The dingy, cavernous steel fallout shelter hastily built on a man-made island off Florida’s heavily Jewish ‘gold coast’ is a stark reminder of the harsh realities President John F. Kennedy faced from the first days of his presidency at the height of the Cold War.
As the Kennedy family vacationed minutes away at the Palm Beach compound known as the Winter White House, the shelter’s main chamber sat ready at a moment’s notice with 15 sets of bunk beds, a desk for the president and a conference table.
The heavily protected hideaway, fully stocked with military K rations, barrels of water and radiation detection kits, could serve as home for 30 of Kennedy’s family and key staff for a month in the event of a nuclear attack.
“They tested bringing him here,” said Anthony Miller, general manager of Palm Beach Maritime Museum, which maintains the shelter. “It was 10 minutes from his front door on Palm Beach to here.”
Shortly before Kennedy took office in January 1961, Navy Seabees undertook “Operation Hotel” and in 10 days piled 25 feet (7.6 metres) of earth, lead and concrete above the corrugated steel bunker.
Half a century after Kennedy’s assassination during a Dallas motorcade, his memory lingers in Palm Beach.
From his boyhood on, Kennedy’s family was a fixture in the ritzy, oceanside enclave where billionaire investors like William Koch rub shoulders with wealthy entertainers such as singer Jimmy Buffett.
The Honey Fitz, the yacht that served Presidents Truman through Nixon, still moors in the waters near the once-secret shelter. The 80-year-old wooden boat is a floating museum and travels regularly between Palm Beach and Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
“All the footage you see of JFK out on the water during his presidency was on this boat and all of the still photos were taken on it,” said Paul Ocepek, the Honey Fitz’s first officer.
ESCAPE HATCH, HELIPAD
Getting to the fallout shelter’s main living quarters required passing through a series of narrow passages that held a generator, air pumps and filters, a radiation detector and a sterilization chamber.