Unknown to most, Bell County was potential Ground Zero for decades as the Doomsday Clock ticked forward. Fort Hood’s Killeen Base remains a relic of the Cold War, where among the deadliest deterrents against the Soviet threat lay hidden in underground bunkers for decades.
Temple’s Railroad and Heritage Museum’s twin traveling exhibits, “Two Minutes to Midnight” and the “Architecture of Armageddon” on display until May 25, feature relics of the U.S. endeavor to protect citizens from nuclear war.
Photographers Jeanine Michna-Bales and Adam Reynolds have gathered two photographic essays offering glimpses at the implications of nuclear war. What is now regarded as “the nuclear age” literally exploded in August 1945 with two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in an endeavor to end World War II in the Pacific. That the bombs even existed was unknown to the world, except for a few dozen elite scientists.
As tremendous as the Allied victory was, it also portended dire warnings of global devastation. The Doomsday Clock, created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, began in 1947 as a metaphor to illustrate the world’s proximity to self-destruction. “Midnight” is a metaphor for total annihilation.
Most Bell County residents didn’t know that Fort Hood operated two atomic bomb plants snuggled under 7,000 acres of stubby hills. In its heyday, it employed 850 workers.
Becoming operational in March 1948, the Killeen Base, also known as Site Baker, was among the first of several nuclear storage sites in the nation.
Each tunnel corridor was 20-feet wide with 30-foot ceilings that penetrated to a depth of 80-plus feet below the mountain top, with concrete walls two-feet thick dug nearly 1,000 feet into the hillside.
Area A was the cantonment, but the nucleus was Area Q, with two underground atomic bomb plants, where personnel maintained and assembled nuclear weapons. Scattered munitions storage igloos — 119 of them — were built into bedrock and camouflaged with earth to shelter bomb casings and components. Blast-proof entry doors protected access to the atomic bomb plant. A forklift and other equipment moved bombs and casings through the narrow tunnels.
A former Camp Hood air strip was developed into Gray Air Force Base for transporting these “special” weapons. The Air Force operated both bases, and the government-run Atomic Energy Commission and civilian-managed Sandia Corp. directed weapons-related activities for the Defense Atomic Support Agency.
Each beat of the Doomsday Clock meant increasing threats. The Soviets detonated a nuclear bomb in 1949. Tick.
By June 1950, the Soviet-backed North Korean People’s Army invaded its pro-Western neighbor to the south. Tick. Tick.
Over the next decade, more adversarial countries gained nuclear technology and threatened the West. Tick. Tick. Tick.
As the Cold War grew and the Doomsday Club edged closer to the midheaven, Fort Hood prepared for the grim potentials of a Hot War. The Second Armored Division, deployed to Fort Hood in 1946, was joined by the First Armored Division in 1951 and the Fourth Armored Division in 1954. This bolstered the post with 40,000 more soldiers by 1961.
The Third Corps headquarters also arrived in 1954 to direct mobilization and training exercises for combat units; it became part of the Strategic Army Corps in 1962.
The Cold War dominated the rest of the 20th century and overshadowed an entire baby boom generation raised on “duck-and-cover” exercises and nuclear gloom threats.
“This exhibition is aimed to spark curiosity, and encourage discourse among audiences of all backgrounds as the works seek out places that are often hidden in plain sight,” said Angela McCleaf, museum curator.
From 1946 to 1991, the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed on an intense ideological and political stage. With the advent of new long-range tank guns, the Army enlarged its mission at Fort Hood and acquired additional land. Cold War training evolved to match the ever-changing needs of a modern army.
The museum’s exhibit lays out in stark images how the bomb’s potential devastation spawned an industry of manufacturers and building contractors to create atomic shelters, shields and anti-nuclear uniforms, even non-perishable foods that would withstand a nuclear attack.
Michna-Bales’s project, “Fallout,” documents shelters and propaganda across the country. The photos zero in on quiet architectural spaces, devoid of people, and allow viewers to come face to face with present nuclear realities while peering into the collective psyche of Americans.
Reynolds’s project, “No Lone Zone,” documents the offensive side of the Cold War through U.S. nuclear missile silos and the nuts and bolts of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the logic behind nuclear deterrence. Michna-Bales’s project, “Fallout,” delivers typological documentation of the defensive side through various shelters and propaganda across the United States, both private and public.
“These fallout shelters, endorsed through Civil Defense programs, in reality offered little more than a government-sponsored placebo to the American people, convincing them that something tangible was being done in the event of a nuclear holocaust,” McCleaf said.
The last nuclear weapon was removed from Fort Hood’s tunnels in 1967, and they continued to be used as a testing facility by the Operational Test Command in 1979, when the facility was finally closed because of the presence of asbestos and lead paint.
No longer a secret, the site is now used to train soldiers for tunnel warfare.