Cold War Mystery: When a U.S. Atomic Bomb Went Missing

Cold War Mystery: When a U.S. Atomic Bomb Went Missing

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In 1950, an American B-36 bomber on a peace-time training mission crashed over British Columbia, Canada carrying a Mark IV atomic bomb, a weapon comparable in size to the nuke dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. According to testimonies from the surviving crew members, they had safely jettisoned the bomb, and detonated it in mid-air before the plane went down.

The crash became famous as the very first “broken arrow,” the U.S. military’s term for an accident involving a nuclear weapon. But questions swirled for decades about whether the bomb was really detonated over the ocean—or whether it went missing somewhere in the Canadian wilderness.

Five years after using the first atomic weapons to force the surrender of Japan in World War II, the United States military was preparing for a new era of nuclear warfare with its Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union. The Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” was the first true intercontinental bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons to any part of the world, and the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) was eager to test the new planes with a real payload.

READ MORE: What is a Broken Arrow?

A test bombing run goes awry

After months of lobbying, SAC leaders were able to convince the Atomic Energy Commission to lend them a Mark IV atomic bomb without its plutonium core. The bomb still contained large amounts of uranium and conventional explosives—but it couldn’t trigger a devastating nuclear blast.

On February 13, 1950, a B-36 known as Flight 2075 took off from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska with a crew of 17. The test flight was meant to replicate a bombing run on a major city in the Soviet Union. The B-36 was slated to fly a 5,500-mile route from Alaska to Montana, then down to San Francisco, its bombing “target,” and finally landing in Carswell Air Force Base in Texas.

But things didn’t go as planned. Not long after taking off, ice began to accumulate on the bomber’s fuselage and the excess weight put tremendous strain on the engines, three of which caught fire and had to be shut down. With only three functioning engines, the B-36 began to lose altitude at a rate of 500 feet per minute.

READ MORE: 9 Cases of Broken Arrows: Thermonuclear Near Misses Throughout History

As the plane fails, the crew bails

Captain Harold Barry and his crew acted quickly. Their first order was to ditch the atomic bomb following military protocol to keep nuclear weapons or their components out of enemy hands. But when Barry’s copilot hit the “salvo” button to release the bomb, nothing happened. He then hit it a second time, releasing the bomb bay doors and dropping the Mark IV over the Pacific, where, according to crew reports, its conventional explosives were detonated and the bomb destroyed.

Then Barry set the failing plane’s autopilot to steer it on a course toward the open ocean while he and his crew parachuted into the darkness over Princess Royal Island on the coast of British Columbia. The abandoned B-36 cruised for another 200 miles, veering from its set course and crashing into the snowy flank of Mount Kologet, deep in the inland Canadian wilderness.

READ MORE: Remembering the Palomar H-Bomb Incident

The weaponeer and bomb were never found

Immediately, a combined force of the U.S. and Canadian military launched a massive search-and-rescue mission involving 40 aircraft scouring the frozen coastline. Thanks to their efforts, 12 of the 17 crew members were recovered alive, including one man found dangling upside-down from his parachute in a tree with a broken ankle. But five crewmen, including the weaponeer, Captain Theodore Schreier, were never found.

The U.S. military interviewed the crew, who each corroborated Captain Barry’s report that the Mark IV was safely detonated before the crash. Meanwhile, the search continued for the wreckage of Flight 2075, the only way to confirm if the airmen’s story was true.

The U.S. Air Force search team couldn’t find a trace of the downed plane and assumed it had crashed into the Pacific. But three years later, a Canadian rescue operation searching for a missing oil prospector spotted the wreckage atop Mount Kologet.

The Air Force tried three times to send expeditions to the remote mountain crash site, but each team had to turn back due to bad weather and grueling conditions. Finally, in 1954, a small demolition crew reached the downed B-36 and proceeded to strip the plane of any classified equipment and destroy it.

READ MORE: This Air Force Jet Was Scrambled to Intercept a UFO—Then Disappeared

Theories proliferate about the lost nuke

Since the demolition crew’s report was top secret, no word emerged about the whereabouts of the missing atomic bomb. Were there clues in the wreckage that the bomb had in fact been released prior to impact? In the absence of definitive proof, rumors began to swirl about the true fate of the lost nuke. At the epicenter of these rumors was Captain Schreier, the missing weaponeer.

A number of unsubstantiated claims pointed to an alternative fate for the lost bomb. First, there was a rumor that a body was found with the wreckage on Mount Kologet. What if it was Schreier’s? The weaponeer was a former airline pilot and could have attempted to fly the plane back to Alaska when the others bailed out.

Adding fuel to the conspiracy fire? A second claim that Captain Barry had seen the bomber turn sharply soon after he had leapt into the midnight sky. The story began to circulate that the bomb never left the plane and that Schreier died trying to get it back to the safety of the Air Force base.

None of the rumors were confirmed by the military, however, and over the following half-century, other adventurers and amateur investigators made pilgrimages to the Flight 2075 crash site to see what they could find and/or pilfer.

A curious find

In 2003, an investigative team led by John Clearwater, an expert on Canada’s nuclear weapons program and the history of lost nukes, journeyed to the crash site to make its own assessment. At first, it appeared that most of the plane had been destroyed by the 1954 demolition crew or stolen by generations of adventurous looters.

Then they found something interesting.

While the crash and ensuing demolition destroyed much of the equipment in the bomb bay, the bomb shackle—which is what held the weapon suspended there—remained impressively intact. Clearwater and his team concluded that if the bomb had gone down with the rest of the plane, and the shackle remained in such good condition, there would have been some clear evidence of the bomb in the wreckage. But there wasn’t.

The more conventional explanation of the fate of America’s first broken arrow was likely the truth—the only remains of the detonated Mark IV rested deep on the ocean floor.

The crash of Flight 2075 may have been the first broken arrow, but it wasn’t the last. Clearwater writes that in the first 24 years of the atomic age alone, the U.S. and Soviet Union jettisoned or accidentally released 23 other lost nukes.

WATCH: Full episodes of Project Blue Book online now.

A Four-Megaton Atomic Bomb Was Lost off Georgia’s Coast in 1958 (And No One Knows If It’s Active)

Advertisements In November 2019, the Facebook page “Weird History” shared the following meme, which claimed that a four-megaton atomic bomb remained missing near Georgia — and that it might be live:

Under an image of a Cold War-style bomb or missile (which was incidentally published to Wikipedia in 2008), text read:

There’s been a four-megaton atomic bomb lost off the coast of Georgia since 1958 and no one really knows whether or not it’s active.

The meme was shared a day ahead of the release of the fourth and final season of Man in the High Castle. A streaming and expanded adaptation of the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, Man in the High Castle portrays an alternate history of Cold War-era America in which the Allies lost World War II.

