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Cold War fears in New Braunfels

Photo: New Emergency Record Storage, Inc. vault near New Braunfels, 1963.

Photo: New Emergency Record Storage, Inc. vault near New Braunfels, 1963.

Photo: ERSI Board of Directors outside vault.

Photo: ERSI Board of Directors outside vault.

By Tara V. Kohlenberg —

In recent days, we have all watched heart-breaking images flash across our screens as Russia exerts its power over Ukraine. News of such events has stirred up childhood memories of my classmates and I scrambling under our metal school desks during bomb drills of the Cold War Era in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

What?! So, in case you have blocked it from memory or are not old enough to know what a Cold War is, let me catch you up. The Cold War was a period of time that began just after World War II and lasted nearly fifty years. Tension rose between the United States and Soviet Union as both countries tried to spread their ideological influence over the world. The threat of nuclear warfare was very present and left its mark on America.

Let’s back up here. So, during WWII, the Russians were on our side helping to defeat Germany, Hitler, and his National Socialist Party. But two years later, Russians become the enemy? Yes, flexing their muscles in politics, in James Bond movies and even in the cartoons. Remember the Russian-like villains Boris and Natasha of Rocky & Bullwinkle who forever attempted to “catch Moose and Squirrel”? — even children were told that the Russians should not be trusted.

In 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device, signaling a new and terrifying phase in the Cold War; umm, that they had what we had and that they could use it on us. By the early 1950s, schools across the United States were training students to dive under their desks and cover their heads. Fears over the escalating arms race prompted President Harry S. Truman’s Federal Civil Defense Administration program to develop the “Duck-and-Cover” school drills and to educate the public about what ordinary people could do to protect themselves. I remember the drills, not so much the name of it.

Every club and organization in New Braunfels had a Civil Defense chairman: the American Legion, PTA groups, Rotary, Lions. etc., to distribute safety preparedness literature and get the word out. Workshops and meetings were held to help educate each family as to how to protect and sustain themselves in the event of an enemy attack. Schools sent home safety plan flyers as to how children would get home to their parents and where to meet them in emergency situations.

In the early 1960s, the U.S.-Soviet arms race really heated up. The disastrous 1961 U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba failed miserably. Instead of overthrowing Castro, it resulted in stronger ties between Cuba and the USSR putting Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba and the nuclear threat directly in our back yard. The Cuban Missile Crisis was thirteen days of confrontation in the fall of 1962 between the US and Russia that was a true near miss. New Braunfels School District dismissed school early and published the evacuation plans on the front page of the Herald during the ’62 Cuban Missile Crisis.

After that, the country, and New Braunfels, ramped up to protect not just against a bomb, but “The Bomb”. There were bomb shelters in public buildings, like the old City Hall on Seguin Avenue, and a fallout shelter under the police chief’s house. My dad worked for New Braunfels Lumber on the west corner of Castell and Coll (now HMT Engineering). The lumber yard had a personal bomb shelter for sale sitting out in their yard for anyone who could dig a hole deep enough to put it in.

In 1962, New Braunfels received one of 90 packaged hospitals in Texas for use following enemy action or major natural disaster. It was supplied by the office of Civil and Defense Mobilization. The packaged hospitals were outgrowths of the mobile army hospitals used during the Korean War (like on “M*A*S*H”). Most of them were located at least 15 miles from assumed strategic target areas like San Antonio. They were expected to provide at least half of the hospital beds following a major emergency. Let that sink in. Assumed Strategic Target Areas. That means that San Antonio military installations (Kelly Air Force Base, Randolph AFB, Lackland AFB, Fort Sam Houston Army Post, Camp Bullis) and Austin’s Bergstrom AFB, which was actually part of the Strategic Air Command, were strategic targets!! … and New Braunfels would either be the help on the periphery OR collateral damage. Yikes!!

Not only were people worried about protecting people, people were also worried about protecting their stuff. With the world condition being what it was, a group of San Antonio businessmen recognized the need to provide secure vital records storage in case of a nuclear attack. In 1962, they formed Emergency Records Storage, Inc. and built a nuclear-age underground storage facility located in the hill country outside of New Braunfels. It was said to be the only bomb-proof underground vault in a 10-state area which met rigid government specifications. For a fee, the company stored duplicate records in the form of microfilm, magnetic tape, regular hard copies and eventually floppy discs for banks and governmental entities in the event of an attack or disaster. For more than three decades, the records company did a brisk business serving people from Texas and surrounding states. As with most anything, technology grew past the need in the 90s when banks and companies began backing up records on their own computers. Less and less was stored in the vault as the years passed, and the corporation finally dissolved in 2015.

Growing up in New Braunfels during the ‘50s and ‘60s was wonderful even if the world was a scary place. Outside of the “bomb drills” and cartoon references, I was blissfully unaware of most of these things. Growing up now, in a very technologically savvy time, our children may not be. I hope they are as lucky.

Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; New Braunfels Public Library; New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung.