Why you should care
Because can’t we do a saltwater breaststroke in peace?
A hidden threat lurks in the waters off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. It’s a 12-foot beast, and it makes man-eating sharks and poisonous jellyfish look like sandbox toys. As thousands of vacationers make their way to the sandy shores of Tybee Island this summer, they should be on the lookout for a monster that shouldn’t be all that tough to spot: a 7,600-pound bomb, packed with an undisclosed amount of uranium and 400 pounds of explosives. To state the obvious? If you see something, say something.
The Mark 15 bomb, one of hundreds of suspected “broken arrows,” or nuclear bombs lost during air or sea mishaps, had to be jettisoned into the water in the winter of 1958 during a secret mission that simulated dropping a weapon of mass destruction on a Soviet city. The B-47 carrying the bomb collided with an F-86 fighter plane sometime after midnight, causing the B-47 to crash land at an air force base outside Savannah — but not before its pilot, Air Force Col. Howard Richardson, dropped the bomb in the water a few miles from the island. The crew survived, and Richardson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts.
It’s sworn congressional testimony; it’s two separate groups [civilian and military] that would go to jail if they were lying.
Douglas Keeney, military historian and best-selling author
Although the Air Force searched for the nuke for two months in the weeks after the incident, the weather was bad, the water cold and the visibility poor. On April 16, 1958, the military declared the bomb “irretrievably lost.” Today, it recommends that it remain untouched, saying it is low risk and very unlikely to explode. The bomb’s potential danger rests on the validity of one hand-written receipt with the word “simulated” scrawled in ink near the top — a word that, according to the U.S. Air Force, meant the bomb did not have a detonation capsule and was not capable of a nuclear explosion. But some doubt its validity. “It’s just preposterous,” says Douglas Keeney, military historian and best-selling author. “This note, it’s discovered now 50 years later, one document out of thousands is the only one that says it is unarmed — it is just silly.” Many previously redacted documents say otherwise, he points out, including 1966 congressional testimony saying the bomb was a complete weapon containing not just uranium but also plutonium — the ingredient that makes the bomb deadly. If a nuclear detonation did occur, the possible blast effects would be 100 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, making a mushroom cloud seen for miles and a 1.2-mile-wide fireball.
“It’s sworn congressional testimony; it’s two separate groups [a civilian group and military group] that would go to jail if they were lying,” Keeney says. He adds that they have nothing to gain by saying it’s armed, referring to the earlier testimony.
While the government has officially stopped searching for the bomb, locals haven’t forgotten. In fact the bomb has become a storied part of Savannah lore — memorialized in places like A-J’s Dockside Restaurant, the original site of the Tybee Island Bomb Squad that searched for the weapon back in ’58. “Bomb Squad” paraphernalia lines the walls, and newcomers are regularly shocked by news that there’s a bomb so close to shore, before laughing it off as just a heap of harmless metal.
Yet naysayers have continued to delve into the possible environmental and health impacts of the bomb, even if it couldn’t detonate. Retired U.S. Air force Lt. Col. Derek Duke took it a step further and led an effort in 2004 to search for the bomb. He detected high radiation in shallow water off the coast of Savannah, but further investigation concluded that the readings were normal for the naturally occurring minerals in the area. Still, Duke, now 70, tells OZY it’s “an incredible saga that lives on, like Big Foot.” The government, he reckons, sees the bomb as too politically sensitive. If there is, in fact, a nuclear capsule, it could be used as a weapon against America if found by the enemy.
Deadly or not, this forgotten bomb is just one of thousands of accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1968, according to critical documents on the Pentagon’s network of “broken arrows” obtained by historian and author Eric Schlosser. His book Command and Control refutes the Pentagon’s official list of how many nuclear weapons accidents — it says just 32 — have happened in America, arguing instead that there have been more than a thousand. “In general this whole subject is still shrouded in enormous secrecy,” Schlosser says. “There’s no question that there are many more accidents, and the Pentagon’s list is essentially meaningless.”
For others, like bomb designer Robert Peurifoy, who says he was merely an engineer working “in the trenches” at the time the bomb was dropped, there are other unanswered questions. “It is puzzling to me that the bomb debris has not been located,” says Peurifoy, who eventually became vice president of Sandia, a government-funded nuclear weapons research lab, and who is now in his 80s. “I do not characterize the Air Force as anything other than being baffled, but you’d think they’d be able to find out.”