From: Philip Reiss
Sent: Thursday, September 06, 2007 11:07 AM
Subject: Nuke off coast of Georgia
Hello Fred Dungan,
My name is Philip Reiss and I was in the Air Force fifty years ago. My Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) was 46150—that meant “munitions handling and loading specialist.” My last assignment was Westover AFB in Massachusetts. While there, from May of 1958 until my discharge on July 24th, 1959, I was a member of a crew whose function was to load “nukes” on the SAC B-52s assigned to that base.
As for the plutonium core device, I recall that we always installed them into the cylindrical sleeve chamber. Once in the air, upon receiving orders to do so, the aircraft captain activated a mechanism which moved the plutonium device further into the chamber where it made an armed position contact. Thus when the weapon was dropped it was active as a nuclear weapon.
For the Air Force and the Department of Defense to now say that the plutonium devices were not on board SAC bombers in the late 1950s is just not true. Who are they kidding? Lies and fabrications are the stock in trade of how the military, politically inspired, operates.
How about all those RB-47s (the “R” stood for reconnaissance) that flew spy missions into Soviet air space and were shot down a few years before Gary Powers U-2 was downed? The Air Force told the loved ones of those lost crew members their aircraft was lost due to mechanical failure on a routine training mission.
I hope the people who live along the coast of Georgia, in the vicinity of that beautiful city of Savannah, keep after their politicians to pressure the Department of Defense and the Air Force to recover that weapon which, to my mind, is like a ticking time bomb.
If this statement of my experience in any way helps to facilitates the removal of that most dangerous weapon so that the people of that region will be safer, please feel free to quote me. —Philip J. Reiss - Honorable Discharge (Service from July 25, 1955 to July 24, 1959) and now residing in Coopersburg, PA
Founded in the colonial era, Savannah is a stately city with a warm heart—aptly termed the Hostess of the South. Designated by Conde' Nast Traveler as one of the top ten U.S. cities to visit, Savannah is a stroll back in time with hidden charms that could not help but entice the most jaded sophisticate. Porticoed mansions, moss-draped oaks, and churches nearly as stern as they are inviting, give Savannah a unique flavor found nowhere else in the world.
Twelve miles east of Savannah, beneath shallow layers of sand and water, an abandoned 7,600 pound nuclear bomb is biding its time, waiting to rain death and destruction on the southern Atlantic coastline. If not disarmed, perhaps some sleepy Sunday morning an atomic fireball will erupt on picturesque Wassaw Sound, shooting along nearby heavily traveled Interstate 80 with the force of a hundred hurricanes, instantly vaporizing tidal wetlands, and brutally firestorming a vibrant, thriving metropolis—women, children, more than 200,000 people instantly incinerated—into a crumbling, deserted heap of radioactive rubble.
A cold, calculated act of terrorism? Not quite. It's simply that the United States Air Force isn't in the habit of picking up after itself.
In February 1958, a B-47 Stratojet bomber from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida had a midair collision with an F-86 Saberjet fighter southeast of Savannah and had to jettison an H-bomb in order to land safely. It was dumped in the dead of night from 12,000 feet somewhere along the southern shore of uninhabited Little Tybee Island. Although it had no parachute, we are pretty sure that it came down intact. If the bomb had exploded, someone would have heard or seen it. And if the casing had cracked or broken, there would have been tell-tale signs of radiation contamination such as three-eyed gulls and flipper-less dolphins.
Colonel Howard Richardson, the bomber’s pilot, brought his B-47 with the #6 engine dangling at a 45 degree angle from a partially demolished wing in for a safe landing at Hunter Air Field and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his daring feat. It took tremendous effort during the approach to maintain alignment with the runway. If the dangling engine dipped too low and scraped the tarmac, the bomber would go nose over tail and disintegrate. Richardson eased back on the throttle, maintaining just enough airspeed to keep control. The wheels touched the runway and the jet bounced back into the air. When the B-47 came down again, Richardson ordered the Co-pilot, Lieutenant Robert Lagerstrom, to pull the brake chute. Braking with a vengeance, the enormous tires dug into the runway. This time they managed to remain on the pavement and were able to bring the 125,000 pound aircraft to a full and complete stop. After shutting the engines down, all three crew members clambered down the ladder and kissed the tarmac. They had good reason to do so. Their B-47 was beyond repair and would never fly again. There was a wide gash on the right wing, the aileron had been shoved back 20 inches, the main wing spar was broken. Remnants of the F-86 were scattered over the vertical and horizontal stabilizer and the rear fuselage. Holes were torn in the tail turret and the empty fuel tank.
