Somewhere off the coast of Tybee Island lies a thermonuclear bomb designed to be 100 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. The story behind it is a tale of cold warriors, atomic grapefruits, bulletproof underwear and a quest to do what the
U.S. government couldn’t do 44 years ago: find it.
By Luke Dittrich
Part One: The Loss
Howard Richardson lives in a single-level house built of brick and filled with eggs. His wife, Vivian, collects eggs, paints them, adorns them with beads. “That’s my hobby,” she says. “Chicken, quail, duck, ostrich. Any kind you can think of.”
The dining room is her workshop, and on the table is a plump, brown egg half-wrapped in a string of red beads, and a gold-painted egg with a window cut into it. A tiny plastic Virgin Mary figurine lies beside the windowed egg, soon to be glued in place inside it. Other eggs were deemed too perfect to decorate. On a writing desk near the front door there is a tiny white egg laid by a pullet. On an end table by a sofa there is a huge, black egg laid by an emu.
Eggs are a symbol of life, and there is something life-affirming about this egg-filled house in Jackson, Miss., a house lived in by a couple who have borne three kids, known five grandchildren, and been married for more than half a century.
One of the few egg-free pieces of furniture in the Richardsons’ house is a low coffee table in the living room. On this table is a small-scale model of a B-47 stratojet, an aircraft that Howard Richardson used to pilot in the U.S. Air Force. It was a plane designed to deliver weapons of mass destruction, weapons such as Mark 15 thermonuclear bombs.
Mark 15 thermonuclear bombs are shaped, it so happens, like eggs. They are aluminum cylinders rounded gently toward the nose and adorned with stubby tail fins.
Forty-four years ago, the Atomic Energy Commission of the United States entrusted Howard Richardson with a Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb.
He lost it.
February 4, 1958
President Eisenhower was suffering, The New York Times noted in a front-page headline, from a “slight cold.” That same paper boasted a cover price of a nickel, and advertised weekend vacation packages to Havana with prices starting at $99.
Less than a hundred miles to the north of Cuba, Major Howard Richardson and the rest of the 19th Bombardment Wing were stationed at Florida’s Homestead Air Force Base, working to keep America competitive in its accelerating nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Although the 19th’s four squadrons of B-47 stratojets were designed to reach targets as far afield as Moscow, they regularly practiced over friendly territory. This afternoon, for example, more than a dozen B-47’s were slated to take off en masse from Homestead, fan out across the country, and
pretend to drop nuclear bombs on a variety of American cities, towns and other targets.
Richardson was 36 years old, 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, with a pilot’s sun-
toughened squint. He’d logged more than 1600 flying hours in the B-47, and although he respected its nimble power—“more like a fighter than a bomber,” he said—his favorite aircraft would always be the older, prop-propelled B-17. He’d flown 35 B-17 missions in three months during World War II, including two on D-day. The plane he flew on most of these missions was “The Mississippi Miss,” named in honor of Richardson’s home state. He loved that plane. Once, after a particularly hairy sortie over Germany, his crew chief dug a big piece of flak out of the underside of the plane’s reinforced pilot’s seat. The Mississippi Miss had literally saved his ass.
The B-47’s at Homestead didn’t have names, just numbers. On this particular afternoon at approximately 6:30 p.m., Major Richardson and a two-man crew consisting of co-pilot Robert Lagerstrom and radar navigator Leland Woolard boarded a B-47 numbered 349 and taxied to the beginning of Homestead’s 12,000-foot-long runway. Richardson knew they would require nearly the entire distance of the runway to become airborne. This was due mainly to the plane’s fully loaded fuel tanks, but also in part to the extra weight of what was in the bomb bay.
What was in the bomb bay was shaped like an egg.
May 14, 1954, four years earlier
The bomb prototype known as “Zombie” sat on a barge in the Bikini Atoll, a ring of small coral islands in the central Pacific Ocean.
