LIANE HANSEN, host:
Fifty years ago this week, a thermonuclear bomb was ditched off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, and to this day, no one knows where it is. This story is one of the enduring mysteries of the Cold War era - a mid-air collision that prompted an Air Force pilot to abandon the bomb over the waters near Tybee Island. Historians, government investigators and adventurers have all tried to find it, and more important, to find out whether it could ever detonate.
The story began on a cold night, February 5th, 1958, when two Air Force B-47 bombers were sent out on a highly classified training mission over the eastern United States. NPR's Defense Correspondent Guy Raz joins us to recount what happened. Welcome, Guy.
GUY RAZ: Hi, Liane.
HANSEN: First of all, what was the Air Force training for at the time?
RAZ: Well, at the time, the Air Force was conducting these regular training missions, and they were designed to simulate nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union. And they were using this new jet. It was called the B-47. It was a really revolutionary bomber at the time, a really beautiful plane. Here's how military historian Doug Keeney describes it.
Mr. DOUG KEENEY (Military Historian): The B-47 was a sexy, elegant-ooking aircraft. It had swept wings, a very stylish, rakey swept wings. It had a swept tail. These were all new innovations. It was a jet-engined aircraft with ponds. They were in pairs.
RAZ: So the Air Force would send out a few of these B-47 bombers, and they were actually carrying hydrogen bombs, H-bombs. And the planes would spend about eight or nine hours flying a pre-planned route. They'd pick a specific target, a small town on the eastern seaboard, for example. And the pilots would then simulate an attack on that town.
An electronic beam would be sent to an interceptor station on the ground, and it would record whether or not the strike actually hit. And that's how the Air Force could figure out whether the training mission was successful or not.
HANSEN: So what was different about the mission on the night of February 5th, 1958?
RAZ: Well, nothing actually. It was pretty routine. And on that night, it was led by one of the most experienced Air Force pilots in the country at the time. His name was Major Howard Richardson. And I asked historian Doug Keeney to describe the mission that night.
Mr. KEENEY: The mission that night was to simulate an attack on a small town called Radford, Virginia. A fleet of B-47s were going to launch from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida and fly a rather circuitous route across the United States, across the Gulf of Mexico, up to Minnesota, across to Chicago and back down to Radford, mainly to tire the crew out, as they would be tired on a flight to Moscow.
RAZ: And the mission was successful. The pilots managed to simulate this attack on Radford, Virginia. At so at that point they could start to relax as they began to make their way back to Homestead air base in Florida.
HANSEN: So at that point, Major Howard Richardson and his B-47 bomber crew were, in essence, celebrating.
RAZ: They were celebrating, but there was this mix-up. Because about 30,000 feet below them on the ground at Charleston air base in South Carolina, there was a small squadron of fighter pilots who were about to launch their own training mission, and their mission was to intercept these B-47 bombers, the bombers carrying the thermonuclear bombs.
The planes from Charleston launched very quickly, and they locate one of the B-47 bombers. Well, what they don't know is there are two in the air. And the pilot flying the intercept plane - this was a small plane, an F-86 - his name was Lieutenant Clarence Stewart. He thinks that he's about to lock onto one of these bombers. What he doesn't know is right above him, the other bomber is flying.
HANSEN: And that's the one carrying the bomb.
RAZ: That's the one carrying the bomb. So immediately, he veers to the right. The planes collide. It destroys Lieutenant Clarence Stewart's plane. He ejects, and it damages the B-47 bomber carrying the nuclear bomb. So at that point, Major Howard Richardson, the guy flying the B-47, has to decide what to do. And he decides to ditch the nuclear bomb into the ocean, which will allow him to make a safe emergency landing at a nearby air base in Savannah, Georgia.
HANSEN: So the bomb landed, but it didn't detonate.
RAZ: Right. Because a key trigger device was actually removed from the bomb before the training mission was launched. And the Air Force would do this all the time, but it still posed this potentially catastrophic threat because the bomb contained uranium and plutonium. So the Pentagon, of course, immediately dispatches a team to start looking for the bomb.
And they sent down a Navy commander named Art Arsinow(ph).