In the meme, the bomb is described as a “four-megaton atomic bomb.” Megatons are a unit of measurement used to express the force of hydrogen bombs atomic bombs are typically quantified in kilotons:

Thermonuclear bombs can be hundreds or even thousands of times more powerful than atomic bombs. The explosive yield of atomic bombs is measured in kilotons, each unit of which equals the explosive force of 1,000 tons of TNT. The explosive power of hydrogen bombs, by contrast, is frequently expressed in megatons, each unit of which equals the explosive force of 1,000,000 tons of TNT. Hydrogen bombs of more than 50 megatons have been detonated, but the explosive power of the weapons mounted on strategic missiles usually ranges from 100 kilotons to 1.5 megatons.

To their credit, “Weird History” did include a status update along with a Facebook-formatted link:

A Routine Training Mission Went Incredibly Wrong And Resulted In The Loss Of A Nuclear Weapon —

That link pointed to an entry on the listicle-heavy site Ranker, with a title similar to the text of the meme: “The US Air Force Lost A Nuclear Bomb Off The Coast Of Georgia In 1958 — And They Still Haven’t Found It.” It claimed:

At around 1 am on February 5, 1958, Major Howard Richardson was piloting a B-47 Stratojet back to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. The Major was cruising along at 38,000 feet following what he thought was a successful top-secret training mission – a simulated bombing in Virginia. Then, the situation went underwater – in every sense of the word.

Unbeknownst to Richardson, the simulation was to feature one more pretend attack — from an F-86 Sabre jet fighter piloted by Lieutenant Clarence Stewart. That’s when disaster struck.


The device is believed to have landed somewhere near Tybee Island – and the incident has since come to be known as the Tybee Island mid-air collision.

One source cited by Ranker was a 2009 BBC article about the collision and its aftermath:

More than 50 years after a 7,600lb (3,500kg) nuclear bomb was dropped in US waters following a mid-air military collision, the question of whether the missing weapon still poses a threat remains.


Shortly after midnight on 5 February 1958, Howard Richardson was on a top-secret training flight for the US Strategic Air Command. It was the height of the Cold War and the young Major Richardson’s mission was to practise long-distance flights in his B-47 bomber in case he was ordered to fly from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida to any one of the targets the US had identified in Russia.

Colonel Howard Richardson We thought maybe it was something from outer space, but it could only be another plane Colonel Howard Richardson The training was to be as realistic as possible, so on board was a single massive H-bomb – the nuclear weapon he might one day be instructed to drop to start World War III.

As he cruised at 38,000 feet over North Carolina and Georgia, his plane was hit by another military aircraft, gouging a huge hole in the wing and knocking an engine almost off its mountings, leaving it hanging at a perilous angle … Colonel Richardson told me that the decision was instantaneous – and he still has no doubt it was the right thing to do.

They would ditch their nuclear payload as soon as possible in order to lighten the aircraft for an emergency landing and also to eliminate the danger of an enormous explosion when they made their unsteady arrival at the nearest available runway.

A May 2004 CBS article described the lost munition as an “H-bomb,” reporting on the area in which nuclear weapons enthusiast Derek Duke believed it sat in the waters off Savannah. Duke’s decades-dormant interest in the story was reinvigorated by internet chatter in the late 1990s, and he went looking with Geiger counters and a boat:

There seems to be nothing special out here. But beneath the ocean floor off Savannah, an aluminum cylinder lies entombed in silt. It’s like an 11-foot-long bullet with a snub nose and four stubby fins. Written on it, its name: “No. 47782.” Enclosed in its metal skin: 400 pounds of conventional explosives and a quantity of bomb-grade uranium.

No. 47782 is an H-bomb.

A Mark 15, Mod 0 to be exact, one of the earliest thermonuclear devices developed by the United States. This is the kind whose mushroom clouds boiled in South Pacific tests. It was designed to be 100 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

No. 47782 has rested off Savannah since Feb. 5, 1958.

In some pieces the missing weapon was described as an atomic bomb or A-bomb, and in others, a hydrogen bomb or H-bomb. The explosive in question was the “first relatively light (3450 kg) thermonuclear bomb,” a Mark 15, in service from 1955 to 1965.

CBS went on to describe conflicting information on whether the device posed a threat in its purported “watery grave”:

Four months after Richardson’s [1958] accident, the Atomic Energy Commission changed [a] policy, banning the use of nuclear bombs during training exercises.

As Duke was learning all of this, he turned up a copy of the Atomic Energy Commission receipt Richardson had signed. Written in ink near the top of the document was the word “simulated.” That, according to the Air Force, meant the bomb, containing 400 pounds of conventional explosives and an undisclosed amount of uranium, did not have a detonation capsule. Without it, there was no risk of a nuclear explosion.

That was reassuring. And it might have been the end of the story if not for another document Duke soon acquired.

This one was a letter, written in 1966 to the chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, recounting the testimony of Assistant Defense Secretary Jack Howard before a 1966 congressional committee investigating the country’s missing and lost nuclear weapons.

Howard, the letter says, testified there were four complete nuclear weapons, including detonation capsules, that were missing or lost. Among them: the bomb Richardson had dropped off the coast of Georgia.

Reporters also contacted Richardson, the pilot, who maintained the sunken bomb was not active, and that if it was he would have known. In October 2004, the New York Times reported that the United States military began its first search for the missing bomb, but maintained it was “incapable” of detonation:

It is the first time the military has sought signs of the 7,600-pound hydrogen bomb in the murky waters of Wassaw Sound since a crippled B-47 bomber dumped the Mark-15 bomb into the sea near Savannah in 1958.

A team of 20 experts in nuclear weapons, gamma spectroscopy and underwater salvage confined their search to an area roughly the size of a football field, marked by buoys floating on the surface … The Air Force says the bomb is incapable of a nuclear explosion because it lacks the plutonium capsule needed to trigger one. Still, it contains about 400 pounds of conventional explosives and an undisclosed amount of uranium.

The bomb was dropped into Wassaw Sound in February 1958 during a training flight when the bomber carrying it collided with a fighter jet.

Four years later, a February 2009 NPR piece about the mystery of the missing nuke off Tybee Island began with the following clarification:

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.

NPR reported that the Navy initially spent two months looking for the weapon, finally deciding that leaving it in its place was a better course of action than a recovery attempt:

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 [it is] 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.”

The original meme claimed that a “four-megaton atomic bomb” was “lost off the coast of Georgia” in 1958, and that “no one really knows whether or not it’s active.” On February 5 1958, an F-86 collided with the B-47 carrying a Mark 15 thermonuclear weapon, causing an emergency landing — during which the bomb was jettisoned, landing in the waters near Tybee Island, Georgia.

