off coast: Danger or Dud? |
Charleston The Post and Courier
Story last updated at 9:18 a.m. Sunday, February 8, 2004
H-Bomb off coast: Danger or Dud?
In 1958, a damaged Air Force plane dropped a nuclear bomb into the ocean near Savannah. The bomb was never found. Now, bomb hunters from Georgia think they know where it is. They fear terrorists could find it, too.
BY TONY BARTELME
Duke, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, and Parker, a Tybee Island treasure hunter and former boat-racer, think they have found a hydrogen bomb in the shallows of Wassau Sound, about 20 miles from downtown Savannah.
An Air Force bomber dropped the weapon in 1958 after a mid-air collision with a fighter. Crews searched for the bomb without success, and for the next 46 years the military deemed it "irretrievably lost."
Duke and Parker say the bomb is neither lost nor irretrievable.
They don't know exactly where it is but think they have identified its general location based on radiation readings and data they've collected over the past several years. "We could find it in less than a day," Parker says over the boat's din, adding he thinks it's buried under a few feet of mud. Pinpointing its location would require money and more sophisticated equipment, they say.
Their claims have fueled a new debate about whether the old bomb is a threat to public safety or, as the Air Force says, is relatively benign and better left alone. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Duke and Parker say, make this debate all the more pressing.
The missing bomb is a Mark 15 model, one of 1,200 in the U.S. nuclear arsenal at the time, and one of a handful of nuclear weapons the military lost during the Cold War. When armed, its explosive power would be 100 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, enough to incinerate nearly everything within a five-mile radius and generate a 160-mile plume of dangerous radioactive fallout.
The military insists that this particular bomb isn't armed with its plutonium trigger, which is necessary to initiate a nuclear reaction.
"We do not leave dangerous nuclear bombs in shallow waters off our coast," said Billy Mullins, the Air Force's associate director for nuclear and counter-proliferation. "If it was dangerous, we would search for it until we found it."
Despite a good deal of evidence to back up the Air Force's position, Duke and Parker aren't convinced. Based on a declassified document they acquired and their own investigation, they think the bomb might be armed with its plutonium trigger or contain other plutonium components. At the very least, it contains weapons-grade uranium they say shouldn't be left unguarded.
Critics have said Duke and Parker are conjuring visions of nuclear apocalypse to line their pockets. The two and several other partners set up a company to search for the bomb. Duke has vowed that any profits would be donated to the town of Tybee Island. Duke and Parker also are working with film industry types on a screenplay about their investigation. They say financial considerations are secondary. As the boat closes in on the target, Duke says one of the most serious threats facing the nation is the possibility that terrorists could obtain enough weapons-grade uranium to build an atomic bomb. "This is not a hobby," Duke says. "I believe this is a threat to the USA."
Moments later, Parker, a diver who has worked as a marine consultant on several movies, announces, "It should be underneath us in a minute."
The boat motors at 4 mph in water 12 feet deep. A dolphin plays nearby. They toss a microphone-shaped receiver for the Geiger counter into the water. All eyes turn to the needle. Nothing happens for a few moments as the boat bobs in the waves. Then the needle jiggles a tad to the right.
LOSING A NUKE
On the frigid night of Feb. 5, 1958, Maj. Howard Richardson's hands warmed the controls of a B-47 Stratojet, flying fast toward his target.
In the big plane's belly was the Mark 15, serial number 47782, about 11 feet long and weighing 7,600 pounds.
Richardson's mission was to practice dropping the bomb at a designated point near Radford, Va., and then return to his base in Homestead, Fla.
Because the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission owned the bomb, Richardson had to sign a "temporary custodian receipt." He promised to use the bomb for "the sole purpose of flying it on a maneuver."
On the receipt, Richardson wrote "simulated." The Air Force cites the receipt as proof that the bomb was a blank, a weapon incapable of a nuclear explosion.
Richardson was an experienced pilot, the kind the military wanted at the controls of a plane carrying a hydrogen bomb, neutered or not. He had flown bombers in World War II, including two missions on D-Day, and helped organize the Berlin Air Lift. In the late 1950s, he began flying the B-47.
With a top speed of 600 mph, the B-47 was nearly as fast as a jet fighter. On that night in 1958, Richardson steered toward Virginia and pretended to drop the bomb.
On the way back to Florida, though, the B-47 had to tangle with a squadron of F-86 fighters from the Charleston Air Force Base. The squadron had orders to intercept the bomber and engage in a mock attack.
The pilot of one of those fighters was Clarence Stewart. He swooped in on the B-47 near the South Carolina-Georgia border. "I had a radar malfunction, and then let's just say we got together one cold night over Sylvania, Georgia," Stewart said recently from his home in Florida.
The left wing of Stewart's fighter hit the bomber's right wing. Stewart ejected at an altitude of 35,000 feet into air that was about 50 degrees below zero. He drifted 40 miles, until he saw water reflecting from a moonlit swamp.
On the bomber, Richardson wrestled with the controls. The plane's sixth engine dangled from the wing. Debris had shredded a fuel tank and made gashes in the tail. Richardson told his crew to forget about using their ejection seats. The plane was flyable, barely.
