The Night Vietnam Veterans Stormed Bunker Hill
Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) members vote to remain on Lexington Green in defiance of an order by local government to vacate, May 30, 1971. VVAW were subjected to a mass arrest, but gained support by town residents who gave them rides to the Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown to continue the group's march from Concord to Boston. Photo Richard Robbat.
Citing continuing public health concerns about COVID-19, the city of Boston has declined again this year to issue a permit allowing the annual and always much-anticipated Bunker Hill Day Parade to proceed through the streets of Charlestown.
The hiatus is an opportunity to recall the holiday&rsquos history and the summer fifty years ago when the country was as politically divided as it is today, until Vietnam Veterans Against the War, or VVAW, insisted on celebrating Bunker Hill Day early.
Bunker Hill Day was initially intended to commemorate the role Massachusetts played in securing the nation&rsquos independence. Fought on June 17, 1775, the Battle of Bunker Hill was a pyrrhic victory for the imperial British. The newly formed Continental Army was forced to retreat but not before inflicting enough damage that British forces were confined to Boston. Famously fought on nearby Breed&rsquos Hill, the battle&rsquos anniversary was first observed with a parade in 1785. On the fiftieth anniversary, the newly formed Bunker Hill Monument Association organized the first Bunker Hill Day. While very much a local holiday then as now, the entire nation observed it in 1843, when the Association&rsquos soaring 221-foot granite obelisk was dedicated.
After Irish immigrants moved into the neighborhood in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, Charlestown became &ldquothe only place on the planet,&rdquo as famously noted by actor Will Rogers, &ldquowhere the Irish celebrate a British military victory.&rdquo A cartoonist from that era was prompted to draw a picture of the obelisk with the words &ldquoErected by the Irish in Memory of Patrick O&rsquoBunker of Cork. Observances came to include companies of reenactors marching in colonial attire to the cadence of fife and drum, as well as elements of Irish peasant culture, including carnivals, fireworks, and alcohol. As journalist J. Anthony Lukas put it, Bunker Hill Day became &ldquoan exuberant statement of Charlestown's independence from the rest of the world.&rdquo
The late 1960s and early seventies were difficult years for Charlestown. To the dismay of many white parents, the Massachusetts legislature was insisting on school desegregation. And, as a working-class neighborhood, Charlestown was sending a disproportionate number of its children to fight in Southeast Asia. The Charleston community engaged in activism on behalf of anti-busing efforts, sometimes resorting to violence however, few joined what became the most vocal and sustained antiwar movement in US history out of fear of hurting troop morale.
No one could predict how this community, very much on edge in the spring of 1971, would respond on the Sunday evening of Memorial Day Weekend when not the British, but a wave of American Vietnam veterans swept up Breed&rsquos Hill towards the obelisk the Irish-Americans in Charlestown had made their own.
Forty-eight hours earlier, over one hundred members of VVAW dressed in jungle fatigues had commenced a three-day march that was intended to retrace Paul Revere&rsquos mythic midnight ride in reverse. Like Revere, the antiwar veterans were seeking to bring a message to the people, in their case that the country had shamefully reversed its earlier course and become the type of imperial aggressor the colonists had once fought to vanquish. The march route passed through four Revolutionary War battlefields where the veterans planned to demonstrate their patriotic respect for their colonial brothers-in-arms while illustrating with their physical wounds and anguished spirits how far the nation had fallen from its founding ideals.
VVAW&rsquos march kicked off without incident in Concord, where officials from the National Park Service had granted the veterans permission to camp next to the Old North Bridge, and townspeople served the veterans a hearty dinner. In marked contrast, the Lexington Selectmen (the Massachusetts equivalent of a town council) refused to grant the veterans permission to camp the second night of the march on the town&rsquos sacred Battle Green. Intent on punishing the veterans for what he later described as deflating the spirits of those troops still in harm&rsquos way, the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen ordered a mass arrest.
When the veterans were released from the town&rsquos makeshift jail and had paid their fine in county court, they considered skipping Bunker Hill, the final Revolutionary War battlefield on their itinerary. The mass arrest had taken up a lot of time and they were now at risk of arriving late to the Memorial Day antiwar rally on Boston Common to which they had invited the public.
Of greater concern was the fact that Charlestown might not be as welcoming as the liberal elites of Lexington, many of whom had decided to get arrested with the veterans and who would later ensure the Chairman was not re-elected.