At four-tenths of a second past 6:20 p.m. local time, the bomb testers sent a signal to Zombie, detonating a spherical cluster of about 400 pounds of high-energy conventional explosives inside it. The explosion collapsed a hollow, grapefruit-sized ball of plutonium, compressing it to a much smaller size.
Once the ball of plutonium had shrunk sufficiently, it reached its so-called “critical mass.” The neutrons that it constantly emitted began to collide with and split its own atomic nuclei, initiating a self-sustaining chain reaction. Each split atom ejected new neutrons, which split more atoms and released more neutrons. As the chain reaction accelerated, an increasing amount of energy was released, and the initial explosion directed inward at the plutonium was soon met by another, much more powerful explosion moving outward.
This explosion was a nuclear one, and before it had even breached the Zombie’s aluminum hull it met the weapon’s so-called “secondary device,” one element of which reacted to the concussive pressure and radioactivity by initiating its own nuclear explosion. The other significant materials in the secondary device were rare hydrogen isotopes. When subjected to the temperatures and pressures created by the dual nuclear explosions now underway, the nuclei of these isotopes began to fuse together, a process that released even more neutrons and energy into the conflagrant storm.
This all took place within 600 billionths of a second. What happened next took a little longer.
First, the hull of the bomb was ruptured, blown apart, vaporized. Then the same thing happened to the barge that the bomb had been placed upon. Then the water that the barge was floating on was vaporized, too, along with some of the shallow seabed of coral and sand.
Everything, in fact, within a circular area more than 1,000 feet wide and 200 feet deep, was simply gone. From there, the force of the blast, searing heat and radioactivity billowed outward in an expanding circle of destruction. The temperatures generated by the explosion approximated those on the surface of the sun.
Had the Zombie detonated in present-day midtown Atlanta, for example, everything within the Perimeter would have been reduced to varying degrees of rubble, and most of the city’s population would have been dead or dying. Poisonous radioactive fallout from the bomb might have easily, depending on prevailing winds, reached as far as Charlotte or Birmingham.
As the bomb testers watched from their fortified bunkers, the Zombie’s mushroom cloud billowed up and then outward, eventually topping out 71,000 feet above
And so was born the latest incarnation of the world’s most powerful weapon.
February 4–5, 1958
About 37,000 feet above Radford, Va., a small city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, one of the Zombie’s offspring was nestled in the just-opened bomb bay of Major Howard Richardson’s B-47. The bomb was one of 1,200 Mark 15s in the United States arsenal, all modeled after the Zombie prototype tested in the Bikini Atoll. It was there only to make this training mission as realistic as possible, so that Richardson could experience the flight characteristics of a fully loaded plane.
Radar navigator Woolard consulted with Richardson, waited till a predetermined target in the city was lined up on his radar screen, and then pressed a button. The button did not release the bomb; it activated a radio transmitter, sending a signal to a receiver on the ground that triangulated the plane’s coordinates at the moment of transmission. Later, this data would be used to determine how closely the bomber would have come to striking its target coordinates had the Mark 15, rather than the radio signal, been released.
As soon as Woolard hit the button, a squadron of American F-86 jet fighters began to close in on Richardson’s aircraft from behind. These fighters had been instructed to engage the B-47 after it completed its bombing run, just as Soviet fighters would do in wartime. As their mock enemies advanced, Richardson and his crew did their best to evade them, first through a series of high speed maneuvers and then, once they had gained some distance, by releasing electronic countermeasures (ECM’s) to scramble the fighters’ radar.
They soon reached a point over the Carolinas where, according to the pre-flight briefing, they were in a “safety zone” and would be granted an unmolested flight back to Homestead. Major Howard Richardson leveled off at a cruising altitude of 39,000 feet and settled back into his seat. For the first time in hours, he allowed himself to relax. As far as he was concerned, the mission was over.
Nobody briefed fighter pilot Clarence Stewart about any safety zone over the Carolinas.
