday, April 14, 2008

History Channel shows Greenbrier Bunker ("Cities of the Underworld")

One weekend in early August, 1997, after publishing my first book and just before relocating to Minneapolis for my corporate transfer, I visited the Greenbrier Bunker underneath the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W Va. At the time there was a scheduled tour for $25 and one had to make reservations. I don’t know whether there is such now, but when I passed through the town in 2005, one wasn’t allowed to enter the hotel grounds at all unless one was a guest. (In 1997, I had visited the hotel lobby and watched a piano player.) I wonder if 9/11 has anything to do with that. The book, as readers know, dealt with the military gay ban but reached back into history to cover the Vietnam era draft and the “domino theory” of the Johnson and Nixon years (and earlier).

The History Channel presented all this (on April 14, 2008) in “Cities of the Underworld: Washington DC: Seat of Power,” with Mark Shipman as host. The web link is this.

I do remember the 60000 pound iron door, with which the tour ends. I recall the close quarters of the bunks, which were more confining than those of military Basic Training. This was where Senators and Congressmen would live. Presumably there was minimal attention to gender segregation. Unlike the case with our debate out privacy in the military (with the gay issue) such prudish concerns could not have been possible here. When the members of Congress entered, they would go through a long corridor and into a decontamination shower facility. People who died of radiation poisoning would wind up in the crematorium . All pretty ghastly stuff.

The program did briefly cover the nuclear arms race early in the Eisenhower years. The Greenbrier was built in great secrecy, with the government paying for a new expansion of the resort belonging then to the C&O Railroad. The program showed an animated simulation of a large atomic bomb (5 x Hiroshima) in an airburst over the Capitol, with total destruction of everything between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. It also showed the Pentagon and WTC site after 9/11.

The program also covered the tunnel system under Washington DC, which was used on 9/11. Much of it is based on the old sewer system that was tunnelized in the early 19th Century to deal with disease. It was based on the old Tiber Creek, which emptied into the Anacostia not too far from the Nationals Park. The film showed a map of the tunnels briefly, but claimed their locations were top secret. However, someone could have taken a quick digital photo from the television, and it was easy for someone who knows the area to identify specific intersections where they entered the system. I recognized them, but, no, I won’t specify them exactly here (and, no, I took no still picture of it).

The program says that the Executive and Judiciary branches would be housed on the Blue Ridge in northern Va. This must refer to Mt. Weather, a facility between state highway 7 and US 50 on a lower section of the northern Blue Ridge on a county road. The public can drive by it and see the external structures but not enter it or photograph it. The program says that the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be housed in southern Pennsylvania. The program maintains that there may be another secret bunker for Congress since the Greenbrier has been disclosed and made public; in fact, it would still make sense to use the Greenbrier.

After about 40 minutes, the film moved to Baltimore and showed Fort McHenry, which was critical to defending the United States during the War of 1812, when civilian sailors are impressed or “drafted” into the British Navy. During that War, the Capitol and White House and other government buildings were burned. The Baltimore fort is shaped like a Pentagon. The underground retreat was designed carefully to contain munitions (one might have exploded from the British bombardment were it not for rain). The fort was the
inspiration for our Pentagon, where I was stationed for a time while in the Army in 1968 so, yes, I’ve walked the above-ground catacombs. I used to go to the library and read articles about the effects of nuclear weapons.

The film also showed the Organ Cave in southern West Virginia, where General Robert E. Lee sometimes hid troops during the Civil War, even as Union troops sat on the plateau above. Half a mile into the cave sit the hoppers where the Confederates processed the “ore” for saltpeter (potassium nitrate), partly created by bat dung. The program claims that 75% of the gunpowder for the Confederates was made secretly here. The cave looked like the underground sets of Jerry Bruckheimer 's "National Treasure" films. And, no, colleges don't put saltpeter in dorm food.

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