Over a dinner prepared for them by one of Lexington&rsquos congregations, the veterans conferred about what to do. Buoyed by the national media&rsquos sympathetic coverage of the mass arrest, a wounded veteran living at the Bedford VA hospital urged the veterans onwards.
&ldquoWe&rsquove already begun the Battle of Lexington,&rdquo he enthused about VVAW&rsquos success thus far in unleashing the energy that birthed the nation. &ldquoThe whole country knows it. So let&rsquos go on to Bunker Hill.&rdquo
The problem of lost time was solved by hitching rides to Charlestown from their Lexington supporters. Disembarking in Sullivan Square so they could respectfully approach the Bunker Hill battlefield on foot as the descendants of those who fought and died there, some of the veterans later recalled feeling very worried about how they would be received.
&ldquoWas it gonna be food and acceptance or sticks and stones?&rdquo one wondered.
As the veterans started uphill toting the very real-looking toy M16s they had carried from Concord as a sign of their authority to speak about the war, windows in the tenement buildings lining the narrow streets flew open and cheers erupted from them. The veterans had served alongside Charlestown&rsquos own sons and were being honored as such. Minutes later, when the veterans set foot on the hallowed ground where so many Americans had died so that their children could be free, Charlestown&rsquos residents bore silent witness as the veterans ceremoniously rejected their weaponry in a message that the war must end.
&ldquoWe love you and we are happy to be here with you,&rdquo one of the still stunned veterans exclaimed to these new supporters who hours before VVAW considered avoiding. &ldquoWe must begin to share with one another the peace we need right now.&rdquo
The next morning, when the veterans emerged from their tents, countless residents returned to their side, offering food and coffee to fuel the veterans&rsquo final push for Boston.
Fifty years ago this summer, Bunker Hill Day was celebrated early by Charlestown&rsquos residents and a new breed of antiwar activists who came together around the idea that the Vietnam War did not reflect the values for which the colonists gave their lives on Breed&rsquos Hill nor those of the Bunker Hill Irish-American community whose children were being forced to fight it. It was a victory for VVAW and the antiwar movement as great as the ones traditionally celebrated on Bunker Hill Day.
Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his underground bunker
On April 30, 1945, holed up in a bunker under his headquarters in Berlin, Adolf Hitler commits suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule and shooting himself in the head. Soon after, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allied forces, ending Hitler’s dreams of a 𠇁,000-year” Reich.
Since at least 1943, it was becoming increasingly clear that Germany would fold under the pressure of the Allied forces. In February of that year, the German 6th Army, lured deep into the Soviet Union, was annihilated at the Battle of Stalingrad, and German hopes for a sustained offensive on both fronts evaporated. Then, in June 1944, the Western Allied armies landed at Normandy, France, and began systematically to push the Germans back toward Berlin. By July 1944, several German military commanders acknowledged their imminent defeat and plotted to remove Hitler from power so as to negotiate a more favorable peace. Their attempts to assassinate Hitler failed, however, and in his reprisals, Hitler executed over 4,000 fellow countrymen.
In January 1945, facing a siege of Berlin by the Soviets, Hitler withdrew to his bunker to live out his final days. Located 55 feet under the chancellery, the shelter contained 18 rooms and was fully self-sufficient, with its own water and electrical supply. Though he was growing increasingly mad, Hitler continued to give orders and meet with such close subordinates as Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler and Josef Goebbels. He also married his long-time mistress Eva Braun just one day before his suicide.
The main entrance is a large tunnel that connects the bunker with the surface, where the surface point has a large mechanical door that opens upwards and the bunker point has two steel doors that leads to the bunker itself. A cutscene triggers when the player enters the bunker and the tunnel is briefly seen when a Mobile Operations Center enters the bunker.
The entry lobby is the main area where the player enters. Four Caddy carts are provided for the owner and their allies for easy navigation in the bunker if the transportation option was added in the purchase. At the right-hand side of the entrance, there is a marked area where the supplies are placed, which may have a variable amount of props depending on the supply's level. There is also an area marked "BAY 01", where the owner's personal vehicle is parked when driven into the bunker. This is not a permanent garage space, but rather a safe parking space to use while in the bunker. Switching sessions while staying in the bunker will move the vehicle outside to the nearest road.
The Bunker Vehicle Workshop is located next to the entry lobby and becomes operational upon purchase of a Mobile Operations Center and the Anti-Aircraft Trailer. The player can go to the mechanic in order to customize every vehicle of this area (considering that the MOC cab also counts).