Stewart, flying an F-86 out of Charleston Air Force Base, had tracked Richardson’s B-47 and brought himself about 2,000 feet above it, preparing for a surprise attack. At half past midnight, he pushed his stick forward, nosing the jet fighter into an intercept dive. As his airplane accelerated, the Mach meter inching close to one, Stewart periodically checked his radarscope to make sure that the B-47 was still a safe distance away.
Forty-four years later, speaking by telephone from his home in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Stewart still isn’t sure exactly how what happened next happened. It could have been a radarscope malfunction, he says, or maybe some ECM’s were released when they shouldn’t have been, sabotaging his readings. Push him hard and he’ll respond with a chuckle: “He backed into me. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
However it happened, as Stewart pulled out of his dive his fighter was jolted by what he instantly recognized as the wash from a jet engine. He looked up and was horrified to see that the sky, as he put it, was “full of airplane.”
He yanked his stick to the right and the F-86 did what he wanted it to do, did what was called a wingover, a hard right turn that brought his wings perpendicular to the surface of the earth more than six miles below. That’s how his wings were until one of them, the left one, was sheared clean off by the right wing of Richardson’s B-47. He tumbled, cartwheeling in a flaming hunk of broken ordnance until his hands found the ejection handles by the side of his seat and pulled them. Stewart was propelled out of the airplane and into the cold night sky.
As soon as his parachute opened, Stewart’s body absorbed a shock of more than 28 g’s—he went from Mach .94 to 20 miles per hour in less than 10 seconds—and then he drifted under a nylon canopy for 40 miles in sub-freezing temperatures. He landed in a South Carolina swamp, and the locals who found him at first took him for a poacher. They later plied him with whiskey, whiskey he credits with saving his life. He spent a month in a military hospital recovering from hypothermia and frostbite on his face and hands.
One funny thing: Although they’d never met, Stewart and Richardson were both Mississipians, and Stewart’s mother hailed from the same small county as Richardson. “What are the chances,” Stewart asks, “of a couple of rednecks from the same county in Mississippi bumping into each other about 40,000 feet up in the air?”
One good thing: Patricia, a girl whom Stewart had just had a first date with the night before the accident, visited him in the hospital, took care of him, helped nurse him back to health. They fell in love. Eventually got married. That darling child, he calls her. And you can hear her now, filling in the gaps in his memory, her voice soft in the background as he tells his story over the telephone from his home in Fort Walton Beach Florida, 44 years later.
Richardson’s co-pilot, Robert Lagerstrom, was busy taking a fuel reading when the plane was hit. The jolt caused his pencil to scratch across the clipboard. He would save that clipboard, with its historic scrawl, for years.
With the impact came a bright flash on the right side of the airplane, and they were kicked into a sharp yaw to the left. Both pilot and co-pilot saw that the #6 engine, the one farthest from them on the right wing, was hanging at a 45 degree angle and seemed on the verge of falling off completely. From their position in the cockpit it was impossible to see the whole wing, but they did see metal sticking up from its trailing edge. They could also see empty space where the right fuel tank should have been. Although they never saw Stewart’s plummeting fighter, both men realized that they’d somehow been involved in a mid-air collision.
As Richardson fought to regain control of the plane, Lagerstrom worked furiously to cut off the fuel to the damaged engine. The plane was equipped with ejection seats, but Richardson ordered that they not be used until he determined whether the plane was flyable. Once he’d dealt with the immediate threat of an engine fire, Lagerstrom turned the radio knob to emergency with his left hand. He still held the pencil that he’d been taking fuel readings with. He remembers that vividly, the pencil in his hand as he made the first and only mayday call he would ever make.
