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My summer surveying nuclear fallout shelters for the United States

A 23 kiloton tower shot called BADGER, fired on April 18, 1953 at the Nevada Test Site, as part of the Operation Upshot–Knothole nuclear test series. Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration/ Nevada Site Office.


Alhambra , CA United States

Shortly after 8 am Hawaii local time on January 13, 2018, the following message was broadcast via cellphone in caps: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” The message was false and the result of human error, but was not rescinded for 38 minutes. During that time, Hawaiians and island visitors were in a panic, not knowing what to do. Would you?

In case the next warning turns out to be real, click this government information link on what to do before, during, and after a nuclear blast. Some knowledge is better than no knowledge. Your life may depend on it.

For those interested in a more comprehensive understanding of how to survive a nuclear attack, please click this link.

Although a few buildings are still marked with black and yellow fallout shelter signs (like Alhambra City Hall), none are stocked with survival supplies and may not be accessible because the federal fallout shelter program ended decades ago.

In a related story, I worked for the Army Corps of Engineers in 1969 and 1970 finding fallout shelters for the public in the event of a nuclear war. Here are my memories of that work.

While net surfing in November, 2002, I stumbled upon a site describing a course on fallout shelters given by Professor J. Edwin Hendricks of the Wake Forest University History Department. In a phone call to Professor Hendricks, I indicated that I was part of the National Fallout Shelter Survey from the Vietnam War era. I was astounded that anyone was interested in this bit of history and offered to share my recollections via email or phone. The following is my recollection of the work and experiences I had as a summer engineering technician for the Army Corps of Engineers.

December, 1968

The economy sucked. A few seniors stapled job rejection letters, one below the other, to form rejection letter chains. The sight of those long chains wasn’t lost on us sorry undergraduates. Summer jobs were scarce too.

The exam for all federal jobs was given at local post offices across the country that December. In my college town, half the candidates were University of Missouri – Rolla students. It was the same everywhere. Any summer job to help pay the bills was okay – even stuffing mail into mailboxes as a postman. My score came in the mail with the usual “don’t call us, we’ll call you” cover letter regarding jobs. I forgot about it.

May, 1969

The previous summer, I had worked on a Sears subsidiary television assembly line screwing the backs onto sets in my hometown of Forrest City, Arkansas. I remembered that the company had a couple of student engineers in the engineering department.

I went to the head of personnel and told him I was a returning worker and an electrical engineering student. He brushed me off and told me there would be no summer engineers, but I could have my old job back. I took it. Money is money, and I needed it.

I started on Monday. On Thursday, I noticed a college classmate wearing a tie walking about the engineering section. I asked him what he was doing. His answer: “I asked for a summer engineering job yesterday and they gave it to me.”

I wasn’t mad at my white friend but I knew that I, a Forrest City, Arkansas born Chinese-American, had just been discriminated against. When I got home after work, there was a message to call the Army Corps of Engineers in Kansas City. I called.

Mr. Robert Edwards was the manager of the Corps’ engineers who were given the responsibility for carrying out the National Fallout Shelter Survey for Missouri and Kansas. Someone had made a decision to use summer engineering students around the country to gather field data. The field data would be sent back to the nearest of several Corps headquarters for analysis by regular engineers.

My name was on the federal civil service list. The Cold War with Russia had been going on for many years. I was already a volunteer Civil Defense radiological monitor for my hometown and knew how to read a Geiger counter. Mr. Edwards was pleased to hear that. Mr. Edwards offered me a job. I told him I’d be in Kansas City in his office the next Monday morning.

Friday morning, I told the television company that I was offered a higher paying job. They didn’t care. We both knew jobs were scarce and that someone else would be happy to screw the backs onto Sears televisions for $1.65 an hour.

That Saturday, I drove ten hours to Kansas City. I stayed at the YMCA. To kill time, I went to a theater down the street showing “M.A.S.H.” The movie somehow seemed related to the new job.

I was 19 years old. My draft board was anxious to draft me into the Army. I much preferred serving as a civilian employee in the States rather than as the contents of a body bag from Vietnam. I didn’t want Hawkeye or Trapper John working on me.

Army Corps of Engineers – Kansas City

There were 16 of us. All were engineering students from colleges in Kansas and Missouri. The first day was the usual fill out the forms and introductions. We were divided into two groups of eight. One group would be sent to southwest Missouri. My group was going to Columbia, Missouri.