Initial Naval searches for it were unsuccessful, and the missing nuke remained a subject of interest for more than half a decade as the meme indicated, some dispute still surrounds its level of risk. Documents from the Cold War regarding whether the sunken munition contained both uranium and plutonium and whether it could be detonated contain conflicting information.

The two Nuclear Cores that not even The US Army knows where they are (March 10, 1956)

A Boeing B-47 Stratojet took off from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida for a non-stop flight to Ben Guerir Air Base, Morocco, but mysteriously disappeared.

The unarmed aircraft was carrying two capsules of nuclear weapons material in carrying cases. Since a nuclear detonation was not possible, the nuclear cores of the bombs are probably intact even today.

Despite an extensive search, no debris were found, and the crash site has never been completely located. Aircrafts last known position was over the Mediterranean Sea.

8 Nuclear Weapons the U.S. Has Lost

During the Cold War, the United States military misplaced at least eight nuclear weapons permanently. These are the stories of what the Department of Defense calls "broken arrows"—America's stray nukes, with a combined explosive force 2,200 times the Hiroshima bomb.

STRAY #1: Into the Pacific

February 13, 1950. An American B-36 bomber en route from Alaska to Texas during a training exercise lost power in three engines and began losing altitude. To lighten the aircraft the crew jettisoned its cargo, a 30-kiloton Mark 4 (Fat Man) nuclear bomb, into the Pacific Ocean. The conventional explosives detonated on impact, producing a flash and a shockwave. The bomb's uranium components were lost and never recovered. According to the USAF, the plutonium core wasn't present.

STRAY #2 & 3: Into Thin Air

March 10, 1956. A B-47 carrying two nuclear weapon cores from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to an overseas airbase disappeared during a scheduled air-to-air refueling over the Mediterranean Sea. After becoming lost in a thick cloud bank at 14,500 feet, the plane was never heard from again and its wreckage, including the nuclear cores, was never found. Although the weapon type remains undisclosed, Mark 15 thermonuclear bombs (commonly carried by B-47s) would have had a combined yield of 3.4 megatons.

STRAYS #4 & 5: Somewhere in a North Carolina Swamp

January 24, 1961. A B-52 carrying two 24-megaton nuclear bombs crashed while taking off from an airbase in Goldsboro, North Carolina. One of the weapons sank in swampy farmland, and its uranium core was never found despite intensive search efforts to a depth of 50 feet. To ensure no one else could recover the weapon, the USAF bought a permanent easement requiring government permission to dig on the land.

STRAY #6: The Incident in Japan

December 5, 1965. An A-4E Skyhawk attack aircraft carrying a 1-megaton thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb) rolled off the deck of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga and fell into the Pacific Ocean. The plane and weapon sank in 16,000 feet of water and were never found. 15 years later the U.S. Navy finally admitted that the accident had taken place, claiming it happened 500 miles from land the in relative safety of the high seas. This turned out to be not true it actually happened about 80 miles off Japan's Ryuku island chain, as the aircraft carrier was sailing to Yokosuka, Japan after a bombing mission over Vietnam.

These revelations caused a political uproar in Japan, which prohibits the United States from bringing nuclear weapons into its territory.

Jughead is Real: The Truth About Lost 's H-Bomb

The giant hydrogen bomb detonated on the ABC hit show, Lost, in its season finale this week really existed. It really was called "Jughead." Constructed in 1954, it was never actually exploded, leaving space for Lost's writers to whisk it away to the mystery island.

As fans of Lost, we were amused to have the 40,000-pound thermonuclear device make its appearance in season five of the show. Jughead, first seen dangling from a tower early in the season, is detonated in the finale as the survivors attempt to change their history. The effect of a nuclear explosion on time travel is a bit outside our expertise, but Lost's writers got the basic facts of nuclear weapons right. These guys did their homework.

Jughead Dissected

The United States built thousands of hydrogen bombs in the 1950s. Each, many times more powerful that the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Unlike atomic bombs that get their energy from fission, or the splitting of atoms, hydrogen bombs get their energy from fusion of hydrogen atoms. This is the basic energy force in the universe. It is what powers the sun and all stars. There is no theoretical limit to how big we could make a hydrogen bomb. It is just a matter of how large a quantity of hydrogen isotopes we wants to fuse, though the logistics become more difficult. In 1961, the Soviets planned to test a 100-megaton bomb (equal to 100 million tons of TNT), but settled for the 50-megaton Tsar Bomba. It was the largest bomb ever tested, twice the size of the biggest U.S. test.

The real-life Jughead was indeed the hulking behemoth depicted in Lost. It was designed to explode with a force of 8 million tons of TNT, or over 500 times more force than the Hiroshima bomb.

As accurately depicted in Lost, a fusion weapon like Jughead has two or more nuclear components in the same device that are ignited in stages. As Princeton physicist Frank Von Hippel likes to say, "Within each big bomb is a little bomb."

Although it is not clearly explained in the show, the Lost character Sayid takes out what would be the smaller fission "primary" that would be used to create the heat, pressure and radiation necessary to compress and ignite the separate fusion secondary, vastly increasing the explosive yield. This is the bomb he takes to the Swan site.

Would it look as compact as the device Sayid tucks in his backpack? Probably not, but it would not be too much bigger. Could he actually carry it without fear of radiation? Yes. As physicist Ivan Oelrich, also a Lost fan, details:

"People think that the fuel that drives an atomic bomb must be intensely radioactive, but in fact it's not. It becomes radioactive after the reaction."

Of course, the story is not entirely accurate - you cannot trigger a chain reaction by beating an atomic bomb with a rock, though props to Juliet for really following through. We can grant the writers of Lost a little leeway, since time travel and smoke monsters are not exactly hard physics either.

Nuclear Nuts

The fantasy and reality of Jughead illuminate the absolute insanity of the Cold War arms race. (For the best historical account, check out the Richard Rhodes trilogy: The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun and Arsenals of Folly.)

While Albert Einstein and some members of the Manhattan Project, like chief scientist Robert J. Oppenheimer, were appalled at what they had created, others like Edward Teller pushed to produce the H-bomb. Oppenheimer and the entire scientific General Advisory Committee saw it as a weapon of genocide. They told President Truman:

"The use of this weapon would bring about the destruction of innumerable human lives it is not a weapon which can be used exclusively for the destruction of material installations or military or semi-military purposes. Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of extermination of civilian populations."

Truman, fearful of the political reaction to a US decision not to build the new bomb if the Soviets did, overruled the scientists. That is how we (and the rest of the nuclear powers) came to create these colossal Jugheads, capable of obliterating entire cities.

