STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Time for a little-known piece of history, which comes to us from StoryCorps. In 1961, an American bomber was flying over North Carolina when it broke apart, and the two hydrogen bombs in the plane fell into a tobacco field. They did not explode. If they had, the bombs would have been about 250 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima.
Lieutenant Jack ReVelle, an Air Force munitions expert, was called to the scene. And his job was to make sure the bombs did not go off after they were on the ground. ReVelle came to StoryCorps with his daughter, Karen, to talk about what happened.
JACK REVELLE: One night, I get a phone call from my squadron commander. And instead of using all the code words that we had rehearsed, he says, Jack, I got a real one for you. You don't often have two hydrogen bombs falling out of aircraft onto U.S. property. The weapon was 3 feet across in diameter and about 9 feet long. And it looked like a Washington Monument right in the middle of a bunch of trees.
What the status of the weapons were at that time was unknown. So we were working in the dark. Once we determined it was safe to handle, we used the crane to tip it over and put it on the back of a flatbed truck. But the second bomb, the parachute had not deployed. And this huge, multi-ton weapon penetrated the ground at 700 miles an hour and buried itself in the swamp.
KAREN REVELLE: You started digging, you and your crew. How many men total did you have with you?
J REVELLE: Ten - we call them the Terrible 10. I knew all of them very well. But nobody was cracking jokes like they usually did. And the first couple of days there, they didn't even have food for us - nothing. It was snowing. It was raining. It was frozen. That's why we worked in shifts, sometimes on our hands and knees.
And as we started digging down, trying to find the second bomb, one of my sergeants says, hey, Lieutenant, I found the arm safe switch. And I said, great. He says, no, not great. It's on arm. But we all knew what we were there for and the hazards that we were facing. So we pulled it up out of the mud and brought it up over this wooden rickety ladder that we had, to the surface of the ground, in a safe condition.
The next morning, I got up and showered and shaved and decided to sit down to write a letter to my folks. And by the time I'd written, dear mom and dad, my hand was shaking. I thought to myself, my God, where have I been? What have I been doing?
You have to understand, had one or both of the weapons detonated, you would have created a bay of North Carolina, completely changing the configuration of the East Coast of the United States. And the radiation could have been felt as far north as New York City. At the time, nobody knew it. But it could have easily been the start of another world war.
INSKEEP: Jack ReVelle, speaking with his daughter, Karen ReVelle, at StoryCorps in Santa Ana, Calif. Details of what happened in 1961 were classified for more than half a century. This interview will be archived, along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress.
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