For the remainder of that first week, we looked at building materials, blueprints, and had informal classes with the regular engineers describing what they wanted from the field. Each group had a senior civil engineering tech who would accompany us to our assigned cities and check our work daily, assist on difficult buildings and generally be our “field father” during the week. The senior techs had families in Kansas City. They went home on weekends. The headquarters would grid a city on a map and assign work. We would go out in teams of two and survey every building in our grid that a member of the public could walk in to. No private homes.

We were classified as civil engineering technicians. We got about $700 per month. More significantly, we would get a per diem for being in the field seven days a week. The per diem was around $800 per month extra. The combined pay was more than the typical $800-$1000 per month graduating engineers were being offered. Plus each team drove around during business hours in a green U. S. Army sedan using a Federal credit card for gas.

We were in financial heaven. Our supervisors stayed in hotels. The eight of us rented a house for the summer to save even more money.

A letter on federal letterhead was prepared for each of us. We were identified as civilian employees conducting building analysis for fallout shelter suitability. A collect phone number to call to verify our identities was included. Identification cards were issued.

The Vietnam War was on every night’s news with that day’s enemy KIA totals, as well as our own KIAs and MIAs. No one believed the enemy numbers. If the enemy counts were true, the war would have been over long ago. None of us wanted to be among the U.S. numbers.

Two of our eight were in Army ROTC. They didn’t want to die in Nam either. ROTC was just a way to pay the college bills and not be drafted as a grunt two weeks after graduation. There were never any discussions about the morality of the Vietnam War.

Thousands of backyard and basement fallout shelters were built across the country. Our job was to find places to survive for those poor SOBs (like us) who couldn’t afford a personal backyard shelter. Throughout the first week of training, I waited for some defining statement that a nuclear bombing of the United States was imminent and that our work was critical. I don’t remember any such comments ever being made. Our trainers simply approached the work as an engineering exercise in evaluating buildings. Instead of radiation, we could have been evaluating for flood damage.

A week later we fanned out in Columbia, Missouri. My partner and I got the grid with the University of Missouri campus. The other guys didn’t want it because of the number of multi-story buildings that would have to be drawn up and visited. I didn’t care because my partner and I got to sit in an air-conditioned office and analyze blueprints most of the day.

I caught on quickly and was soon producing one set of field drawings for a major building with 300-foot surrounding site analysis per day. It was taking my partner two days to do comparable work.

The drawings we made were on forms about 11 by 14 inches. Every building floor and its roof was drawn in detail showing rooms, stairs, elevators etc. Sections were sketched. Critical information included the location of windows and doors and the material used to construct the walls. A basement automatically made the building a strong public shelter candidate. Radiation is limited in how far it can penetrate the earth and the concrete walls of most basements.

During the site visit, I’d sketch the building elevations relative to adjacent buildings and plus/minus the adjacent terrain relative to the ground floor. Post explosion radiation would come from dust laying on these surroundings and the roof. You were supposed to stay inside a shelter for a minimum of two weeks until the radiation attenuated somewhat to lower levels.

Our field data was sent back to the Kansas City office. Full-time civil and structural engineers did the engineering analysis. We never knew which buildings made it in or not. We were usually back at school. For those buildings found suitable, the regular staff handled legal agreements with the building owners regarding public access and storage of materials.

Signs with yellow and black triangles identified public fallout shelters. Water and crackers were stored. Whatever else, I don’t know. It wasn’t our job to stock them.

Many folks thought we were military on stateside assignment. The very best ID was the beat up green Plymouth sedans we drove with the words “US Army” stenciled on both front doors. We all learned to park the sedans conspicuously or drive around the block first. Though there was growing concern over why we were fighting in Vietnam, I never encountered any animosity towards us from the public.

The Corps had contacted reporters for the local newspapers in advance to alert the public about our purpose. Some of us carried a copy of the usual article to further validate our identities. After the first two weeks, it seemed like everyone knew we were coming. Word of mouth preceded us.

Veterans, in particular, welcomed us. We considered their WWII and Korean War stories somewhat of a nuisance to us getting our work done quickly. I now wish I had listened more.

I elected not to do this work in my senior summer 1971. My goal was to work in Los Angeles. My work on the television assembly line and my work for and the honors received from the Army Corps of Engineers led to a summer job for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. I retired in 2010 after working 38 years there.

