Roseberry February 7, 2006 story|
SUB BOMB--J. R. Roseberry--2/7/06 (Pix available
Lots of water has flowed under the Bull River Bridge since the hydrogen bomb was dropped a few miles down the road near Tybee Island.
The bomb, described as a hundred times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II, was intentionally jettisoned by a U. S. Air Force B-47 bomber on Feb. 8, 1958.
Government agencies have conducted searches for the bomb--the most recent just over a year ago--and a half dozen private efforts have been conducted, but the weapon has never been found.
The bomb was released after the B-47 was severely damaged in a mid-air collision with an Air Force F-86 Saberjet fighter during a military training exercise.
Col. Howard Richardson, the bomber’s pilot, dropped the 7,600 pound Mark 15 nuclear bomb in an effort to save his plane. crew and area residents after deciding to try to land the badly crippled aircraft at Hunter Air Field.
Richardson, during our interview with him at his home just outside Jackson, Miss., said the runway at Hunter was undergoing repairs at the time and he feared that if he hit its raised end when he attempted to land, “the bomb might shoot through the plane like a bullet.”
He alerted Strategic Air Command officials of his intention to drop the weapon, then released it over Wassaw Sound before receiving a response. He said the response came later, approving the bomb drop but directing him to jettison it 20 miles out at sea.
Richardson brought his B-47, one engine dangling from its partially demolished wing, in for a safe landing at Hunter and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his extraordinary flying feat.
Both wings were ripped off the jet fighter which rammed him but its pilot, Lt. Clarence Stewart, now of Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., miraculously survived.
Stewart ejected from his shattered aircraft at 35,000 feet and was uninjured except for a severe case of frostbite on his fingers suffered while slowly parachuting to earth through six miles of the sub-freezing atmosphere.
An intensive 90-day search for the nuclear bomb was conducted by military divers and dozens of boats, some dragging grappling hooks, while troops sloshed through the marshes surrounding the Wassaw Sound.
Navy Lcdr. Art Arsenault of Knoxville, TN, who headed the unsuccessful operation, speculated recently that his search likely failed because it concentrated on the wrong area of the sound. He said his operation focused on the south side, whereas information obtained years later by a private group, points to the north side, about three miles from Tybee Island.
Arsenault’s search was shut down after three months when government officials decided to leave the hydrogen bomb wherever it lay, apparently hoping it would be forgotten.
That hope was realized in dramatic fashion just as the search was called off.
A second nuclear bomb was accidentally dropped on a farm near Florence, S.C., shortly after the Air Force bomber carrying it took off from Hunter Air Field.
That weapon’s conventional explosives detonated when it hit the ground, cutting a 70-foot wide, 30-foot deep crater in the earth near farmer Walter Gregg’s house.
The explosion destroyed the house and injured Gregg and five members of his family. It also damaged a church, several houses, and cars as far as five miles from the site.
Hundreds of bomb fragments were recovered from the area by Air Force personnel and local residents were monitored for months after the blast for radiation exposure.
Savannah resident Harris Parker, who inspected the South Carolina blast site several years ago, almost a half century after the explosion, said he detected lingering radiation there with a Geiger counter.
The furor surrounding the Florence bomb captured the attention of news media, relegating what has since become known as the “Tybee Bomb” to a distant memory, left to lurk in shallow water of the sound near its namesake island.
It surfaced again--at least in the news--several years ago when retired Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Duke of Statesboro stumbled across a mention of the bomb on the Internet.
Initially intrigued, he became increasingly concerned about the danger posed by the missing weapon which was loaded with uranium, 400 pounds of conventional explosives, and, as far as Duke knew at the time, a plutonium triggering device.
He organized a team of experts and approached government authorities seeking financing to mount a search for the bomb, which he estimated would take several weeks and cost about $1 million.
Duke’s proposal was disdained by officials and others, some of whom indicated that such an effort would be a waste of time at best, or, at worst, a ploy to line Duke’s own pockets with government money.
Officials admitted the bomb was packed with uranium and conventional explosives, but claimed it was not armed with the plutonium triggering device necessary to detonate a nuclear explosion; hence it posed little danger and should be left alone.
Pilot Richardson reinforced this position saying that when he took off on his ill-fated flight from Homestead AFB in Florida, he signed off on a receipt stating that the bomb was not armed with the trigger, although he reportedly did not actually witness the loading of the bomb on his plane.
But Duke refused to allow authorities to bury the bomb story.
