by Tim Gilmore, 12/11/2022
1. Half-Life of Ignorance
The bunkers stand in a long row, extending toward the horizon, rising in shallow waves like forest-covered Quonset huts or torfbæir, the grass and earth covered houses native to Iceland. Their walls are concrete, three feet thick. The steel doors weigh tons.
Each bunker held from 10 to 30 nuclear weapons and was surrounded by three rows of barbed wire fences, sensors, searchlights and surveillance cameras. About 200 Marines with M-16s watched from towers.
Each nuclear weapon held a grapefruit-sized core of plutonium, an element terrifyingly radioactive, with a half-life of 25,000 years, a couple grains of which can cause cancer.
Miles of barbed wire fence surrounded 11,000 acres of pine woods with a labyrinth of roadways, a helipad, an inner compound. For decades, Jacksonville went about its business, electing mayors and senators, building interstates and shopping centers and churches, counting its murders and giving birth, all without knowing the U.S. Department of Defense was storing scores of nuclear warheads in secret bunkers at Yellow Water.
2. Echoes of the End of the World
From any other direction the bunkers look like earthen mounds in an otherwise flat landscape. Pine trees and broom sedge grow from these slopes, caring nothing for the secrets or the dangers these bunkers held, nor the politics that created a worldwide network of 50 to 60,000 nuclear weapons. Scuppernong grape vines hang yellowing December leaves down to burgeoning branches of hollies.
The red paint of the explosive weight chart chips to the floor. Mud daubers have built their own insectile architecture across the U.S. military’s.
Though my sister stands 10 feet behind me, her footsteps sound more loudly and crisply 50 feet ahead in the bunker. I click my tongue across the roof of my mouth and it comes back several times, much louder, instantly.
The further inside I go, the louder and more all-encompassing the echo. I feel my footsteps reverberate up my spine as though my skull were a bell.
3. Secrets in Your Own Back Yard
“Nothing in human experience can adequately describe the enormity of nuclear weapons arsenals,” wrote William Arkin and Richard Fieldhouse in their 1985 book Nuclear Battlefields: Global Links in the Arms Race.
“More than 50,000 warheads, most smaller than suitcases, can each obliterate cities. Just a few can kill millions of people and destroy the environment for decades hence. The smallest nuclear warheads are 10 times more powerful than the largest conventional weapons. The largest have the power of 40 billion pounds of conventional explosives.”
When newspapers received advanced copies of Nuclear Battlefields, the headlines screamed: “Nukes in Our Back Yard” and “Secret Nuclear Arsenal at Jacksonville” and “Nuclear War Lines Nearby.”
Unbeknownst to most of Florida, nuclear weapons for aircraft carriers and F-18 bombers and P-3 Orion submarine hunters had been stored at Yellow Water for years. The site began as Yellow Water Naval Air Gunnery School during World War II and became a nuclear weapons depot sometime in the ’50s.
Retired Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll told The Florida Times-Union in June 1985 that while he hadn’t known Yellow Water was a nuclear weapons storage site, it looked like one. “I’ve flown over Yellow Water a thousand times. It is very similar to nuclear storage sites around the world,” he said.
In response to fears the new book would jeopardize national security, retired Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque said, “The Soviets know all of this. The only people who have been kept in ignorance are the American public. The Pentagon is reluctant to tell you that you have nuclear weapons in your back yard.”
In fact, The New York Times had listed Yellow Water (misidentified as the adjacent Naval Air Station Cecil Field), as one of “the Navy’s seven main storage depots for nuclear weapons” on January 22, 1982, and Leatherneck Magazine published a series of articles about Marine duty at Yellow Water in the summer of 1983.
Leatherneck reported that it was illegal to fly overhead at altitudes under 3,000 feet and that Yellow Water’s 89 bunkers contained security systems that included toxic gases and sounds at high enough pitch to destroy a person’s eardrum.
4. Compost Reverence
There hangs heavy a verboten-ness here. You could wring it from the air like a dirty rag. It’s the loneliness of something that never should have been, and according to military officials right up until the end, never was.
Yes, there’s a reverence you feel in your bones and gut. It’s the feeling of standing in a cathedral mixed with the realization you’ve just stepped over a rattlesnake.
In my childhood, my parents, my church and my schools taught me to equate America with good and the Soviet Union with evil. No matter that the Ayatollah Khomeini called the United States “the Great Satan.” However you define evil, perhaps existentially if not spiritually, surely the capacity for destroying humanity countless times over qualifies.
These forests would’ve survived. They might have glowed red. They’d have grown cancerous. They’d have died and composted and re-risen from death upon death, new generations adapting to evils suffered from human self-destruction. Where the human-made World ceased, the Earth would have evolved from its demise.