We went nuclear nuts in the 1950s, increasing the U.S. arsenal from 200 atomic bombs in 1949 to over 20,000 mostly hydrogen bombs by 1960. The Soviets raced to catch up, with both countries peaking at about 65,000 bombs in 1986.

The good news: we have cut the number of nuclear weapons by 63 per cent since then. The bad news: we still have around 23,000 left. Lost, intentionally or not, gives us the essential problem: the longer the bomb hangs around the island, the more likely it is that someone's gonna use it.

We have been exceedingly lucky to get this far without an intentional or accidental use of nukes. So the next time you think about how crazy Lost is, just think about how insane our nuclear stockpiles are.


In 1966, United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara proposed cutting "Chrome Dome" flights because the BMEWS system was fully operational, the bombers had been made redundant by missiles, and $123 million ($981 million as of 2021) could be saved annually. SAC and the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the plan, so a compromise was reached whereby a smaller force of four bombers would be on alert each day. Despite the reduced program and the risks highlighted by the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash, SAC continued to dedicate one of the aircraft to monitoring Thule Air Base. This assignment was without the knowledge of civilian authorities in the United States, who SAC determined did not have the "need to know" about specific operational points. [8]

On 21 January 1968, a B-52G Stratofortress, serial number 58-0188, with the callsign "HOBO 28" [9] from the 380th Strategic Bomb Wing at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York was assigned the "Hard Head" mission over Thule and nearby Baffin Bay. [10] The bomber crew consisted of five regular crew members, including Captain John Haug, the aircraft commander. Also aboard were a substitute navigator (Captain Curtis R. Criss [11] ) and a mandatory third pilot (Major Alfred D'Mario). [12]

Before take-off, D'Mario placed three cloth-covered foam cushions on top of a heating vent under the instructor navigator's seat in the aft section of the lower deck. Shortly after take-off, another cushion was placed under the seat. The flight was uneventful until the scheduled mid-air refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker, which had to be conducted manually because of an error with the B-52G's autopilot. About one hour after refueling, while the aircraft was circling above its designated area, Captain Haug directed co-pilot Svitenko to take his rest period. His seat was taken by the spare pilot, D'Mario. The crew was uncomfortable because of the cold, although the heater's rheostat was turned up, so D'Mario opened an engine bleed valve to draw additional hot air into the heater from the engine manifold. [6] Because of a heater malfunction, the air barely cooled as it traveled from the engine manifold to the cabin's heating ducts. During the next half-hour, the cabin's temperature became uncomfortably hot, [13] and the stowed cushions ignited. [14] After one crew member reported smelling burning rubber, they looked for a fire. The navigator searched the lower compartment twice before discovering the fire behind a metal box. [9] He attempted to fight it with two fire extinguishers, but could not put it out. [9] [15]

At 15:22 EST, about six hours into the flight and 90 miles (140 km) south of Thule Air Base, Haug declared an emergency. He told Thule air traffic control that he had a fire on board and requested permission to perform an emergency landing at the air base. [16] Within five minutes, the aircraft's fire extinguishers were depleted, electrical power was lost and smoke filled the cockpit to the point that the pilots could not read their instruments. [10] [17] As the situation worsened, the captain realized he would not be able to land the aircraft and told the crew to prepare to abandon it. They awaited word from D'Mario that they were over land, and when he confirmed that the aircraft was directly over the lights of Thule Air Base, the four crewmen ejected, followed shortly thereafter by Haug and D'Mario. The co-pilot, Leonard Svitenko, who had given up his ejection seat when the spare pilot took over from him, sustained fatal head injuries when he attempted to bail out through one of the lower hatches. [15] [18] [19]

The pilotless aircraft initially continued north, then turned left through 180° and crashed onto sea ice in North Star Bay at a relatively shallow angle of 20 degrees—about 7.5 miles (12.1 km) west of Thule Air Base—at 15:39 EST. [c] The conventional high explosive (HE) components of four 1.1 megaton [20] B28FI thermonuclear bombs detonated on impact, spreading radioactive material over a large area in a manner similar to a dirty bomb. [21] "Weak links" in the weapon design ensured that a nuclear explosion was not triggered. The extreme heat generated by the burning of 225,000 pounds (102 t) of jet fuel during the five to six hours after the crash melted the ice sheet, causing wreckage and munitions to sink to the ocean floor.

Haug and D'Mario parachuted onto the grounds of the air base and made contact with the base commander within ten minutes of each other. They informed him that at least six crew ejected successfully and the aircraft was carrying four nuclear weapons. [11] Off-duty staff were mustered to conduct search and rescue operations for the remaining crew members. Owing to the extreme weather conditions, Arctic darkness, and unnavigable ice, the base relied largely on the Thule representative of the Royal Greenland Trade Department, Ministry of Greenland, Jens Zinglersen, to raise and mount the search using native dog sled teams. [22] Three of the survivors landed within 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of the base and were rescued within two hours. [23] [24] For his initial actions and later services, Zinglersen received the Air Force Exceptional Civilian Service Medal on 26 February 1968 at the hands of the U.S. Ambassador, K. E. White. [11] Captain Criss, who was first to eject, landed 6 miles (9.7 km) from the base—he remained lost on an ice floe for 21 hours and suffered hypothermia in the −23 °F (−31 °C) temperatures, [11] but he survived by wrapping himself in his parachute. [11] [24]

An aerial survey of the crash site immediately afterwards showed only six engines, a tire and small items of debris on the blackened surface of the ice. [25] The accident was designated a Broken Arrow, or an accident involving a nuclear weapon but which does not present a risk of war. [26] [27]

The resulting explosion and fire destroyed many of the components that had scattered widely in a 1-mile (1.6 km) by 3-mile (4.8 km) area. [28] Parts of the bomb bay were found 2 miles (3.2 km) north of the impact area, indicating the aircraft started to break up before impact. [29] [30] The ice was disrupted at the point of impact, temporarily exposing an area of seawater approximately 160 feet (50 m) in diameter ice floes in the area were scattered, upturned and displaced. [31] South of the impact area, a 400-foot (120 m) by 2,200-foot (670 m) blackened patch was visible where fuel from the aircraft had burned—this area was highly contaminated with JP-4 aviation fuel and radioactive elements [31] that included plutonium, uranium, americium and tritium. [32] [33] [34] Plutonium levels as high as 380 mg/m 2 were registered in the area. [21]