He scheduled a special meeting with the Tybee Island City Council to alert residents to the danger, including that of possible radiation leakage, posed by the nearby bomb.
Duke’s continuing efforts and their surrounding publicity did not go unnoticed in government circles.
At the same time as the 2001 council meeting, parts of a special study by the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Counterproliferation Agency were released.
The report said the bomb was not armed, hence was relatively harmless, and it was in the best interest of the public and the environment to leave it alone, categorized as “irretrievably lost.”
If the bomb was left undisturbed, “the principal risk is localized heavy metal contamination,” according to the report, which said material in the weapon should not explode spontaneously.
Even if the weapon did detonate, shock waves would not exceed 1,000 feet and “dispersed uranium concentration would be so low that health effects would be negligible,” it said.
But the report also warned that because of the nuclear material and conventional explosives on the bomb, any attempt to recover it could be hazardous.
There was speculation that if the bomb accidentally detonated during a search it might blow a hole in the Floridan Aquifer, endangering a major source of drinking water for the entire Southeast Coast.
Despite earlier charges that Duke was attempting to profit from his request for $1 million to finance a private search, officials now estimated a government search would take at least five years and cost an estimated $23 million.
Duke claimed the leakage of portions of the report was a government effort to scuttle his group’s push for a bomb search.
He said he believed the bomb was fully armed with a triggering device and that “sea water corrosion and the presence of 400 pounds of aged, sensitive high explosives” near the bomb’s highly enriched uranium “poses a substantial threat to Savannah.”
Duke said a recently declassified government message written in the 1960s confirmed his position that the bomb was fully armed with the triggering mechanism.
The message, sent to the chairman of the U. S. Congress Joint Committee on Atomic Energy by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy W. J. Howard, referred to the Tybee Bomb as a “complete weapon,” indicating that he was convinced it contained the plutonium trigger.
Confronted with this information, government officials claimed Howard made a mistake in his message.
Informed of the Air Force report, Pam O’Brien, of Douglassville, GA, a vocal critic of alleged nuclear contamination from the plant in Augusta and leader of world wide efforts to protect the environment, said “it’s absolutely ludicrous” for officials to say the biggest risk is heavy metal contamination, and claim it would not contaminate drinking water.
“It’s a nightmare and their own people know it,” she said, noting that leakage from the lost bomb could easily enter the food chain and endanger both the environment and population along the entire East Coast.
As to the possibility of plutonium on the bomb, she said “it can get in everything: your eyes, your bones, your gonads. You never get over it. They need to get that thing out of there!”
Bert Soleau, a member of Duke’s team who is a chemical engineer and former C.I.A. agent, joined him for the meeting with city council.
Soleau said he was concerned that terrorists might recover the weapon and use the highly enriched uranium, lithium and beryllium it contained to build “dirty” nuclear devices to attack the U.S.
His warning came seven months prior to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Howard H. Dixon, a former Air Force sergeant who spent 31 years as a specialist in loading nuclear weapons aboard U.S. bombers, told the gathering at Tybee’s City Hall he had supervised the loading of hundreds of nuclear bombs and every one of them was fully armed.
(Both Richardson and the Air Force said later that what Dixon said about Mark 15 nuclear bombs might have been true after March of 1958 when they were “complete weapons,” but prior to that, as was the case with the Tybee Bomb, the trigger was loaded separately.)
Fred Nadleman, a member of “Citizens for Clean Water”, told council members and residents gathered in Tybee’s city hall:
“I hold the Air Force totally responsible for this and it should pay the entire bill for locating and removing the bomb. What the hell were they doing over a major city with a nuclear bomb aboard anyway?”
Following the hearing, Tybee’s City Council passed a resolution urging the Department of Energy and the Air Force to locate the bomb and give the city “a realistic assessment of potential dangers” to assuage public concerns “about the safety, health and peace of mind and economic livelihood of residents of the city and its visitors.”
Walter Parker, who was mayor at the time, said “we expect this resolution to stir up a hornet’s nest. We hope it will, anyway.”
It did, indeed.
Major newspapers and magazines started printing stories about the missing bomb and both U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston and State Rep. Burke Day called for a government investigation, disclosure of any danger the bomb may pose, and a renewed effort to find and dispose of it.
Kingston was invited to a special meeting in Washington at which 15 representatives of various branches of the government were present to discuss the bomb and answer questions.
He said he was surprised when he was told during the meeting that the government had developed no super sensitive equipment with which to locate a nuclear device since the original search 50 years earlier.