Richardson couldn’t see the full extent of the damage. He didn’t know that the right aileron had a four-foot-long, 20-inch-deep gash in it, that the shrapnel from Stewart’s ruined fighter had peppered both the vertical and horizontal stabilizers with holes, and that the right wing’s main spar, its fundamental support, was broken. But Richardson knew they’d never make it back to Homestead. He’d had enough experience flying B-47’s to know that his plane was crippled and that if he didn’t set it down soon, it would do so itself.
The nearest SAC airbase was the Hunter Air Force Base, near Savannah, Ga. Richardson radioed for landing clearance. He was told that the runway was under repair and that a new section at the front end was raised a foot and a half above the brush and bramble at the beginning of the landing strip.
Richardson knew that if he came up short on the landing, his wheel could catch up on this raised section and send the Mark 15 hurtling forward like, “a bullet going through a gun barrel.” This was unacceptable. Even though the bomb was in its “training configuration,” meaning it wasn’t primed for a nuclear detonation, Richardson didn’t like the thought of a 7,600 pound weapon filled with 400 pounds of conventional explosives and who knows how much radioactive materiel suddenly sharing the cockpit with him. He knew what he had to do.
Richardson ordered Lagerstrom to contact Hunter and tell them to advise SAC that they planned to jettison “the hot cargo.” Then he gave another order, this one to bombardier Woolard.
Woolard pulled one lever, opening the B-47’s massive bomb bay doors. Then he opened a small red hatch on his control panel and flipped a switch beneath it. The Mark 15 thermonuclear weapon bearing the serial number 47782 was cut loose from the belly of the airplane and tumbled free. “And then,” Lagerstrom recalls, “it got quiet.”
Below them, Wassaw Sound, the island-bracketed mouth of the Wilmington River, gleamed black and silver in the moonlight. In the distance, approximately seven miles along the coast to the north, Richardson could see the upthrust tower of the lighthouse on Tybee Island. Less than 20 miles farther inland glimmered the faint lights of Savannah.
They waited in silence for about 30 seconds, the time it would take for the weapon to hit the water. There was no explosion.
A few moments later, the radio came to life again. It was Hunter, informing them that SAC had given permission to jettison the Mark 15, just so long as they did so 20 miles offshore. Richardson got on the radio. “Well, it’s too late,” he said, “we already released it.” Then, according to Lagerstrom, “it really got quiet.”
The plane came in toward the landing strip at around 210 knots and bounced once before Richardson pulled the lever to activate the brake chutes. At 1:26 a.m., nearly seven hours after taking off on its ill-fated mission, B-47 #349 slowed to a stop, surrounded by ambulances and fire trucks. When its crew had all exited the aircraft, they kneeled as a group and kissed the tarmac.
As Richardson finishes his story, Vivian brings out a pitcher full of sweet tea, doles out glasses and recounts how she first learned of her husband’s accident. “Someone woke me in the middle of the night and said, ‘Vivian, Howard won’t be home tonight. I just wanted to let you know that he’s fine, he just had a little bad weather.’ Well, I turned over and went back to sleep. But then [Howard] called a little while later and I said, ‘Well, somebody called and told me that you wouldn’t be home, that you ran into a little bad weather.’ And his statement was: ‘Bad weather, hell—a fighter ran into me!’ ”
Vivian was perhaps the first person to be misinformed about what took place that night. She would not be the last.
Over the past 44 years, the circumstances surrounding Richardson’s accident on that clear, cold night in February have gradually taken on the blunted details of legend. The Mark 15 thermonuclear weapon bearing the serial number 47782 is now known simply as the “Tybee Bomb.” Hidden from view, it has assumed numerous different shapes in the imaginations of those who care to think about it. To some, it is an enduring menace; to others, it’s a benign cold war relic. And to Howard Richardson, for one, it’s a pain in the ass.
Richardson went on to serve 15 more years in the Air Force, where he flew hundreds more missions, many of which involved nuclear weapons. The fact that people are still talking about the one mission that went terribly wrong he finds more than a little irksome.