Richardson guided his crippled warplane toward Hunter Air Force Base near Savannah. Landing would be dicey, especially with a 7,600-pound bomb on board. "If we crashed, it would come forward through the crew area like a bullet through a gun barrel," he explained.
Richardson turned the plane out to sea and let the bomb go.
Richardson wasn't worried about a nuclear explosion. The plutonium trigger "just wasn't there," he said recently from his home in Mississippi.
Richardson hit the Hunter Air Force Base airstrip at more than 200 knots and used a parachute to slow the aircraft before it ran out of runway.
"What he did was magnificent," said Stewart, who later became friends with Richardson. "He popped the chute right on the feathered edge of it tearing up." After they landed, Richardson and his crew kissed the tarmac. Richardson eventually received the Distinguished Flying Cross. The plane never flew again.
Art Arseneault, a lieutenant commander with the Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit 2 in Charleston, had just gotten up for breakfast the morning after the mid-air collision when he got word of a lost nuke. He sped to Georgia and walked straight into an Air Force general's office.
"His first comment to me was, 'How do you like your coffee?' His second was 'Man, you get that bomb back, and I'll be a hero to my boss back in Florida,' " Arseneault said.
It wasn't the first time Arseneault had searched for a missing nuclear bomb. A year before, a Navy jet had lost one off the coast of Florida. That one would remain lost.
Arseneault and his unit focused their search on Wassau Sound, using minesweepers, sonar, even a blimp. Divers crawled like crabs on the seabed. Visibility was next to nothing.
"We were looking for a hole of entry, maybe a yard wide, or maybe a piece of the bomb tail," he said. "But that hole probably got filled every time the tide changed. We probably went over that needle in the haystack several times and didn't know it."
Arseneault said the Air Force didn't say whether the bomb contained plutonium. "And I never asked," he said. "An EOD person always assumes that whatever they're looking for is loaded. That's the way you finish your 20 years with all your fingers and toes."
Even if it was armed, 175 different detonators around a plutonium capsule would have to fire at the same time. This simultaneous explosion compresses the plutonium in an instant, causing a nuclear reaction. If just one detonator fails, the chain reaction won't happen. All in all, "nuclear weapons are pretty stable," Arseneault said.
The search went on for more than two months, until, finally, after the searchers found nothing but old junk, "they told us to pack it up," he says.
THE COLONEL'S CRUSADE
For years, the story of the bomb remained a mostly local curiosity, receiving occasional write-ups in the Savannah papers and aviation journals.
Then Derek Duke got interested. In 1998, he went to a reunion at Charleston Air Force Base, where he had been stationed in the 1970s. One of his colleagues was the navigator who was involved in the accidental release of an unarmed nuclear bomb near Florence in 1958, five weeks after the Savannah mishap.
When the navigator didn't show up at the reunion, Duke typed his name into an Internet search engine. Two responses popped up, a reference to the Florence incident and another about the one near Savannah.
Duke is a compact man with a pilot's calm voice who has spent a good deal of his life searching for people and things.
In Vietnam, he was chief pilot for the super-secret National Security Agency. "That's where I got a real education in the dark world of military intel and government secrets," he says. Later, he flew search-and-rescue missions with the Air Force Reserve and has received the Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals. He lives in Statesboro, Ga., and commutes to Atlanta, where he instructs airline pilots.
The more Duke read about the lost Savannah bomb, the more intrigued he became. He contacted Richardson and other crew members, studied tidal charts and weather patterns, traced the bomber's flight path and made calculations about where a bomb might land.
He eventually met Parker, who grew up near Tybee, a barrier island near Savannah. At 64, Parker's skin is weathered from a life spent on the water. He entered his first boat race at age 12 and raced professionally into his fifties. His resume lists more than two dozen TV shows and movies in which he has worked as an actor or consultant, including a stint as a stunt-car builder for the TV show "Dukes of Hazzard" and a diver in the James Bond movie "Thunderball."
With several other partners, Duke and Parker formed a company to look for the bomb. They submitted a proposal to the military, estimating search costs at nearly $1 million. The military declined to hire them. The bomb was better left buried in the seabed, officials said.
Meanwhile, Doug Keeney, a military historian, had been doing research on "Broken Arrows," the military's name for lost nuclear bombs.
A friend at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., sent him a box of recently declassified letters, including one written in 1966 about the Savannah bomb.
The letter was written by W. J. Howard, then-assistant Secretary of Defense, to a congressional committee interested in lost nuclear bombs.
In the letter, Howard identified two incidents in which "complete" nuclear bombs, bombs with plutonium capsules installed, were lost. One involved a fighter that fell off an aircraft carrier near Japan in 1965. The other was the one in 1958 near Savannah.
If Howard was correct, then the Savannah bomb was armed with a plutonium trigger and was capable of a nuclear explosion. Keeney later sent the letter to Richardson, the pilot of the B-47 who let the bomb go. Richardson sent it to Duke.