Two buildings stand out in my memories from the hundreds of buildings I personally surveyed.

“Shut up, son…”

Missouri is the “Show Me” state. I have only the fondest memories of its residents. Just be honest with them and they’ll give you anything you need. Most businesses accepted the introductory and identifying letter without further ado. Banks usually made the phone calls verifying our identities and purpose. This was one time, however, when gaining access wasn’t that easy.

In 1970, the building on my assigned grid/list was on the outskirts of a small town near St. Louis. My partner and I split up. He did the buildings clustered downtown, while I took care of this lone structure out in the boonies.

I drove out alone past farmland and woods. Upon arrival, I saw an overall-clad older fellow sitting on the entrance porch. Definitely this good ole boy was wondering why an Army car was way out there. I could see there was a basement. I walked up to the fellow.

“Hi, my name is Jeu Foon. I’m an engineering technician with the Army Corps of Engineers doing the fallout shelter survey of public buildings. Here is my ID and a letter you may keep verifying who I am and how we need your help.”

Silence, while he reads the letter. He hands it back to me. He looks at the car. He looks at me.

“Whatcha need, son?”

“I need to sketch your floor plan and the elevations around the building. I need to look in the basement to see if it would make a good fallout shelter.”


More silence.


“Son, you from round here?”

“I was born and raised in Forrest City, Arkansas. I go to engineering school in Rolla.”


More silence.

Finally, “I’m gonna let you in the basement, but you’re gonna shut up, son….understand!”

“Uh…yes, sir.”

He unlocks the basement. We enter. Against every wall were slot machines. At least forty. In the middle, card tables.

“Son, gambling is illegal in Missouri. Now, the sheriff and the mayor belong to the country club that owns this here building. They’re gonna be mighty unhappy if you see anything but an empty basement with a few storage boxes. Ain’t that right, son.”

“Sir, all I see is four concrete basement walls… I’ll be finished in fifteen minutes.”

Fifteen minutes later, I showed him my work. He smiled.

“Good work, son. You remember what I said, right?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you. I’ll be leaving now.”

And I did.

Concord Bank – August, 1970

Concord had two banks. One was located downtown and the other located on the city’s edge. I got the one on the outskirts.

I introduced myself and was directed to the vice president of the bank. He read the letter and called Kansas City while I waited outside his office. Satisfied with my credentials, he took me to a conference room and asked what I needed.

I said I needed to make a sketch of the building and surroundings for radiation analysis. I could either pace off the building by walking around or do it from blueprints, if available.

He said, “I’ll bring you the prints. I don’t want you walking around inside.” I said, “ No problem, it’ll make my work faster. Thanks.”

Banks always made the very best fallout shelters. The thick concrete walls and underground money vaults were perfect. Some banks declined to be marked as public shelters or be stocked. Banks were not forced to participate, but were advised that in a national emergency any building, including banks, could be commandeered under martial law.

The bank was just a concrete rectangle with a concrete basement vault. I showed my work to the bank VP and thanked him. I told him his bank would probably pass the fallout analysis and that the KC staff would contact him. I left and moved on to other buildings. It was the end of summer and I started my senior year at Rolla in two weeks.

I returned to college. The first week back, I passed a stack of newspapers in the drugstore entrance while walking to class. The headlines read, “Concord Bank Burglary. $300,000 Cash Missing,” and “Thieves enter through roof overnight.” Another one contained the phrase “FBI Investigating.”

Holy Smokes! I had just seen the bank blueprints three weeks earlier and sketched them! Do I call Kansas City? Do I call the bank? Do I call the FBI?

It was Thursday afternoon. I was late for Machines Lab. I’d deal with it later.

I knew the police would find me. The FBI would question me. I tell my apartment roommates what happened. They tell me “Your ass is grass” and “Can I have your record album collection when they lock you up?”

For three days I waited. No one came. One of my roommates walked in and said, “You lucked out. They caught the guys that broke into your bank.” I ran down to the drugstore and bought a paper. It was true. The money was recovered and the bad guys had already confessed.

Maybe I was under surveillance. I’ll never know.

Jeu Foon is a writer, singer, guitarist, ukulele accompanist, taiko drummer, former stockbroker and retired engineering supervisor. He is the founder and host of Rick’s Open Mic on Wednesday nights in downtown Alhambra.

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