“I wish,” he says, with a sigh that settles him deeply into the cushions of his couch, “that they’d find that thing and be done with it.”
Part Two: The Search
Spring 2002, the Wilmington River, near Tybee Island
Harris Parker is at the wheel of his 13-foot Boston Whaler, steering through the clumps of marsh grass that clog the brackish estuaries of the Wilmington River. It is approximately seven nautical miles from the dock at the rear of his house to the outer limits of Wassaw Sound, and the entire distance is littered with milestones from Parker’s life. There’s the marina from where, starting at the age of 7, he’d set out every afternoon in his skiff to explore, burning through his daily allotment of a dollar’s worth of gas. He’d never worry about where he was when the gas ran out; he would just jump out, grab the bow rope and tug the boat back to shore.
He got to know these waters better than anybody, got to know the hidden crabbing spots, the local dolphin pods, the secluded and nameless island where, at the age of 14, he lost his virginity. He knows these waters so well, in fact, that when Hollywood came to town a few years back to film some big-budget,
Travolta-starring thriller called The General’s Daughter, they hired him as “marine coordinator.” Harris Parker is 62 years old, and these waters, as far as he’s concerned, belong to him as much as they belong to anybody. So he damn sure remembers the first time somebody tried to keep him off of them.
“I was 18,” he says. “My friends and I, we’d heard there was some commotion in Wassaw Sound, so we took my boat and went to see what was going
on firsthand. When we got to the sound we saw that there were two of the
local Coast Guard 41-footers out there. One of them motioned for us to come up alongside them, then told us to get out of the area. We saw they had grapple hooks behind them like you would use to drag for a dead body, so we knew they were looking for something.”
Exactly what they were looking for wouldn’t become known to the public until days later.
The first reports of Richardson’s accident were classic examples of lying by omission. B-47, Fighter Collide in Air near Sylvania, read a headline in the February 6, 1958 edition of the Atlanta Journal. In the short article that followed, there was no mention of a weapon lost, let alone a thermonuclear one. The truth wasn’t revealed for more than a week. By that time, the search mission in Wassaw Sound had grown considerably, and the Coast Guard had been replaced by a much larger and more sophisticated force led by the
As many as 100 divers meticulously covered an area that came to include not only the entire Wassaw Sound, but part of the ocean extending three miles north to the southern end of Tybee Island as well. In all, the search area encompassed more than five square miles. The security perimeter surrounding the site was extended and tightened and patrolled by Navy ships, Air Force jets, even a pair of blimps. In general, life went on as usual for the local community while the search was underway, although some fishermen had to find new places to fish and young Harris Parker had his stomping grounds temporarily curtailed.
On April 16, 1958, the search was called off. The Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb bearing the serial number 47782 was labeled irretrievably lost, and irretrievably lost is how it has remained.
But if Harris Parker has his way, it won’t be lost for much longer. Heading out toward Wassaw Sound in his Boston Whaler, Parker has a Geiger counter, a set of GPS coordinates, and the conviction that he’s about to do what the U.S. military failed to do 44 years ago.
He’s going to find it.
Atlanta, three weeks earlier
Derek Duke, a compact and fidgety man, picks up a bottle of Red Rooster hot sauce off a swine-laden table at the Barbecue Kitchen, a restaurant near Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. He turns it upside down, then grabs a shaker of salt and props that, also upside down, over the hot sauce. Finally, he grabs a small plastic container of half-and-half, and holds that above the upturned salt shaker, which is now trickling salt onto his hands. He holds the string of condiments out before him and indicates it with his eyes.
“This,” he says dramatically, “is the bomb.”
Duke, 57, works as a commercial pilot instructor at a major, Atlanta-based airline, but talking with the media about the Tybee Bomb has become something of a second profession. Over the last two years, he’s been quoted in newspapers ranging from the Savannah Morning News to the London Times, has debated a congressman live on CNN, and has given chilling presentations before city councils and rotary clubs. Reared in Hinesville, Duke first started researching the story of the lost bomb four years ago. At first he considered it simply a compelling piece of local military trivia. Over time, it began to obsess him. Today, Duke views the Tybee Bomb less as an historical footnote than something that could still make terrible history.