The research and manufacturing area is connected to the entry lobby (just taking a U-turn from the entrance), where several machines can be seen, as well as a small table where the scientists are seen with blueprints of an Assault Rifle Mk II. Two Vending Machines are seen here as well. If the equipment upgrade is purchased, ventilation systems are seen on the roof.
Within the area, there is an office section with a laptop that provides access to Disruption Logistics, which is used to run the gunrunning business operations. On a corner of the management area, the player can find the gun locker and their personal room (if purchased).
Next to the research/manufacturing area, there is the storage area, where the gunrunning supplies are stored. Depending on the bunker's supply level, various crates containing weapons and ammunitions are seen here. If the security upgrade is purchased, the entrances will have steel grating on the doors. Chemical bathrooms are seen in the small portion connecting the entry lobby, the research/manufacturing area, and the storage area.
Further ahead from the research/manufacturing area, a shooting range is available for those who purchased it and will have a small alcove containing the shooting range rewards.
A set of hallways are seen on a side of the bunker, with the main one providing a direct connection between the entrance lobby, the research/manufacturing area, and the shooting range, with a secondary hallway connecting the primary hallway to the Bunker Vehicle Workshop. A couple of hallways lead to cul-de-sacs, suggesting plans to extend corridors further.
Only one bunker can be owned at a time: purchasing another will trade-in the old one for the new one. 50% of the purchase price of the first bunker will be refunded to the player (assuming it was not purchased for free), as will 50% of the cost of any expansions and upgrades purchased for that bunker all expansions and upgrades desired will have to be repurchased for the new bunker. All supplies, stock, and research-in-progress will be lost and should be taken care of first. However, all completed research is permanently kept for that character, and if a MOC is owned, it will be automatically moved to the new bunker as well.
The future of this high-tech facility traces its legacy to an amazing past.
Today the 40,000 square foot nuclear bomb shelter is a state-of-the-art data center that provides colocation of critical IT operations, while the 100,000 square foot, four story office building serves as a business continuity and disaster recovery center. We are confident that we have the ability to meet or exceed any requirements for colocation, business continuity, or managed services.
The last 8 years have seen a strong commitment to growth, starting with fiber networks, generators, chillers, enhanced security and additional 108,000 square foot state of the art data center, making the The Bunker campus one of the premier technology centers in the nation. We are extremely proud of our zero-downtime performance during hurricane Ike. That trial-by-fire has allowed us to attract many additional Fortune 500 companies and government agencies that demand exceptional results and quality service. The Bunker is a financially sound private company, structured as a limited partnership and directed by a forward thinking team of highly skilled professionals with a passion for this business and a commitment for excellence.
The Secret Bunker Congress Never Used
The north entrance to the Greenbrier gives no clues to a secret bunker for Congress.
Courtesy of The Greenbrier Resort
In a groundbreaking series of reports in 2010, Washington Post reporters Bill Arkin and Dana Priest revealed that 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area since September 2001.
Before that building boom, however, another secret bunker lay in wait for the apocalypse, behind a giant reinforced steel door. For 30 years, it was kept secret. Hidden in West Virginia's Greenbrier Resort was a massive bomb shelter stocked with supplies for members of Congress in case of an emergency.
The Greenbrier Resort And Bunker
In the Greenbrier's public exhibition hall, a not-so-secret entrance leads to the bunker. Guy Raz/NPR hide caption
In the Greenbrier's public exhibition hall, a not-so-secret entrance leads to the bunker.
Welcome to Capitol Hill, the Day After — except this isn't Washington. It's a giant concrete box nestled into a hillside in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
The story of how the bunker was kept secret for 30 years and how it even got here is stranger than any conspiracy theory. For one thing, it was built as an addition to one of America's most famous luxury resorts, the Greenbrier Resort in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Bankers, industrialists and government advisers all hobnobbed at the resort, unknowingly right next door to the post-apocalyptic bunker. When the Greenbriar's official historian, Bob Conte, arrived in 1978, locals started badgering him with questions.
"Why is there a 7,000-foot landing strip for a town of 3,000 people?" he recounts to All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz. Mostly, he told them there was no such thing — not that it was so "the government could fly their people in here in case of war and go to the bunker that's under the Greenbrier."
A Secret Home For The House And Senate
Thing is, Conte didn't really know anything about it. He knew every square inch of the Greenbrier's property. He had access to all the records and documents and historic photos of presidents and kings and prime ministers drinking mint juleps on the veranda.
Beds line the dormitory for members of Congress. Courtesy of The Greenbrier hide caption
Beds line the dormitory for members of Congress.
