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Tunnels to the past: Little known and mysterious tunnel network runs under MacDill

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
Image by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman

Out of sight and winding below the streets and airfield of MacDill Air Force Base is a secret network of tunnels long forgotten and abandoned to the rats and snakes. No one today dares enter these ominous catacombs and even finding anyone who knows they exist is a difficult task.

Dark, partially flooded and invaded by tree roots, "it's not safe down there," said Harold Becker, a member of the 6th Civil Engineer Squadron and one of the few who knows anything at all about the tunnels. "It's no place you want to be."

Becker, in charge of plumbing crews on base, learned of the tunnels a few years ago when he got a call from his craftsman working deep in the bowels of the base theater.

"Quick! You have to come over and see this," the call came in on the radio. "We don't know what it is."

The workers had stumbled onto what appeared to be a mysterious opening that ran underground. Becker was fascinated and began a search through the MacDill archives. He was to turn up some old engineering drawings that revealed an underground tunnel.

Few know anything of the tunnels even today. Those who did hear stories often dismissed them as a fanciful tales made all the more unbelievable by accounts that the tunnels were secret passages for moving aliens captured by the Air Force or that they harbor the ghost that reportedly haunts Fire Station 1.

Michael Cooley, who heads construction on base, said "What tunnels?" when a Thunderbolt reporter asked.

When contacted, base historian Tech. Sgt. Charles Foster recalled hearing something about tunnels but had nothing concrete. Fire Chief John Warhul has been on base since the 1970s and knew of a mysterious opening in the floor of Station 1, but was flabbergasted to learn just how extensive the tunnels may be and where they might run.

Rich Grayson, a member of the 6th Engineer Squadron who has been on base for some 30 years, said the tunnels, which he believes run under the airfield, are a Cold War relic and were built in the 1950s or 1960s and were intended as safe travel corridors in the event of a nuclear strike on the U.S. An elaborate system of carts on motorized cables and pulleys carried personnel on the often long journeys through the subterranean world. Water pumps ran continuously to keep the tunnels from flooding, an ongoing threat because MacDill sits so close to sea level.

Mr. Grayson said, the tunnel runs from the base theater to Hangar 3, which used to have an opening that now is sealed. From there it continues on under the airfield out to what used to be Strategic Air Command headquarters and now is home to Special Operations Central Command. The Base Theater was a logical stop on the tunnel route, said Mr. Becker, as it was where high-level briefings were held. In the event of attack, the tunnel would allow safe travel between SAC and the briefing room.

Mr. Becker said he's not sure when the tunnels were abandoned but suspects it was after MacDill's mission changed from a SAC to non-SAC base.

Mr. Cooley said it is hard to imagine digging and maintaining a tunnel network under a base so close to sea level.

"That would have been quite an achievement," he said. "I'm not even sure how they would have done it."

But out of need sometimes comes the impossible, and with MacDill being so near Communist Cuba and with world tensions high during the peak of the Cold War, it would seem engineers at the time figured out a way to build what amount to tunnels that sit below Tampa Bay.

Mr. Becker said there probably is no way to assess or even verify the full extent of the network, nor how many passages and openings there are. He has heard that parts of the tunnel network have been caved in from construction work around the base.

"It's (the tunnels) not something that would be safe to be in anymore," he said. "Most of it appears to be flooded."

Chief Warhul said he knows of a firefighter who long ago dropped into the opening in the floor at the firehouse, only to report finding the passageway cemented shut a short distance inside.

Earlier this year the floor opening itself was sealed off with cement as part of a firehouse remodeling project. Never again will that entrance see the light of day or receive a visit from a curious explorer. But what of other, yet undiscovered entrances?

Mr. Becker speculates that any of the older buildings on base possibly could house openings.

So wonder about mysterious locked doors on first floors or in basements. Be suspicious of what looks like floor hatches. Be wary of patches on the floor that seem newer than the flooring that surrounds them. Listen for hollow sounds beneath your feet.

It could be you are working above a pathway to MacDill's Cold War past or perhaps -- for those who believe -- home to ghosts and other things that go bump in the night.

 

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