Helter Shelter

Unearthing the Complex History of the Plaquemines Parish Bunkers

Just a few miles from New Orleans, you can walk the Woodlands Conservancy trails in Belle Chasse, peaceful paths where armadillos hop like rabbits through the woods and turtles soak up the sun on fallen logs. The highlight of the trails, though, has a decidedly more postapocalyptic vibe: a set of 10 eerie echoey concrete bunkers equipped with thick metal blast doors. These chambers, themselves arched like an armadillo’s shell, have survived decades of hurricanes with largely only cosmetic maintenance since World War II. From the inside, they look like Hollywood versions of Cold War-era fallout shelters, but in fact they predate the atom bomb. They are part of what remains of a roughly 3,400-acre Naval Ammunition Depot built in Plaquemines Parish in the early 1940s. They were designed to safely store ammunition and gunpowder for U.S. ships at a time when German U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico.

“If they blew up, they would implode instead of explode,” Plaquemines Parish historian Rod Lincoln explained to me. “If anything happened, they wouldn’t have shrapnel flying all over the place.”

The Depot site takes up just a few square miles of semi-rural Louisiana, but it played an outsized and sometimes unusual role spanning several eras of U.S. history. Post-Civil War, it was home to a largely self-sufficient Black community that was evicted to build the bunkers. Later, during the Cold War, the site even hosted secret CIA training exercises. Today, the former Depot is the site of not only the Conservancy trails, managed by a local nonprofit, but also a little-known scientific collection of millions of preserved fish owned by Tulane University, protected from hurricanes and floods by the sturdy, elevated bunkers.

City in the Swamp

Before the Crescent City Connection, that sliver of the Westbank felt a lot more disconnected from New Orleans. An August 1942 article in The Times-Picayune | New Orleans States magazine section titled “City in the Swamp” claimed a Marine was “almost disconcerted” when he first visited the site, described as a “dense, mosquito-bearing jungle,” in February of that year. A few months later, the article explained, the Marines had built “a little city, complete with sewerage and water plants, barber shop, flower garden, zoo and a small athletic field.” Still, a photo depicted a Marine dressed in a beekeeper-like suit to protect from mosquitoes. After all, malaria was still present in the U.S., and the insects were, as ever, a notorious nuisance in the region.

By the next year, rattlesnakes and deer still roamed the Depot compound, but the Marines and Navy overall had a “tidy” compound complete with at least some of the comforts of home, the States reported.

“They live in a swamp near enough ammunition to blow up several cities, but life for the men and their wives at the United States Naval Ammunition Depot at Belle Chasse is pleasant,” according to the newspaper.

Those were two of only a handful of reports to come out of the Depot during World War II: Lincoln says the military likely wanted to keep the site relatively hush-hush during the war, since it would be a natural Nazi target. Even in 1949, interlopers were still seen as a risk. A report in the New Orleans Item cited a warning from the military to hunters that they could cause “an awfully big boom” if they trespassed there and opened fire in the wrong place. Two had already been “arrested and turned over to the FBI,” the paper reported.

But the Depot site hadn’t always been locked-down federal territory. Some of the land was purchased in the early 1940s; and some, according to Plaquemines Parish land records and historical documents obtained from the Navy under the federal Freedom of Information Act, was seized by the government under eminent domain. That’s a legal doctrine that allows land to be taken with compensation for official use, even if the owners would rather not sell. Federal court documents were filed in the early 1940s, in cases with absurdist titles like United States of America v. 2,675.26 acres of land, more or less, in the Parish of Plaquemines, Louisiana, A.D. Danziger, et al. The exact acreage in the case names, and lengthy lists of landholders affected, shifted over time as federal government lawyers corrected “certain inaccuracies” of geography and unearthed additional title holders as the cases wended their way through the court.

Among the property owners were prominent figures like Alfred D. Danziger, a well-known New Orleans lawyer and namesake of the bridge crossing the Industrial Canal in New Orleans. Another was Samuel Zemurray, the banana tycoon known for backing decades of coups in Latin America to protect his companies’ interests, all while promoting his businesses as protectors of free enterprise and himself as a philanthropist. “To paint a portrait of Sam Zemurray is to paint a portrait of the American dream… His willingness to meddle in the affairs of Central American governments to benefit the company casts a shadow on his legacy, but his philanthropic work, at home in New Orleans as well in Central America, makes him one of the city’s top bananas anyway,” the Times-Picayune reported of the late United Fruit Company president in, astonishingly, 2018.

