Monday, September 1, 2014

The Nantucket Kennedy Bunker

In August, while vacationing on Nantucket, I connected with my junior high school friend Tom Porter. Tom, it turns out, has been coming to Nantucket longer than I have -- his parents owned one house from '63 'till '78, then another house beginning in 1986. I was surprised that, with Maire Anne and I coming down to the island since 1984, I'd never intersected with Tom, but life is full of such near-misses.

Anyway, Tom told me a story I'd never heard -- that, at the Fairgrounds at Tom Nevers, there was a bunker intended to shelter John Kennedy and related family and officials should circumstances have necessitated whisking him out of Hyannisport.

I looked online, and found a handful of references. The Wikipedia page for the Tom Nevers Naval Facility on Nantucket ( is quite short, basically just saying that the base was open 1955 through 1976 and was used a submarine listening post. But it does say that the facilities included a bomb shelter for JFK. The page also says that the shelter "later became home to the Nantucket Hunting Association. The shelter still has electricity and can still be used." This Wikipedia page includes a reference that is linked to an article by Steve Sheppard, "The Kennedy Bunker: Hidden History by the Sea" in The Nantucket Independent, an island newspaper. However, The Nantucket Independent is defunct, their web site no longer active, so the link to the reference is broken. I have not been able to locate another source for Mr. Sheppard's piece. I did, however, find numerous references online to another shelter for JFK, on Peanut Island near Palm Beach, FL.

When Maire Anne and I were done packing the truck and heading for the ferry, we had an hour to kill, so we drove down to Tom Nevers to see what we could find. I knew exactly where The Fairgrounds was; it's a field at Tom Nevers, the site of a small annual carnival on Nantucket where, in fact, my favorite picture of Maire Anne and I was taken in 2001 by our friend Kim Cox.

Upon arriving at The Fairgrounds, the bunker was so obvious I was astonished I'd never wondered what it was before. The pic below shows the flagpole that was probably associated with the Naval facility. The bunker is the mound in the background. The "sharks fin" is a tree on the mound.

There used to be more old naval base buildings left at the former Tom Nevers site, but the south side of the island is prone to heavy erosion, as shown in the photo below; the bluff under the roadway has eroded over the years, taking the road and probably buildings along with it.

As you approach the bunker, there's no plaque or anything indicating its historical significance -- just a large rock denoting that this is the Faigrounds location. But there's no missing it.

To the right of the rock, there is what is clearly an entrance to the bunker with a big old rusted steel door.

Maire Anne said "is the door unlocked?" Yeah, right, I thought. But when we looked at it,we saw no big padlock or chain.

I gave it a tug, and it swung right open and revealed...

...another door!

Maire Anne said, again, "is it locked?" I felt like I was in an old Carol Burnett episode. Amazingly, this door was unlocked as well. I opened it carefully, remembering quite acutely the time that a colleague of mine and I cracked open the door to a long-abandoned structure during a geophysical survey and were greeted by wasps. We opened the door to see... this. You can't tell from the pic, but the large corrugated metal tube is horizontal. That is, it goes straight into the mound, not down at an angle. Not a subterranean bunker, you understand; "bomb shelter" is probably the better word.

Wow, we both thought... this must be the place. What else could it be? Should we go in? Is this even legal? Curiosity is a powerful drug. With iPhone flashlight at the ready, in I went. Below is me looking back at Maire Anne, begging her not to lock me in. Hey, we've been married 30 years and love each other deeply, but you never know when someone harbors a grudge.

My iPhone flashlight was laughably inadequate, and when I tried to take pics, of course the flashlight cut out, and I was left standing in pitch blackness, fumbling to turn the flashlight app back on. But it clearly appeared that the bunker was made from intersecting corrugated metal tubular Quonset structures. Below are some absolutely awful photos:

Maire Anne came in and joined me, but with inadequate flashlights, and images of Island kids bragging "yeah, we locked ANOTHER pair of tourists inside, weren't they FUNNY when they SCREAMED," we didn't stay longer than a minute.

Then we climbed up on top of the bunker. Below are some pics from the top of the mound, showing the fairgrounds, playground and ballfield, and the gorgeous southern Nantucket coastline.

After we got back home, I searched again online for info on the Nantucket Kennedy Bunker. This time, I found this site, which misrepresents the location as Cuttyhunk Island, but clearly is the same facility. In the photos on this site, the lights are on, the facility is clean and well-lit, and you can clearly see what's murky and ill-illuminated in my bad cell phone pics.

I also found this piece in the New York Times. It is predominantly about the Peanut Island bunker (calling it "the worst-kept secret in Palm Beach"), but mentions the Nantucket bunker. Interestingly, it says that the site "has never been open to the public" -- ironic considering how "open" we found it.

Maire Anne and I wondered... was it by accident that it was open? Was it supposed to be locked but was recently broken into? Or is it such old news among island residents that the town feels the liability issues are of little concern? I'm curious about these things, and will make a few calls to the Town of Nantucket and the Nantucket Historical Society to find out.

I'm glad Maire Anne and I chose to spend our hour before the ferry departed in this way. Yes, we could have spent the hour a different way -- you know, joined the "bunker club" -- but, you know, after 30 years of marriage, the lure of comfort and clean sheets is pretty strong.

Besides, now we know what to bring next year. And, yes, the parallels are obvious, but only up to a point. I mean, I share JFK's appetites, but I'm a one-woman man. But if the world is ending, now we know where to go.

Or come.


(copyright 2014, Rob Siegel. all rights reserved.)