Meanwhile, both wings having been torn from the F-86 jet fighter, Lieutenant Clarence Stewart had ejected from 35,000 feet and came down in a small clearing in the largest swamp in Georgia. Amazingly, his sole injury was a severe case of frostbitten fingers suffered during the six mile parachute descent to earth under sub-zero atmospheric conditions.
Dozens of boats assisted by military divers took part in the search for the missing bomb. Exhausted soldiers in full packs slogged through the marshlands in water up to their necks. Grappling hooks were dragged along the bottom of the sound in an attempt to snag the bomb. Navy Lieutenant Commander Art Arsenault who headed the unsuccessful search thinks it failed because it concentrated on the south side of the sound. Newly gathered information indicates that the bomb lies in shallow water on the north side of the sound, approximately three miles from Tybee Island.
After 90 days of fruitless searching, the Air Force, having bigger fish to fry, packed up and left, leaving the locals to their fate. The Air Force brass had a ready-made alibi in that if the massive hydrogen bomb ever did explode, they could blame it on the Communists. It seems that our military weren’t the only ones interested in finding the missing H-bomb. According to C.W. Jenkins, a retired Coast Guard captain who was in charge of the Port of Savannah in 1958, he had received reports from US Naval Intelligence that a Russian submarine had arrived on the scene shortly after we gave up the search. No doubt the Russians could have gained valuable intelligence from a US thermonuclear weapon of the latest design. Did they succeed where we failed? We definitely didn't find it and, if the Russians really did show up, there is no evidence in the archives that they found it either.
According to the Air Force, this rusting relic of the Cold War, designated No. 47782 Mark 15 Mod 0, contains 3 tons of enriched radioactive uranium and a detonator packing the wallop of 400 pounds of high explosive. The Deputy Director of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons and Proliferation Center, Major Don Robbins, thinks the Tybee bomb lies at least 5 miles from shore beneath 20 feet of water and 15 feet of sand and silt. If the bomb exploded, it “would create maybe a 10 foot diameter hole and shock waves through the water of approximately 100 yards . . . boats going over it would not even notice. They might see some bubbles coming out around them.” According to the Air Force, there is no chance of a nuclear explosion because the Tybee bomb lacks a key plutonium capsule.
Derek Duke, a retired Air Force colonel who has been researching the matter for several years doesn't agree. “It's a nuclear bomb...it's like if I take the battery out of your car, then I try to convince you it's not a car.” Duke points to an April 1966 letter to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy from W.J. Howard, who was then the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. Howard wrote that four nuclear weapons had been lost and never recovered. Two were “weapons-less capsules,” assumed to be incapable of a nuclear blast, but the Savannah bomb and a device lost in the western Pacific Ocean in 1965 are listed as being “complete.”
But the Air Force says that Howard got it wrong. Speaking in an official capacity, Major Cheryl Law reiterated the Air Force's stock statement concerning unrecovered nuclear devices, “the bomb off the coast of Savannah is not capable of a nuclear explosion.” What about the 3 tons of enriched uranium encased in the bomb? “To have that hurt you, you would actually have to ingest it.”
Let's see, that means that Howard was either a “complete” idiot (no pun intended) or he intentionally lied in writing to Congress and signed his name at the bottom. I wonder if Howard, analyzing the incident eight years after it happened, might have had access to information not available today. Although he now says that he may have made a mistake, it seems likely that the Department of Defense coerced Howard into changing his story.
Colonel Richardson has a copy of the receipt he signed for the bomb before embarking on the mission—a receipt that purports that there was no capsule. Also, the Air Force claims that none of the H-bombs at Homestead Air Force Base had capsules in February 1958. That's ridiculous. Why load an H-bomb aboard a B-47 without a capsule? Given that a capsule-less H-bomb would needlessly subject the B-47’s crew to radiation emissions, why not substitute an inert, inexpensive practice dummy of the same size and weight?
