The project was known simply as the Outpost Mission -- one of the cold war's most closely guarded secrets. Beginning in the mid-1950s, an elite unit of helicopter pilots and crew, the 2857th Test Squadron, was stationed at Olmsted Air Force Base in Pennsylvania posing as a rescue team for military and civilians in distress. Their real mission, so sensitive that only the pilots and base commander knew, was to rescue President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- and, later, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon -- in the event of a nuclear attack. Posted outside the blast range of an atomic assault on Washington, they were to swoop down onto the White House lawn when an attack seemed imminent and spirit the President away to one of several hollowed-out mountain sites or to the heavily reinforced communications ship, the U.S.S. Northampton, off the Atlantic Coast.
The pilots were also ready to make a rescue attempt after a nuclear assault. On board their helicopters, they packed decontamination kits as well as crowbars and acetylene torches to break through the walls of the presidential bunker buried beneath the White House. They flew practice runs with their dark visors lowered to shield their eyes from the A-bomb's flash, and were dressed from head to toe in 20 lbs. of protective clothing -- boots, gloves and rubber bodysuits impregnated with lead to block out the radiation. They carried extra radiation suits in canvas bags for the President and First Family. If the pilots could not reach the bunker through the rubble, a second rescue unit stood ready with heavy equipment, including cranes, to extract the President. In the 1960s the squadron was moved to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, and remained operational until 1970.
Outpost Mission was but a fragment of a vast and secret doomsday plan devised by senior U.S. officials who spent their lives preparing for the unthinkable -- nuclear war. Their mission: to ensure the survival of the U.S. government, preserve order and salvage the economy in the aftermath of an atomic attack. Still others were charged with rescuing the nation's cultural heritage, from the Declaration of Independence to the priceless masterpieces of the National Gallery of Art. Now, with the end of the cold war, many doomsday operatives are breaking their silence for the first time. Confronted with the potential horrors of atomic warfare, they drafted detailed contingency plans and regulations that, while trying to save constitutional government, would have radically transformed the nation's political and social institutions.