Be it today or 50 years ago, the effect is chilling.
Up an elevator, through a locked door and up another two flights of stairs to the roof of 11-story Aber Hall on the University of Montana campus, there’s a small, concrete-walled storage room. Packed inside are crate after cardboard crate of survival supplies for a fallout shelter established during the Cold War.
Furnished by the Office of Civil Defense, Department of Defense, each box contains two large tins of "survival ration biscuits."
Most are dated November or December 1963. Some were packaged Nov. 22, 1963 – the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on the streets of Dallas.
Everything about them hints of an era in U.S. history when nuclear war was portrayed as an everyday threat, when “Duck and Cover” exercises were drilled into the consciousness of schoolchildren, and when community fallout shelters proliferated.
Soviet bombs never dropped on our heads and what nuclear fallout there was from testing our own never reached emergency shelter levels.
These days it’s easy to scoff at the paranoia, said Susanne Caro, government documents librarian for the UM Mansfield Library. “But we forget that, no, people really did think this was going to happen. The government spent millions and millions of dollars betting that this was an actual possibility.”
A 1970 map of Missoula County’s Community Shelter Plan is featured in Caro’s exhibition inside the main doors of the library called “Duck and Cover! Fact and Fiction of the Nuclear Age.”
The map documents no fewer than 60 fallout shelter sites in the county – 18 of them on the UM campus. The Montana Shelter Plan called for sheltering 4,500 people from around the county at the new Mansfield Library; 3,650 in Adams Field House, and a whopping 1,500 in both Aber and Jesse halls.
Caro said the food supplies – both the survival biscuits and “carbohydrate supplements” in the form of lemon and cherry drop hard candies – were intended to supply one person for two weeks on 700 calories a day. Over the years, most of the fallout shelter supplies have disappeared from other venues on campus and in the county.
Why several hundred boxes of biscuits were stored to begin with at the top of Aber Hall, one of Missoula’s tallest buildings, still baffles Ron Brunell.
“That’s something that never made any sense to me. It seems like a very unlikely place that you’d shelter people in case of emergency,” said Brunell, who worked for and later directed the Residence Life Office from 1970 until he retired in 2010.
Brunell arrived at UM from Butte as a student in 1967, a few months before Aber Hall opened. He said the survival supplies were moved into the rooftop storage room shortly thereafter. Brunell was a residence assistant in Aber for one summer and, while the roof was off-limits to students, Brunell was well aware of the supplies.
“As I remember there were four different things,” he said. “There were cans of water, what looked like maybe 20-gallon cans. There were hard candies in about 5-gallon cans, and there were boxes of some kind of hard biscuits. And then there were cartons of tissue paper and toilet paper, those kinds of things.”
During his time as director, the paper products were removed as fire hazards and donated to a non-profit.
“It may have been the Red Cross or somebody like that,” Brunell said.
The rest, he said, were left where they were.
“It wasn’t in the way, wasn’t a hazard, and I never could find anybody to authorize disbursement of them,” said Brunell. “We tried two or three different agencies to see who had responsibility. Probably even into the ‘90s we looked at it.”
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Now, though, it’s time for it all to go.
Every year on a rotating basis one of UM’s nine dormitories is closed down for the summer for a spruce-up and makeover. It’s Aber Hall’s turn, and Brad Hall, facilities manager for Residence Life, said the boxes of biscuits and whatever else is behind them will be thrown out in the next few weeks if no other home can be found.
Samplings of the supplies are part of the “Duck and Cover” exhibit, but there are close to 1,000 more boxes left over.
“We’re looking to throw them away because they’re no use to us now,” Hall said. “If people say, ‘No, don’t, we’ve got a place for some of these boxes,' then fine.’”
On Monday morning Hall borrowed the government-designated survival supply can opener from Caro and, after a struggle, opened a tin of biscuits. He shared nibbles of the hardtack with Caro, his custodial supervisor Harley Lathrop and a paint crew.
They’re dry and don’t have a lot of taste, Hall decided, but they’re not bad for 50 years after the expiration date.
In the years following World War II, the U.S. government encouraged citizens to build their own fallout shelters in the event of nuclear disaster, Caro said.
Come the early 1960s, as tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union escalated toward the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, “there was a big push not only for the creation of shelters but the supply of those shelters” by the government, Caro said.
The Kennedy Administration’s National Fallout Shelter Survey and Marking Program in 1961 located, with local help, public fallout shelters in buildings that already existed and stocked them through the Office of Civil Defense. The exhibit’s community shelter plan for Missoula County includes directions for out-of-towners to reach “safety” in the case of a radioactive fallout emergency.
For the Seeley Lake-Blackfoot division, for instance, residents were instructed to “proceed south on Highways 209 and 200 to Bonner. Drive west on Highway 10 and Interstate 90 to the East Gate Shopping Center area. Park your car in this area. Walk west on Broadway to Pattee Street and turn left to one of the following shelters: Western Montana National Bank, Mountain States Telephone Co. dial Exchange Building, Mountain States Telephone Co. Addition, Firestone Store, Chamber of Commerce, Elks Club, First National Bank.”
“To me, this is kind of a reflection of how little we understood the devastation of radiation,” said Carol Bellin, who as part of the Mansfield Library’s Duck and Cover events will be delivering a lecture on Montana’s nuclear missiles at the Mansfield Library at 6 p.m. July 28.
“The fantasy that we can just go into a shelter for a few hours, or days, maybe even weeks, then come out and resume life as normal just shows we were in the infancy of understanding.”
There are no large-scale emergency programs akin to fallout shelters any more, said Lt. Ryan Finnegan, public affairs officer for the Montana National Guard and Montana's Disaster and Emergency Services in Helena.
“The closest thing we have is we do stock up on the MRE – Meals Ready to Eat – program,” he said.
Each fall foodstuffs are stockpiled at armories around the state to distribute during winter emergencies, Finnegan said. The leftovers are used for training the following year.
“We’re very fortunate these days that the biggest threat we plan for every year is weather and natural disaster rather than during the Cold War with that kind of stuff,” Finnegan said. “That’s what makes this find at the university so interesting. It’s like a time capsule of the way we lived back in that time.”