Yellow Water held the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the Southeast. In addition to the 140 nuclear depth bombs held here in the 1980s, 90 nuclear weapons were believed stored beside Jacksonville’s beach cities at Mayport Naval Base. When King’s Bay Naval Base was completed up the road in Georgia, the Navy planned to keep an estimated 406 nuclear warheads there.
By the early 1990s, Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll said Mayport’s aircraft carriers each carried about 100 nuclear weapons during the Cold War and that between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons were stored at Yellow Water at any given time. Some of the weapons at Yellow Water, he said, were about 75 times more powerful than the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
Even before the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission recommended in 1993 that Naval Air Station Cecil Field, adjacent to Yellow Water, be closed by the new millennium, U.S.-Russian arms control treaties called for nuclear weapons to remain at Yellow Water until 2002, when most would be moved and dismantled.
Following disarmament agreements, nuclear warheads would be junked at the Department of Energy’s Pantex plant at Amarillo, Texas, which could dismantle about 2,000 warheads a year, and any remaining weapons would be moved to a consolidated network of nuclear depots.
Leftover plutonium is housed in concrete and steel bunkers at Amarillo. It will long outlive the United States. Plutonium’s half-life is more than twice the age of the world’s oldest cities.
6. All The Days After
When President Ronald Reagan watched the 1983 movie The Day After, which envisioned the effects of nuclear holocaust on middle America, he wrote in his diary that it left him “greatly depressed” and changed his mind on nuclear weapons policy. The biggest war hawk in American history would soon commit to meeting with Soviet leaders to focus on nuclear disarmament.
In 1992, Bob Blodgett, who served 18 years as Duval County chief of emergency management, told Florida newspapers he’d known the Navy stored nuclear weapons at Yellow Water. It angered him that the Navy transferred these weapons by armed truck convoy straight through the city. “They were transporting those things right across our highways and through Downtown.”
So Blodgett asked top military leaders about nuclear weapons at Yellow Water and “got nothing but a brick wall.” He said, “We were trying to make arrangements so we could take precautions, but they would in no way cooperate with us or tell us when the public might be in any danger.”
Frank Ball served as executive officer of the Marine barracks at Yellow Water from 1973 to ’75. Even half a century later, he’s surprised to see such sensitive information about Yellow Water’s secrets surface, though in the ’70s he couldn’t decide if the boredom, the snakes, the insects or the thunderstorms were worse.
John Springer was a Marine guard stationed at Yellow Water from 1984 to ’86. “I stood many nights on duty on the roof of the guard barracks in the compound armed with an M-60, an M-16 and grenade launchers and a barracks full of bored Marines ready to go at it.”
Where a forest grows now, the inner compound then was mown grass. Springer was 19. Now he’s 56. The images he sees now he doesn’t recognize as the place he served, where troops ran 10 miles in the sand in the summer in full combat gear.
He was on the roof the night the U.S. bombed Libya, mid-April, 1986, when Reagan blamed a West Berlin disco bombing on Muammar Gaddafi. Though the next few months entailed increased security, Springer says, “The nights were so quiet and so dark, the stars in the millions.”
“We trained and trained,” he says, “and prayed that someone would try to break in. We were the Few. The Proud. The Marines. The motto sounds like a cliché. But that’s how we felt. We were proud to be standing guard in a place that few people knew existed.”
Springer later served on two Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ships, the USS Guadalcanal and the USS Inchon, both decommissioned and buried at sea when the Navy made them artificial reefs. “It’s an eerie feeling,” Springer says, “knowing so much of the remains of my service is gone.”
Another gray December day, my sister and I stumble around in these woods. The concrete ammunition magazine buildings standing off the trails of the 80-acre Jacksonville Equestrian Center, which opened in 2004, fade gray behind the vertical blur of December pines. The first building reeks of bat guano.
Just off the trails grows the “Circle Tree,” the pine that shoots up from the earth, inexplicably loops in a knot, then heads straight skyward.
Wander enough out here, you’ll find the abandoned swimming pool, the concrete structures no one can now explain, the occasional gas mask, discarded equipment from the perhaps 30,000 troops who trained quickly at the Yellow Water Naval Air Gunnery School in the early 1940s.
Deep in the woods, the wooden bridges collapse to the creeks. The absence of the camaraderie of military life here where once it throve murmurs lonely through dense undergrowth.
What I know is story. Every inch of earth contains it. Even if story’s but a mechanism of our Umvelt. The earth is the planet’s accumulation, subsumption and transcendence through compost of every world experienced. It is, more simply, everything, found, in toto, where ferns grow from a rotten bridge.
What could be more strange and humbling than to walk into bunkers that once, in the years of my childhood, held weapons that could have led to the destruction of all humanity? The fact that my sister and I laugh in the echo of such facts waxes accidentally miraculous. It makes me glad not just to be alive but to know it.