Radioactive materials at the accident site [34]
Nuclide Half-life Type of radiation
Tritium 12 years Beta
Uranium-234 250,000 years Alpha
Uranium-235 700 million years Alpha
Uranium-238 4.5 billion years Alpha
Plutonium-239 24,000 years Alpha
Plutonium-240 6,600 years Alpha
Plutonium-241 14 years Beta
Americium-241 430 years Alpha/Gamma

American and Danish officials immediately launched "Project Crested Ice" (informally known as "Dr. Freezelove" [d] [35] ), a clean-up operation to remove the debris and contain environmental damage. [36] Despite the cold, dark Arctic winter, there was considerable pressure to complete the clean-up operation before the sea ice melted in the spring and deposited further contaminants into the sea. [37]

Weather conditions at the site were extreme the average temperature was −40 °F (−40 °C), at times dropping to −76 °F (−60 °C). These temperatures were accompanied by winds of up to 89 miles per hour (40 m/s). Equipment suffered high failure rates and batteries worked for shorter periods in the cold operators modified their scientific instruments to allow the battery packs to be carried under their coats to extend the batteries' lifespan. [38] The operation was conducted in arctic darkness until 14 February, when sunlight gradually began appearing. [36] [39]

A base camp (named "Camp Hunziker" [40] after Richard Overton Hunziker, the USAF general in charge of the operation) was created at the crash site it included a heliport, igloos, generators and communications facilities. A "zero line" delineating the 1-mile (1.6 km) by 3-mile (4.8 km) area in which alpha particle contamination could be measured was established by 25 January, four days after the crash. [41] The line was subsequently used to control decontamination of personnel and vehicles. An ice road was constructed to Thule from the site. This was followed by a second, more direct road so that the ice on the first road was not fatigued by overuse. [42] The camp later included a large prefabricated building, two ski-mounted buildings, several huts, a decontamination trailer and a latrine. [43] These facilities allowed for 24-hour operations at the crash site. [43]

The USAF worked with Danish nuclear scientists to consider the clean-up options. The spilled fuel in the blackened area was heavily contaminated, raising concerns that when the ice melted in the summer, the radioactive fuel would float on the sea and subsequently contaminate the shore. The Danes thus insisted on the removal of the blackened area to avoid this possibility. [44] The Danes also requested that the nuclear material not be left in Greenland after the cleanup operation was complete, therefore requiring General Hunziker to remove the contaminated ice and wreckage to the United States for disposal. [45] [46] USAF personnel used graders to collect the contaminated snow and ice, which was loaded into wooden boxes at the crash site. The boxes were moved to a holding area near Thule Air Base known as the "Tank Farm". [47] There, contaminated material was loaded into steel tanks prior to being loaded onto ships. [48] Debris from the weapons was sent to the Pantex plant in Texas for evaluation, [17] and the tanks were shipped to Savannah River in South Carolina. [49] According to General Hunziker, 93 percent of the contaminated material was removed from the accident site. [50]

In 1987–88 and again in 2000, reports surfaced in the Danish press that one of the bombs had not been recovered. [51] SAC stated at the time of the accident that all four bombs were destroyed. In 2008, the BBC published an article that was based on its examination of partly declassified documents obtained some years earlier, via the United States Freedom of Information Act. The documents appeared to confirm that within weeks of the accident, investigators realized only three of the weapons could be accounted for. [52] One of the declassified documents—dated to January 1968—details a blackened section of ice which had refrozen with shroud lines from a weapon parachute: "Speculate something melted through the ice such as burning primary or secondary." [52] [e] A July 1968 report states, "An analysis by the AEC of the recovered secondary components indicates recovery of 85 percent of the uranium and 94 percent, by weight, of three secondaries. No parts of the fourth secondary have been identified." [53]

The BBC tracked down several officials involved in the accident's aftermath. One was William H. Chambers, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Chambers headed a team dealing with nuclear accidents, including the Thule crash. He explained the logic behind the decision to abandon the search: "There was disappointment in what you might call a failure to return all of the components . it would be very difficult for anyone else to recover classified pieces if we couldn't find them." [52]

In August 1968, the United States military sent a Star III mini-submarine to the base to look for weapon debris, especially the uranium-235 fissile core of a secondary. [54] A much bigger operation at Palomares off the coast of Spain two years earlier led to the recovery of a lost nuclear weapon from the Mediterranean Sea the B28FI bomb was lost for 80 days after a mid-air collision between a B-52 on a "Chrome Dome" mission and its KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft. [55] Christensen asserts that the purpose of the underwater search at Thule was obvious to the Danish authorities, contrary to other reports that suggested its true purpose had been hidden from them. [56] At lower levels, however, the dives were surrounded by some confidentiality. One document from July 1968 reads, "Fact that this operation includes search for object or missing weapon part is to be treated as Confidential NOFORN", [52] meaning it was not to be disclosed to non-US nationals. It continues, "For discussion with Danes, this operation should be referred to as a survey, repeat survey of bottom under impact point." [52] Further indications of the search are apparent in a September 1968 interim report by the United States Atomic Energy Commission, which stated, "It was further speculated that the missing <redacted>, in view of its ballistic characteristics, may have come to rest beyond the observed concentration of heavy debris." [57] This discussion was a reference to the unsuccessful search for the uranium cylinder of one of the secondaries. [58]

The underwater search was beset by technical problems and eventually abandoned. Diagrams and notes included in the declassified documents make clear it was not possible to search the entire area where crash debris had spread. Four bomb reservoirs, one nearly intact secondary, and parts equaling two secondaries were recovered on the sea ice parts equaling one secondary were not accounted for. [59] The search also revealed a weapon cable fairing, polar cap, and a one-foot by three-foot section of a warhead's ballistic case. [60]

The United States Air Force monitored airborne contamination through nasal swabs of onsite personnel. Of the 9,837 nasal swabs taken, 335 samples had detectable levels of alpha particle activity, although none were above acceptable levels. Urinalysis was also performed but none of the 756 samples displayed any detectable level of plutonium. [61]

By the time the operation concluded, 700 specialized personnel from both countries and more than 70 United States government agencies had worked for nine months to clean up the site, [35] often without adequate protective clothing or decontamination measures. In total, more than 550,000 US gallons (2,100 m 3 ) of contaminated liquid—along with thirty tanks of miscellaneous material, some of it contaminated—were collected at the Tank Farm. [62] Project Crested Ice ended on 13 September 1968 when the last tank was loaded onto a ship bound for the United States. [47] The operation is estimated to have cost $9.4 million ($70 million as of 2021). [36]

