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Tunnelling Back To The Cold War

PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO

PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO

The Diefenbunker’s massive vault.

There are many ways to spend $14 during a visit to Ottawa, but anyone who makes the short trek to the Diefenbunker will probably conclude that the museum’s admission price is one of the National Capital Region’s bigger and perhaps more bizarre bargains.

This underground building located near Carp, Ont., was once known as the Central Emergency Government Headquarters, but no one calls it that any more. It earned the irreverent nickname because of its intrinsic link to John Diefenbaker, the Tory prime minister who ordered its construction in 1958, but never once visited the place.

Known today as Canada’s Cold War Museum, the building is an engineering marvel that saw tonnes of concrete and rebar turned into an intricate four-level, 9,300-square-metre subterranean maze covered by a thick blanket of Eastern Ontario topsoil–a maze that includes everything from a Bank of Canada vault to a morgue. It was designed to provide protection for about 565 people for one month, without resupply.

The trip from downtown Ottawa to the Diefenbunker may take only 35 minutes, but it involves a journey back to the early 1960s. At that time, Canadians were being advised to build nuclear fallout shelters in their backyards and their children were being taught how to read and write and how to hide under their desks in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.

One of the volunteers at the Diefenbunker or Cold War Museum Corporation is Doug Beaton, a former artifact conservator at Parks Canada who turned Diefenbunker tour guide after he retired. He also serves as president of the not-for-profit corporation’s board of directors. “Let’s pretend it is 1962, and that we’re locked down in the bunker during the Cuban missile crisis,” Beaton tells a group of visitors as he heads down a long tunnel toward the bunker and its blast doors.

He explains that the phrase “weapons of mass destruction,” which became a mantra for U.S. President George W. Bush prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was so well known when the Diefenbunker was built that there was genuine concern the federal government would collapse if there was a nuclear attack.

There was plenty of reason to worry. In 1952, the U.S. had exploded the world’s first hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb, with the Soviet Union following suit the next year. The new technology made the atomic bombs used against Japan in 1945 seem like bantam-weights, since the yield of a hydrogen bomb could be up to 1,250 times greater than that of the bomb used against Hiroshima. And both sides were building lots of them.

It is appropriate that work on the Diefenbunker began the same year the revered TV series The Twilight Zone was launched–1959–because both were based upon conjecture that began and ended with a simple question: “What if?”

The what-if question the Diefenbunker was meant to answer was simple: What does the government do if an attack by Soviet bombers is considered imminent? If that happened, the thinking went, the Diefenbunker, which became operational in 1962, would allow the prime minister, governor general, 12 members of the war cabinet, the head of the CBC, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and about 550 other people to head to nearby Carp and keep the country from falling into anarchy.

However, the Central Emergency Government Headquarters at Canadian Forces Station Carp was but the flagship for a national “continuity of government” program that included regional headquarters in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. There were also provincial bunkers and hundreds of public and private fallout shelters, as well as:

· 200 deployable 200-bed hospitals, complete with medical supplies;

· an attack-warning system for triggering 1,700 sirens across the country;

· pre-recorded emergency radio broadcasts and an emergency broadcasting system, built mainly around the CBC;

· a radiation monitoring system for reporting nuclear detonations and radiation levels.

Dave Peters, a retired combat engineer officer who serves as vice-president of the Diefenbunker’s board of directors, says the Carp facility was designed to survive a five-megaton ground detonation about 1.8 kilometres away. Such a blast would be roughly 300 times stronger than the explosive power contained in Little Boy, the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima.

After an explosion at that distance, says Peters, “the wind passing over the structure would have surpassed 1,000 miles per hour (roughly 1,700 km/h).”

Construction of the Diefenbunker, which lasted two years and employed up to 1,000 workers, required more than 32,000 tonnes of concrete and 5,000 tonnes of reinforcing steel, including rebar up to 6.5 centimetres thick. The final price tag was $20 million, or roughly $110 million in today’s dollars.

Curator Shawna Moffatt says Canadians are fortunate they can still tour the site, as 23,000 of them did in 2005, because it came within a whisker of being placed off limits forever. “DND was going to pour concrete down the (main entry) tunnel in October 1995,” she says.

According to Moffatt, this would have been a significant historical loss because many Canadians “were influenced by the atomic culture and the paranoia that came with the Cold War. The Diefenbunker has the opportunity to tell these stories. Nowhere else in Ottawa is it possible to get such first-hand experience of the Cold War culture. Should today’s students be deprived of that experience?”

After the Diefenbunker was decommissioned in 1994, the 32-hectare complex at CFS Carp was sold to West Carleton Township–now part of the City of Ottawa–because the municipality wanted to turn the station’s new engineering building into a public library. The following year, before DND could send in the cement trucks, some local residents recognized a tourism opportunity, and the bunker and 5.5 surrounding hectares were transferred to a management board for $2. Today, the Diefenbunker has three full-time employees and about 20 volunteer guides.

Peters says the new board faced a huge task because the facility had been stripped clean following decommissioning. “We’ve become excellent scroungers,” he says.

The goal of the scrounging, which has resulted in finds ranging from beds to generators to early-1980s mainframe computers donated by Carleton University, is to create an authentic Cold War atmosphere. The ultimate objective, says Peters, is to create “a regular museum” filled with displays and exhibits that truly reflect the era.

Nothing is done to gloss over what was at stake during the Cold War. The bunker’s long access tunnel, which was used as a backdrop in the 2002 movie The Sum of All Fears–an action thriller starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman–certainly sets the tone for visitors. “They (the film crew) were here for a week, and I think we got about eight seconds of screen time,” Beaton says with a laugh.