"Up until that point, I bought the Air Force's story that the bomb didn't have a plutonium capsule," Duke said. "Not after seeing that letter." In 2000, Duke showed the letter to Jack Kingston, a congressman who represents coastal Georgia. Kingston asked the Air Force to investigate. Howard has since told reporters he was incorrect; that the Savannah bomb wasn't "complete."
"I think he just made a mistake," said Mullins, the Air Force's technical nuclear director. "We can't find anything to lead us to believe that there was a capsule on board."
BETTER LOST THAN FOUND?
Mullins, a physicist who holds a patent for a sensor that detects movements as small as one millionth of a centimeter, is no stranger to B-47 stories. His father flew B-47s, sometimes with live nuclear bombs.
The way it worked, Mullins said, "if you went on alert, the Atomic Energy Commission guy would walk out with the real capsule and hand it over to the aircraft commander on board. And when he came back, he would hand it back."
Pilots are excruciatingly aware of when they are flying with live nuclear weapons, Mullins said.
Mullins said several agencies other than the Air Force, including the Navy and the Department of Energy, looked at the matter three years ago. "We did as much of an independent look as we could without violating the release of classified information."
Air Force records show that crews didn't use live nuclear weapons on training missions during that time, he said.
The military carefully tracks each nuclear bomb. "We know where that weapon went from the time it was built, to the time it was destroyed, what was done to it, when it stood on alert, and what we found was that it was not anywhere near the capsule at the time of the flight," Mullins said.
Mullins is backed up by Eric Longabardi, an investigative reporter who has done several exposes on the Pentagon, including a documentary for the History Channel called "America's Lost Bombs."
Longabardi said he uncovered documents showing that plutonium capsules weren't stored at the Homestead, Fla., base, the base where Richardson and his B-47 crew were stationed. "I'm not a big apologist for the DOD, but in this case, they're telling the truth. The bomb isn't going to go mushroom," he says.
The missing bomb contains highly enriched uranium, Mullins said. The exact amount is classified. He is adamant that terrorists can't recycle the missing bomb's uranium into a new atomic bomb. Why that's the case, he won't say.
"Many aspects of this answer are classified," he says, "but remember this uranium has been corroding in seawater for nearly fifty years. It's in no condition to be used in any weapon."
He dismissed the idea that terrorists might be interested in removing the uranium and mixing it with conventional explosives to make a radioactive "dirty bomb." Uranium doesn't pose as high a risk as some other more common sources of radiation, he said.
He also scoffed at the idea of Duke and Parker dragging a Geiger counter behind a boat to find signs of a nuclear bomb. A particle from uranium "can't penetrate tissue paper," he says. "So the idea that it could get through silt layer and sea water into the Geiger counter is not a concept this physicist would understand."
Joe Eddlemon, a former nuclear engineer from Tennessee who loaned radiation detection equipment to Duke and Parker, agreed that a Geiger counter wouldn't pick up radioactive particles, but it should be able to identify gamma rays emitted by the bomb.
"There's some source of activity out there," said Eddlemon, who has made several trips into Wassau Sound. "But I can't say whether it's a weapon or a concentration of natural radioactivity, or something else."
In April 2001, the Air Force concluded in a report that the bomb probably was still intact and buried five to 15 feet under the seabed. The report said military salvage teams had the capability of finding the bomb, but search-and-recovery costs could exceed $5 million.
The report did note that the bomb still contained 400 pounds of conventional explosives, which would pose a threat to salvage crews. An inadvertent blast or extensive dredging also might create a hole in a clay layer protecting an aquifer that supplies the region's drinking water, the report said.
"It's not dangerous, or we wouldn't have left it there," Mullins said, sighing. The Tybee bomb mystery is a minor irritation, he said, popping up every once in a while and causing officials to do more work. "I don't know how to dispel conspiracy theories," he said.
"This thing poses no problems and no risks as long as we let it stay lost."
Back in the Wassau Sound, Duke and Parker repeatedly pass over their target. Each time they pass over, the needle moves slightly. Duke isn't impressed. "It could be a spurious reading," he says, stressing that because he isn't a scientist, "I want to be careful about saying we actually found it."
Parker is more confident. On one trip, the needle on the Geiger counter "went all the way to the other corner," he says. "I think we touched it that time."
After an hour or so, Duke and Parker reel in the Geiger-counter and head back toward shore, no closer to solving the mystery of the missing bomb. Duke says they'll take more readings in the future, and that he would hand over the coordinates to the Air Force "if they asked for them, but so far they haven't," though Parker adds, "I sure would like to get paid for my time."
If they or someone else does find the bomb, Duke says, it puts the Air Force in a dilemma: If the bomb is safe, why not dig it up? But if it's too dangerous to dig up, why are they saying it's safe?
MISSING NUCLEAR BOMBS
In addition to the Savannah and Florence incidents, the military has lost, and sometimes recovered, other nuclear bombs.
-- 1956 -- A B-47 bomber carrying two nuclear weapon cores in their carrying cases disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea. No trace of the aircraft, the nuclear weapon cores or crew were ever found.
-- 1957 -- A C-124 cargo plane lost power and was forced to jettison two unarmed nuclear bombs into the Atlantic. The incident was kept secret for more than 10 years. The weapons were never found.
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