14. Two nuclear bombs fell on North Carolina in 1961, and one remains buried under a farm to this day
On January 24, 1961, a USAF B-52 bomber on airborne alert – part of the US nuclear deterrence strategy during the Cold War – suddenly caught fire due to a critical leak in a wing fuel cell. Causing structural failure in the aircraft, the bomber exploded and broke apart in mid-air 12 miles north of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. Of the eight crewman aboard the B-52, five successfully ejected and parachuted to safety whilst two died in the effort and a further one succumbed to injuries upon landing. The resulting breakup of the aircraft released the bomber’s two Mark-39 hydrogen bombs from a height of between 2,000-10,000 feet, which subsequently plummeted towards the ground.
The first bomb activated and begun the steps necessary to arm itself for nuclear detonation, initiating three of the four arming devices including the charging of the firing capacitors. Crucially the 100 foot diameter custom-designed parachute activated successfully during free fall, allowing the nearly fully armed bomb to land safely with minimal damage and preventing detonation. The second bomb’s parachute however did not, and the device instead plunged into a muddy field at approximately 700 mph and disintegrated. Security analyst Daniel Ellsberg later determined the weapon could have accidentally fired because “five of the six safety devices had failed”, and nuclear physicist Ralph Lapp calculated “only a single switch” had “prevented the bomb from detonating and spreading fire and destruction over a wide area.”
The tail of the second bomb was later discovered almost 20 feet below the surface, and after evacuation of the nearby farmland and an extensive excavation some of the bomb’s radioactive materials including the plutonium and tritium bottle were recovered. However most of the thermonuclear stage of the bomb, including the enriched uranium core estimated to lie around 55 feet below ground, was never recovered. In order to prevent discovery or accidental disturbing, the Air Force fenced off the area and purchased an easement requiring permission to be obtained before any digging could occur on the land. The incident was sufficiently severe that President Kennedy was provided a full briefing on over 60 nuclear accidents that had occurred since the Second World War, and the U.S. and Soviet Union placed new safety devices on their nuclear arsenals.
15. A B-52 ran out of fuel and crashed with two nuclear weapons in California
On March 14, 1961, a USAF B-52 bomb based out of Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, California, suffered a malfunction in the crew compartment pressurization system which triggered a decompression event. The depressurization of the bomber forced it to decrease its altitude to below 10,000 feet, and in so doing expended fuel at a faster rate than previously anticipated. Before rendezvous with a tanker aircraft could be arranged for refueling, the B-52 suffered fuel exhaustion and begun crashing.
At this point the crew bailed out at approximately 10,000 feet, except for the aircraft’s commander who elected to remain on the aircraft until 4,000 feet to steer the plane away from populated areas. The bomber crashed near Yuba City, California, with the force of the ground impact flinging the two nuclear weapons from the aircraft. However due to the aforementioned tightening of safety procedures and mechanisms after the “Goldsboro incident” months earlier, neither device either exploded or detonated and there was no nuclear contamination of the area.
16. Two nuclear bombs were (briefly) lost in a snowstorm in Maryland
On January 13, 1964, a USAF B-52D bomber on airborne alert duty en route from Westover Air Force Base near Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts to its home base of Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Georgia, encountered a harsh winter storm and extreme turbulence. Requesting permission to increase altitude to evade incoming dangerous turbulence at 29,500, the aircraft proceeded to climb to 33,00 feet. During this ascent the bomber encountered historic turbulence with such ferocity to cause structural failure in the military aircraft.
Of the five crew members aboard the B-52 only the pilot and co-pilot survived the crash, with the radar navigator failing to eject and dying upon impact whilst the gunner and navigator ejected but succumbed to exposure after successfully reaching the frozen ground. The aircraft crashed approximately 17 miles southwest of Cumberland, Maryland in an isolated mountainous and wooded area with wreckage scattered across a site roughly 100 square yards. As the bombs were in the tactical ferry configuration – meaning no mechanical or electrical connections had been made to the bomber, and the safing switches were in the “safe” position – neither bomb could detonate or explode. A subsequent recovery operation in the extreme weather was conducted, ultimately retrieving the intact devices from the aircraft’s wreckage which had been buried by over 14 inches of new snow.