The military would just as soon forget about what happened on that February night 44 years ago. It said as much in a report issued in April of 2001 by the Air Force Nuclear Weapons and Counterproliferation Agency. The report, issued largely in response to Duke’s public clamoring, examined the merits of launching a new search. It concluded that there was “no possibility of nuclear explosion” and “no risk to the public,” and recommended that “the bomb be left in its resting place and remain categorized as irretrievably lost.”
A retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, Duke is astounded by his old employer’s nonchalance. Not only does the bomb pose a risk to the public, he contends, but it could still produce a nuclear explosion some 100 times the magnitude of the one that destroyed Hiroshima. That’s the point he’s trying to illustrate with his string of condiments.
As Duke sees it, all that stands between the coast of Georgia and nuclear Armageddon is a metaphorical container of half-and-half.
Duke taps the container of half-and-half with an index finger. “This is the plutonium capsule,” he says.
In order for a Mark 15 to properly detonate it requires the presence of a hollow ball of plutonium roughly the size of a grapefruit. This ball is referred to as the weapon’s “capsule.” It is the seed that makes the entire thermonclear explosion bloom. Without the capsule, the weapon is unarmed and essentially neutered. Although the conventional explosives inside it could still, if detonated, spread radioactive materials over a small distance, it would be impossible for them to produce a nuclear explosion of any yield without the nuclear capsule in place.
In Duke’s makeshift mock-up, the bottle of hot sauce is the main body of the Mark 15, and the salt shaker is its in-flight insertion device, a mechanical contraption fixed to the bomb and used to insert the capsule. Duke contends that he is “99 percent certain” that the capsule was present in the Tybee Bomb’s in-flight insertion device. The military is even more certain of the opposite: “No nuclear capsule was on board,” reads the 2001 Air Force report.
An examination of primary documents tends to support the military’s version of events. Just before takeoff on February 4, 1958, Howard Richardson signed a temporary custody receipt for the bomb. A copy of that receipt still exists. It clearly states that not only was no capsule present, but that Richardson was not to “allow any active capsule to be inserted into (the bomb) at any time.” Furthermore, an internally-produced top secret history of the Strategic Air Command that was declassified in 1999 indicates that in February of 1958, SAC did not “have authority to launch alert aircraft with nuclear capsules aboard.”
Derek Duke has his own document, one declassified in 1996. It’s a 1966 letter written by Assistant to the Secretary of Defense William Jack Howard to the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. The letter reviews the testimony that Howard gave that year to a special session of Congress on the question of whether any American nuclear weapons had been lost and never recovered. The letter lists four such weapons. Two of them are described as being complete, meaning they had their capsules with them. The Mark 15 lost off the coast of Georgia is listed as one of those two.
Howard has since recanted his testimony, saying he was mistaken, that the Tybee Bomb was, in fact, capsule-less. Although Duke disparages the recantation—“Jack Howard had to have documents that supported that testimony,” he fumes—he has no other compelling evidence that the bomb had its capsule with it when it was lost.
Which leaves, as far as he’s concerned, one option.
“The bomb has to be found,” he says. “That’s the only way to lay these doubts to rest.”
Duke puts the condiments back down on the table. Salt has spilled everywhere. He pinches up a bit of it, asks, “now what is it you’re supposed to do when you spill this stuff?” and throws it behind him, over his left shoulder.
Also at the table with Derek Duke are two other men with palindromic initials: Arthur Arseneault and Kent Kohnken.
Gaunt and graying at 77, Arseneault is at the moment holding his hands out in front of him, palms forward, fluttering his fingers.
“Count them,” he says. “How many do I got?”