Courtesy of The Greenbrier
But just a few yards from Conte's own office was the reinforced bunker that would house every member of the House and Senate in the event of nuclear Armageddon.
Behind 3-foot-thick concrete walls is a space about the size of a WalMart. The air-intake system is so intricate — it was meant to filter out radiation — that it creates a vacuum-like effect when you walk in. Wind howls around you and sucks all the doors shut.
The sleeping quarters includes rows of metal bunkbeds.
"All they had for private items that you could lock up were a small drawer, right underneath the beds, you could put your personal items in here," Conte says. "For 30 years, every one of these 1,100 beds was assigned to somebody."
Built In An Atomic Age
To understand why and even how this bunker was built — right under the noses of America's vacationing aristocrats — you have to go back to the mid-1950s, when a whole industry built around the construction of fall-out shelters started to take off.
In the late 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower started to worry about how to maintain law and order in America in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
The cover of Life magazine, 1962. Courtesy of The Greenbrier hide caption
The cover of Life magazine, 1962.
Courtesy of The Greenbrier
"I feel impelled to speak today in a language that, in a sense, is new — one which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would have preferred never to use," he said. "That new language is the language of atomic warfare."
Eisenhower decided the Greenbrier would be a perfect cover for a congressional bunker. In 1958, government workers broke ground on what they called "Project Greek Island."
It was just about a four-hour drive from Washington. Hotel workers and guests were told that the giant hole in the ground would house a new conference facility. In fact, it would — or at least part of it would.
"In the 30 years, thousands of people walked in and out of a secret bunker not knowing they were in a secret bunker — which was part of the original design," Conte says in a room used as an "exhibit hall."
"You would have the West Virginia Medical Association meeting here, and a lot of car companies have met here over the years," he says.
Down another corridor is a room that was to be the floor of the House of Representatives. "There were microphones," Conte says. "You can see the little metal attachments there on the back of the seats. They would attach microphones there because they would have recorded all sessions of Congress. There was a big communications center in here."
Some Strange Clues
There were a few weird coincidences that Conte noticed before the bunker's existence was exposed by the Washington Post in 1992. For one, there were many, many, MANY bathrooms. And most of them were for men.
Another thing was that both Gerald Ford and Hubert Humphrey were frequent guests of the Greenbrier when they served in Congress. Conte found out later that they would have been among the few people in the world who knew about the bunker.
Finally, there was a mysterious crew of TV technicians who worked at the hotel but didn't work for the hotel. The company they worked for was called Forsyth Associates. As it turned out, Forsyth Associates was a cover: These were secret government employees who had to keep the bunker in a constant state of operational readiness.
Rations stock the long entrance to the bunker. Courtesy of The Greenbrier hide caption
Military History Book Review: Churchill’s Bunker
The best niche histories teach readers new information about oft-covered events, and this World War II account of Winston Churchill’s underground headquarters is an admirable example.
During World War I, writes veteran British military historian Holmes, German aircraft dropped about 300 tons of bombs on Britain, causing 1,500 deaths and a good deal of terror. These sorties had no effect on the war’s outcome but great influence later, as British leaders assumed bombing would determine the outcome of the next war. In 1936 the Air Ministry estimated that raids on London in any new conflict would kill 60,000 during the first week (in fact, 80,000 Londoners died during all of World War II). Working on an assumption that “the bomber will always get through,” British leaders decided the best way to deter a potential enemy was to match his bombing capacity (a take on “mutual assured destruction” two decades before the Cold War nuclear standoff). Thus, when rearmament began, the Royal Air Force clamored for bombers. In 1937, realizing it could not afford them, it switched to defensive (and far cheaper) fighters. We now know what British intelligence didn’t—that Germany ignored the prevailing obsession with bombing. Adolf Hitler intended the Luftwaffe as tactical support for ground forces and never built a heavy-bomber fleet.
In the debate over civil defense, British leaders decided against evacuating London, as much to avoid mass panic as due to its difficulty. They did consider evacuating the government. Indeed, many departments moved to the country, but in 1938 the search began for a safe place in Whitehall to house the leadership. The prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, old and unreinforced, could not serve. The Office of Works quickly settled on the steel-framed New Public Offices, two blocks away. Its huge basement, 10 feet below ground, housed archives.
