LOOSE NUKES THREATEN COAST
by Fred Dungan
bomb was lost in 12 feet of water and lies buried under a little sand
within 1 mile of the beach. Is it armed? Will the East Coast be toast?
The bet is simple. The Air Force is betting your life on NOT. But, those
that created it including Paul Tibbets the first man to drop it, have
always said that if the capsule is in the bomb, then stuff can happen.
Sleep tight tonight on the East Coast, your Air Force is at the poker
table." - Name Withheld
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.
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 had a midair collision with
an F-86 Saberjet fighter southeast of Savannah and had to jettison the
bomb in order to land safely. It was dumped in the dead of night somewhere
along the southern shore of uninhabited Little Tybee Island. After a cursory
search failed to reveal its whereabouts, the military threw up its hands
and abandoned the search.
According to the Air Force, this rusting relic of the Cold War, designated
No. 47782 Mark 15 Mod 0, contains decaying 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 former Air Force pilot 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 ton
or so 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
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.
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 . . . . 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
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 ($1 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 beggars 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.
In March 1958, a month after the Savannah incident, a similar bomb, but
without a nuclear payload, was dropped from a B-47 over Florence, South
Carolina. Exploding over ground zero, it injured six people and left an
enormous crater. The high explosives used to trigger an atomic bomb are
by themselves a significant threat.
Three years later, on January 24, 1961, two bombs fell from a Strategic
Air Command B-52 when a fuel tank in the right wing exploded, causing
it to break up over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five of the eight crew
members survived. A parachute provided one bomb with a soft landing, but
the other buried itself beneath soggy farmland, leaving a crater eight
feet in diameter and six feet deep. 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. 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 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
weapon except a single hair trigger. 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
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
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
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.
was taken from Chapter 12 of Bushwhacked by Fred Dungan. To get the complete
It is highly
irresponsible for the Air Force to ignore the dangerous weapon submerged
off the coast of Savannah. Their decision
can be compared to the irresponsible parent who keeps his gun box unlocked
in his exclusive
custom closet at home. Children will explore any closet when given
the opportunity so such careless behavior should be stopped.