When Kingston asked officials why they had spent so much time and money on the original search if the bomb posed no danger, they told him the government didn’t want “unfriendly” types to get their hands on it and they were also concerned that a shrimp boat might accidentally snag it.
At the same time, Kingston said the officials told him the bomb had no warhead and posed no danger, and “I don’t think they would lie to me.”
Meanwhile, Duke continued to question the government’s refusal to conduct a new search.
The government itself said the weapon was “buried in very shallow coastal water in only a few feet of sand and is probably completely intact,” he warned, noting:
“The bomb could be in mint condition, still ready to do its designed purpose, a hydrogen bomb explosion of mind-boggling power.”
Equipped with modern electronic equipment, Duke led several privately financed search parties crisscrossing Wassaw Sound.
On June 17, 2004 Art Arsenault, who led the original search, and radiation detection expert Joe Eddlemon accompanied Duke on a search of the northeastern portion of the sound, where Duke said calculations he got directly from pilot Richardson indicated the bomb landed.
Duke said Richardson recorded the information in his flight log book which was strapped to his knee when he jettisoned the bomb. (Richardson later denied ever providing Duke with any information about the bomb.)
This was Arsenault’s first visit to the sound since he conducted the initial search there in 1958. He said his original search party was never provided with Duke’s information, hence had concentrated its search in the wrong section of the sound.
I joined Duke’s group for the search during which our boat was trailed by a television crew covering the event for CBS TV’s Morning Show.
Eddlemon, one of the country’s leading radiation detection experts who had worked with Homeland Security and was owner of Pulcir, Inc. in Oak Ridge, TN, brought an array of exotic electronic devices for the search.
It included a gamma ray; X-ray spectrometer for detecting and identifying radioisotopes; a sodium iodide pistol; scintillation detector, and a photo multiplier tube.
Eddlemon said his instruments showed radiation readings substantially higher than the normal range in an area about the size of a football field, and while he also detected radioisotopes in this area, intense interference precluded positive identification of the source.
While Eddlemon said he could not determine the exact source of the unusual readings, he could not rule out the possibility that they were caused by the lost bomb.
Duke said he found “free air gamma radiation readings at this site and there are high levels of readings in the sea bed.”
Both he and Eddlemon agreed soil samples should be gathered in the area for high resolution testing in a laboratory.
Several weeks later I joined Duke for another search of the same area.
This time his team included a pair of professional divers and electronics expert Roger McWhorter, who brought along a special device he was developing to detect both nuclear and conventional explosives from a distance.
The team placed the unusual device, referred to as a “Harmonic Resonant Molecular Field Locating Transducer”, at several locations on beaches bordering the sound to triangulate the precise spot where radiation was previously detected before sending the divers down to collect soil samples in the area.
Duke passed all the information he had gathered during his searches to Air Force officials.
Meanwhile, stories about the missing Tybee Bomb and Duke’s efforts to persuade the government to find it continued to make the news.
He appeared on a morning television talk show and national networks broadcast segments on the bomb. The story was also picked up by England’s BBC and print media in Europe. A Hollywood film maker even produced a series of trail episodes for a television documentary on missing nuclear weapons, featuring the Tybee Bomb.
Either because of the information Duke supplied, the barrage of publicity, or both, the government finally agreed to conduct a full fledged investigation, including an examination of the Wassaw Sound area where Duke had detected high radiation.
The investigation was conducted in late September, 2004 after being announced with great fanfare at a press conference in Savannah attended by major national and international media representatives.
Dr. Billy W. Mullins, a science and technical adviser to the chief of staff and secretary of the Air Force who was responsible for providing policy, guidance, expertise and oversight to the Air Force nuclear, space, force protection and homeland defense programs, headed up the government’s 20-member team.
Mullins’ team included other government heavyweights from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Air Force, Navy, National Security Administration, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and National Weapons Laboratories.
Officials said their principal purpose for conducting the investigation was to determine if the radiation found by Duke’s team emanated from the lost Tybee Bomb or had some other origin, and to ensure the safety of area citizens.
A large pontoon boat filled with notebook and camera wielding media representatives trailed a flotilla of government water craft to the search site.
Duke and Joe Eddlemon joined Dr. Mullins on the expedition’s command boat to which the media craft was briefly tied for an unusual at sea press conference near the search site.
Government boats pulled radiation detectors and other equipment across the area Duke designated as emitting the highest radiation, while military divers gathered dozens of soil samples.