Within a month, crews had cleared, reinforced, soundproofed and installed communications in several of what became the Cabinet War Rooms. By the war’s outbreak, dozens of rooms were functional, fitted with air conditioning, independent water and lighting, medical facilities and sleeping quarters. The Office of Works considered the arrangements temporary, and the budget for expansion was tight. Inhabitants paid the price. The rooms were chilly, damp and poorly ventilated. In an era when almost everyone smoked, tobacco fumes mingled with cooking odors and smells from the primitive toilets.
Ironically, while low-level staff worked there permanently, Churchill preferred meeting above ground. Even during the 1940–41 Blitz, leaders met in the bunker at night, when air raids were likely, but elsewhere during the day. Use by senior staff declined sharply in 1942 and 1943, peaking again in early 1944 during the “little Blitz” and later that year when V-1s and V-2s posed a risk.
The war had barely ended when nostalgia for Britain’s finest hour occasioned an avalanche of requests to visit the bunker only a favored minority was granted informal tours. The government ultimately set aside money to restore the complex, under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum. The Cabinet War Rooms opened to the public in 1984. Its success prompted the opening of the adjoining Churchill Museum [http://cwr.iwm.org.uk] in 2005.
With nearly two dozen history books to his credit, Holmes has no trouble delivering an opinionated, thoroughly entertaining account that follows the hyperactive Churchill, his family, servants, staff, advisors, cabinet and generals as they troop in and out of the bunker, various London command centers, country estates and world capitals while fighting World War II.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.
Primary Bunker: Presidential Emergency Operations Center
This is the most widely known about and publicly acknowledged bunker and likely the place where President Trump was taken during the protests. Former First Lady Laura Bush described being escorted there during the September 11, 2001 attacks in her book Spoken From the Heart:
Located somewhere underneath, or adjacent to, the White House&rsquos East Wing, The Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) comprises offices and other facilities, including the conference room where President Bush met with Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and other members of his administration in the days following the attacks.
The PEOC facilities have been upgraded numerous times over the years, including after 9/11, when, as the journalist Garret M. Grath wrote in his book Raven Rock, Vice President Dick Cheney complained to National Security Coordinator Richard Clarke, &ldquoThe Comms [communication services] in this place are terrible.&rdquo
The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill
The last stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail is a shrine to the fog of war.
From This Story
Colonial forces bypassed Bunker Hill for Breed’s Hill, a smaller rise closer to Boston and more threatening to the British. (Gilbert Gates) John Trumball's The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, 17 June, 1775. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution is available for pre-order now and in stores on April 30, 2013. (Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency, Inc.)
“Breed’s Hill,” a plaque reads. “Site of the Battle of Bunker Hill.” Another plaque bears the famous order given American troops as the British charged up not-Bunker Hill. “Don’t fire ’til you see the whites of their eyes.” Except, park rangers will quickly tell you, these words weren’t spoken here. The patriotic obelisk atop the hill also confuses visitors. Most don’t realize it’s the rare American monument to an American defeat.
In short, the nation’s memory of Bunker Hill is mostly bunk. Which makes the 1775 battle a natural topic for Nathaniel Philbrick, an author drawn to iconic and misunderstood episodes in American history. He took on the Pilgrim landing in Mayflower and the Little Bighorn in The Last Stand. In his new book, Bunker Hill, he revisits the beginnings of the American Revolution, a subject freighted with more myth, pride and politics than any other in our national narrative.
“Johnny Tremain, Paul Revere’s Ride, today’s Tea Partiers—you have to tune all that out to get at the real story,” Philbrick says. Gazing out from the Bunker Hill Monument—not at charging redcoats but at skyscrapers and clotted traffic—he adds: “You also have to squint a lot and study old maps to imagine your way back into the 18th century.”
Boston in 1775 was much smaller, hillier and more watery than it appears today. The Back Bay was still a bay and the South End was likewise underwater hills were later leveled to fill in almost 1,000 acres. Boston was virtually an island, reachable by land only via a narrow neck. And though founded by Puritans, the city wasn’t puritanical. One rise near Beacon Hill, known for its prostitutes, was marked on maps as “Mount Whoredom.”
Nor was Boston a “cradle of liberty” one in five families, including those of leading patriots, owned slaves. And the city’s inhabitants were viciously divided. At Copp’s Hill, in Boston’s North End, Philbrick visits the grave of Daniel Malcom, an early agitator against the British identified on his headstone as “a true son of Liberty.” British troops used the patriot headstone for target practice. Yet Malcom’s brother, John, was a noted loyalist, so hated by rebels that they tarred and feathered him and paraded him in a cart until his skin peeled off in “steaks.”
