At the height of the cold war, the United States military decided to build a command and control center that could survive even after a sustained nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.
In 1957, Strategic Air Command, the division of the Department of Defense responsible for America’s bomber aircraft and ICBM nuclear arsenal, decided that there was a dire need for a hardened command post that could house the 8th Air Force, which up to that point had been based out of Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
The location chosen for the heavily fortified underground base was a location of Bare Mountain known as “The Notch”, located in Hadley, Massachusetts. The bunker was built literally deep inside of Bare Mountain in an effort to protect it in the case that a nuclear blast took place anywhere in the surrounding region.
It is surely not the first underground base that the U.S. military has ever built, but it is certainly one of the most ambitious.
SAC Underground Nuclear Site
Throughout its lifetime, from the 1950s through the 1970s, the Strategic Air Command installations, including the underground command post as well as the Offutt Air Base, presented a part of a massive defense apparatus that was structured to protect the country’s military in the worst case scenario – a nuclear war between two superpowers.
The National Security Archive at George Washington University set up a unique web page focused on old photographs showing some of those underground command structures created by the SAC.
Aside from the command and control center buried under Bare Mountain in Massachusetts, the SAC was actually headquartered during the cold war at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. The base looked like a regular building from the outside, but the control center was actually burrowed an impressive 45 feet into the Earth.
The rooftop even featured a unique device known as the “snifter”, which was capable of setting off an alert the moment there was an increase in radioactivity within a 50 mile radius of the building. The alert would instantly set off a series of mechanical and security events that would isolate and seal off the building from the outside world.
The command center was capable of becoming a self-sustaining building and underground base in the event of a catastrophic nuclear holocaust.
The command post was fully outfitted with full television transmission facilities so as to transmit updated information about the nuclear attack, current events, and the current state of the country. All information would be created within the central command area and issued to all other command centers around the country.
The underground command posts even sported big-screen displays long before “big-screen” displays were even a reality. From the 1961 description of the informational display system buried deep under the Earth, the SAC description read: “Large screens [present] information on weather conditions, force deployment, aircraft and missiles, plus a multitude of other operational data.”
The computer systems housed in the heart of the command center processed incoming data from the military’s early computer “network” in order to develop the information on those displays. Processing time for those displays was 30 seconds. In 1961, such computer processing time for that volume of information was unheard of commercially.
Out of the backside of the complex were massive tunnels that allowed crews living underground to race to the nearby KC-135 Stratotankers, which were to serve as long-range airborne command and transportation aircraft in times of extreme national crisis. In essence, the KC-135 aircraft were the “getaway” vehicles for crew that were burrowed inside of the underground SAC command center.
Beyond this massive underground SAC bunker and the one buried under Bare Mountain in Massachusetts, the military of course had many more underground bases located all throughout the United States, and the world. There were Minuteman silos located across the American countryside, such as the Montana Minuteman complex. Some of those underground facilities have been declassified and decommissioned, but there are certainly many that remain some of the most well kept secrets of the United States.
In upcoming articles, we’ll actually travel out to some of those decommissioned underground bases and explore them – taking a personal tour of that terrifying period in U.S. history when even the country’s own military felt compelled to bury itself under the ground for its own protection.