By Michael Webster: Syndicated Investigative Reporter
The US Air Force inadvertently dropped atomic bombs over North Carolina in 1961. Its reported to have had 4 fail safe devices three failed and the last depended on a 3 volt electric switch which luckily did not fail. But that is how close America came to its worst disaster ever. If a simple safety switch had not prevented the explosive from detonating, millions of lives across the northeast could would have been lost.
The revelation offers the first conclusive evidence after decades of speculation that the US military narrowly avoided a self-inflicted disaster. The incident is explained in detail in a recently declassified document written by Parker F. Jones, supervisor of the nuclear weapons safety department at Sandia National Laboratories.
The document - written in 1969 and titled “How I Learned to Mistrust the H-bomb,” a play on the Stanley Kubrick film title “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” - was disclosed to the Guardian by journalist Eric Schlosser.
Three days after President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, a B-52 bomber carrying the model MARK 39 devices came down when the B-52 bomber in which they were riding suffered structural failure and disintegrated in mid-air and went into a tailspin dropping the bombs in med air endangering multiple major metropolitan centers. These bombs fail just 12 miles north of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.
The plane exploded as it fell. Five crewmen parachuted to earth safely. Three died — two who went down with the doomed bomber, and one who was found two miles from the crash site hanging by his parachute in a tree, his neck broken. The H bombs jettisoned as the plane descended, one bomb parachuting to earth intact, the other striking a farmer’s field at high speed — “probably mach 1″ (about 760 miles per hour) speculates one retired Air Force Colonel.
Safety mechanisms designed to prevent unintended or unauthorized detonation served their function, and a historic nuclear catastrophe was averted. But published sources disagree on how close the people of Wayne County came to suffering fiery annihilation.
The bomber was on a routine flight along the East Coast.
Each of the explosives carried a payload of 4 megatons - roughly the same as four million tons of TNT explosive - which could have triggered a blast 260 times more powerful than the atomic bombs used on Japan that ended World War II.
One of the bombs performed in the same way as those dropped over Japan less than 20 years before - by opening its parachute and engaging its trigger mechanisms. The only thing that prevented untold thousands, or perhaps millions, of Americans from being killed was a simple low voltage switch that failed to flip.
One of the hydrogen bombs, is known to have descended onto tree branches in Faro, North Carolina, while the second explosive landed peacefully off Big Daddy’s Road in Pikeville. Jones determined that three of the four switches designed to prevent unintended detonation on MK 39 Mod 2 failed to work properly, and when a final firing signal was triggered that fourth switch was the only safeguard that worked.
Nuclear fallout from a detonation could have risked millions of lives in Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City, and all areas in between.
“The MK Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52,” Jones wrote in his 1969 assessment. He determined “one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe…It would have been bad news – in spades.”
Before Schlosser brought the document to light through a Freedom of Information Act request, the US government long denied that any such event ever took place.
“The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy,” he told the Guardian. “We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here’s one that very nearly did.”
In “Command and Control,” Schlosser’s new book on the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union, the journalist writes that he discovered a minimum of 700 “significant” accidents involving nuclear weapons in the years between 1950 and 1968.
An on-going environmental concern centers on the portion or portions of one bomb still buried, sunk in a boggy farm field. Quicksand-like conditions made deep excavation impossible where the free-falling bomb came down, and that bomb was never recovered in full. The state of North Carolina still conducts periodic radiation testing on local ground water.
Area residents say the story is well-known, “no big secret.” Indeed, various media sources, including Mother Jones, Greenpeace Books, newspapers, and local as well as national television outlets have run features on the crash and its aftermath. Still, there remain many people, even many North Carolinians, who know little or nothing about this fascinating incident.
The authors could find no centralized information source about the crash which both states the undisputed facts of the case and exposes at least some of the mysteries and inconsistencies that remain.