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Article by Fred Dungan
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by Fred Dungan

 "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 world.

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 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.  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 the sites.

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 1940."

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 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 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 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 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.


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Revised: September 08, 2003 .