Other landholders listed were residents of a community variously known as Rockville or Little Rock. A 1942 Navy map of the site uses the former name—and also describes it matter-of-factly as “Negro residences and church to be removed.”

Image from the National Archives. Rockville (Little Rock) is identified top center, as “Negro residences and church to be removed.”

“A Beautiful Existence”

According to a church history written by Myrtle Ray, Little Rock’s Israelite Baptist Church was founded in 1868 by formerly enslaved Black people. It served as both a church and a school, where children excluded from white institutions learned to read and write, she wrote. Its founders named it “comparing their situation of being in slavery to the Israelites of the Bible who were held in hostage under Pharaoh’s control.”

By the ’40s, there were about 50 houses in Little Rock, situated at the edge of the former Upper Magnolia plantation, according to a former resident quoted in a 1993 issue of Down The Road, a magazine then published in Plaquemines Parish.

Many of the residents lived off the land, hunting and farming and fishing for food, Ray told me. “For 77 years, they carved out a beautiful existence for themselves,” she said, referring to a time period beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation. “But in 1940, the government decided they wanted the area for an ammunition depot.”

At least some residents were given government money to relocate through the eminent domain process, though it’s unclear exactly how the funds were distributed. Some headed to New Orleans, some to Belle Chasse proper, and some elsewhere altogether. “These people were left in a quandary about where they were gonna go,” Ray said. Ray’s family was among those who moved to Belle Chasse, where she would grow up attending school and worshipping at a newly-built Israelite Baptist Church. Documents suggest the church was able to buy the new land using funds from the eminent domain case.

Military officials did pledge that they would never tear down the original church building, Ray said, though it was ultimately wrecked by Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The original cemetery still remains, though it’s part of a Coast Guard facility still operating on the onetime Naval Ammunition Depot grounds. It’s still actively used to bury church members, and there are plans in the works to do some work on the site, though families and the church do have to coordinate with officials to gain access for funerals and visits due to its unusual status.

“To my knowledge, it’s the only active civilian cemetery on any military base in the U.S.,” said Lincoln.

Secret Mission, Secret Jail

Immediately after World War II, the Depot remained for a time in Navy hands. A 1950 edition of the Item, with front page headlines dominated by the Cold War, carried an article with the headline “Orleans Is Wide Open to Enemy Saboteurs.” It’s a somewhat bizarre piece, where reporter Glen Douthit described sites around the region vulnerable to terrorism, why they’re significant, and how he was able to enter them with little trouble. “Monday, I could have had a field day, if I had been an enemy agent with a sackful of bombs,” he told readers.

Among the sites easily accessed were the police radio room where “enemy agents” could “paralyze the city;” the city’s water purification plant, where a fence was compromised enough for “a saboteur who wanted to destroy the city’s water supply;” and the Naval Ammunition Depot, described as a site in “a lonely marsh area” where “warships take on shells, bombs and other explosive ammunition.” There, Douthit observed it would be easy to piggyback through the front gates.

But while there was never any documented sabotage, with the Navy mostly ceasing to use the bunkers by 1956, the “lonely marsh area” took on a stranger role in the Cold War. It served as a training ground for the failed, U.S.-backed 1961 invasion of communist Cuba that came to be named for the landing site at the island nation’s Bay of Pigs. Since its creation in the early days of the U.S. rivalry with the Soviet Union, the Central Intelligence Agency has done more than simply collect intelligence. It also takes secretive military action around the world to support U.S. interests—including supporting a 1954 coup in Guatemala, where President Jacobo Arbenz’s land reform policies threatened the interests of Zemurray’s United Fruit Company. Officials, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles, feared the rise of communist influence in that country.

“This early CIA covert action operation delighted both President Eisenhower and the Dulles Brothers by ousting President Arbenz and installing Colonel Castillo Armas in his place,” wrote then-CIA Chief Historian J. Kenneth McDonald in the forward to an Agency-published history of the operation in 1994. “In light of Guatemala’s unstable and violent history since the fall of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954, we are perhaps less certain today than most Americans were at the time that this operation was a Cold War victory.”