Philbrick is a mild-mannered 56-year-old with gentle brown eyes, graying hair and a placid golden retriever in the back of his car. But he’s blunt and impassioned about the brutishness of the 1770s and the need to challenge patriotic stereotypes. “There’s an ugly civil war side to revolutionary Boston that we don’t often talk about,” he says, “and a lot of thuggish, vigilante behavior by groups like the Sons of Liberty.” He doesn’t romanticize the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord, either. The “freedoms” they fought for, he notes, weren’t intended to extend to slaves, Indians, women or Catholics. Their cause was also “profoundly conservative.” Most sought a return to the Crown’s “salutary neglect” of colonists prior to the 1760s, before Britain began imposing taxes and responding to American resistance with coercion and troops. “They wanted the liberties of British subjects, not American independence,” Philbrick says.
That began to change once blood was shed, which is why the Bunker Hill battle is pivotal. The chaotic skirmishing at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 left the British holed up in Boston and hostile colonists occupying the city’s surrounds. But it remained unclear whether the ill-equipped rebels were willing or able to engage the British Army in pitched battle. Leaders on both sides also thought the conflict might yet be settled without full-scale war.
This tense, two-month stalemate broke on the night of June 16, in a confused manner that marks much of the Revolution’s start. Over a thousand colonials marched east from Cambridge with orders to fortify Bunker Hill, a 110-foot rise on the Charlestown peninsula jutting into Boston Harbor. But the Americans bypassed Bunker Hill in the dark and instead began fortifying Breed’s Hill, a smaller rise much closer to Boston and almost in the face of the British.
The reasons for this maneuver are murky. But Philbrick believes it was a “purposeful act, a provocation and not the smartest move militarily.” Short on cannons, and the know-how to fire those they had with accuracy, the rebels couldn’t do much damage from Breed’s Hill. But their threatening position, on high ground just across the water from Boston, forced the British to try to dislodge the Americans before they were reinforced or fully entrenched.
On the morning of June 17, as the rebels frantically threw up breastworks of earth, fence posts and stone, the British bombarded the hill. One cannonball decapitated a man as his comrades worked on, “fatigued by our Labour, having no sleep the night before, very little to eat, no drink but rum,” a private wrote. “The danger we were in made us think there was treachery, and that we were brought there to be all slain.”
Exhausted and exposed, the Americans were also a motley collection of militia from different colonies, with little coordination and no clear chain of command. By contrast, the British, who at midday began disembarking from boats near the American position, were among the best-trained troops in Europe. And they were led by seasoned commanders, one of whom marched confidently at the head of his men accompanied by a servant carrying a bottle of wine. The British also torched Charlestown, at the base of Breed’s Hill, turning church steeples into “great pyramids of fire” and adding ferocious heat to what was already a warm June afternoon.
All this was clearly visible to the many spectators crowded on hills, rooftops and steeples in and around Boston, including Abigail Adams and her young son, John Quincy, who cried at the flames and the “thunders” of British cannons. Another observer was British Gen. John Burgoyne, who watched from Copp’s Hill. “And now ensued one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived,” he wrote of the blazing town, the roaring cannons and the sight of red-coated troops ascending Breed’s Hill.
However, the seemingly open pasture proved to be an obstacle course. The high, unmown hay obscured rocks, holes and other hazards. Fences and stone walls also slowed the British. The Americans, meanwhile, were ordered to hold their fire until the attackers closed to 50 yards or less. The wave of British “advanced towards us in order to swallow us up,” wrote Pvt. Peter Brown, “but they found a Choaky mouthful of us.”
When the rebels opened fire, the close-packed British fell in clumps. In some spots, the British lines became jumbled, making them even easier targets. The Americans added to the chaos by aiming at officers, distinguished by their fine uniforms. The attackers, repulsed at every point, were forced to withdraw. “The dead lay as thick as sheep in a fold,” wrote an American officer.
The disciplined British quickly re-formed their ranks and advanced again, with much the same result. One British officer was moved to quote Falstaff: “They make us here but food for gunpowder.” But the American powder was running very low. And the British, having failed twice, devised a new plan. They repositioned their artillery and raked the rebel defenses with grapeshot. And when the infantrymen marched forward, a third time, they came in well-spaced columns rather than a broad line.
As the Americans’ ammunition expired, their firing sputtered and “went out like an old candle,” wrote William Prescott, who commanded the hilltop redoubt. His men resorted to throwing rocks, then swung their muskets at the bayonet-wielding British pouring over the rampart. “Nothing could be more shocking than the carnage that followed the storming [of] this work,” wrote a royal marine. “We tumbled over the dead to get at the living,” with “soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the brains of others.” The surviving defenders fled, bringing the battle to an end.