17. A nuclear bomb fell off an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean and a nuclear submarine sunk in the Atlantic Ocean
On December 5, 1965, a U.S. Navy A-4E Skyhawk aircraft with one B43 nuclear bomb rolled whilst on an elevator and fell off the U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga approximately 80 miles from the Ryukyu Islands and 200 miles from Okinawa. The plane, pilot, or the weapon were never successfully recovered, and because the bomb was lost at a depth of roughly 16,000 feet Pentagon officials feared the water pressure might trigger the hydrogen bomb to detonate. In fact, it remains unknown whether the device did indeed explode or not.
Similarly on May 22, 1968, the American nuclear submarine USS Scorpion sank while en route from Rota, Spain, to Norfolk, Virginia after a three month training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 99 officers and seamen on board. The wreckage of the submarine, including its S5W nuclear reactor and two MK-45 torpedoes with W34 nuclear warheads, remain on the sea floor buried by almost 10,000 feet of water. Originally feared to be an act of Soviet sabotage, suspicions were allayed when a research vessel successfully photographed the wreckage and a Navy Court of Inquiry found “no evidence of any kind to suggest foul play or sabotage”, instead concluding the “certain cause of the loss of the Scorpion cannot be ascertained from evidence now available.”
18. An American nuclear bomb exploded spreading plutonium over Spanish farms
On January 17, 1966, a USAF B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs was returning to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, after participating the Strategic Air Command’s air alert mission code-named “Chrome Dome”. During the third mid-air refueling with a USAF KC-135 the nozzle of the jet tanker’s boom struck the bomber, ripping open the B-52 along its spine and snapping the bomber into several pieces. The 40,000 gallons of jet fuel carried by the KC-135 ignited, killing all four crew aboard the jet tanker and three airmen on the B-52; four members of the bomber’s crew successfully jettisoned and parachuted to safety.
Two of the hydrogen bombs’ conventional explosives detonated upon ground impact, spreading plutonium over nearby farms in Palomares, Spain, with total wreckage from the crash dispersing across over 100 square miles of land and water. During the resulting clean-up operation, 1,500 tonnes of radioactive soil and tomato plants were transported to a nuclear waste dump in Aiken, South Carolina. The United States Government also settled claims by 552 Palomares residents for $600,000, while the town of Palomares was also provided $200,000 to construct a desalinization plant.
The third bomb landed intact, also near Palomares, whilst the fourth landed 12 miles off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea. The latter resulted in the one of the largest search and recovery operations in history, dramatized in the motion picture “Men of Honor”. Taking approximately 80 days and involving 12,000 men, including 3,000 US Navy personnel, 33 Navy vessels, and countless aircraft, amphibious craft, and specialist equipment, the bomb was eventually successfully retrieved on April 7.
19. The U.S. accidentally crashed a nuclear weapon into anti-nuclear Greenland
On January 21, 1968, a B-52 from Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York crashed due to a fire erupting in the navigator’s compartment during its landing approach approximately 7 miles southwest of Thule Air Force Base, Greenland. The crash killed one of the aircraft’s seven crewmen, and destroyed all of the four hydrogen bombs carried by the B-52. These explosions scattered plutonium and other radioactive materials across a 300 yard radius, with many pieces described as being as large as “cigarette box-sized”, causing significant contamination of the local area.
The recovery and decontamination operation was hindered by Greenland’s harsh winter weather, prolonging the operation to over four months in length, during the course of which approximately 237,000 cubic feet of contaminated ice, snow, water, and debris was removed and transported for burial at nuclear dumps in the United States. The incident caused widespread protests in Denmark, which forbade the placement of nuclear weapons on its territory. In an attempt to mollify international outrage, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara subsequently ordered the removal of nuclear weapons from airborne alerts and “Operation Chrome Dome”, the aforementioned Strategic Air Command’s continuous airborne alert operation of which the bomber was participating in, was later suspended in its entirety due to the growing casualties stemming from the program.
20. A Soviet submarine accidentally fired a nuclear warhead in 1977
On November 22, 1977, the Soviet submarine K-171 accidentally released a nuclear warhead whilst off the coast of Kamchatka. The cause of the accident has never been determined or revealed, in part due to characteristic Soviet military secrecy, and the incident only became public knowledge after a newspaper report on the incident in Vladivostok in 1993. The jettisoned warhead became the subject of an expansive search and recovery operation involving dozens of Soviet ships and aircraft, which eventually located and retrieved the intact nuclear device.
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