One of history’s most famous (or most infamous) discoveries is the invention of the Atomic Bomb. Its discovery came at a steep price, but it single-handedly altered how wars were fought across the globe.
Additionally, the advent of the atomic bomb also forced world leaders to reassess how they viewed the defense of their own countries. Even though the U.S. has been the only country to ever use the atomic bomb, the country issued numerous documents on how to handle an all-out nuclear attack on the United States. Yet, the only thing government officials were not prepared for was what to do in the event that the U.S. Military dropped the bomb on American soil. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened over North Carolina in 1961.
Almost Accidental Detonation
On 24 January 1961, the crew of B-52 Stratofortress lost control of the aircraft and ejected from it. The B-52 carried two Mark 39 nuclear bombs, which detached and separated from the aircraft. Both the B-52 and the nuclear bombs crashed near Faro, North Carolina.
As the two Mark 39s detached from the B-52, three of the four arming mechanisms initiated. Fortunately, not only did the fourth mechanism not arm, but also the bombs’ parachutes successfully deployed allowing the weapons to reach the ground relatively unscathed.
Overall, three crew members died in the crash; one after ejecting from the aircraft and two others who died in the crash itself. Even though the bombs did not detonate, North Carolina came extremely close to experiencing the destructive power of the bombs first hand.
According to Jack ReVelle, a former Air Force weapons disposal specialist who was tasked with job of disarming the bombs during the recovery effort, “It was damn close.” (1)
ReVelle described the scene to a group of students at Eastern Carolina University. One of the bombs was inactive; however, the other went through five of the six steps toward detonating. ReVelle contends that if the bombs reached the sixth step and detonated that:
It would have created a crater eight football fields wide. It would have destroyed every structure within a four-mile radius. There would have been a 100-percent kill zone for eight and a half miles in every direction. (1)
Nuclear Catastrophe Waiting to Happen?
ReVelle is not the only one who believes that the eastern seaboard was on the cusp of a nuclear catastrophe. In September of this year, a 1969 document was declassified. This document, titled Goldsboro Revisited or How I Learned To Mistrust the H-Bomb or To Set The Record Straight, outlines Parker F. Jones’, supervisor of the Nuclear Weapons Safety Department at Sandia National Laboratories at the time, opinion of how dangerous the situation really was. Jones states:
“One simple, dynamo-technology, low-voltage switch stood between the United Stated and a major catastrophe!” (2)
Jones goes on to say in the document that even though there were other so-called safety precautions in place, none of them were effective. Furthermore, he contends that the two Mark 39 nuclear bombs were not properly equipped for the mission that they were deployed on, which was to be part of an effort to keep one-third of the nuclear bombers airborne at all times.
After the invention of the most devastating weapon on earth and well into the cold war, the United States was prepared for a variety of different nuclear attacks from its enemies. However, through eyewitness accounts and declassified documents, it is fairly evident that the U.S. was vastly ill-prepared for a nuclear accident. So much so, that the only thing that saved the country from a nuclear catastrophe was a simple low-voltage switch. One must wonder how many other accidents occurred that put the country in catastrophic danger that are yet to be declassified.