By Sean Wardwell
Killeen Daily Herald
WEST FORT HOOD - Nestled in the hills above Robert Gray Army Airfield, past ammunition bunkers and razor-wire fences liberally decorated with warning signs, lies a relic of the country's past and a tool to shape the military's future.
It's called the Fort Hood Underground Training Facility - a pair of reinforced networked tunnels with 2-foot-thick concrete walls dug nearly 1,000 feet into the hillside.
Originally built between 1947 and 1948, it was part of a network of two other tunnel complexes constructed to house the atomic bomb. Today, it's a unique Army asset, the only true underground training facility in the country.
In 1947, West Fort Hood was known as Killeen Base, and it, along with locations at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and Fort Campbell, Ky., became an ideal spot to store the nation's nuclear arsenal.
"The idea was (the sites) were built inland to a point where, at the time, the Soviet Union didn't have the capability to reach in and attack," said Charles Lauer, a retired sergeant major and director of the center.
Killeen Base became known as Site Baker, which was jointly run by the U.S. Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission.
"The U.S. Air Force maintained the maintenance part. The storage side (where the plutonium cores were kept) was maintained by the Atomic Energy Commission," said Lauer. "There was a separation between them. Later on, and I don't know what point, the Army took charge of the Air Force side. That was done so no one service or agency had total control over any weapon system."
He added that military personnel were forbidden to enter parts of the facility under Atomic Energy Commission control.
At the time, when the country's nuclear arsenal was in its infancy and bombers were the only reliable delivery system, Killeen Base operated on a complex set of protocols.
Lauer said a bomber would take off from its usual base and fly to West Fort Hood, where technicians at Site Baker assembled and inspected the weapon before it was loaded onto the aircraft.
The bomber would fly back to its regular base, switch crews, and fly to a location just outside Soviet Union airspace, loitering for periods of up to 48 hours waiting for a go-order. The weapon would then be returned to Killeen.
As nuclear weapons became smaller and more efficient, the need for Site Baker became less important. Additionally, improvements in missile guidance and power made it possible for the Soviet Union to attack the site, leading to weapons being stored closer to their bombers.
The site was decommissioned as a nuclear storage bunker in 1969.
When the Army took full control of the facility, it was used as storage and office space for the next 10 years. In 1979, it was abandoned due to the presence of asbestos and lead paint.
Lauer said he's heard all kinds of stories from residents about the complexes, from a tunnel running from the Gulf of Mexico so the complex could service submarines, to the tunnels being used as former President George W. Bush's alternate command post.
The latter rumor has some basis in fact, as the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks changed the bunker's fortunes. Starting in 2002, Lauer said, the U.S. Special Operations Command took over the complex, starting renovations and conducting training for the next two years.
The details of that training is classified, but when special operations finished, the complex was transferred to III Corps in 2006, which recognized its capabilities for training soldiers.
Visitors to the site will see barrels set up for chemical training exercises, or old nuclear material storage cases. Rooms can be set up as interrogation rooms, laboratories constructing explosive devices and chemical weapons factories. Walls can be constructed at frequent points along the tunnels for breaching exercises.
Yet the experience of being underground in a pitch-black tight space, and learning how to fight in it, is where the center is a true teaching tool.
"Passive night vision doesn't work (down here), because all it does is take ambient light and multiply it," said Lauer. "So, you have to go to infrared or possibly thermal optics.
"Communications don't work underground. If you have line of sight, you may or may not have communication," said Lauer. "Say a soldier throws a grenade - the overpressure from that grenade can just as easily kill the soldier that threw it as the person they're throwing it at."
Even though one of the tunnels is open to the public on a limited basis, much of its history remains unknown, even to its caretakers.
"Because of security classifications, there's not a lot of information available," said Lauer. "For the most part, it's a big mystery."
Richard Powell, historian for III Corps and Fort Hood, agreed.
"Obviously, (the tunnels) were highly classified. Even people in the know weren't allowed to talk about it," he said. "If you were a soldier assigned to work there, you couldn't wear your unit patch on your uniform."
The other tunnel in the complex is off limits due to ongoing research. Lauer said various government agencies, both military and civilian, use it to test underground sensing equipment, as well as other classified training exercises.
Contact Sean Wardwell at email@example.com or (254) 501-7552. Follow him on Twitter at KDHcity.