Mr. ART ARSINOW (Former Navy Commander): There's an awful lot of water off the coast, and it's very shallow water. It goes out for 60 or 70 miles before it gets to be deep water. But that still is an awful lot of square foot. It's kind of like looking for something that you dropped out in the middle of the desert. And there's no reference points. There's no street signs or anything for you to bear on.
RAZ: So at the time, the Pentagon basically decides to abandon this project and hope for the best.
HANSEN: But what about the people in Savannah, Georgia? I mean, weren't they worried about the thermonuclear bomb lying just below the mud somewhere near the beach?
RAZ: Well, the people in Savannah, Georgia, knew about this at the time. There was local reporting, and, of course, the Navy was there for 10 weeks looking for this bomb. But eventually, this story basically died, and it would take another almost 45 years for this story to revive. It happened in 1999, when a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, a guy named Derek Duke, decided that he was going to try to find the bomb himself.
Mr. DEREK DUKE (Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel): We actually went out to Wassaw Sound on radiation expeditions, checking radiation, checking water quality, things like that. It was on one of those missions where we got what we thought was significant radiation readings. We shared that and our magnetometer readings with the Air Force. When they reviewed that and considered who had taken them, the people that I was using, they decided that it wanted them to come down in this search, and they did that in September of 2004.
HANSEN: So the Air Force agreed to revisit this story more than 40 years after it happened.
RAZ: Right. They bring out all of this sophisticated radiation equipment. They spent several weeks trolling the waters off of Wassaw Sound. And they actually did find significant radiation readings in a particular area. But what they discovered was these radiation levels were natural to the area. In other words, the sand and the soil in the Wassaw Sound contains naturally high levels of uranium. It's not all that uncommon.
So once again, the Air Force simply wasn't able to find the bomb. Now they did consult a team of environmental experts and technical experts, and all of these folks said even if you do locate the bomb, it would probably be so dangerous to dig it up that you might want to consider your options.
And we asked Dr. Bill Mullins about this issue. He was the senior Air Force official who was charged with revisiting this story in 2004.
Dr. BILL MULLINS (Senior Air Force Official): You'll find something, you don't know what it is. It could be a '57 Chevy. It could be a 55-gallon drum that somebody illegally dumped. You don't know until you dig it up. But as you're going through that, you know, if you puncture those drums, whatever was inside there now leaks out into the ocean. Not good. And you may not ever find it. So you're digging up a lot of holes, and there is no guarantee that what you are digging on top of is the Mark 15.
RAZ: And the Mark 15, of course, is the technical name for the thermonuclear bomb.
HANSEN: Well, if it's still in the Wassaw Sound, doesn't it pose an environmental risk?
RAZ: Well, that's an open question. I mean, everyone acknowledges that there's a bomb somewhere in the waters off Tybee Island, Georgia. And everyone agrees that there is uranium and plutonium inside of that bomb. But whether that material poses a risk is up for debate. I asked Air Force officials, you know, whether they've seen any three-headed turtles in the Wassaw Sound, which they haven't yet.
We also asked Art Arsinow about this, the guy who led the original investigation back in 1958. And he's pretty skeptical over the safety issues.
Mr. ARSINOW: I am hesitant to even suggest that you leave it alone, because it's one of those things that's going to be there for thousands of years before the nuclear materials deteriorate to the point where it's not going to be dangerous. But, you know, that's not my decision to make. I was only sent to look for it.
HANSEN: And finally, so what does the Air Force say about it?
RAZ: Well, Dr. Billy Mullins from the Department of the Air Force insists that all the studies they've done show that even if the bomb starts to leak material, that material will become trapped in the mud that encases the bomb, and so it won't really pose a danger to the environment. And he dismisses outright any suggestions that terrorists could find it, you know, and detonate it because essentially, the nuclear trigger isn't inside of this bomb today.
And so the Air Force and Dr. Billy Mullins have basically concluded that the best thing to do is to just let the bomb stay where it is, even though they don't exactly know where that is.
HANSEN: NPR's Defense Correspondent, Guy Raz. Guy, thanks.
RAZ: Thank you, Liane.
HANSEN: At npr.org, you can see military documents related to the nuclear bomb's disappearance. And we'll give the last words on this story to Dr. Billy Mullins from the Department of the Air Force.
Dr. MULLINS: Just don't disturb the nuclear weapon. Leave it alone. It's safe where it is. Anything else is running a risk to public safety.
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