Howard H. Dixon, a former crew chief who loaded nuclear weapons onto planes at Hunter Field, Georgia, from 1957 to 1959, claims the bombs were always armed. “Never in my Air Force career did I install a Mark 15 weapon without installing the plutonium capsule,” he insists.
Armed or unarmed, six thousand pounds of 90 percent enriched uranium and other radioactive elements aren’t anything to sneeze at. The steel case is undergoing corrosion by the seawater and will eventually begin to leak (the Russians evidently foresaw this and made the casings for their version of the Mark 15 hydrogen bomb from non-corrosive stainless steel). Because isotopes have an extremely long half life—713,000,000 years for uranium-235 and 4,510,000,000 years for uranium-238—the danger isn’t going away anytime soon. Hazardous radiation is being emitted 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Even a small dose can cause irreparable harm to your health.
A local resident, Donald Ernst, runs a website about the bomb called Tybeebomb.com. Ernst says that “if all accounts of the bomb are correct, as far as the make and model, it is 20 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima [see H-bomb video]. . . . I believe, using common sense, that if the bomb were to detonate, it would crack the Floridian aquifer. This aquifer is the source of drinking water for four-plus states. Why not take something that is inherantly dangerous and remove it? Sometimes the government really amazes me.”
At a special hearing called by Mayor Walter Parker, the City Council of Tybee Island approved a resolution which urged the Department of Energy and the Air Force to locate the bomb and give residents a “realistic assessment of potential dangers” to address local concerns “about the safety, health and peace of mind and economic livelihood of residents of the city and its visitors.”
Could it be that the Air Force weighed the cost of conducting another search ($22 million or more) against the risk and Tybee Island/Savannah came out the loser? Even with 20/15 hindsight into the survival-of-the-fittest mindset of the Air Force in that era, it boggles the imagination to envision a nameless, faceless staff functionary cavalierly mumbling “So long, Savannah!,” as he stamps the report “TOP SECRET” and returns to business as usual. Colonel Derek Duke thinks that the real reason behind the cover-up may not be the cost. He says that “if that weapon is out there with a capsule, it could have substantial effect on the policy of the United States with strategic weapons. We've got a very important ballistic missile defense system that's politically being pushed forward now, and I think this could have an...[impact] on that decision.” In other words, if the public ever found out how much havoc this hydrogen bomb could render and how careless the Air Force was with public safety, they might put an end to this madness once and for all by cutting the budget for developing nuclear-related weaponry.At precisely 4:19 PM on March 11, 1958, a month after the Savannah incident, a similar bomb, but purportedly without a nuclear payload, was inadvertently dropped from a B-47 when the aircraft experienced electrical problems while flying over Mars Bluff, near Florence, South Carolina (see newsreel). Exploding over ground zero, it injured six people and left an enormous 70 feet wide, 30 feet deep crater. The high explosives used to trigger an atomic bomb are by themselves a significant threat. The detonator (all by itself) destroyed local farmer Walter Gregg’s house and wounded five members of his family while damaging cars, houses, and churches as far away as five miles. Obviously, when Air Force spokesmen say that unarmed bombs aren’t dangerous, they are talking through their hats. Hundreds of bomb fragments were recovered and the area was monitored for radiation. Even now, nearly six decades later, traces of radiation can still be detected with a Geiger counter.
The nuclear weapon that injured the Greggs, rendered their Chevrolet a burnt-out wreck, and killed at least six of their chickens was a Mark 6 30-kiloton fission bomb, that weighed 7,600 pounds, was 10 feet 8 inches long, and had a maximum diameter of 61 inches. Starting at eight o’clock on the morning of March 11, a specialized two-man loading crew took one hour and seven minutes to load the bomb aboard the B-47. When the loading team experienced difficulty engaging the steel locking pin, they called the weapons release systems supervisor for assistance. He took the weight of the weapon off the plane’s bomb-shackle mechanism, put it onto a sling, and then jiggled the pin with a hammer until it seated. The bomb was put back on the shackle, and preflight checks continued. But neither the bomb-loading crew nor the aircrew ran the locking pin through its engage/disengage cycle with the bomb’s weight on the shackle. For the crew to receive maximum points for its unit under the ground rules, all preflight checks had to be finished by 10:30 AM. It is difficult not to suspect that institutional pressure to gain points led to them skipping this step.