He has all of them.
“You don’t keep all of your fingers as a demolitions recovery expert unless you deal with every single piece of unexploded ordnance as complete,” he says, then brings his hands down to rest on the table. “As far as I was concerned, that bomb was complete. I conducted the search as though it were.”
Arthur Arseneault was the Navy lieutenant commander in charge of the original search for the Tybee Bomb. Today, he is a consultant for ASSURE, or American Sea Shore Underwater Recovery Expedition, a company that aims to finish what he started. Derek Duke incorporated ASSURE on September 10, 2000, and is its CEO. He is hopeful that he can turn a new search for the bomb into a lucrative venture by inking deals with publishing houses and production companies for the development of books and movies based on the quest.
Duke recruited Arseneault because he believed that the older man’s failed search in 1958 might provide useful lessons for the new one he was planning. The other three men who make up ASSURE each have similarly relevant backgrounds. To aid in the underwater logistics, for example, there’s another former Navy salvage expert, and to handle “operational security” there’s a retired CIA agent. Harris Parker, who knows the local waters so well, rounds out the group.
Until today, the biggest barrier to ASSURE’s success has been a technological one. By even the most conservative estimates, the 7,600-pound bomb probably buried itself under at least five feet of silt after impacting with the shallow seabed of Wassaw Sound. When Arseneault led the search back in 1958, he and his crew of frogmen used handheld sonar devices so primitive that they probably wouldn’t have detected the bomb even if they had swum right over the impact site. Even today, imaging technology capable of penetrating a thick layer of sand is limited and extremely expensive. For all their determination, Derek Duke and company were stuck.
Then along came Kent Kohnken, who found out about the hunt for the Tybee Bomb while surfing the Internet and decided he wanted to pitch in. He came to lunch today to explain how he might be of assistance.
Kohnken runs a company, Surface Conversion Technologies, Inc., which markets many unusual products. One example is a material that can be used, he says, to make extremely lightweight bulletproof clothing. “Don’t you think,” he asks, “that the way schools are these days, parents would want their kids to have bulletproof underwear?” Another item sold by Kohnken is a
raspberry seed–based nutritional supplement designed to treat afflictions ranging from age spots to lung cancer to hangovers.
Kohnken’s most valued product is a device that he says allows its user to detect specific types of metals from great distances. He dubs this the “Magic Machine” because, he says, “that’s how well it works.” The Magic Machine has many possible applications. It could, for example, be used to detect underground veins of gold. It might also—and this is what Kohnken has come to the Barbecue Kitchen to discuss today—be useful in pinpointing the location of a buried thermonuclear bomb.
He tells Arseneault and Duke that his Magic Machine could scan the entire Wassaw Sound in a single day, assures them that such a scan would pinpoint the bomb’s location. And, he adds, he’ll let them use the machine for no money up front. All he wants is a percentage of any earnings that ASSURE may one day reap through licensing deals. Besides, what Kohnken’s really looking for is a little credibility. He claims to have recently located a buried stash of Native American gold on Stone Mountain, but says that Governor Barnes won’t let him excavate until he sees proof that his machine actually works. “I figure that if we show ’em where the Tybee Bomb is,” he says, “[Barnes] can’t argue that we’re not believable.”
Three Weeks Later,
somewhere on Wassaw Sound
The winds have picked up as the sound has broadened, and Harris Parker is keeping the bow of his boat aimed at the oncoming waves. Two weeks ago, on a calmer day, he came out here with Kent Kohnken and Derek Duke and helped them take readings with Kohnken’s Magic Machine. They plunged sensors into the sand on four different islands, turned them on, then retrieved them. Kohnken took the data they’d retrieved back home with him, fed it through a proprietary computer program, and sent Duke and Parker the results charted on a nautical map of Wassaw Sound.
