How a Charleston bar led to one of the Cold War's most damaging spy rings 

Espionage and the Bamboo Shack

click to enlarge spy.jpg

Dustin Waters

In 1965, along a barren stretch of Route 78 leading to Summerville, there stood a small cafe known as the Bamboo Shack. The fledgling business was the idea of John Anthony Walker Jr. and his wife Barbara. A Navy radio operator, Mr. Walker would check in on the business in between his time at sea. At first, he thought the bar would be a distraction for his wife while he was away. But after the strain of keeping the business afloat took its toll on Walker, he turned his efforts in another direction — selling confidential military secrets to the Soviets.

Before being sentenced to life in prison in 1986, Walker was a communications specialist with the Navy and a floundering businessman. He and his wife's plans to open a hunting lodge in a remote portion of Maine had fizzled, and opening a bar on the outskirts of Charleston was perhaps their best shot at operating a business of their own. New construction had just begun nearby on portions of Interstate 26, and the chance of success seemed high. After selling off the family's stock, they paid $30,000 for a five-acre lot with a large four-bedroom house set at the front corner of the property near what would become Charleston Southern University, but was known at the time simply as Baptist College.

Walker's crewmates stationed in Charleston helped the family renovate the inside of the old house, tearing out the interior walls and lining the inside of the bar with bamboo sheets. Freezers, grills, and fryers were added, and soon the Bamboo Shack was open.

While Walker waited to receive his beer and wine license, the cafe mainly catered to the college crowd, who passed the time playing pool or pinball and dropping loose change into the jukebox. Three months after opening, the Bamboo Shack finally received the OK to serve alcohol, and nearby construction workers and sailors began to fill the bar, providing a much-needed boost to business.

It was around this time that Walker's brother Arthur relocated to Charleston. A fellow Navy man, Arthur would eventually be swept into his brother's spy ring, along with John's son Michael and Navy radioman Jerry Whitworth. All four men would eventually be sentenced to prison for stealing military documents and selling the information to Soviet agents. The Walker brothers received life sentences in the mid '80s. They would die in the same prison medical center in Butner, N.C., a month apart in 2014. Looking back on his brother's arrival in Charleston, John Walker recalled that the move provided a temporary relief for the family bar, but spelled the beginning of something far more dangerous.

"We had just recently received our beer and wine permit, and Arthur's crew naturally took over the Bamboo Shack as their personal submarine bar," John Walker wrote while in prison in his tell-all memoir My Life as a Spy: One of America's Most Notorious Spies Finally Tells His Story. "As I left for sea, the Shack was generating profit, albeit small, but the situation would eventually create a tragedy that would play out over several years and spell doom for many."

In his book, Walker wrote that his wife grew increasingly dissatisfied with operating the bar and the long stretches of separation the couple experienced while he was at sea. He alleged that Barbara developed a drinking problem, which he claimed played a part in a drunken tryst between she and his brother.

"It was a weekend night at the Bamboo Shack, and [Arthur's] crew had taken over with an uproarious party. Barbara's stash of liquor was augmented by several bottles, which had been brought in by Arthur and others ... When the party finally broke up, Barbara insisted that Arthur should sleep on the couch," John Walker wrote, detailing his brother's confession. "That made no sense since they had a sober driver to get him back to the submarine. But she too was stoned, so no one argued when she locked up and led Arthur to the mobile home. There was no haze; I could clearly see where this was going as Arthur continued in a tormented voice: 'She just made a move on me, and I was so drunk I just let it happen.'"

Following their eventual divorce, Barbara would later make the call to authorities to report John and Arthur's spy activities. Barbara said that she was unaware that her son had also been pulled into her ex-husband's criminal affairs. In 1986, John Walker would strike a plea deal, confessing his guilt in exchange for a reduced sentence for his son, who was released from prison in 2000.

Faced with a failing marriage, Walker would go on to partially separate from Barbara after his brother's confession and lease the family bar to an amusement machine company out of Walterboro. But this transition wouldn't be enough to dissuade Walker from walking into a Soviet embassy in October of 1967 and handing over a stack of top-secret documents.

Later outlining what factors contributed to his decision to lead one of the most damaging spy rings in American history, Walker claimed that he hoped to somehow improve relations between the United States and the Soviets, while also voicing his disgust in what he described as "U.S. government deception, the Cold War fraud, and covert misadventures."

Even though Walker attached some greater nobility to his actions, he could not dismiss revelling in the adventure while undertaking his criminal efforts and the pressures of his personal life that pushed him to become a spy.

"Had my marriage remained strong, I would never have dreamed of so irresponsible an action. I could have and should have simply walked away from my marriage, surrendered the kids to their mom, which was the norm back then, and enjoyed my naval career," Walker wrote. "In one respect, it was a matter of timing. My old life as a husband and father had ended, and the espionage became part of my new single life."


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