After the bomb had been loaded and the preflight checks completed, the crew went to briefings on weather and operations, had lunch, and returned to the plane about 2:40. At 3:42 Captain Koehler started his engines. At 3:51, as required by regulations, copilot Woodruff rotated his seat to face aft and pulled the lever to disengage the locking pin from the nuclear weapon. It could now be dropped instantly in case of an emergency. At 3:53 the plane took off to join three other B-47s for a formation flight to Europe. When the B-47 reached an altitude of 5,000 feet, Woodruff again swiveled in his seat, this time to re-engage the locking pin. He worked the locking lever unsuccessfully for five minutes as the B-47 climbed to 15,000 feet to join the three other aircraft. At this point, the crew knew it had a problem. The pilot told the bombardier, Captain Kulka, to go into the bomb bay to try to seat the locking pin by hand. This was not a spur of the moment decision; the bomb bay was not pressurized, so the entire plane had to be depressurized. Because the plane was at 15,000 feet, the crew had to don oxygen masks. Further complicating matters, the entrance to the bomb bay was so narrow that a parachute could not be worn into it. The task was doomed from the start; later testimony indicated Kulka had no idea where to find the locking pin in the large and complicated bomb-release mechanism. After a tense 12 minutes of searching for the pin, the bombardier decided, correctly, that it must be high up in the bomb bay and out of sight due to the curvature of the bomb. A short man, he jumped to pull himself up to get a look at where he thought the locking pin should be. Unfortunately, his handhold was the emergency release mechanism. The weapon dropped from its shackle and rested momentarily on the closed bomb-bay doors with Captain Kulka splayed across it in the manner of Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. Kulka grabbed at a bag that had providentially been stored in the bomb bay, while the more-than-three-ton bomb broke open the bomb-bay doors and fell earthward. The bag Kulka was holding came loose, and he found himself sliding after the bomb without his parachute. He managed to grab something—he wasn’t sure what—and haul himself to safety. Moments later the plane was rocked by the shock wave of the blast when the bomb hit the ground.
In case of an unscheduled bomb drop, Air Force regulations required the crew to immediately notify its base by a special coded message. Because the procedure had never been used before, the operations center at Hunter Air Force Base did not recognize the strange incoming message. As a final indignity, the pilot was reduced to radioing an open, unencryted message to the air traffic controllers in the civilian tower at the Florence airport asking them to advise Hunter by telephone that aircraft 53-1876A had lost a “device.” The plane then turned back to photograph ground zero with its aerial camera. This was not difficult—the plume of smoke was easily visible from nearly three miles up. Because B-47’s had no way of dumping fuel, they descended to the denser air at 6,000 feet, where they circled for 2 hours and 26 minutes before landing uneventfully.
Emory Prosser, Fire Chief of Hunter AFB Emergency Response in 1958, led a siren screaming procession of nuclear accident capable emergency equipment on the almost 200 mile race to Walter Gregg's farm. What the rescue team found there was an unprecedented catastrophe. The Gregg sisters—Helen, six, and Frances, nine—and their cousin Ella Davies, nine, suffered lacerations. One had a ruptured spleen. Ella had to have 31 stitches and stayed overnight at the hospital in Florence. Knocked unconscious by the concussion from the blast while working in the tool shed, Walter Gregg awoke to find his wife, who had been sewing in the front parlor, on the cypress plank floor covered with glass shards and plaster. It wasn’t until later that evening that they were told that they had been hit by a loose nuke.
Three years later, on January 24, 1961, two bombs fell from a Strategic Air Command B-52G bomber when a fuel tank in the right wing developed a leak, lost 37,000 pounds of fuel in two minutes, caught fire, and exploded, causing the aircraft to break up over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five of the eight crew members survived. The explosion caused structural failure of the right wing at 8,000 feet after the crew had bailed out. This in turn resulted in two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs separating from the B-52G during airframe breakup. The force of the breakup activated all but one of the arming safety devices on one bomb, including arming wires pulled out, pulse generator actuated, the explosive actuator fired, a timer run down, all contacts of the differential pressure switch closed, and the low and high voltage thermal batteries actuated. The arm-safe, however, remained in a “safe” position which meant that the X-unit did not charge and the warhead did not complete the arming sequence. A parachute provided this bomb with a relatively soft landing in an upright position (the parachute snagged in a tree), but the other H-bomb buried itself beneath soggy farmland, leaving a crater eight feet in diameter and six feet deep. Although no explosion occurred, this weapon was also partially armed upon release from the aircraft and further by closure of the arming switch upon impact. Because a high voltage switch didn’t close, this bomb also failed to complete the arming sequence. The nose crystals in both weapons, used for salvage fusing, were crushed.
