By J. R. Roseberry
The Tybee News
Growing controversy concerning the refusal of the U.S. Air Force to locate and remove a hydrogen bomb it intentionally dropped near Tybee almost a half century ago has drawn international attention in recent weeks.
Stories about what is now known as the "Tybee Bomb" have appeared in the England's prestigious London Times and leading newspapers in Australia and Time magazine, among others, in this country.
Special programs about the weapon--dropped by a B-47 bomber after it collided with a jet fighter during night training exercise in 1958--have also been aired by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and CNN, along with a number of U.S. radio stations.
Much of the coverage has centered on an official Air Force report released in July warning that if the bomb is disturbed it could detonate and blow a hole in the Floridan Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to Tybee and a huge portion of the Southeast.
The report and its startling information were revealed after area citizens and elected city, state and U.S. officials urged the Air Force to find and remove the bomb from Wassaw Sound above which it was reportedly jettisoned.
Information contained in the report was compiled by the Defense Department and presented to the Air Force shortly after Tybee's City Council called for such action in a February public hearing.
The Air Force waited until July to release its version of the report which says the bomb is buried 5 to 15 feet below the bottom of the nearby sound.
While warning that, if disturbed, the weapon could explode, endangering those involved in the recovery effort and the Floridan Aquifer, it claims the bomb poses only a low risk from leakage of the highly radioactive material and no attempt will be made to locate or remove it.
The report says a search for the bomb could cost $23 million and take five years and because of this and the danger posed by disturbing it, the Air Force plans to continue classifying the weapon as "irretrievably lost".
Some area residents and officials say they have been left in a quandary since the Air Force, on the one hand seems to have intentionally underestimated the danger from the bomb--which is said to be dozens of times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima during World War II--while on the other proclaiming it is a virtual "Dooms Day Machine" if disturbed in any way.
Some suggest the danger has been minimized because the Air Force fears locating and removing the bomb would require a mass evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents, which would not only cost millions of dollars but could result in mass hysteria.
Others say the Air Force, like other government agencies, is constitutionally opposed to admitting its own errors and is simply stalling for time with the expectation that people will forget about the bomb when the media turns its attention elsewhere.
Given the horrifying attack by terrorists on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C. which has capture universal world sympathy and media attention, the Air Force may be correct.
A similar situation occurred in 1958, when an unsuccessful search for the weapon was abandoned after journalists turned their attention to another nuclear bomb the Air Force dropped on a farm near Florence, S.C. That weapon, reportedly penetrated 50 feet below a plowed field and exploded, injuring several people, destroying a nearby house and barn, and blowing cars off the road miles from the site.
But many believe the recent world media coverage of the seemingly contradictory elements contained in the Air Force report and the bomb's bizarre past history may surface again with even bigger headlines when it reaches Japan, because of that country's justifiable fixation on U.S. nuclear weapons.
Such speculation is reinforced by the fact that Japan shares a similar "secret" lost hydrogen bomb experience with Tybee, although it may not yet realize it.
That nuclear bomb was lost in Japan's territorial waters on Dec. 5, 1965, when an A4 jet armed with the weapon was lost over the side of the carrier USS Ticonderoga. This loss was disclosed in a secret (subsequently declassified) 1966 report to Chet Holifield, then chairman of joint congressional committee on atomic energy, which said the incident was never made public, nor was any public disclosure intended.
Congress directed former Secretary of Defense Robert A. McNamara to prepare that report following controversy caused by the loss of another U.S. nuclear bomb in waters near Spain.
Although the Spanish bomb was located and recovered, it prompted Spain to curtail U.S. transport of any nuclear weapons through its territorial waters or air space, which led Congress to demand a complete report listing all such nuclear "accidents".
It was this report, prepared by McNamara's assistant, W. J. Howard, and presented to Holifield in 1966, that stated both the Tybee Bomb and the one lost in Japanese waters were fully armed nuclear weapons and both remained lost.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who spearheaded the effort to get the Air Force to produce its most recent report, says he does not know whether Japan has ever been informed of the bomb lost in its territorial waters.
If that country, in fact, learns of that nuclear weapon for the first time in conjunction with current world coverage of the lost Tybee Bomb, it could spark a substantial adverse reaction.
