Nuclear Friday: Let’s Mess with Texas

For the last thirty years they’ve been saying “Don’t mess with Texas.” But what if someone had messed with Texas in the worst way possible?  Would we have been ready? Today we are going to take a look at three Texas cities during the classic Cold War civil defense era from 1955-1970.

Target Austin, Texas:

This film was made by KTBC-TV in Austin and aired in the summer of 1960. It was written and narrated by Cactus Pryor. It has quite a cheery attitude for such a grim subject.

I think it’s clear that Pryor was trying to copy the feeling of The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling would have had a shorter opening narration though. And it’s always interesting to notice  racial representation in older media. This one doesn’t do too badly. We have an Arab-American woman, former boxing champion Matt Martinez, and Lithuanians. However, the only black person in the movie shines shoes at the barber shop.

The missile that detonated 25mi west of Austin in the movie could only have been an R-7 since in 1960, it was the only Soviet missile with sufficient range.


The R-7 was accurate to within 3 miles or so. I can’t see how they missed by 25 miles. One thing the movie got right was that there was only one missile. The Missile Gap wasn’t real and Khrushchev was bluffing. The USSR would have targeted Central Texas with at most one missile. I wonder if Pryor had some inside information from his friend LBJ.

Here’s my NUKEMAP simulation of a 2.9 megaton groundburst on Dripping Springs, TX. I chose that location just because I like the name and because it’s about 25 miles from Austin. Notice that fewer than 8,ooo are killed in the blast? That number would have been even lower in 1960. I chose a groundburst because the movie emphasizes fallout risk. As you can see from my simulation, the fallout in Austin is intense. By contrast, this airburst kills close to 90,000 but generates negligible fallout.

Continuity of Government in Dallas:

This is an impressive structure. It looks pretty well hardened against an airburst that could level central Dallas. This isn’t just a fallout shelter, it’s a blast-proof command bunker.

Houston’s Civil Defense Heritage:

After coming across the Dallas video, I tried to find out whether there was a similar structure in Houston. I couldn’t find a definitive record of one, but I’m pretty sure it’s in a lot between the City Hall annex and Sam Houston Park. There are a few odd small structures there that look like they might lead to blast doors. I will take pictures next time I am downtown.

In my research I was surprised to find out that Houston had a very extensive public shelter plan. I should have known, the signs were everywhere in the 70’s and 8o’s. And I mean literal signs. They were everywhere. Parts of the Houston Tunnel System were built to comply with Federal standards for fallout shelters. According to this article by a city archivist, Houston went into a public shelter frenzy after the Cuban Missile Crisis and had public shelters capable of housing 475,000 people. That’s about half the population of the city back in the early sixties.

But Houston had a good public shelter system even before the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think this was in part due to the influence of Welcome W. Wilson, a Houston real-estate developer Eisenhower appointed to a top-level civil defense position. The Houston Independent School District built extensive shelters into all new construction in the late fifties and early sixties. Here’s a video of students at Waltrip High School getting a real life lesson in Cold War history. Shelley Duvall attended Waltrip at a time when there were still fallout drills in HISD. Perhaps these tunnels made her who she is. The high school I attended was built in 1940, and was first expanded in the late sixties, so we had no fallout shelters.

Local corporations also built hardened infrastructure. One of my uncles worked construction on backup command center that El Paso Energy built in Hockley, west of Houston. The plan was to evacuate key personnel to a hardened structure by helicopter from which they would emerge to direct the rebuilding of natural gas pipelines. The weirdest corporate bunker in the Houston area is the Westlin Oil shelter. It’s moderately blast hardened even though it’s well outside the blast radius of the many likely targets in the Houston area. It even had an underground jail. Ling-Chieh Kung, founder of Westlin and nephew of Chiang Kai-sheck, built it in the seventies when Westlin was flush with cash. The bunker was designed to keep 1,500 people alive for 90 days. That’s huge and cost a lot of money. Westlin went bankrupt in 1987, a few of years after the oil glut. Maybe if they’d held onto the bunker money and used it for a stock buyback, my spell checker wouldn’t put a red line under Westlin. But at least thanks to the Kung family I got to see awesome Lion Dances as a kid. 

And here’s an article from back when we had THREE major daily newspapers. There were plans to make a huge underground shelter under the Astrodome parking area and perhaps to use the ‘Dome itself as a shelter. Neither plan came through.

I am proud of my city’s civil defense efforts. Trying to save lives is never wrong. And as it happens, our strong local traditions have served us well during hurricanes and floods.





One thought on “Nuclear Friday: Let’s Mess with Texas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s