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The Australian Article
August 12, 2001
 
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US admits losing nuke

August 12, 2001

A NUCLEAR bomb, 100 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, is lying 10km off the east coast of the United States.

Until now one of the most closely guarded secrets in US military history, its existence has been confirmed in newly declassified documents which reveal how it was dumped in the sea after a mid-air collision more than 40 years ago.

Pentagon officials, though admitting they do not know the bomb's exact location, insist it is safe.

They have rejected demands for it to be recovered, saying it is too dangerous to be touched.

The 3450kg hydrogen bomb, known as a Mark 15 weapon, has been lying off the coast of Georgia since February 5, 1958, when it was jettisoned from a B-47 Stratojet bomber after the plane was struck by a fighter jet during a training exercise at 36,000ft.

One of the bomber's wings was damaged and an engine dislodged.

The pilot, Maj Howard Richardson, was ordered to drop the 3.5m bomb before attempting to land.

He did so near Tybee Island, close to the mouth of the Savannah River.

Despite a 10-week search, the bomb was never found.

In a top-secret memo to the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a Pentagon official wrote: "A B-47 aircraft with a (word censored) nuclear weapon aboard was damaged in a collision with an F-86 aircraft near Sylvania.

"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."

Documents reveal the search was called off when another hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped near Florence, South Carolina.

A TNT explosive trigger detonated on impact, but the actual nuclear device did not explode.

Troops looking for the bomb off the coast were then ordered to Florence to conduct a clean-up operation. They never returned to Tybee Island.

"The search for this weapon was discontinued on 4-16-'58 and the weapon is considered irretrievably lost," one of the declassified documents states.

The military suspected the bomb plunged into water 6m deep, coming to rest beneath about 5m of sand.

The bomb's existence was only made public when a salvage company, run by former CIA officer Bert Soleau, offered to find it.

Now Georgians are demanding action, but the military is standing firm, saying recovery could take five years and cost $23 million.

Officials claim the bomb is safe because, though it contained 180kg of TNT to trigger the atomic explosion, a vital link between the TNT and the nuclear device had been removed. Without the link -- in this case a capsule containing plutonium -- detonation was impossible.

This has been challenged by former servicemen and residents, who have discovered documents stating it was armed.

Derek Duke, a former US Air Force pilot from Savannah, cites a 1966 memo to the Congress Joint Committee on Atomic Energy by W.J. Howard, then assistant to the secretary of defence, stating that the bomb was a "complete weapon".

Howard H. Nixon, a former crew chief who loaded nuclear weapons on to planes at Georgia's Hunter Army Airfield from 1957 to 1959, said the bombs were always armed.

"Never in my air force career did I install a Mark 15 weapon without installing the plutonium capsule," he said.

The capsule debate has failed to convince Mr Duke. "It's a nuclear bomb," he said.

"It's like if I take the battery out of your car, then I try to convince you it's not a car."

Tybee Islanders agree. Mayor Walter Parker said: "It's in the best interest of everybody that it be found to determine what condition the weapon is in."

Resident Ken Wade was more blunt: "There is no doubt we've got a nuclear bomb right here in our neighbourhood."

 

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