The Air Force, which failed to report the lost Tybee Bomb until several days after it was jettisoned, now says the 1966 report erred in reporting the weapon was fully armed, claiming it does not include the plutonium triggering mechanism required for a nuclear detonation.
Earlier, officials claimed the Tybee bomb was simply a "mockup" of a bomb used in the training exercise, but the Air Force subsequently admitted it was a real Mark 15 containing uranium and other nuclear components.
The claim that the triggering device is missing has been refuted by Howard H. Dixon, who was in charge of loading nuclear bombs aboard Air Force bombers at Hunter Air Field at the time of the bomb drop.
Dixon, who reportedly continues to hold a key position in the Air Force nuclear armaments program, said during the public hearing on Tybee that he had never heard of such a bomb ever being loaded aboard an Air Force bomber without a triggering device.
Kingston, who was called to Washington, D.C. to receive the Air Force report, said he was pleased by assurances that the lost bomb poses no danger for area citizens and that he had asked "hard questions" during the meeting in Washington, which was attended by 15 or so government and military leaders.
Kingston said "no one spoke up" when he asked if anyone knew of any danger in connection with the bomb which had not been revealed and he is convinced that neither the Air Force nor anyone else at that meeting would intentionally mislead him.
Kingston said Dixon could be right about bombs loaded at Hunter Air Field, but the bomb jettisoned near Tybee was loaded at Homestead AFB in Florida, although the pilot landed his plane at Hunter after dropping it.
Derek Duke, a former Air Force pilot who formed a salvage company called SCORE last year to locate the bomb, says anyone familiar with this model M15 bomb and the bay aboard the B47 bomber where it was carried knows it could not be armed after takeoff because of insufficient room.
He and other former Air Force officers say it was common practice in that Cold War era prior to U.S. deployment of intercontinental ballistics missiles, to keep bombers carrying fully armed nuclear bombs aloft as our first response in case of a nuclear attack by Russia.
"They did not have time to return to their bases to have the weapons armed in the event of such an attack," Duke said.
Others have questioned why the military conducted an intensive six week search for the bomb--using a blimp, several ships and a number of ground troops--just after it was jettisoned if it did not consider the weapon dangerous.
In a recent interview for the London Times story, City Manager Tom Cannon said he learned during his earlier 21 year Army career in intelligence to be wary of taking the Pentagon at its word.
"One thing you learn is to use weasel words with the best," he said, questioning why the initial search was conducted in the absence of danger.
Bert Soleau, a chemist and former CIA agent who is a partner in SCORE, has said the bomb should be recovered and disposed of to prevent a terrorist group from finding the weapon and recovering the highly enriched uranium and other nuclear materials it carries.
"It would not be very hard to make a number of nuclear bombs from the material in that weapon," he said.
Kingston said Air Force officials told him their five-year estimate for a search was based on the fact that it would involve sifting through sediment in a 20 square mile area using equipment much like that used 50 years ago.
"They said they don't have any super Geiger Counters" and no exotic new technology has been developed for such a search, he said.
Duke, however, said his company includes an expert in marine recovery operations who has developed sensitive search equipment which can locate the bomb electronically and display it from various angles on a computer screen. He says the same expert now serves as a consultant assisting in the development new underwater equipment and search techniques for the navy.
Duke says he believes his company can locate the bomb relatively rapidly since it has already narrowed the area where it was dropped to about one square mile.
He said his group had approached the Air Force and offered to conduct a low profile search, locate the weapon and inform officials of its location without disturbing it in any way but the Air Force turned down his offer. Some even accused him of simply "trying to make a bunch of money" out of such a search, which he estimated could cost as much as $1 million.
His group appears to have been exonerated by the subsequent Air Force report estimating its cost for such a search at $23 million.
Unlike Kingston, state and local officials and a number of Tybee citizens have expressed disappointment with the Air Force report and its refusal to find and remove the old hydrogen bomb to ensure both the safety and peace of mind of area residents.
Meanwhile, the Tybee Bomb and people like Kingston, Duke, Cannon, Mayor Walter Parker and State Rep. Burke Day have become familiar names in England, Australia, Europe and throughout the United States. --J. R.