After excavating to a depth of 50 feet and recovering a parachute pack, some high explosives, a tritium bottle, and a portion of the nose, the Air Force paid $1,000 for an easement on the site (much cheaper than the $500,000 estimated cost of recovery) and left the business end of the hydrogen bomb where it lay (they later filled in the hole so that today it is indistinguishable from the rest of the bean field where it is situated). What could the commanding officer have been thinking when he cavalierly dismissed responsibility for a nuclear device capable of slaughtering the inhabitants of an unsuspecting American city. “So long Savannah, goodbye Goldsboro?” Most of the fail-safe mechanisms were disabled by the force of the impact. It is entirely possible that nothing stands between the people of North Carolina and the detonation of an unstable Mark 39 2.5 megaton thermonuclear H-bomb other than a single hair trigger.
Has the water table been contaminated with radiation? Are local crops being affected? Nobody seems to know.
Speaking at a press conference in September 1983, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, had this to say: "The bomb's arming mechanism had six or seven steps to go through to detonate, and it went through all but one, we discovered later." Given the possible consequences, it is unconscionable for the Air Force to continue to stonewall the media about the danger - however remote - that this maverick H-bomb poses to the public.
Shouldn't a bomb - not just any bomb, but a thermonuclear weapon - be as deserving of proper disposal as other forms of biohazardous wastes? A local reporter, Mike Rouse, who covered the story for a Wayne County newspaper at the time of the incident says it is his understanding that the bomb broke apart when it slammed into the earth and now lies in pieces. The Air Force claims that no radiation was detected, but that is not surprising since it is insulated by more than 150 feet of soil. If the casing did in fact shatter, it is all the more reason to clean up the resulting nuclear contamination. Since fusionable radioactive elements have an extremely long half-life, the problem is not going away anytime soon. Unlike the Chernobyl disaster, no concrete buffer has been poured. Because the soil which surrounds the abandoned H-bomb is saturated and unstable, it is imperative that the Air Force admit to its mistake without further delay in order that steps can be taken to protect the public. Isn't it ironic that billions are being spent to develop an anti-missile missile capable of shooting down a nuclear device before it reaches our borders, but we can't spare a half million to make one that is already here safe?Sometime in late July, 1957, records aren't quite clear if it was the night of the 28th or 29th, an Air Force C-124 cargo plane experiencing mechanical difficulties was forced to dump two nukes off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey, one 50 miles out, the other 75 miles. The bombs, called Mark 5's, did not explode when they landed in the Atlantic. Once again, the Air Force says that the bombs lacked crucial plutonium capsules. However, they admit that the detonators—a ton of high explosives each—pack enough punch to level a city block. Needless to say, they are still out there - presumably at the mercy of the tides and currents with 43 years worth of corrosion eating away at them.
“If you thought syringes on the beach were bad...imagine if a nuclear bomb were to wash up. Lots of heavy things wash ashore,” warns Stephen Schwartz, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who recently edited “Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940.”
Arrivederci Atlantic City? Or is it possible that one of the bombs might have made it to Manhattan by now?
This simply isn't the Air Force's strongest area of expertise and it wouldn't surprise me if the Air Force knew less about what goes on beneath the waves than Bill Clinton knows about celibacy. The Atlantic sea floor is anything but static. Flowing to depths of 3,000 feet or more, the Gulf Stream steadily washes the entire eastern seaboard. Differences in temperature and salinity result in changes in the density of seawater, producing both up and down welling. And large surface storms can scour continental shelves.
Probably the greatest danger stems from the enormous pressure to which a submerged bomb can be subjected. At sea level average pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch, but it quickly increases with descent, expanding to 1,338 psi at 3,000 feet, sufficient to implode watertight metal casings. Add corrosion from forty years of continual immersion in seawater and you have a time bomb waiting to go off.
