Remnants Of The Cold War, Some Milwaukee Fallout Shelters Remain

Aug 30, 2019

Cold War fallout shelters are still around the Milwaukee area. You can still find some if you look for the signs, but many have fallen out of use.

Whitefish Bay resident Tom Fehring reached out to Bubbler Talk to learn more about these shelters:

“There are at least three buildings in my neighborhood that host fallout shelters. Do these shelters have a functional purpose today?”

First, a little Cold War history: fallout shelters were built roughly 50-65 years ago, as the post-World War II-era was filled with tension over nuclear weapons. 

In August 1945, the U.S. largely ended the war in the Pacific by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan. Then, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, and the nuclear arms race took off. Bomb testing continued for decades.

The atomic bomb blast over Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.
Credit Joe Kosstatscher / United States Navy / Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

Hollywood picked up on the nuclear threat with several dramatic films. But by 1964, director Stanley Kubrick made a parody. In Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove actor Slim Pickens played an Air Force pilot, and drawled, “Well boys, I reckon this is it. Nuclear combat, toe-to-toe with the Russkies."

But even that movie had a serious ending. (We won't reveal the ending. See the movie.)

For civilians, the Federal Civil Defense Administration recommended several steps including homeowners and communities building fallout shelters in basements or backyards to protect people from radiation after a nuclear explosion. The shelters were often stocked with food and other supplies.

A basement family fallout shelter that includes a 14-day food supply that could be stored indefinitely, a battery-operated radio, auxiliary light sources, a two-week supply of water, and first aid, sanitary, and other miscellaneous supplies and equipment, circa 1957.
Credit National Archives

One of the Milwaukee-area buildings that still has the silver and yellow, or black and yellow fallout shelter signs is Lake Bluff Elementary in Shorewood. In fact, there are two signs outside the school. Tom wonders if they're still relevant.

"Should all these signs come down? You know, you'd hate to have a situation where indeed there's an altercation with North Korea or Russia and people are looking for shelter and these spaces are not usable. Well, then we shouldn't have signs declaring them as fallout shelters," Tom says.

Bubbler Talk questioner Tom Fehring stands under one of the fallout shelter signs outside Lake Bluff Elementary in Shorewood.

The Shorewood school district sent WUWM a statement saying, the shelter space in Lake Bluff Elementary has "long since been converted into classroom space — the signs remain on the facade of the building as an important historical reminder to those who pass by the grounds."  

A few blocks away in Shorewood, St. Robert's School also has a fallout shelter sign. Facilities Manager Peter Sorce let us into the shelter, which is a basement hallway about 50 feet long. Peter says it's a very solid structure.

"It's concrete all the way around. It's water-proofed. And, I don't know the thickness of it, but it's a very heavy duty concrete tunnel," Peter says.

The basement hallway fallout shelter at St. Robert's School in Shorewood.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

He says students and staff now go into the tunnel during tornado drills, or use it as a wintertime passageway between the school and St. Robert's Church. School officials say the fallout shelter signs are still up because the federal government hasn't told the school to take them down.

The Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management says it believes there are several dozen buildings in the area that still have the signs. Those include some post offices, and if you peer through the ivy, you can see a sign on the back wall of the FoxBay Theatre.

The county says it's hard to say how many of the shelters are still functional. 

Another one that isn't usable is at the former Day Hospital of the county's Behavioral Health Division at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Complex.

The basement of the former Day Hospital at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Complex.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

During a tour of the basement, operations and facilities supervisor Greg Kurzynski marvelled at the thick walls and ceilings. But he says the former hospital and a nearby kitchen building that was a shelter are possibly going to be torn down. He says the signs left some time ago.

"When they decommissioned the building, mothballed it, fallout shelter signs — guys would take 'em and put 'em their rec rooms, ya know," Greg explains.

When urging citizens to prepare for disaster, the county says it doesn't even focus on nuclear weapons anymore. Instead, the Federal Emergency Management Agency urges an all-hazards approach, according to Emergency Management Communications Director Kevin Shermach.

Kevin Shermach, of Milwaukee County Emergency Management, holds a "family radiation measurement kit." Behind him is a Wisconsin Historical Society photo of a family in a fallout shelter.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"It really comes down to preparing yourself for anything. You want to build an emergency kit for your family for the home that has three days' worth of food and water, it has extra prescription stuff. Food for your pets, water, that kind of thing," Kevin says.

He also suggests similar plans for your workplace, and knowing where close relatives are, if you need to reach them in an emergency.

Pam Richard, of Peace Action-Wisconsin, says she's OK with fallout shelters apparently falling out of use. 

"I don't think you can improve them to any point that most people could survive. If you survive, you may come to such severe radiation that you still would die when you come out of your fallout shelter," Pam says.

Pam Richard, of Peace Action-Wisconsin, at the group's office on E. Keefe Ave., in Milwaukee.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Peace Action works for nuclear disarmament. Pam says she doubts the U.S., North Korea and other nations with nuclear weapons are ready to give them up. So, she says the key is to keep world leaders from using the devices.

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