In just two hours of fighting, 1,054 British soldiers—almost half of all those engaged—had been killed or wounded, including many officers. American losses totaled over 400. The first true battle of the Revolutionary War was to prove the bloodiest of the entire conflict. Though the British had achieved their aim in capturing the hill, it was a truly Pyrrhic victory. “The success is too dearly bought,” wrote Gen. William Howe, who lost every member of his staff (as well as the bottle of wine his servant carried into battle).
Badly depleted, the besieged British abandoned plans to seize another high point near the city and ultimately evacuated Boston. The battle also demonstrated American resolve and dispelled hopes that the rebels might relent without a protracted conflict. “Our three generals,” a British officer wrote of his commanders in Boston, had “expected rather to punish a mob than fight with troops that would look them in the face.”
The intimate ferocity of this face-to-face combat is even more striking today, in an era of drones, tanks and long-range missiles. At the Bunker Hill Museum, Philbrick studies a diorama of the battle alongside Patrick Jennings, a park ranger who served as an infantryman and combat historian for the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This was almost a pool-table battlefield,” Jennings observes of the miniature soldiers crowded on a verdant field. “The British were boxed in by the terrain and the Americans didn’t have much maneuverability, either. It’s a close-range brawl.”
However, there’s no evidence that Col. Israel Putnam told his men to hold their fire until they saw “the whites” of the enemies’ eyes. The writer Parson Weems invented this incident decades later, along with other fictions such as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. In reality, the Americans opened fire at about 50 yards, much too distant to see anyone’s eyes. One colonel did tell his men to wait until they could see the splash guards—called half-gaiters—that British soldiers wore around their calves. But as Philbrick notes, “‘Don’t fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters’ just doesn’t have the same ring.” So the Weems version endured, making it into textbooks and even into the video game Assassin’s Creed.
The Bunker Hill Monument also has an odd history. The cornerstone was laid in 1825, with Daniel Webster addressing a crowd of 100,000. Backers built one of the first railways in the nation to tote eight-ton granite blocks from a quarry south of Boston. But money ran out. So Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” rescued the project by organizing a “Ladies’ Fair” that raised $30,000. The monument was finally dedicated in 1843, with the now-aged Daniel Webster returning to speak again.
Over time, Brahmin Charlestown turned Irish and working class, and the monument featured in gritty crime movies like The Town, directed by Ben Affleck (who has also acquired the movie rights to Philbrick’s book). But today the obelisk stands amid renovated townhouses, and the small park surrounding it is popular with exercise classes and leisure-seekers. “You’ll be talking to visitors about the horrible battle that took place here,” says park ranger Merrill Kohlhofer, “and all around you are sunbathers and Frisbee players and people walking their dogs.” Firemen also visit, to train for climbing tall buildings by scaling the 221-foot monument.
Philbrick is drawn to a different feature of the park: a statue of what he calls the “wild man” and neglected hero of revolutionary Boston, Dr. Joseph Warren. The physician led the rebel underground and became major general of the colonial army in the lead-up to Bunker Hill. A flamboyant man, he addressed 5,000 Bostonians clad in a toga and went into the Bunker Hill battle wearing a silk-fringed waistcoat and silver buttons, “like Lord Falkland, in his wedding suit.” But he refused to assume command, fighting as an ordinary soldier and dying from a bullet in the face during the final assault. Warren’s stripped body was later identified on the basis of his false teeth, which had been crafted by Paul Revere. He left behind a fiancée (one of his patients) and a mistress he’d recently impregnated.
“Warren was young, charismatic, a risk-taker—a man made for revolution,” Philbrick says. “Things were changing by the day and he embraced that.” In death, Warren became the Revolution’s first martyr, though he’s little remembered by most Americans today.
Before leaving Charlestown, Philbrick seeks out one other site. In 1775, when Americans marched past Bunker Hill and fortified Breed’s instead, a British map compounded the confusion by mixing up the two hills as well. Over time, the name Breed’s melted away and the battle became indelibly linked to Bunker. But what of the hill that originally bore that name?
It’s visible from the Bunker Hill Monument: a taller, steeper hill 600 yards away. But Charlestown’s narrow, one-way streets keep carrying Philbrick in the wrong direction. After 15 minutes of circling his destination he finally finds a way up. “It’s a pity the Americans didn’t fortify this hill,” he quips, “the British would never have found it.”
