In 1958, a US warplane jettisoned a device in a marsh in Georgia. Was it a nuclear weapon? No, says the Pentagon. But new evidence has raised doubts
Ken Wade is nudging his fishing boat through the narrow creeks that cut into the steamy coastal swamps of Georgia. Twenty yards away pelicans preen, but they are not his concern. Wade is here to point out the site that he believes to be the final resting place of a nuclear bomb, jettisoned 43 years ago somewhere off the mouth of the Savannah River by a disabled B47 aeroplane.
“In the middle of the grass, I once floated into a circle of clear water,” he recalls, pointing towards the dense, red-tipped reeds stretching south of the river mouth. “If you step on the marsh, you would sink up to your waist. I believe the bomb landed in that spot and sank deep into the mud, creating a crater which over the years is being reclaimed by the grass.”
Wade lives on nearby Tybee Island, where many of the 3,500 inhabitants believe that there is a fully primed nuclear weapon, 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, stuck somewhere in their muddy backyard. Even though Tybee welcomes three million visitors each year to its beach, the mayor and city officers continue to draw attention to the bomb by demanding that the Government digs it up.
In 1958 the US Air Force insisted that the bomber had jettisoned nothing more than a simulated weapon, used for training purposes — little more than a metal shell stuffed with TNT. But to the intense annoyance of the Pentagon, four decades later the issue is again tormenting it.
In the past year, enthusiasts with a passion for uncovering Cold War secrets have stumbled upon an official document, apparently inadvertently declassified, which states that the Tybee bomb was a “complete weapon”. Furthermore, a former serviceman who loaded bombs on to B47s has emerged to contradict the Air Force’s position.
Despite the Pentagon’s firm denials that there is anything amiss, this new evidence has forced it to look into the possibility of searching for the missing bomb under the eyes of Georgia congressmen and the American media.
What is not in dispute is that on the night of February 4-5, 1958, a B47 bomber set out from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida with a Mark 15 Mod 0 on board. This was one of America’s earliest thermonuclear bombs, containing 400lb of conventional explosives and uranium. The 7,600lb weapon was designed with a removable nuclear capsule, or plutonium trigger. The Pentagon insists that this key piece of equipment was not on board.
At 3.30am on February 5, the bomber collided with an F86 fighter jet in midair. The jet crashed after the pilot baled out, and the bomber crew made three unsuccessful attempts to land at Hunter army airfield outside Savannah.
The Pentagon says that because of damage to the aircraft, “its airspeed could not be reduced enough to ensure a safe landing”, so permission was given to jettison the weapon to prevent a conventional explosion caused by a crash landing at Hunter.
At 7,200ft, the device was released “into the water several miles from the mouth of the Savannah River in Wassaw Sound, off Tybee Beach”.
In the first few days after the collision, the Air Force did not mention that anything had been jettisoned. But some days later it was announced that “a portion of a nuclear weapon” had been released in the area. The Air Force added that there was no danger of a radioactive explosion, presenting one local newspaper with the chance to publish the headline “Jettison of Nuclear Weapon Here Disclosed”.
It is easy to understand the Pentagon’s embarrassment. The accident happened in the middle of the Cold War. In the previous October, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, beating the Americans in putting the first man-made object into space. This added to fears in Washington that Moscow had stolen a march in the development of intercontinental ballistic missile technology.
After refuelling, B47 bombers were capable of reaching the Soviet Union. Although the Pentagon insists that the bomber involved in the collision was on only a training mission, it accepts that in early 1958 other B47s were taking off from America with armed Mark 15s on board.
Off the Savannah River, an intensive search took place using ships with divers and underwater demolition teams. Local newspapers reported that the Air Force was anxious to recover the “portion” of the weapon it had admitted losing, for security reasons and because it was an “expensive part”.
But after three square miles had been examined over more than two months, the search was called off and the bomb was officially declared “irretrievably lost”. Major Harold Richardson, the bomber pilot, received the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the aircraft and its crew, and the island returned to its insouciant ways. As the years passed, the Tybee bomb became just another of the martial tales recounted by locals during sleepy afternoons spent in hammocks.
This stretch of coast, where the American continent peters out in a series of steamy creeks, swamps and wooded sandbanks, was strategically important for a long time because the Savannah River was the gateway to the cotton fields of Georgia and South Carolina.
Pirates used Tybee as a haven for decades, and General James Oglethorpe, the Englishman who founded Savannah, built a small fort there in 1733. Forty-six years later, in one of the bloodiest battles of the War of Independence, American and French troops used Tybee as a base for their unsuccessful attempt to capture the city.
