Published On: Sun, Feb 6th, 2022

Palm Beach County to Offer a Peak Into The Cold War of the 1960’s

By Robert S Weinroth

In the words of Winston Churchill, those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis were issues confronting the 35th President of the United States.  

Hidden on Palm Beach County’s Peanut Island is a fascinating relic of that era, the Detachment Hotel; otherwise known as the Kennedy Bunker. 

The Board of County Commissioners recently approved a plan to restore the 1,800 square foot Cold War-era bunker.  

In 1961, the United States Naval Construction Forces (“Seabees”) constructed the secret bunker for Kennedy at the end of his first year as president, during the run up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The bunker was designed to house up to 30 people for 30 days

The top-secret nuclear bomb shelter was designed to protect JFK during visits to the family’s Palm Beach estate, a short helicopter ride across the water. The bunker was closed shortly after the president’s assassination and was declassified in 1974.Hidden in the woods and underground, it fell into disrepair until restored in 1998. It was last open to the public in 2017.

The port has owned Peanut Island since 1923, five years after the 79-acre island was created from the dredged sand of the Lake Worth Inlet and is only accessible by boat.  

Under the recently signed agreement between the county and port, the county will continue to operate a park (opened to the public in 1999) and the historical facilities (the bunker, Coast Guard station, Coast Guard boat house and Coast Guard docks) for the foreseeable future.

With the exception of a presidential seal, added as a modern enhancement, the decommissioned bunker is very close to its original design. The earth-covered structure is protected by multiple layers of concrete and rebar with entry made though a blast-hardened tunnel, with a 90-degree angle to minimize shockwaves from a nuclear explosion. The facility also contains a decontamination room and radio room

Since it is located on an island, visiting it requires taking a water taxi, private boat or a kayak.

The bunker is quite small, stocked with containers of drinking water, Army K-rations, a ham radio and a rocking chair, JFK’s seat of choice due to back injuries sustained during WWI and his service on the PT-109.

JFK had a similar shelter built on another vacation destination, Nantucket Island. That shelter has never been open to the public.

The Kennedy bunker has not open for tours since 2017. The non-profit that managed the facility lost its lease with the county after several years of conflict.

The county plans to restore the historic properties and operate it as a low-impact, educational, historical and cultural facility and a passive park.

The County is seeking $1.5 million from the state, and another $1.5 million from the federal government to restore the facility.

A two-story, Colonial Revival-style house built in 1936 operated as a Coast Guard station during World War II. 

The Coast Guard station provided cover for the construction project. At the time, official communications said the construction was being done to build storage facilities for the nearby station. 

While the president was never evacuated to the shelter, it is likely Kennedy participated in drills that would have taken him to the location on two separate occasions. The presidential yacht, Honey Fitz, was seen operating near Peanut Island at least twice during the Kennedy presidency.

A significant amount of work, as well as permitting and fundraising, will be needed to restore the historical facilities. According to Eric Call, the County’s Recreation Director, it will likely be several years before the compound is accessible to the public. 

State Rep. Mike Caruso has requested $1.5 million from the legislature for the project. A similar request submitted last session did not make it out of committee.

Once completed, the public will have access to the bunker and the former Coast Guard station. 

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