There is much more at the end of the tunnel. Take, for instance, the huge Bank of Canada vault built with the idea of having a safe place to protect half of Canada’s gold reserves. Beaton estimates that the vault’s massive door alone weighs 10 tonnes, although no one knows for sure. The sign at the door states that the vault has never held an ounce of gold, noting that it was used to store rations and clothing.

A relatively new exhibit reminds visitors of the seriousness of the Cold War era and the destructive power of weapons of mass destruction. It features 19 graphic photos showing the aftermath of the 1945 blasts in Japan.

The government of the day was keenly aware of the need to control information during a crisis. In the event of a nuclear attack, three journalists and three government public relations officers would have prepared all news items and bulletins that would be delivered to the public, using the bunker’s circa-1960 Underwood manual typewriters.

The news would have been delivered from a special CBC studio, which came complete with taped emergency messages. The message Beaton replayed during the tour was straightforward: “This is another emergency broadcast. Another enemy attack has been discovered. Take cover immediately.”

The bunker had 410 beds, all singles because no resident, including the prime minister, was allowed to bring anyone except approved staff members. Beaton says this was enough beds for about 565 people because a “hot-bunk” system would have been employed for junior personnel. The complex had two three-room suites, for the prime minister and the governor general, and they were the only ones with their own showers. There were also 28 single rooms for ministers and government mandarins such as the president of the CBC. The other bedrooms held up to 14 bunk beds and cots.

The handful of women who would have reported to the Diefenbunker in the event of an attack would have lived in women’s quarters that came complete with a sign, Out Of Bounds To All Male Personnel. As an added touch, a 1962 copy of Family Circle magazine has been placed on a coffee table in this area.

Peters has no doubts about his favourite part of the Diefenbunker. “The situation room,” he says without hesitating. “That room is the queen bee, the reason this place was built–to provide information that the war cabinet could use.”

The bunker is probably best described as a small village, albeit a claustrophobic one. It came with its own medical facility, which included X-ray equipment and a three-bed hospital, a dentist’s office, a cafeteria, a canteen and a garage to house a small helicopter, a bulldozer and 60,000 litres of diesel fuel. There was also a ham-radio room, since amateur radio enthusiasts were expected to play a key role in cross-country communications after any nuclear attack. A room dedicated to this hobby is now being created.

Peters says sleep comes easily in the Diefenbunker, and he should know. He managed to sleep in the prime minister’s suite when exercises were held at CFS Carp in the 1980s. “It was very dark, very quiet.”

So dark, in fact, that no one works in the Diefenbunker without a flashlight. “You don’t know what dark is until you’ve been in the bunker and the power goes out,” says Peters.

Beaton agrees. “I once had to crawl around some of the darkest, most cramped areas in the machine room in order to trace a suspected leak. We had to keep the fluorescent lights off because of their humming. I had to be able to listen for drips, and I could only carry a small flashlight. For me, these mechanical areas in the back of the machine room mezzanine are the weirdest areas in the bunker, with one room seeming to lead to another. I almost felt lost.”

Today, the Diefenbunker is seeking a wider audience. Moffatt says it now has a Spy Club where children can “create an alias and try disguises, and learn about codes and the world of espionage.”

There’s even a Diefenbunker Film Club. The feature film for January was K-19, the story of a Soviet submarine that experienced a disastrous reactor meltdown in 1961.

Money is tight at the museum, which earns little government support beyond a $50,000 annual grant provided by the City of Ottawa. The main revenue comes from admission fees. “We charge double what other museums charge, and we get no complaints about it,” notes Peters.

Rental income is another source of funds. The conference room that would have been used by the war cabinet is still eerily functional, and is routinely rented out to groups of up to 20 people for $200 per day. The cafeteria is also available for parties, at a cost of $700 for a full evening.

But the Diefenbunker itself was enough of a lure for Steve Testart of Kingston, Ont., when he visited with his father Maurice, who spent four years in the armed forces. “We were coming to Ottawa, looking for something to do. So, we figured, why not the Diefenbunker?”

And like most visitors, they probably left asking themselves this question. Which is stranger, the Diefenbunker itself or the times that produced it?

About Those 78 Toilets In Carp…

Dave Peters says defence leaders obfuscated masterfully, but not well enough in their attempts to hide the true purpose of the massive Diefenbunker construction project near Carp, Ont., in the early 1960s.

They tried to mask the project’s purpose by calling it Project EASE, for Experimental Army Signals Establishment, but the Diefenbunker turned out to be “a badly kept secret” that attracted the attention of a reporter from the Toronto Telegram newspaper. “He flew over the area and counted the toilets,” says Peters. “(They) were still in their packing cases in the stores-layout area, and (he) concluded that 78 of them were too many for the building’s stated purpose. He published his conclusions, much to the extreme annoyance of Prime Minister Diefenbaker.”

One of the newspaper’s articles was published on Sept. 11, 1961, exactly 40 years before another event started another kind of war.

Getting There

Getting to the Diefenbunker involves a 40-kilometre drive from downtown Ottawa. Travel west from Ottawa on Highway 417 (The Queensway) and take the Carp/Stittsville exit. Travel north to 3911 Carp Rd., roughly one kilometre north of the village of Carp. The trip from downtown Ottawa takes about 35 minutes.

Tour reservations are required, and can be booked at 613-839-0007, 1-800-409-1965 or [email protected] Tours are available in English or French.

Admission is $14 for adults, $12.50 for seniors and university/college students, and $6 for youths aged six to 17. There is no charge for children under six, and there is ample free parking.

Since the average temperature in the bunker is about 17 degrees C, the museum recommends bringing a sweater.

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