They showed a conical plume more than a mile long radiating out from a spot about one mile east of Wassaw Island, a nature preserve and popular picnic spot near the outer limits of the sound. Kohnken said that the plume represented uranium leakage, uranium leakage of the sort and intensity that would correspond to a buried and damaged thermonuclear weapon. The set of coordinates on the map is just outside of the original search area for the Tybee Bomb. Nobody has ever looked there before.
As Harris Parker nears the spot indicated on the map, he feels a little guilty. “Derek’s gonna be pissed,” he says. He knows that Duke, who is in Atlanta teaching airline pilots today, would have wanted to be here. It is, after all, a momentous occasion: Parker plans to take a core sample from the seabed at the new set of coordinates. He hopes that the sample will provide the first on-site verification of the readings taken by Kohnken’s mysterious machine. Anxious and eager, Parker just couldn’t wait for Duke’s next visit to Savannah. He wanted to get out here as soon as possible, and he’s willing to take a little heat for it.
He checks the coordinates on his GPS, guns the boat forward a few more feet, then cuts the engine. As the boat rocks in the waves, he drops the anchor overboard. Two pelicans fly above him from east to west, toward Wassaw Island, where children can be seen playing on the frayed remnants of an old concrete bunker. The boat’s depth indicator shows a distance of 14 feet between the choppy surface of the water and the seabed.
“Here we are,” he says.
He pulls a bright yellow box from a blue duffel bag. The box is made of metal and has a small metal probe attached by wire to the center of it. Stenciled in red paint on the side of the box are the letters “CD.” It is an old Civil Defense Geiger counter, one from the days when private fallout shelters were all the rage, and schoolchildren were taught to hide under their school desks in the event of nuclear holocaust. Derek Duke was given two dozen of these things by a buddy at the Statesboro Police Department. Most of them didn’t work, but this one, after some tinkering and the installation of new batteries, did.
Parker turns the Geiger counter on, then tests it by waving the probe over a tiny piece of uranium taped to the side of the box. The probe, bombarded by alpha particles, sends a signal through the wire, and a thin needle in a dial on top of the yellow box careens from left to right. When Parker pulls the probe away from the radioactive rock, the needle falls back to its initial position.
With the Geiger counter primed and ready, Parker pulls up the anchor. He raises it slowly, taking almost 30 seconds to reel in less than 20 feet of rope. “I’ve gotta try to keep some sand on it,” he explains. The anchor finally breaks the surface, and he carefully hauls it over the side of the boat and lays it gently to rest on the flat bottom, near his feet. The surface of the anchor is rusty brown with a greenish patina. There are, in places, flecks of sand that it has brought up from the seabed. These flecks of sand constitute Parker’s “core sample.”
He takes a deep breath.
“Here goes,” he says, then takes the Geiger counter probe and starts waving it over the anchor, focusing on the sandy parts.
At first, nothing happens. The needle remains still as Parker waves the probe more and more insistently. Then he moves the probe way from the anchor, up to the anchor’s tawny, seawater-darkened rope. Suddenly, the needle on the dial twitches. His hand jerks back.
“Did you see that?” he says. He presses the probe back to the rope. The needle jumps again. It stops at a point indicating the emission of approximately .04 millirems of radiation per hour. This is not very much. It is only a tiny bit more than the average level of natural background radiation at sea level throughout the United States, and less than the average background radiation in high-altitude cities such as, for example, Denver. A lethal dose of radiation is considered to be approximately 16 million times more than what this brine-soaked rope is emitting. None of which stops Parker from exulting.
“We’ve got a reading,” he yells, holding the probe in place, eyes fixed on the dial, the needle of which is now rapidly fading back toward zero.
“We’ve got a reading!”
The Mark 15 thermonuclear weapon bearing the serial number 47782 was designed to extinguish life. Today, 44 years after plunging beneath the waves, the Tybee Bomb, or at least its specter, is kindling a lively glint of boyish enthusiasm in an old pair of eyes.
May it rest in peace.