Inside the U.S. Military’s Secret Doomsday Defense

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This is one of the two 23-ton blast doors that lead to the NORAD facility inside the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo)

GROWING UP IN a suburb of Washington, DC, at the height of the Cold War, Jim Lo Scalzo knew he would be one of the first victims of any Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. “It was a genuine fear among me and my friends,” he says.

Author: Michael Hardy (Wired)

As a teenager, Lo Scalzo watched The Atomic Cafe, a darkly comic 1982 documentary about nuclear war that included archival footage of nuclear tests. “I became obsessed with the film,” Lo Scalzo says. “The visuals surrounding doomsday—the nuclear clouds, the melting mannequins. I’m still fascinated by all that declassified Department of Defense footage.”

Today, Lo Scalzo works for the European Pressphoto Agency, covering the White House and Congress, but in his free time he pursues personal projects. For the past four years, he’s been traveling the country documenting the elaborate infrastructure built by the US military during the Cold War in case of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union.

Titan II missile - Inside the U.S. Military's Secret Doomsday Defense
A decommissioned Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile sits in an underground silo at the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo)

Much of that infrastructure has since been decommissioned and is open to the public, such as the 113,00-square-foot nuclear shelter beneath the Greenbriar, a four-star resort near White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The hardened bunker was built in 1961 to house all 535 members of Congress, plus an equal number of staffers.

Wall South Dakota - Inside the U.S. Military's Secret Doomsday Defense
Western wheatgrass now grows around the former launch site of a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile outside Wall, South Dakota. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo)

More challenging to shoot was a 103-foot, nuclear-hardened microwave tower in the Appalachian Mountains, one of a network of such towers designed to facilitate communication between the branches of government in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. Although the tower has been decommissioned, the site near Sylvan, Pennsylvania is still home to a secret military facility, so Lo Scalzo had to use a drone—launched from a mile away—to capture the image.

casa grande - Inside the U.S. Military's Secret Doomsday Defense
This satellite calibration target outside Casa Grande, Arizona was used during the Cold War to help America’s Corona satellites focus their lenses before spying on the Soviet Union. At one time there were 272 of these 60-foot-wide crosses scattered throughout southern Arizona. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo)

One of the old microwave towers happens to be located just a half-mile from Lo Scalzo’s current home in the nation’s capital. For years, he thought it was just a water tower; it’s a reminder, the photographer says, of how the nation’s nuclear infrastructure is all around us, hidden in plain sight. Around a thousand Minuteman missile silos—a few hundred still containing active ICBMs—are scattered across the Great Plains. Lo Scalzo located one launch site using Google Maps.

cafeteria west virginia - Inside the U.S. Military's Secret Doomsday Defense
This underground cafeteria was meant to feed 535 lawmakers and their staff at the 113,000-square-foot nuclear bunker beneath The Greenbriar resort near White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo)

Now that the Cold War is over, nuclear armageddon no longer seems like a pressing concern for most Americans, notwithstanding the occasional threat from North Korea. But Lo Scalzo, who photographs the White House for a living, said it would be a mistake for the nation to become complacent.

“We should definitely care,” he says. “Certainly, the issue [of nuclear war] has been more and more relevant since Trump took office. I mean, the guy just earlier this week threatened Iran with nuclear annihilation on Twitter. In all caps!”