How much truth there is in the Air Force's assertion that the bombs pose little or no danger is illustrated by a "Broken Arrow" incident that occurred on January 17, 1966. A B-52 collided with a K-135 refueling plane over Palomares, Spain, with four hydrogen bombs aboard. One bomb floated gently down suspended between two parachutes, another bomb sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean, and it is rumored that the high explosives in the other two bombs detonated upon impact, spewing radioactive material into the sea.
On January 21, 1968, another B-52 crashed approximately seven miles southeast of Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. Four bombs were alleged to have burned with the plane, spreading radioactive contamination over icy seas. However, a group of ex-employees of the Arctic facility have obtained classified documents suggesting that one of the thermonuclear hydrogen weapons sank to the seabed and still lies there today. According to an article published in the daily Jyllands-Posten, a prominent Danish newspaper, the lost bomb, serial number 78252, was never reported to Denmark, despite the fact that Denmark is a NATO ally and Greenland is an integral part of the kingdom of Denmark. Needless to say, this is not the way to treat a friend.
The Danish Ritzau news agency released a story reporting that a U.S. submarine filmed images of something resembling a hydrogen bomb in April 1968 while conducting a search for remains from the B-52 wreckage.
Because Denmark had banned nuclear weapons from its soil, the crash has soured relations between our two countries. With State Department officials scheduled to visit Greenland on August 21 to 24, 2001, for talks with Danish officials on whether or not Thule will play a role in the planned National Missile Defense program, the disclosures could not have come at a more inopportune moment. Home to a ballistic missile early-warning radar station, Thule is ideally situated to detect incoming missiles from what the United States labels “states of concern”—countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. Greenland's native people have repeatedly expressed strong opposition to having anything to do with the NMD proposal.
Consequences still reverberate from what happened on December 5, 1965, when an A-4e Skyhawk rolled off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga and sank to the bottom, along with a live hydrogen bomb, 80 miles from Okinawa. In 1989, the United States informed Japan that the bomb was leaking radioactive material, no doubt providing ammunition for local protestors who would like nothing better than an excuse to kick United States troops off of their island.
It's not like we are the only nation that ever lost a nuclear bomb. Cold War nuclear policy expert Stephen Schwartz admonishes that the “Russians had many...accidents, but...they have not been forthcoming about them." How about the other nuclear powers? “I wouldn't be surprised if the British, the French, and the Chinese had their share as well.”
Nobody knows for sure exactly how many derelict nuclear bombs are rolling about on ocean floors worldwide. In 1989, Greenpeace estimated the number to be 50. At least 11 of them belong to the United States. Of those, four definitely have live payloads. We know from the Bikini tests that 40 kilotons detonated in a lagoon can render an atoll uninhabitable for decades. When you consider that a single hydrogen bomb packs 10 to 1,000 times as much punch as a fission bomb, it is tantamount to criminal negligence to let such a device endanger an unsuspecting populace. A megaton blast (equivalent to a million tons of TNT) results in severe damage to buildings 10 miles away. The power of the explosion increases in direct proportion to the size of the bomb. Detonate a good sized bomb in shallow water near a major city's shoreline and it's Post Toasties for the inhabitants.
It doesn't have to be that way. The U.S. Navy has submarines capable of finding and retrieving nuclear weapons regardless of the depth at which they are lost. When President Johnson learned about the lost Palomares hydrogen bomb, he abruptly demanded that the Navy find it before the Soviets did. Two submersibles, Alvin and Aluminaut were loaded on cargo planes and flown to Spain. On its tenth dive, Alvin sighted the tattered remains of a parachute wrapped around the missing H-bomb. It was 2,500 feet underwater, wedged into a 70-degree slope. Alvin first attempted to hook it, but the bomb fell back into the water and was lost for three more weeks. Then a robot cable-controlled underwater recovery vehicle (CURV) guided by a surface ship got tangled up in the parachute's suspension lines. In desperation, the Navy decided to hoist both the CURV and the bomb together, hoping that the tangle would hold long enough to get them to the surface. Luck was with the rescue team that day (April 7, 1966) and three months' worth of tenacity finally payed off big time.
