John F. Kennedy's Cold War Bunker Sits Off Florida's Jewish Gold Coast

Stark Shelter on Palm Beach Isle Now Museum

maritime museum

By Reuters

Published November 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

At the back of the largest room was an emergency escape hatch that led to a helipad in case the shelter itself came under attack. The U.S. government did not acknowledge its existence until 1974.

The island where it sits was dredged up from the Palm Beach inlet in 1918 to serve as a port for peanut oil shipping.

Although that business failed, the name of Peanut Island remained. It was closed to the public from the time the Coast Guard took it over in 1936 in preparation for World War Two until 1995, when the museum secured a 45-year lease on the property.

At the time, the shelter was partially flooded and in disrepair, Miller said. Nearly all of its contents had been removed or destroyed.

The museum opened to the public in 1999, and efforts continue to restore the bunker to its original condition.

The steel hatch that leads to a dark, downward sloping steel tube was once hidden from sight by a thicket of trees. Miller said he planned to replant the trees, which for visitors will recreate the dramatic effect of stumbling upon the entrance in a small hill.

Despite the long-lasting interest in the Kennedys and their fairy-tale image, maintaining the shelter remains a challenge. It sees about 12,000 visitors annually and relies on volunteer efforts to help with maintenance.

It receives no financial contributions from the federal government or the Kennedy family, even though Ethel Kennedy, the widow of slain former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, visits the bunker almost every year with her grandchildren.

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.

At the back of the largest room was an emergency escape hatch that led to a helipad in case the shelter itself came under attack. The U.S. government did not acknowledge its existence until 1974.

The island where it sits was dredged up from the Palm Beach inlet in 1918 to serve as a port for peanut oil shipping.

Although that business failed, the name of Peanut Island remained. It was closed to the public from the time the Coast Guard took it over in 1936 in preparation for World War Two until 1995, when the museum secured a 45-year lease on the property.

At the time, the shelter was partially flooded and in disrepair, Miller said. Nearly all of its contents had been removed or destroyed.

The museum opened to the public in 1999, and efforts continue to restore the bunker to its original condition.

The steel hatch that leads to a dark, downward sloping steel tube was once hidden from sight by a thicket of trees. Miller said he planned to replant the trees, which for visitors will recreate the dramatic effect of stumbling upon the entrance in a small hill.

Despite the long-lasting interest in the Kennedys and their fairy-tale image, maintaining the shelter remains a challenge. It sees about 12,000 visitors annually and relies on volunteer efforts to help with maintenance.

It receives no financial contributions from the federal government or the Kennedy family, even though Ethel Kennedy, the widow of slain former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, visits the bunker almost every year with her grandchildren.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.