It’s now crowned by a church, on Bunker Hill Street, and a sign says the church was established in 1859, “On the Top of Bunker Hill.” The church’s business manager, Joan Rae, says the same. “This is Bunker Hill. That other hill’s not. It’s Breed’s.” To locals like Rae, perhaps, but not to visitors or even to Google Maps. Tap in “Bunker Hill Charlestown” and you’ll be directed to. that other hill. To Philbrick, this enduring confusion is emblematic of the Bunker Hill story. “The whole thing’s a screw-up,” he says. “The Americans fortify the wrong hill, this forces a fight no one planned, the battle itself is an ugly and confused mess. And it ends with a British victory that’s also a defeat.”
Retreating to Boston for lunch at “ye olde” Union Oyster House, Philbrick reflects more personally on his historic exploration of the city where he was born. Though he was mostly raised in Pittsburgh, his forebears were among the first English settlers of the Boston area in the 1630s. One Philbrick served in the Revolution. As a championship sailor, Philbrick competed on the Charles River in college and later moved to Boston. He still has an apartment there, but mostly lives on the echt-Yankee island of Nantucket, the setting for his book about whaling, In the Heart of the Sea.
Philbrick, however, considers himself a “deracinated WASP” and doesn’t believe genealogy or flag-waving should cloud our view of history. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that the founders or anyone else were somehow better than us and that we have to live up to their example.” He also feels the hated British troops in Boston deserve reappraisal. “They’re an occupying army, locals despise them, and they don’t want to be there,” he says. “As Americans we’ve now been in that position in Iraq and can appreciate the British dilemma in a way that wasn’t easy before.”
But Philbrick also came away from his research with a powerful sense of the Revolution’s significance. While visiting archives in England, he called on Lord Gage, a direct descendant of Gen. Thomas Gage, overall commander of the British military at the Bunker Hill battle. The Gage family’s Tudor-era estate has 300 acres of private gardens and a chateau-style manor filled with suits of armor and paintings by Gainsborough, Raphael and Van Dyck.
“We had sherry and he could not have been more courteous,” Philbrick says of Lord Gage. “But it was a reminder of the British class system and how much the Revolution changed our history. As countries, we’ve gone on different paths since his ancestor sent redcoats up that hill.”
Read an excerpt from Philbrick's Bunker Hill, detailing the tarring and feathering of loyalist John Malcom on the eve of the Revolutionary War, here.
About Tony Horwitz
Tony Horwitz was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and wrote for the New Yorker. He is the author of Baghdad without a Map, Midnight Rising and the digital best seller BOOM. His most recent work, Spying on the South, was released in May 2019. Tony Horwitz died in May 2019 at the age of 60.
It's not the White House's only bunker
The 9/11 attacks prompted national security officials to call for a more advanced bunker.
Ronald Kessler, the author of "The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game," told Philip Bump of The Washington Post that national security personnel originally planned to evacuate White House staff and the presidential family to a remote location in the event of a nuclear attack. But 9/11, he said, made them realize escaping Washington while the country was under attack would be difficult. Roads would be too packed for vehicle travel, and a helicopter escape would be "very risky."
So plans for a bunker under the White House's North Lawn began to emerge in 2010, during the Obama administration. The General Services Administration went to great lengths to keep the project a secret, Bump wrote: They said the construction was to replace existing White House infrastructure, put up a fence, and ordered subcontractors to stay mum.
While these presidential bunkers are shrouded in secrecy, Popular Mechanics writer Caroline Delbert looked to other underground structures to get an idea of how they may have been built. Consider the European Organization for Nuclear Research's Large Hadron Collider, Delbert wrote: The process involved checking the area for archaeological artifacts and clearing the site for construction, flash freezing the water table (the next level below the ground) to build through, and building a 7-meter walled structure to protect nearby workers from radiation. All of it was cleared one small area at a time, she said.
Soldiers of the White House Military Office staff the bunkers every 12 or 24 hours, according to Delbert. Just how deep these bunkers go is also a mystery. "As the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, the highest yield nuclear warhead in the US arsenal can blast up to 1,000 feet deep," Delbert wrote. "The presidential bunker must be at least that far below the surface."
However, Kessler told Bump that the newest bunker, which is supposed to act as a command center and living quarters, is five stories underground with food and a self-contained air supply. It's also sealed off to prevent radiation from seeping in during a nuclear attack, he said.
But there are also underground tunnels, Kessler added, that allow the president, his family, and his staff to escape the White House entirely.