During the Civil War, Union forces, having stormed Tybee, forced Confederate forces on a nearby island to surrender. Only last year, a civil war mine was discovered at the river entrance.But with the demise of cotton after the civil war, the area became a backwater. Tybee has wooden houses reminiscent of the West Indies, and its inhabitants tend to rise early for church — and drink late. Butterflies the size of a hand fly between palm trees and live on oaks decorated with Spanish moss. Cranes, blue herons and marsh hens colonise the marshes, and bottlenose dolphins greet passing skiffs.
The backwoods calm was punctured this year by the arrival of Lt-Col Derek Duke, who claimed to have fresh evidence that a hydrogen bomb with the power to wipe out Tybee and Savannah and to send tidal waves up and down the East Coast of America did indeed exist in their midst.
The retired USAF pilot, who says that he ran a National Security Agency operation in Vietnam, agrees to meet me in the parlour of a fine mansion in one of Savannah’s squares.
On first impressions it would be easy to dismiss Duke as an eccentric. A short man, nearer 60 than 50, he has an unnatural-looking head of black hair and seems to be obsessed with the Tybee bomb as an example of how the federal Government is bent on conspiring against Americans.
Originally from Savannah but now living and working as a flying instructor in nearby Statesboro, Duke also has a financial interest in the bomb. He has formed a consortium which has offered to find the device for the Pentagon at a cost of £600,000.
And last year, Duke, acting as a “clearing house” for information from other like-minded people, received the best piece of evidence to date to contradict the Pentagon’s case that the Tybee bomb was unarmed.
In 1966 Chet Holifield, the chairman of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, was angered by adverse publicity from that year’s Palomares incident in Spain, in which another midair collision caused the temporary loss — for 80 days — of a nuclear bomb by the US Air Force.
To investigate, he held a hearing behind closed doors and asked Jack Howard, then assistant to Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defence, to provide the committee with a list of accidents in which nuclear weapons had been lost and never recovered. Howard’s response referred to four accidents divided into two categories, one involving “complete weapons”, the other “weapon-less capsules”.
The Tybee bomb was included in the first category.
Howard’s note, on paper from the Office of the Secretary of Defence and stamped “Secret”, was declassified in 1994 and remained unnoticed until it was passed to Duke.
The amateur sleuth has also produced a witness. Howard Nixon worked as a crew chief loading nuclear weapons on to planes at Hunter airfield from 1957 to 1959. He says: “Never in my air force career did I load a nuclear weapon without installing a nuclear capsule in it first.”
Duke’s evidence reached Jack Kingston, the congressman for the Savannah area, who demanded that the Air Force should look again into whether there was a live nuclear bomb in his home district. The politician’s intervention encouraged the Pentagon to reopen the case, commissioning the Air Force Nuclear Weapons and Counterproliferation Agency to carry out an inquiry into the possibility of making a new search for the bomb.
The Pentagon says that it went back and cross-checked receipts for delivery of the Tybee bomb to Major Richardson, and other documents, which confirmed that the device was unarmed.
Lt-Col Steve Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman, says that Howard, who now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, made a mistake by listing the Tybee bomb as a “complete weapon”. “We have discussed this letter with Mr Howard and he agrees that the accident should have been categorised as one involving a ‘weapon-less capsule’,” the official says.
Duke remains unconvinced. “Are you telling me that the right-hand man to the Secretary of Defence, with all the resources of the Department of Defence, gets a detail like that wrong to a congressional investigation that is taking the issue of lost bombs very seriously?” he asks.
“McNamara would have eaten Howard alive if he had been that sloppy.”
The Pentagon’s newly commissioned inquiry concluded that there should be no attempt to find the device, and that it was best left wherever it was. As it was unarmed, it followed that there was no danger of a nuclear explosion off Tybee.
The spread of heavy metals leaching from the bomb was also a low risk, the inquiry said, and the conventional explosives, if left undisturbed, posed no hazard. However, if there were an attempt made to move the bomb, believed to be up to 15ft under the sea bed, there could be an accidential detonation of the TNT, which could seriously damage the regional aquifer and local drinking water supplies.
Lt-Col Donald Robbins, the deputy director of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons agency, adds that loaders did not know what they were putting on to the B47 — this was known only to the crew. He also insists the bomb jettisoned that night was a simulated weapon. “There was no plutonium, no nuclear capsule, on board,” he says.
Congressman Kingston accepted the findings of the latest inquiry but Tom Cannon, Tybee’s city manager, remains unhappy. Sitting in Fannie’s, a beachside eatery which attracts customers with an image of three female bottoms about to be nipped by a crab, he explains that his 21-year career in the Army, where he was involved in intelligence, has made him wary of taking the Pentagon at its word.
“One thing you learn is to use weasle words with the best,” he says. “You tell me this: 40 years ago, why did they spend two months looking for a bomb if it was a fake?”