The Carolinas’ Curious Legacy; Nuclear Near-Misses

Ahh, the Carolinas. Known far and wide for barbecue, conservative politics and…nuclear near-misses??

That’s right, the Carolinian legacy you’ve likely never heard of missed annihilating vast swaths of the East Coast’s countryside by just a whisper. Indeed, the only two accidents during which atomic bombs accidentally fell from bombers on American soil were in the Palmetto and Tar Heel states.

Mars Bluff Bomb (3)      Goldsboro Bomb (5)

L: Bomb crater near Florence, SC; R: Field where bomb burrowed near Goldsboro, NC

The first occurred on a late winter afternoon in March 1958 after a B-47 bomber took off from Hunter Air Force Base near Savannah, Georgia, loaded for bear. Russian bear, that is. In fact, United States military strategy in those high-strung days of the Cold War meant that there were always bombers aloft, nuclear-armed and ready in the event the Russkies shot first. While this particular B-47 was on its way to a training exercise on the far side of the Atlantic, the United States Air Force nevertheless kept bombers always in the sky, prepared to strike.

At any rate, a warning light this fateful morning indicated that the bomb, called an Mk 6, wasn’t secured properly, and a crewman checking out the problem mistakenly committed that age-old blooper–pulling the release hatch instead of a hand-grip. It’ll get you every time.

It was sayonara, 15,000 feet below. The bomb detonated on impact, leaving a 35-foot-deep crater, destroying the home and property of the Gregg family of Mars Bluff, South Carolina.

Things could have been much worse. Turns out that the nuclear core of the bomb was stored elsewhere on the plane, meaning the boom down below was made only by the conventional explosives. Had the bomb been ready for a nuclear burst, the Greggs–the father, Walter, his wife, three kids and niece, all of whom walked away–would have been vaporized like much of the surrounding countryside.

Mars Bluff Bomb (4)      Mars Bluff Bomb (7)

Which was much closer to the accident that almost occurred 150 miles north and a state away, outside Goldsboro, North Carolina. There, almost three years later, another bomber, a B-52, became separated from its atomic payload when, unfortunately, the plane broke apart in the air.

This time there were two 7,000-pound Mk 39s on board, the fissile material intact. Each one was equipped with a parachute, slowing the bomb’s descent. That’s why Air Force personnel found bomb number one dangling harmlessly from tree branches after the accident.

Goldsboro Bomb

Bomb number one. U.S. Air Force

Like a wild Arabian, though, bomb number two would sanction no such restraint. The parachute’s lines severed and the bomb barreled to the earth approaching the speed of sound–more than 700 miles per hour, burying the components deep beneath a fertile field.

Air Force and civilian officials worked at once to excavate the impact crater, using the ludicrous cover story that they were looking for a pilot’s ejection seat. But the jig was up when the hole they dug to try and retrieve the lost missile grew to 200 feet wide and more than 40 feet deep.

 Goldsboro Bomb1

Goldsboro Bomb2

Recovering the bomb near Goldsboro. U.S. Air Force

The Air Force eventually had to concede that they were looking for a bomb, but only a harmless part of it, which was true by that point. They recovered the volleyball-sized nuclear core, but other parts of the bomb had to be abandoned, having burrowed as much as 180 feet underground.

Sadly, four crew members on the B-52 died in the crash. That statistic cast a sobering pall over the Goldsboro incident, but not nearly as much as a fact that came to light later. In a report issued years after the crash, a scientist revealed that three of the four safety switches needed to detonate the bomb had armed: “One simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe!”

And what a catastrophe that may have been. At about four megatons (the equivalent of four million tons of dynamite exploding at once) there would have a 100 percent kill rate within a seventeen mile diameter, as Joel Dobson points out in The Goldsboro Broken Arrow.

Goldsboro Bomb (2)     Goldsboro Bomb (7)

Not much to see at the Goldsboro site on Big Daddy’s Road.

Today at the Mars Bluff and Goldsboro accident sites, there isn’t much to see. Nature has reclaimed the former, now just a waterlogged depression in a woodlot behind a recently-built neighborhood. Interested locals have erected a wayside and bomb cutout to pay homage to this quirk of history. (Here is the site on Google Maps.)

North of Goldsboro, that field that was penetrated by a nuclear bomb has reverted to well-used farmland. No sign marks the spot. The slight depression you can make out is more a reflection of the way Air Force officials put the earth back after they excavated it than the bomb crater itself. Still, under that dirt lie the remnants of a nuclear disaster narrowly averted. (This is the field on Google Maps.)

And while you can’t make out much from these Cold War scars on the landscape, that’s a good thing, because the alternative is that they might have not been around for us to make out at all.

Goldsboro Bomb (4)     Goldsboro Bomb (6)

Near the Goldsboro site. The barn at left stands near the onetime debris field.

Mars Bluff Bomb (2)      Mars Bluff Bomb (6) Mars Bluff Bomb      Mars Bluff Bomb (5)

Around the impact crater at Mars Bluff, SC.

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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