McDonald was presumably referring to the fact that, starting in 1960, Guatemala saw decades of civil war, killing more than 200,000 people. But after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, overthrowing pro-U.S. dictator Fulgencio Batista, U.S. officials would still see the Guatemala operation, codenamed PBSUCCESS, as a model for a potential invasion of Cuba. The plan was to support an incursion by anti-Castro dissidents in exile, ideally spurring other opponents of the new regime to rise up. And according to a CIA document made public in 2017, a secretive Agency project called JMMOVE set out to use the Depot site to train up to 149 men “for organization into small guerrilla warfare teams.” How the training, which CIA records indicate took place between February and April 1961, went isn’t clear from the public documents, though it’s well-known that the Bay of Pigs invasion itself was a disaster, with invaders quickly overcome by Castro’s forces.

The CIA records do indicate one advantage of holding the training at the former Depot site: cooperation from the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff “immediately advised that he had” an underused jail in Port Sulphur, a small community almost 40 miles downriver from Belle Chasse, to secretly hold any trainees who didn’t go with the program, according to the CIA document.

“It was also agreed that there would be no records maintained if trainees were incarcerated and that members of his staff would deny that such trainees had ever been incarcerated in the event of future inquiries by representatives of the news media,” according to the document. The sheriff’s name is redacted in the released records, but the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office’s own list of past sheriffs indicates the position was then held by Chester A. Wooten, an ally of ultra-segregationist parish boss Leander Perez. Just a few years later, Perez would make national news for his own carceral enthusiasm, when he threatened to imprison civil rights activists in a decrepit old fort, situated on a remote island infested with mosquitos and poisonous snakes.

That prison would never be used, but during the Bay of Pigs training, three trainees were reportedly held at the Port Sulphur jail after becoming uncooperative or, perhaps, simply ill. One complaining of rheumatism later in fact needed medical treatment for asthma, and one had recently had an “emergency appendectomy” and was unable to train, according to the CIA records. There were reports they would try to flee, according to the document. Each detainee was held from April 9, 1961 through April 20, after the invasion had failed, the record indicates, when they were transported to Miami and at least two of them were given $100. The jail was also used to hold a Spanish ship captain who allegedly “jumped ship” with plans to join his pregnant wife in Havana. The Sheriff’s Office helped patrol the site “to keep fishermen and poachers out of the base” and reported “local gossip regarding speculation as to the type of activity conducted within the base,” according to the CIA document.

Extract from a CIA memorandum dated May 1, 1975 (released under the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992)

A Library with a Peculiar Smell

Within a few years, the federal government began to wash its hands of portions of the site that came to be deemed surplus. A deal supported by U.S. Representative F. Edward Hebert transferred some of the land to the state for what would become the Belle Chasse State School, a since-closed residential institution for people with cognitive disabilities. The school later became the subject of serious abuse allegations and, at one point, a federal consent decree attempting to protect residents’ rights.

Another deal facilitated by Hebert transferred a 364-acre tract including three brick buildings and 23 bunkers to Tulane University, Hebert’s alma mater, in 1963. Reports soon described the bunkers housing rocketry research, a particle accelerator, biology labs—and a specialized library the Times-Picayune reported in 1971 had an unusual “pungency.”

That’s because the library didn’t store books, but an enormous collection of preserved fish specimens. The fishy archive, now said to be “the largest collection of post larval fishes in the world,” still takes up two of the university’s bunkers. It’s now named for the late Royal Suttkus, a colorful character and longtime Tulane biology professor who assembled much of the collection.

Suttkus’ 2010 obituary in a biology journal explains that the Battle of the Bulge veteran once hitchhiked to Cornell University, where he hoped to study with the school’s celebrated ornithologists, in order to check on the status of his grad school application. Evidently the bird researchers weren’t receptive, but on his visit he bonded with an ichthyology professor and soon began studying fish; a vintage photo in the obituary shows a shirtless Suttkus carrying two trout in upstate New York, where he also met his wife. Once at Tulane, Suttkus—also depicted shirtless along the Pearl River—reportedly expanded the fish collection from “just two mounted fish specimens” to millions of animals, mostly preserved in jars, now used by scientific researchers from around the world.

The Collecting Machine, from New Orleans, travels through the land,” proclaimed a folk-style song performed in honor of Suttkus on the 50th anniversary of his start at Tulane. It portrayed him as something like a reverse Johnny Appleseed, collecting specimens and getting in scrapes wherever he went: “Not a thing that swims or crawls or flies, is safe from this odd man.”

The fish collection is closed to the public, with non-ichthyologists wishing to get a sense of the historic bunkers required to hike the Woodlands trails and observe the many living things that swim, crawl, and fly there. But the now tranquil network of walking paths holds little evidence of the various groups of people who have lived and worked at the larger site.

photos by Beck Levy