Operation Chrome Dome Edit

The accident caused controversy at the time and in the years since. It highlighted the risks Thule Air Base posed to Greenlanders from nuclear accidents and potential superpower conflicts. [63] The accident, which occurred two years after the Palomares crash, signaled the immediate end of the airborne alert program, which had become untenable because of the political and operational risks involved. [64] Scott Sagan, a political science academic and anti-nuclear writer, postulated that if the HOBO 28 monitoring aircraft had crashed into the BMEWS early warning array instead of Baffin Bay, it would have presented NORAD with a scenario (radio link to "Hard Head" aircraft and BMEWS both dead, no nuclear detonation detected) that also matched that of a surprise conventional missile attack on Thule, leaving the unreliable submarine telecommunications cable between Thule and the US mainland as the only source of information to the contrary. [65] [66] A satellite communications link was set up in 1974. [67]

According to Greenpeace, the United States and USSR were concerned enough by accidents such as the 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash, the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash and the Thule accident that they agreed to take measures to ensure that a future nuclear accident would not lead the other party to conclude incorrectly that a first strike was under way. [68] Consequently, on 30 September 1971, the two superpowers signed the "Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Risk of Nuclear War". Each party agreed to notify the other immediately in the event of an accidental, unauthorized or unexplained incident involving a nuclear weapon that could increase the risk of nuclear war. [69] They agreed to use the Moscow–Washington hotline, which was upgraded at the same time, for any communications. [70] [71]

The decision not to restart on-alert bomber missions was also a reflection of the strategic decline of manned nuclear weapon delivery in favor of unmanned delivery via ICBMs, which had already eclipsed the number of bombers in the United States by April 1964.

Weapon safety Edit

Following the Palomares and Thule accidents—the only cases where the conventional explosives of U.S. nuclear bombs accidentally detonated and dispersed nuclear materials [72] —investigators concluded the high explosive (HE) used in nuclear weapons was not chemically stable enough to withstand the forces involved in an aircraft accident. They also determined that the electrical circuits of the weapons' safety devices became unreliable in a fire and allowed connections to short circuit. The findings triggered research by scientists in the United States into safer conventional explosives and fireproof casings for nuclear weapons. [73]

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory developed the "Susan Test", which uses a special projectile whose design simulates an aircraft accident by squeezing and nipping explosive material between its metal surfaces. [73] The test projectile is fired under controlled conditions at a hard surface to measure the reactions and thresholds of different explosives to an impact. By 1979, the Los Alamos National Laboratory developed a new, safer type of explosive, called insensitive high explosive (IHE), for use in U.S. nuclear weapons [74] [75] the physicist and nuclear weapons designer Ray Kidder speculated that the weapons in the Palomares and Thule accidents would probably not have detonated had IHE been available at the time. [76]

"Thulegate" political scandal Edit

Denmark's nuclear-free zone policy originated in 1957, when the coalition government decided in the lead-up to the Paris NATO summit not to stockpile nuclear weapons on its soil in peacetime. [77] [78] The presence of the bomber in Greenland airspace in 1968 therefore triggered public suspicions and accusations that the policy was being violated. [79] [80] [81] The nature of the "Hard Head" missions was suppressed at the time of the accident [82] the Danish and American governments instead claimed the bomber was not on a routine mission over Greenland and that it diverted there because of a one-off emergency. [81] [83] United States documents declassified in the 1990s contradicted the Danish government's position, [84] [85] and therefore resulted in a 1995 political scandal that the press dubbed "Thulegate". [81]

The Danish parliament commissioned a report from the Danish Institute of International Affairs (DUPI) [f] to determine the history of United States nuclear overflights of Greenland and the role of Thule Air Base in this regard. When the two-volume work was published on 17 January 1997 [86] it confirmed that the nuclear-armed flights over Greenland were recurrent, but that the United States had acted in good faith. The report blamed Danish Prime Minister H. C. Hansen for intentionally introducing ambiguity in the Danish–U.S. security agreement: he was not asked about, nor did he mention, the official Danish nuclear policy when meeting with the United States ambassador in 1957 to discuss Thule Air Base. Hansen followed up the discussion with an infamous letter pointing out that the issue of "supplies of munition of a special kind" was not raised during the discussion, but that he had nothing further to add. [87] In doing so, the report concluded, he tacitly gave the United States the go-ahead to store nuclear weapons at Thule. [88]

The report also confirmed that the United States stockpiled nuclear weapons in Greenland until 1965, contradicting assurances by Danish foreign minister Niels Helveg Petersen that the weapons were in Greenland's airspace, but never on the ground. [81] [88] The DUPI report also revealed details of Project Iceworm, a hitherto secret United States Army plan to store up to 600 nuclear missiles under the Greenland ice cap. [89]

Workers' compensation claims Edit

Danish workers involved in the clean-up operation claimed long-term health problems resulted from their exposure to the radiation. Although they did not work at Camp Hunziker, the Danes worked at the Tank Farm where the contaminated ice was collected, in the port where the contaminated debris was shipped from, and they also serviced the vehicles used in the clean-up. It is also possible that they were exposed to radiation in the local atmosphere. [90] Many of the workers surveyed in the years following Project Crested Ice reported health problems. A 1995 survey found 410 deaths by cancers out of a sample of 1,500 workers. [91]

In 1986, Danish Prime Minister Poul Schlüter commissioned a radiological examination of the surviving workers. The Danish Institute for Clinical Epidemiology concluded 11 months later that cancer incidents were 40 percent higher in Project Crested Ice workers than in workers who had visited the base before and after the operation. The Institute of Cancer Epidemiology found a 50 percent higher cancer rate in the workers than in the general population, but could not conclude that radiation exposure was to blame. [92]

In 1987, almost 200 former cleanup workers took legal action against the United States. The action was unsuccessful, but resulted in the release of hundreds of classified documents. The documents revealed that USAF personnel involved in the clean-up were not subsequently monitored for health problems, despite the likelihood of greater exposure to radiation than the Danes. [92] The United States has since instigated regular examinations of its workers. [93] In 1995, the Danish government paid 1,700 workers compensation of 50,000 kroner each. [94]

Danish workers' health has not been regularly monitored, despite a European Court directive to the Danish government to begin examinations in the year 2000, [95] and a May 2007 European Parliament resolution instructing the same. [93] [96] In 2008, the Association of Former Thule Workers took the case to the European courts. The petitioners claimed that Denmark's failure to comply with the rulings led to delays in detecting their illnesses, resulting in worsened prognoses. The country joined the European Atomic Energy Community in 1973, and is therefore not legally bound by the European treaty with respect to events in 1968: "When the accident occurred, Denmark was not a Member State and could not therefore be considered as being bound by the Community legislation applicable at that time. The obligations of Denmark towards the workers and the population likely to be affected by the accident could only flow from national legislation." [97]

