For 50 Years, Nuclear Bomb Lost in Watery Grave

Clarification: In the broadcast version of this report, NPR said that there was general agreement that the lost Savannah nuclear bomb contains significant quantities of uranium and plutonium. A 1966 Congressional document indicates that the bomb was a complete weapon containing both uranium and plutonium. But the Air Force and the former pilot of the plane, retired Col. Howard Richardson, deny the bomb contains plutonium.

The Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb i i

A Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb, like the one shown above, lies in the Wassaw Sound, just a few miles from downtown Savannah, Ga. Courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections
The Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb

A Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb, like the one shown above, lies in the Wassaw Sound, just a few miles from downtown Savannah, Ga.

Courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections
Map of suspected bomb location i i

Government officials believe the missing nuclear bomb is somewhere in the Wassaw Sound, just off Tybee Island. Lindsay Magnum, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lindsay Magnum, NPR
Map of suspected bomb location

Government officials believe the missing nuclear bomb is somewhere in the Wassaw Sound, just off Tybee Island.

Lindsay Magnum, NPR
The pilots of the B-47 bomber. i i

The pilots of the B-47 bomber were (from left) Howard Richardson, Bob Lagerstrom and Leland Woolard. Richardson's cool thinking in the cockpit helped prevent a possible catastrophic crash of the plane. Courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections
The pilots of the B-47 bomber.

The pilots of the B-47 bomber were (from left) Howard Richardson, Bob Lagerstrom and Leland Woolard. Richardson's cool thinking in the cockpit helped prevent a possible catastrophic crash of the plane.

Courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections

On Feb. 5, 1958, a B-47 bomber dropped a 7,000-pound nuclear bomb into the waters off Tybee Island, Ga., after it collided with another Air Force jet.

Fifty years later, the bomb — which has unknown quantities of radioactive material — has never been found. And while the Air Force says the bomb, if left undisturbed, poses no threat to the area, determined bomb hunters and area residents aren't so sure.

The bomb found its hidden resting place when the B-47 pilot, Air Force Col. Howard Richardson, dropped it into the water after an F-86 fighter jet accidentally collided with him during a training mission. The fighter jet's pilot, Lt. Clarence Stewart, didn't see Richardson's plane on his radar; Stewart descended directly onto Richardson's aircraft. The impact ripped the left wing off the F-86 and heavily damaged the fuel tanks of the B-47.

Richardson, carrying a two-man crew, was afraid the bomb would break loose from his damaged plane when he landed, so he ditched the bomb in the water before landing the plane at Hunter Air Force Base outside Savannah. Stewart ejected and eventually landed safely in a swamp.

The Navy searched for the bomb for more than two months, but never found it, and today recommends it should remain in its resting place. In a 2001 report on the search and recovery of the bomb, the Air Force said that if the bomb is still intact, the risk associated with the spread of heavy metals is low. If itÂ’s left undisturbed, the explosive in the bomb poses no hazard, the report said. It went on to say that an "intact explosive would pose a serious explosion hazard to personnel and the environment if disturbed by a recovery attempt."

While the government has officially stopped searching for the bomb, area residents — including retired Air Force pilot Derek Duke — haven't forgotten about the deadly weapon lying quietly off their coast. In 2004, Duke detected high radiation in shallow water off the coast of Savannah. Government officials investigated, but concluded that the radiation readings were normal for the naturally occurring minerals in the area.

Liane Hansen spoke with defense correspondent Guy Raz about the history of the lost bomb, and the people who are still intrigued by the sunken weapon.

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