Mullins refused to divulge any information about the radiation readings or soil samples, saying they must first be subjected to careful analysis in government laboratories. He said the results should be available within a few weeks, and a detailed report of the findings would be distributed at that time.
Weeks turned into months, however, and no information was released.
It was first speculated that results were being withheld until after the presidential elections in November, but when nothing had been released after the 2005 Inauguration, some suggested that the test results must be ominous, else they would have been made public immediately.
Finally, after a full gestation period, Dr. Mullins returned to Savannah in June, nine months after his investigation, to present the government’s findings.
In essence, he said what Duke had found was, plain and simple, pretty much dirt.
The report said the high radiation Duke’s team recorded came from uranium in monazite, which is rich in thorium sand and emits high levels of natural, harmless radiation.
Monazite is common in rock formations in the Blue Ridge and Piedmont sections of Georgia and monazite sand is carried to the coast by both the Savannah and Ogeechee Rivers.
Local scientists say the black streaks often seen on Tybee’s beach reflect the presence of monazite, and emit harmless radiation.
No uranium 235 or 238, which would come from a Mark 15 bomb, was found, according to the report, which said this eliminated the missing bomb as being the source of the high radiation.
At the same time, the report said the government’s data did not prove the Tybee Bomb “is not present in this general location.”
It said no one knows for sure where the bomb is located; the government plans no further searches, and any private offer of salvage will be rejected.
Just as did the earlier 2001 report, this one said that while the bomb is not hazardous if undisturbed, it “would pose a serious explosion hazard to personnel and the environment if disturbed by a recovery attempt,” and an explosion would have a substantial impact on the Floridan Aquifer and area drinking water supply.
It estimated search and recovery costs “would most likely start at over $5 million,” and more than two years of “advanced environmental decision making” would be required.
It also said Wassaw Sound would have to be closed off for a search, which would have a substantial impact on the $29 million annual economic activity surrounding the area shipping, fishing and recreation industries.
In addition to all of these problems, the report said that with current equipment, “the Navy Supervisor of Salvage estimates there is a very low level possibility of successfully locating the bomb.”
Because of the possibly “unacceptable environmental impact associated with search and recovery operations” the Air Force “concurs with expert conclusions that it is in the best interest of the public and the environment to leave the bomb in its resting place and remain categorized as irretrievably lost,” the report concluded.
It is identical to the conclusion reached following the 2001 study, although that one was apparently a paper work exercise in Washington, which included no inspection or data collection at the bomb drop site.
There was no explanation as to why such innocuous findings took nine months to compile and release, and once presented, the government apparently washed its hands of the lost weapon and any consequences it might pose for this or future generations living in Coastal Georgia.
But the public’s insatiable curiosity precluded the possibility that the lost bomb would once more fade from consciousness.
Sparked by the fanfare surrounding the government investigation, additional information about the missing nuclear weapon, if not the bomb itself, continues to surface.
Long time Tybee shrimp boat operator William Glenn Smith told local journalist Bret Bell that news stories about the search for the bomb jogged his memory regarding an experience he had in the early 1960s.
Smith said he was just off Little Tybee Island, not far from where the Wassaw Sound search was conducted, when his shrimp net snagged something heavy, causing his boat to heel over.
He said he dropped his net off just off the north end of Little Tybee, near the mouth of the Back River, and got a local diver who often worked with local shrimpers to dive to that location.
Smith recalled that the diver spotted a large, oblong object, which Smith said he now thinks was the bomb. He said he believes the force of the surf and shifting sands in the area would have pushed the object closer to the beach on Little Tybee during the intervening years.
Stan Walker, a retired Savannah police officer, told Bell his memory was also jogged by news stories about the bomb, and his information seems to corroborate that of Smith.
Walker told Bell he was fishing off Little Tybee in the late 1970s when he pulled his boat ashore there to take a break.
Shortly after landing, he said he spotted the nose of an oblong metal object, the head of which seemed to be sealed with bolts or rivets, protruding from the sand at the high water mark.
Walker said he figured it was a boat’s boiler, and that was the last he ever saw of the object until he saw a picture of the Mark 15 nuclear bomb in the newspaper.
“I thought nothing about it for years, and then I saw the picture and, I swear to God, it looks exactly like this,” Bell quoted Walker as saying.
If those sightings really were the missing bomb, both Duke and the government were searching in the wrong spot, which would explain why they were unable to find the lost weapon.
