Doomsday preppers worry about 'Underground Pentagon' near Gettysburg

Kim Strong
York Daily Record

In a mountain south of Gettysburg, doomsday prepping is a way of life.

Built in the 1950s, the Raven Rock Mountain Complex, once a secret hiding place for government leaders, is now a well-known bunker for the ultimate human catastrophe: a global war.

It’s called the “Underground Pentagon,” or Site R, and it remains one of three bunkers in the country that would house hand-picked government leaders if a bomb were headed this way.

Its existence worries the other “doomsday preppers”: American civilians who worry that a great catastrophe – bomb, power grid outage, severe weather event – looms constantly. In a military attack, that underground bunker, meant to protect people, also would be a target for a military foe, preppers and experts believe.

When Russia attacked Ukraine, conversations among doomsday preppers escalated along with talk about Site R's vulnerability in Pennsylvania.

“Raven Rock and other government relocation facilities would certainly be among the top nuclear targets, but it really has to do with what the goal of a nuclear escalation is,” said journalist Garrett Graff in a phone interview.

He actually wrote the book on the "Underground Pentagon." It’s called “Raven Rock Mountain Complex: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself - While the Rest of Us Die."

“The most enduring artifact of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race seems to be the era’s broad paranoia – the fear that the American way of life could be wiped off the face of the earth in a moment. The September 11th attacks reactivated and worsened that paranoia and created a cultural fascination with Doomsday planning that began to permeate popular culture,” Graff wrote in the book.

It led to the growth of doomsday preppers, and it had an impact on Raven Rock as well. The underground bunker had become dusty in the decades between the Cold War and new millennium, but Sept. 11, 2001, forced a change.

“That was a day where America’s leadership was evacuated to Raven Rock and Mount Weather. You had the deputy secretary of Defense whisked out of the Pentagon by helicopter to Raven Rock on 9/11 after the Pentagon had come under attack. The congressional leadership was whisked out to Mount Weather and held there through much of the day until they were able to come back to Washington," Graff said. "The people who showed up at Raven Rock that day basically turned the lights off. It was a facility that had not been kept up to date, had not been kept up to snuff in the context of modern technology or modern war plans. That was a big wake up call for the U.S. government to try to re-harness and rebuild the facilities at Raven Rock and Mount Weather."

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 moved the Bush Administration (and those that followed) to plow more money into Raven Rock and its sister site: Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center in Virginia. Those two major sites are among bunkers located across the country to house civilian and military agencies. Well-known among those is the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado, built under 2,000 feet of granite. It houses parts of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), FEMA and other military agencies.

Since 2001, Raven Rock has grown dramatically inside a hollowed-out mountain. According to Graff, who has written several political books and is a current contributor to Wired and CNN, the complex in 2013 was composed of 69 buildings and 639,000 square feet of space with the possibility of holding about 5,000 people. It now has 140 full-time staff and about $30 million each year is spent on upgrades. The facility has fire and police departments, medical facilities and dining halls. No public tours are available of the site, but a car can get close. It's visible on map apps, and Graff has directions in his book.

At one time, the plan for "continuity of government" during a missile attack involved putting the president and vice president in an underground bunker, but they would now take cover in the air, commanding any war from airplanes, while Congress and other leaders would head to bunkers, Graff said.

"The truth of the matter is nuclear weapons remain an existential threat to humanity and the planet on the best days of the last 30 years, after the end of the Cold War," Graff said. "When you talk to people who work on nuclear policy and nuclear strategy, they will tell you the risk of accidental war is much greater than anyone anticipates on a daily basis."

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When Raven Rock was being built, local residents from Liberty Township watched what was a secretive project to build the complex to protect government leaders in the case of an attack on the United States. This photo was provided by Garrett Graff.

Preparing for a nuclear attack

In Hawaii two years ago, an emergency alert mistakenly warned people, via cell phone, that a ballistic missile was on its way to the islands.

“SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” it concluded.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency erroneously sent the note, creating panic for the 38 minutes between the text message and a revocation of the warning.

“Those people had 15 minutes to figure out what they were doing, and nobody knew what to do. That’s the big difference with preppers when it comes to nuclear war. We’ve got plans,” said James Walton, the CEO of the Prepper Broadcast Network, which provides podcasts to members on prepping and homesteading. It offers a $30 course called "Strategic Relocation for Suburban Survival" on growing, foraging and hunting for food.

“I have a fantasy of a United States where everyone is doing some version of prepping. I don’t know how fortified and how amazing America could be if everyone were as stable as the average prepper or homesteader is,” he said.

The Cheyenne Mountain Complex is a well-known bunker in Colorado that now houses military agencies.

He became a prepper after seeing what happened when Hurricane Irene bore down on the East Coast in 2011. His house in Richmond, Virginia, lost power, and it made him examine his life.

“I was standing there, having a sort of epiphany: What a failure I was. I was a good husband, good dad, but from the protector/provider role, it was just a big failure,” he said.

It led him to studying prepping and survival techniques. His two sons have always known their eggs come from the chickens in the backyard, for example. His family stays healthy and fit because the physical demands of survival would be challenging, he said.

He and his friends don’t talk much about politics and nuclear capabilities, he said, but like all preppers, he has looked closely at it. There are several targets near Richmond.

“Even if you detonate the largest nuclear bomb that ever has existed, which some people don’t believe has ever existed because it was Russia, it doesn’t hit Richmond,” he said. “It would affect me after, with the after-effects, but I wouldn’t be affected by things like radiation and a blast radius and a fireball.”

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A communications tower can be seen atop the Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Liberty Township, Adams County, in this file photo from 2017.

Food, water, shelter, security

Raven Rock is a concern for people in southern and central parts of the state because of the direct threat and fallout, a Pennsylvania prepper said, but because he lives in the northeastern part of the state, it's not a worry to him.

"Honestly, unless you're one of those prepper mindset folks with a lot of money, there's not much the average person can do with respect to a nuclear strike," he said via email. "The average person focuses on food, water, shelter, and security. ... Those are the topics we try to educate the most on; the reason being is you have those items you are prepared for a multitude of scenarios."

He wouldn't provide his name for "personal security" reasons. His name could be searched for an address, he said, putting his stockpile at risk. Preppers often stockpile food, supplies, weapons and ammunition.

An American flag can be seen flying from inside the secured perimeter of the Raven Rock Mountain Complex (RRMC), also known as Site R, in this file photo from June 2017.

David Dietrich didn't want to describe what's in his home for the same reasons. He lives in Virginia with his wife; they run the GetReady! Emergency Planning Center, which sells a variety of prepper goods, such as shelf-stable food, fuel and survival tools.

He looks at what's happening in Ukraine as a lesson for what could happen in the United States.

"All those civilians, they don’t have anything, and because they don’t have anything, they’re in a very dangerous and critical situation. How are they going to survive on their own?" he said. "They don’t have any government to support them. They don’t have supplies. This is an example of people who did not prepare, and these are people who not long ago went through something very similar."

In the early 1930s, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin imposed a famine on Ukraine. Historians call it genocide, as nearly 4 million people died from it.

If a military attack or natural disaster wiped out electrical power in the United States, it would create an unprecedented gridlock because Americans are so reliant on power-driven utilities, like banking and the manufacture of goods, he said. To prepare, at least have something to treat water so it's drinkable, food, weapons to defend yourself, first aid supplies, proper clothing for any weather, and shelter.

Kim Strong can be reached at kstrong@gannett.com.