PEANUT ISLAND, Fla. -- Take a pleasant ferry ride up the Intracoastal Waterway. Look with longing at the multimillion-dollar Palm Beach mansions. Wave to passing yachters soaking up the sun.
At the end of this 1.8-mile trip aboard the Spirit of West Palm Beach is a stark reminder of how close the world has come to nuclear war: a bomb shelter, buried 25 feet below this island's surface, built for President Kennedy during the Cold War.
The thickness of the bunker's cement walls, the barbed wire fence and thick brush hiding the steel door entrance recall a time of crisis.
"It was a point when the world was closer to nuclear war than at any other time in our history," Bill Rose tells visitors to the shelter, which opened as part of the Palm Beach Maritime Museum in January.
The bunker was built in late 1961 as tensions heightened between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was tucked away behind an old Coast Guard station on Peanut Island, a small mass of land in the Intracoastal Waterway just north of Palm Beach, where the Kennedy family had a beachfront estate.
No one at the maritime museum can prove that President Kennedy ever set foot in the shelter -- or even knew of it. And the John F. Kennedy Museum in Boston has no record of such a facility being built on Peanut Island.
That has not deterred the maritime museum from making the bunker its premier attraction on the island, home to the historic Coast Guard station. Visitors can take a ferry ride from Currie Park in downtown West Palm Beach aboard the 149-passenger Spirit of West Palm Beach and tour the shelter and Coast Guard facilities.
"The cover story was it was a munitions depot," says John Grant, president of the maritime museum. "But you don't have bathrooms, you don't have a communications center, you don't have air filtration equipment in a munitions depot."
"(The land) was leased by the Secret Service," he adds. "What do they do? They protect the president."
The shelter was completed 10 months before the standoff of super powers that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Less than 100 miles off Florida's coast, the Soviets had set up nuclear weapons in Cuba. The government urged Americans to build fallout shelters in their basements and back yards. People filled grocery stores to stock up on supplies as if they were preparing for a Category 5 hurricane.
Then, it was over.
Soviet leader Nikita Kruschchev agreed to remove the weapons. Nuclear war was averted. Americans converted bomb shelters to playpens and wine cellars. And President Kennedy was assassinated.
His bomb shelter was all but forgotten -- except for the teen-agers and vagrants who reveled in the secret island hideaway.
When the museum took it over several years ago, the bunker was flooded with several feet of rain water. All the original equipment and furniture was gone.
Larry Millwood is one of the few people who knew how it had looked. In 1961, he and his fellow Seabees were assigned the classified task of finishing the interior of the bunker. Now a 56-year-old marketing representative in Columbia, Mr. Millwood still remembers it well: the descending hallway of round corrugated metal -- much like a big sewer pipe -- leading to the heart of the shelter; and the portable generator tucked away in the corner, which Mr. Millwood painted as a teen-age Navy reservist.
"When you turn left, you turn into a shower area that was a decontamination area," he recalls. "From there you proceeded on into the main room. We just partitioned it off and made rooms out of it. There were portable potties in there, and bedrooms, and just kind of an open area."
From the ceiling hung thick pipes for the air-filtration system. There was room for a communications system, and in the back a 25-foot ladder leading straight up to an escape hatch.
Mr. Millwood and his fellow Seabees finished off the interior of the bunker by painting redwood stain molding around the room -- to give it a homey feeling. They didn't think much about it ever having to be used.
"It looked very good when we finished," he says.
And it looks good now, although probably not very authentic.
The maritime museum has painted a giant presidential seal on the hard gray floor, and there's an Oriental rug under a set of bunkbeds. The main room is not partitioned. There are a few lockers and a hardwood desk flanked by flags. There's also a television where visitors can watch a four-minute video of news clips of the bunker's restoration and the Cold War.
Tony Owens spent five years with his Marine reserve unit on Peanut Island. He says the soldiers never bought the government's story about the bunker being for storage. There were too many guards and wire fences.
"It was the president's bunker," says Mr. Owens, 62, of West Palm Beach. "We knew that's what the security was all about."
Mr. Owens is proud to have a film clip of the president waving to the soldiers from his presidential yacht. And he sheepishly admits sneaking into the drab and dingy shelter after the president's assassination.
"Mosquitoes used to be so bad on the island ... we used to go in there and sleep," Mr. Owens confesses. "Of course, it wasn't the president's bunker any more. He was gone."
The 149-passenger ferry to Peanut Island departs from Currie Park in downtown West Palm Beach four times a day, at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and 1 and 2:30 p.m. The entire trip takes about 2 1/2 hours and costs $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $9 for students ages 6-17. Children 5 and younger ride free. Parking is free.
For more information call (561) 842-7607 or (800) 366-5004.
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