Another unusual report which surfaced just after the most recent search offers a far different conclusion…one which could account for the government’s continuing lack of interest in finding the bomb.
Retired U.S. Coast Guard Capt. C. W. Jenkins, who was in charge of the Port of Savannah in 1958 and helped arrange for military divers to join the original search, reportedly e-mailed his story to a Charleston, S.C. journalist just after the recent investigation.
Jenkins told Tony Bartelme of the Charleston Post and Courier that shortly after the original search was terminated he was contacted by Naval Intelligence.
Jenkins said he was told that two teenaged boys from Thunderbolt were lost in a boat while fishing off Tybee when they spotted a submarine and paddled up to it to get directions home.
The boys said a man in civilian clothing told them in perfect English which direction to go and they did so.
The next day they informed their high school teacher about their experience and he called Naval Intelligence.
Jenkins said he joined representatives of that agency in interviewing the two boys, and during the interview the boys were asked to draw a sketch of the submarine they had seen. He said the sketch matched a Russian submarine of that era, and noted that a number of Russian subs had been spotted off the coast at that time.
He said this led him and the Navy representatives “to believe a Russian sub had recovered the bomb.”
But Jenkins said Washington “ruled the water was not deep enough for this type of sub and therefore dismissed the report. To this day we do not know the truth.”
Jenkins, who was 83 at the time he communicated with the reporter, died just 11 days after sending his e-mail.
Bartelme said his paper requested information about Jenkins’ report from both the FBI and Navy under the Freedom of Information Act but was told they either had no information in their files about the incident or that they did not keep records that far back.
If the government knew a Russian submarine recovered the bomb shortly after the original search was called off, officials would have not reason to search for it and the truth of their claim that the bomb poses no danger would be undeniable.
The bomb is about to be in the news again with the current filming of a documentary on the missing weapon by TV’s Discovery Channel and the publication of a new novel by Savannah writer Rowan Wolfe entitled Incident at Tybee Island.
Wolfe’s tale describes efforts of U.S. security officials to thwart a terrorist plot to retrieve the Tybee Bomb.
The book’s publication was kicked off with a cocktail party and buffet at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum during which the author signed copies of her new book.
She alluded to C.I.A. types she said were in the area, noting that she knew who they were but could not reveal their identity. This was presumably an effort to add intrigue to her tale since her book espouses the official government line that the bomb is harmless because it is missing the plutonium trigger.
Pilot Richardson, now in his 80s, was present at the book signing, confirming Wolfe’s claim that he approved of her work.
Noticeable for his absence, however, was Derek Duke, whose efforts over the past six years were responsible for generating sufficient interest to help make such a novel more marketable.
Wolfe says she did not invite Duke (who was on nearby Tybee Island when the party was held) because Richardson didn’t want him there. She said Richardson is upset with Duke for resurrecting the Tybee Bomb story when he, as well as the government, wanted it forgotten.
She had no explanation as to why Richardson approved of her book, despite the fact that it promulgates the story yet again…this time in a form with far greater shelf life than yesterday’s newspaper.
The only thing that seems relatively certain about the lost bomb is that last month marked the 48th anniversary of its plunge into shallow water near Tybee, where it presumably still lurks, lost but by no means forgotten.
SIDEBAR with Tybee Bomb column…pix attached, captions below sidebar.
Derek Duke reaffirmed on last month’s anniversary of the Tybee Bomb drop that he has no further plans to continue his search for the lost nuclear weapon.
He said he believes the greatest legacy resulting from his years of effort may be the development of the device his team used to confirm the location of radiation detected earlier in Wassaw Sound.
Duke may well be right.
If this device can reliably detect explosives at a distance, it could prove invaluable for spotting roadside bombs in Iraq or weapons aboard container ships heading for U.S. ports.
Sources indicate that both private and government experts are continuing their efforts to develop and test the device, work on which is still shrouded in secrecy.
Duke1: Derek Duke, left, scans horizon with a member of his team as Roger McWhorter sets up explosives detector on beach beside Wassaw Sound.
Duke2: Duke’s team walks down beach beside Wassaw Sound.
Duke3: Roger McWhorter adjusts detection device on beach while team members discuss operation.
Duke4: Derek Duke, hands in pockets, looks over Wassaw Sound as team members prepare equipment for bomb search.
Duke5: Diver aboard search boat prepares to join second diver in the water to collect soil samples from suspected bomb drop site in Wassaw Sound
Any resemblance in this material to any
person is purely
coincidental and is unintentional.