The Danish government rejected a link between the accident and long-term health issues. Dr. Kaare Ulbak of the Danish National Institute of Radiation Protection said, "We have very good registers for cancer incidents and cancer mortality and we have made a very thorough investigation." [95] The workers said the lack of proof was attributable to the lack of appropriate medical monitoring. As of November 2008, the case has been unsuccessful. [95] A 2011 report by the Danish National Board of Health found that "the total radiation dose for representative persons in the Thule area for plutonium contamination resulting from the 1968 Thule accident is lower than the recommended reference level, even under extreme conditions and situations." [98]

Scientific studies Edit

Radioactive contamination occurred particularly in the marine environment. The fissile material in the weapons consisted mostly of uranium-235, while the radioactive debris consists of at least two different "source terms". [g] Scientific monitoring of the site has been carried out periodically, with expeditions in 1968, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1984, 1991, 1997 and 2003. [99] [100]

A 1997 international expedition of mainly Danish and Finnish scientists carried out a comprehensive sediment sampling program in North Star Bay. [101] The main conclusions were: plutonium has not moved from the contaminated sediments into the surface water in the shelf sea the debris has been buried to a great depth in the sediment as a result of biological activity transfer of plutonium to benthic biota is low. Other research indicates that uranium is leaching from the contaminated particles faster than plutonium and americium. [102] Research conducted in 2003 concluded, "Plutonium in the marine environment at Thule presents an insignificant risk to man. Most plutonium remains in the seabed under Bylot Sound far from man under relatively stable conditions and concentrations of plutonium in seawater and animals are low. However, the plutonium contamination of surface soil at Narsaarsuk could constitute a small risk to humans visiting the location if radioactive particles are resuspended in the air so that they might be inhaled." [103] [104] In 2003, 2007 and 2008, the first samples were taken on land by the Risø National Laboratory—the findings were published in 2011. [105] [106] [107]

Literature review of declassified documents Edit

A BBC News report in 2008 confirmed through declassified documents and interviews with those involved that a bomb had been lost. [108] [109] The Danish foreign ministry reviewed the 348 documents that the BBC obtained in 2001 under the Freedom of Information Act. In January 2009, foreign minister Per Stig Møller commissioned a study by the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) to compare the 348 documents with 317 documents released by the Department of Energy in 1994 in order to determine if the 348 documents contained any new information about an intact nuclear weapon at Thule. [110] In August 2009, DIIS published its report, which contradicted the assertions of the BBC. [111] The report concluded that there was no missing bomb, and that the American underwater operation was a search for the uranium-235 of the fissile core of a secondary. [111] For the first time, the report was able to present an estimate of the amount of plutonium contained in the pits of the primaries. [112] [113]

9 Mysterious Drones Over France&rsquos Nuclear Plants

In 2014, unidentified drones were spotted over 13 of France&rsquos 19 nuclear power plants. The areas both above and around nuclear plants are restricted and monitored by the French air force, but the drones were so small that they went undetected by the military&rsquos equipment. Although the French government says there&rsquos no threat to the plants, it has devoted &euro1 million to create systems to detect and eliminate any similar drones.

Still, no one knows who&rsquos been launching the drones. Briefly, authorities thought they&rsquod solved the case when they arrested three people who were preparing to launch a drone near one station in central France. But their machine was a simple, cheap model, not the more elaborate kind spotted at the other plants. Nevertheless, the three face possible prison sentences and fines of &euro75,000.

The drones that have been sighted are believed to have cost several thousand euros and were flown in a coordinated effort. At one plant, army helicopters were sent out to intercept them, but the machines were efficient enough to avoid the helicopters. The drones and whoever is piloting them have raised concerns over the vulnerability of France&rsquos nuclear sites. Some are pointing to Greenpeace, which has used drones before and is outspoken about France&rsquos nuclear program. But the group is only one of several possible suspects, and there is currently no evidence to support any theory.

America Almost Made a New Route 66 With 22 Nuclear Bombs

Susan Montoya Bryan via AP Images (foreground), YouTube | Smithsonian Channel (background)

By harnessing the power of the atom and capturing the potential to unleash divine fire in its hands, humanity understandably developed something of a Prometheus complex when we made the first nuclear bomb. As the Cold War dragged on in the years after World War II, scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain started looking for ways this new ability could be used for the benefit of humanity, not just to kill everything and render the planet uninhabitable. But we're not talking about nuclear power—no, we're talking about the U.S. government's very real plan to detonate a bunch of nukes in the California desert and blast a highway bypass for Route 66 into existence.

What has to be the most spectacularly violent infrastructure proposal in American history came out of the federal government's Project Plowshare, conceived in 1951 as a way of, well, "beating atomic arms into plowshares." It was our exploration of constructive uses for nuclear weaponry. Bombs detonated underground, officials theorized, could make for cheap ways of moving large volumes of earth—be it for mining, hollowing out caverns to store natural gas, or prepping for other kinds of infrastructure. Dams and reservoirs could be created with single bombs, while dozens-long chains of detonations could carve new canals or even entire harbors.

A wing and a prayer

If there were such a thing as a friendly neighborhood military base, it would be Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near sleepy Goldsboro, North Carolina. Largely hidden behind woods, walls, and wetlands, the base has been an unobtrusive jobs-and-money community asset since World War II.

Despite a notable increase in air traffic in late 1960, the good people of Goldsboro had no inkling that their local Air Force base had quietly become one of several U.S. airfields selected for Operation Chrome Dome, a Cold War doomsday program that kept multiple B-52 bombers in the air throughout the Northern Hemisphere 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each plane carried two atomic bombs. (Pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki show the destructive power of atomic bombs.)

Bombers flying from Johnson AFB in January 1961 would typically make a few training loops just off the coast of North Carolina, then head across the Atlantic all the way to the Azores before doubling back. The gas-guzzling B-52s, called BUFFs by airmen (for Big Ugly Fat Fellow, only they didn’t say “fellow”) had to be refueled multiple times during each mission.

It was following one of these refueling sessions that Captain Walter Tulloch and his crew noticed their plane was rapidly losing fuel. Then they began having electrical problems. Tulloch briefly resisted an order from Air Control to return to Goldsboro, preferring to burn off some fuel before coming in for a risky landing. But soon he followed orders and headed back.

At about 5,000 feet altitude, approaching from the south and about 15 miles from the base, Tulloch made a final turn.

That’s when the B-52 fell apart.

“Tulloch had the B-52 lined up to land on Runway 26, but suddenly the plane started veering off to the right, toward the hamlet of Faro,” says Joel Dobson, author of the definitive book on the crash, The Goldsboro Broken Arrow. “Then it started rolling over and tearing apart.”

