"The world has achieved brilliance without conscience.
Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants."
- Omar Bradley
Savannah is a stately city with a warm heart - aptly called the
Hostess of the South. Designated by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the top
10 U.S. cities to visit, Savannah is a leisurely stroll back in time with
enticing hidden charms. Porticoed mansions, moss-draped oaks, and stern,
but inviting churches, give Savannah a unique flavor found nowhere else in the
Twelve miles east of picturesque Savannah, lurking beneath shallow layers of
sand and water, a massive 7,600 pound nuclear bomb is biding its time, waiting
to rain hideous death and destruction on the southern Atlantic coastline.
Perhaps some sleepy Sunday morning, an atomic fireball will erupt over Wassaw
Sound, shooting along Interstate 80 with the force of a hundred hurricanes,
instantly vaporizing tidal wetlands, and brutally fire storming a vibrant,
thriving, metropolis into a smoking, 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 bomber had a midair collision with a jet fighter
southeast of Savannah and had to jettison the bomb in order to land safely.
It was dumped 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, the rusting relic of the Cold War contains
decaying radioactive uranium and a detonator packing the wallop of 400 pounds of
high explosive. But they claim that the bomb won't go off because it 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
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. Could Howard, analyzing the incident eight years after it
happened, have had access to information not available today? If no one
has seen these bombs in decades, how can anyone be certain they are harmless?
Could it be that the Air Force weighed the cost of conducting another search
($1 million or more) against the risk and Savannah came out the loser?
Even with 20/20 hindsight into the survival-of-the-fittest mindset of the Air
Force in that era, it makes me shudder when I imagine some nameless, faceless
staff functionary muttering, "So long, Savannah!," under his breath as
he stamped the report "TOP SECRET" and returned 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 it broke up over Goldsboro, North Carolina. A parachute
provided one bomb with a soft landing, but the other buried itself beneath soggy
farmland. After excavating to a depth of 50 feet, the Air Force purchased
an easement on the site and left the bomb there. What was going through
their minds as they abandoned responsibility for their errant hydrogen bombs?
"So Long, Savannah and Goodbye, Goldsboro?" Isn't a bomb - not
just any bomb, but a thermonuclear weapon - deserving of attention? At the
very least you would think that they would post warnings and continue to monitor
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 saltwater
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 Since
Arrivederci Atlantic City? Or is it possible that these 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.
Under the best of conditions, nuclear devices deteriorate with age (witness
our concern with Russia's ill-maintained arsenal). Rolling around
nobody-knows-where (the Air Force hasn't bothered to keep track), immersed for
decades in corrosive saltwater in what amounts to a pressure cooker - and we are
supposed to believe that these bombs are stable?
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 bomber 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
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 a friend.
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 expressed
strong opposition to having anything to do with the NMD proposal.
Consequences are still reverberating 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 want to kick
United States troops off of their island.
It's not like the United States is 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
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 irregardless 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 paid 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 the 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 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 it 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 and use against us.
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 attach
gossamer wings to heavyweight nuclear reactors.
Nations who are 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. When the Gulf War ended, the
cleanup effort immediately 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 lest they 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" seems 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.