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Only once did the facility go on full alert -- on Nov. 9, 1965, when a power failure darkened much of the Northeast. Bourassa says he feared at the time that it was the result of a surgical nuclear strike. His order: "Report to base at once." The site's fleet of buses was dispatched to round up the 200- plus employees who lived in the area. Up until then, officials had feared that the staff would not report in because their family members would not be sheltered. But that day, more than 80% of the staff answered the call. Bourassa also put the facility on a high state of readiness following Kennedy's assassination in 1963. Surprisingly, Mount Weather was not put on alert during the Cuban missile crisis, though the situation was monitored closely.
WATCH OUT FOR THE PIGS
Would the relocation plan have worked? A 1962 study for the Pentagon examined the daytime and nighttime locations of the dozen officials in the line of presidential succession and concluded they were all often well within the kill range of a nuclear assault on the capital. With a 100-megaton weapon, a helicopter anywhere within 50 miles of the White House would have been destroyed in flight, the report noted. There were also unexpected hazards. During one doomsday exercise, Eisenhower was driven by convoy from Washington. As he neared the site, a truck loaded with pigs entered the narrow road. The convoy halted and authorities forced the truck to inch backward up the mountain and past the site's entrance. Eisenhower laughed that such elaborate plans could be ruined by pigs.
The task of devising Eisenhower's escape route from Washington fell to naval aide Edward Beach. His assignment was made all the more difficult given the grim prognosis for Washington should it be hit by a Soviet hydrogen bomb. "It would not eliminate the Potomac River," says Beach, "but it would sure raise hell and dig a deep hole where Washington had been. We would have a deep lake there, so shelters in Washington would have been counterproductive. Even if you survived the blast, you'd probably drown." So Beach and others pressed their imaginations for alternate escape plans.
Among the more creative schemes: Beach had the government procure a refurbished World War II PT boat and dock it on the Potomac at the Washington Navy Yard. Eisenhower would be rushed by limousine -- one of two onyx-black Cadillacs with a tank engine under the hood -- to a prearranged point on the river, where the PT boat would be waiting. After sailing safely past the blast zone, the President would be met by Secret Service agents and driven to one of three underground command posts. The PT boat, as well as an ultrasensitive underground command post at his Maryland presidential retreat, Camp David, were secretly maintained by an elite team of officers under the innocuous name of the Naval Administrative Unit. There was even brief consideration given to reconfiguring a Polaris submarine, removing the missile tubes to accommodate an undersea presidential command post.