A few weeks before, the Air Force and the plane’s builder, Boeing, had realized that a recent modification—fitting the B-52’s wings with fuel bladders—could cause the wings to tear off. Tulloch’s plane was scheduled for a re-fit to resolve the problem, but it would come too late. He knew his plane was doomed, so he hit the “bail out” alarm.

Of the eight airmen aboard the B-52, six sat in ejection seats. Adam Mattocks, the third pilot, was assigned a regular jump seat in the cockpit. The youngest man on board, 27-year-old Mattocks was also an Air Force rarity: an African-American jet fighter pilot, reassigned to B-52 duty as Operation Chrome Dome got into full swing. At this moment, it looked like that chance assignment would be his death warrant.

“Basically, Mattocks was a dead man,” Dobson says. His only chance was to somehow pull himself through a cockpit window after the other two pilots had ejected.

“He was a very religious man,” Dobson says. “He told me he just looked around and said, ‘Well, God, if it’s my time, so be it. But here goes.’”

It was a surreal moment. The B-52’s forward speed was nearly zero, but the plane had not yet started falling. It was as if Mattocks and the plane were, for a moment, suspended in midair. He seized on that moment to hurl himself into the abyss, leaping as far from the B-52 as he could. He pulled his parachute ripcord. At first it didn’t deploy, perhaps because his air speed was so low. But as he began falling in earnest, the welcome sight of an air-filled canopy billowed in the night sky above him.

“Mattocks prayed, ‘Thank you, God!’” says Dobson. “Then the plane exploded in midair and collapsed his chute.”

Now Mattocks was just another piece of falling debris from the disintegrating B-52. Somehow, a stream of air slipped into the fluttering chute and it re-inflated. Mattocks was once more floating toward Earth. Looking up at that gently bobbing chute, Mattocks again whispered, “Thank you, God!”

Then he looked down. He was heading straight for the burning wreckage of the B-52.

“Well, Lord,” he said out loud, “if this is the way it’s going to end, so be it.” Then a gust of wind, or perhaps an updraft from the flames below, nudged him to the south. He landed, unhurt, away from the main crash site.

After one last murmur of thanks, Mattocks headed for a nearby farmhouse and hitched a ride back to the Air Force base. Standing at the front gate in a tattered flight suit, still holding his bundled parachute in his arms, Mattocks told the guards he had just bailed from a crashing B-52.

Faced with a disheveled African-American man cradling a parachute and telling a cockamamie story like that, the sentries did exactly what you might expect a pair of guards in 1961 rural North Carolina to do: They arrested Mattocks for stealing a parachute.

Palomares, Spain (1966)

On the morning of January 17, 1966, a B-52 bomber carrying four Mark 28 hydrogen bombs collided with a KC-135 refueling aircraft near Palomares, Spain. The B-52 was part of the United States Air Force’s Operation “Chrome Dome,” in which Strategic Air Command constantly flew bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons in order to provide the US with a first strike capability over the USSR in event of a “hot” confrontation.

The Collision

While flying at an altitude of 31,000 feet, the B-52 bomber approached the KC-135 tanker for a routine aerial refueling at around 10:30 am. However, the bomber’s incoming speed was too fast and caused the aircraft to collide with the tanker’s fueling boom. Major Larry G. Messinger, one of the B-52 co-pilots, recalled, “All of a sudden, all hell seemed to break loose.”

The collision caused an explosion that ignited the tanker, killing all four crew members on board. The B-52 started to break apart, and its unarmed thermonuclear payload, four 1.5 megaton bombs, was released. Three of the hydrogen bombs fell to the ground while the fourth landed in the Mediterranean Sea. Of the seven crew members aboard the bomber, four ejected and parachuted to safety while three were killed.

Manolo Gonzalez, a local villager, recounted, “I looked up and saw this huge ball of fire falling through the sky, the two planes were breaking into pieces.” Debris from the collision fell down on Palomares, but no one in the town was killed.


Approximately 24 hours after the collision, U.S. servicemen and disaster control teams located, secured, and recovered the three hydrogen bombs that fell on land. One bomb deployed its parachute as designed and landed harmlessly, in what former Secretary of the Air Force Thomas C. Reed calls “a silent testimonial to the care of those who designed, engineered, and built those U.S. nukes.” However, the conventional explosives in two bombs went off, contaminating surrounding farms (see below).

The fourth bomb parachuted several miles off the coast and landed in the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. Navy launched an intensive three-month search involving nearly 12,000 people, several ships, and two submarines, the Alvin and the Aluminaut.

On March 2, the United States was forced to publicly announce the incident and disclose the ongoing search for the missing hydrogen bomb. Six days later, U.S. Ambassador to Spain Angier Biddle Duke went for a swim in a nearby beach to prove the water was safe. He told reporters, “If this is radioactivity, I love it!”

The bomb was ultimately found and extracted from the ocean on April 7. The following day, reporters were permitted to photograph it aboard the U.S.S. Petrel. The New York Times reported it was the first time the U.S. military had displayed a nuclear weapon to the public.

Two years after the Palomares incident, SAC halted Operation Chrome Dome flights. The Navy’s recovery of the fourth bomb was dramatized in the 2000 film Men of Honor, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro.


The U.S. military launched Operation “Moist Mop” in Palomares to remove contaminated soil from the bombs’ release of plutonium. Author Barbara Moran describes, “To clean it up, they decided to remove the contaminated dirt from the most contaminated areas.” This involved removing topsoil from irradiated areas and shipping it to storage facilities in the United States.

Over the course of four months, more than 1,400 tons of soil, across 650 acres of land, was sent to an approved storage facility in Aiken, South Carolina. Additionally, medical treatment centers were set up to monitor residents who had been exposed to the plutonium. In the immediate wake of the incident, the US settled claims with residents of Palomares for $600,000. In recent years, a number of U.S. servicemen who participated in the cleanup have alleged that their exposure to plutonium has resulted in lifelong health problems.

Part of the area remains fenced off. In 2006, the Spanish Center for Energy Research (CIEMAT) discovered radioactive snails in the area. Subsequent analyses have continued to detect levels of plutonium in the soil. A 2006 State Department cable reveals that the Spanish government “believe[d] the remaining contamination might be more serious than heretofore believed” and that the US had spent $12 million, or approximately $300,000 every year to that point, to assist the Spanish in monitoring the contaminated area.

In 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry signed a “Statement of Intent” with Spain’s Foreign Minister, José Manuel Garcia-Margallo y Marfil, to assist Spain in completing the cleanup of Palomares. Secretary Kerry remarked, “What is Palomares? To the U.S. government, it remains the site of a tragic and embarrassing accident which held the attention of the world for a few long months in 1966…We have to build on today’s signing to take further action to resolve, once and for all, this very important issue.”