Motivated by the less-than-graceful recovery of the Palomares bomb, the Navy went on to develop an array of manned and unmanned advanced technology submersibles capable of accomplishing “Broken Arrow” missions with minimal risk to personnel. NR-1, the Navy's first submarine designed specifically for deep submergence search and recovery, was the brainchild of Admiral Rickover. Unlike Alvin, the much larger NR-1 was nuclear powered and not dependent upon the support of a surface ship. Its heavy-duty grappling arm gave it deep sea capabilities that outpaced Jules Verne's visions in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Two nuclear submarines that had been facing retirement, USS Halibut and USS Seawolf, were rebuilt and pressed into service as deep sea search vehicles. USS Parche was also overhauled and refitted with state-of-the-art electronic gadgetry qualifying her as a “special projects” sub.
But perhaps the most grandiose and costly salvage ship of any era, the Glomar Explorer, constructed jointly by the Navy and the CIA (Note: the CIA's cover story had Howard Hughes' Summa Corporation using the Glomar Explorer to mine magnesium nodules from the ocean floor) in the early 1970's as part of Project Jennifer, provided the best proof that any object at any depth can be located and lifted from anywhere beneath the sea. After Halibut discovered a sunken Soviet submarine containing at least one intact ballistic missile complete with nuclear warhead, Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense under President Nixon, approved Jennifer. Six years later, 1,700 miles northwest of Hawaii, five mighty mechanical claws descended 17,000 feet to the bottom of the Pacific and, guided by computers on board the Glomar Explorer, clamped onto 5,000 tons of twisted, rusting steel and began slowly raising it to the surface. But the Soviet submarine fell apart at the seams when three of the grasping claws cracked, sending the bulk of the submarine back into the depths. Although ten percent of the submarine was brought up, including the bodies of six Russian sailors, the missile and its warhead were lost. A second attempt was scuttled by the resignation of President Nixon and the subsequent revelation that the CIA had illegally compiled files on more than 10,000 American citizens. Nonetheless, it can be presumed that few, if any, lost nuclear devices lie at a depth greater than 17,000 feet and that none outweigh the 500 tons that the Navy managed to bring up. Now, with the end of the Cold War, instead of mothballing nuclear submarines, we could be using them to locate and dispose of lost and all-but-forgotten thermonuclear Cold War relics instead of leaving them lying around, waiting for God-only-knows-what terrorist group to salvage.
It would only take a fraction of the $1 billion dollars which the Air Force wasted on an atomic aircraft that never got off the ground to do the job. It's morbidly ironic that at the same time the Air Force was saying it couldn't afford to continue searching for the missing nuclear bombs, it was throwing money into Project Halitosis for development of CAMAL (continuously airborne missile launcher and low level) technologies in a vain attempt to attatch gossamer wings to heavyweight nuclear reactors.
Nations at war have a responsibility to dispose of unexploded ordnance posing a danger to civilians as soon as the war is over. During the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, occupying military forces scattered landmines over 97.8 percent of Kuwait. As soon as the Gulf War ended, the cleanup effort began. By April 1999, a total of 1,646,916 landmines had been recovered, more than one mine per every man, woman, and child. The costs in terms of humanity have been enormous. Sixty people have been killed and 131 injured, 12 of whom were Americans, while attempting to disarm these devices. Because H-bombs are potentially more hazardous than landmines, it makes no sense that a similar effort to find and defuse hazardous abandoned weapons was not part of the victorious aftermath of the Cold War.
The root of the problem appears to have been that certain Air Force leaders, General Curtis LeMay among them, advocated adopting a first strike policy against the former Soviet Union. Expediency dictated that they downplay the lethality of nuclear weapons or run the risk of being labeled madmen. The impossibly ridiculous notion that honor and duty necessitated that real men, as the Air Force's official song dictates, “live in fame or go down in flames” was at least in part to blame.
This Dr. Strangelove insanity will not be put to rest until we get a full and complete accounting of all missing nuclear weapons together with assurances of their safe disposal. In the parlance of Cold Warrior LeMay, we need to get rid of them before they get rid of us.I have 3 AM Magazine in Paris, France, to thank for publishing this article when a number of U.S. publishers could not find courage for their convictions.
This article was taken from Chapter 12 of Bushwhacked by Fred Dungan. To get the complete story click here.
Chasing Loose Nukes by Colonel Derek Duke
Goldsboro Bomb Website
South Carolina Bomb Newsreel
Return to Home Page