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Last week a report by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser (excerpted from his terrifying new book Command and Control : Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety) revealed that two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on January 23, 1961. Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons. One of the weapons was fully engaged and, despite denials from the US government, came very close to detonating. A few years ago, I investigated a similar deeply buried incident from 1958 when the Air Force jettisoned a hydrogen bomb over Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. Here’s that story.
Things go missing. It’s to be expected. Even at the Pentagon. Last October, the Pentagon’s inspector general reported that the military’s accountants had misplaced a destroyer, several tanks and armored personnel carriers, hundreds of machine guns, rounds of ammo, grenade launchers and some surface-to-air missiles. In all, nearly $8 billion in weapons were absent without official leave. Those anomalies are bad enough. But what’s truly chilling is the fact that the Pentagon has lost track of the mother of all weapons, a hydrogen bomb. The thermonuclear weapon, designed to incinerate Moscow, has been sitting somewhere off the coast of Savannah, Georgia for the past 55 years. The Air Force has gone to greater lengths to conceal the mishap than to locate the bomb and secure it.
On the night of February 5, 1958 a B-47 Stratojet bomber carrying a hydrogen bomb on a night training flight off the Georgia coast collided with an F-86 Saber jet fighter at 36000 feet. The collision destroyed the fighter and severely damaged a wing of the bomber, leaving one of its engines partially dislodged. The bomber’s pilot, Maj. Howard Richardson, was instructed to jettison the H-bomb before attempting a landing. Richardson dropped the bomb into the shallow waters of Wassaw Slough, near the mouth of the Savannah River, a few miles from the city of Tybee Island, where he believed the bomb would be swiftly recovered. The Pentagon recorded the incident in a top secret memo to the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The memo has been partially declassified : “A B-47 aircraft with a [word redacted] nuclear weapon aboard was damaged in a collision with an F-86 aircraft near Sylvania, Georgia, on February 5, 1958. The B-47 aircraft attempted three times unsuccessfully to land with the weapon. The weapon was then jettisoned visually over water off the mouth of the Savannah River. No detonation was observed”. Soon search and rescue teams were sent to the site. Wassaw Slough was mysteriously cordoned off by Air Force troops. For six weeks, the Air Force looked for the bomb without success. Underwater divers scoured the depths, troops tromped through nearby salt marshes, and a blimp hovered over the area attempting to spot a hole or crater in the beach or swamp. Then just a month later, the search was abruptly halted. The Air Force sent its forces to Florence, South Carolina, where another H-bomb had been accidentally dropped by a B-47. The bomb’s 200 pounds of TNT exploded on impact, sending radioactive debris across the landscape. The explosion caused extensive property damage and several injuries on the ground. Fortunately, the nuke itself didn’t detonate. The search teams never returned to Tybee Island, and the affair of the missing H-bomb was discreetly covered up. The end of the search was noted in a partially declassified memo from the Pentagon to the Atomic Energy Commission, in which the Air Force politely requested a new H-bomb to replace the one it had lost. “The search for this weapon was discontinued on 4-16-58 and the weapon is considered irretrievably lost. It is requested that one [phrase redacted] weapon be made available for release to the Department of Defense as a replacement”.
There was a big problem, of course, and the Pentagon knew it. In the first three months of 1958 alone, the Air Force had four major accidents involving H-bombs. (Since 1945, the United States has lost 11 nuclear weapons.) The Tybee Island bomb remained a threat, as the Atomic Energy Commission acknowledged in a June 10, 1958 classified memo to Congress : “There exists the possibility of accidental discovery of the unrecovered weapon through dredging or construction in the probable impact area. … The Department of Defense has been requested to monitor all dredging and construction activities”. But the wizards of Armageddon saw it less as a security, safety or ecological problem, than a potential public relations disaster that could turn an already paranoid population against their ambitious nuclear project. The Pentagon and the Atomic Energy Commission tried to squelch media interest in the issue by a doling out a morsel of candor and a lot of misdirection. In a joint statement to the press, the Defense Department and the Atomic Energy Commission admitted that radioactivity could be “scattered” by the detonation of the high explosives in the H-bombs. But the letter downplayed possibility of that ever happening : “The likelihood that a particular accident would involve a nuclear weapon is extremely limited”. In fact, that scenario had already occurred and would occur again.