Two nukes outside Goldsboro, North Carolina

Declassified documents show that in 1961, the United States Air Force accidentally dropped two armed nuclear bombs near the outskirts of Goldsboro, North Carolina, and came breathtakingly close to melting North Carolina’s east coast.

Dale Brumfield
Dec 25, 2018 · 6 min read

Between 1950 and 1968 there were 700 accidents and incidents in the United States involving 1,250 nuclear weapons. “The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy,” journalist Eric Schlosser wrote in his book “Command and Control” of this startling lack of candid accident response preparedness. “We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating …”

Actually, there was. And the east coast of North Carolina was very nearly annihilated by not one but two Mark 39, 4-megaton hydrogen bombs that dropped just north of Goldsboro on January 24, 1961.

A four-megaton device is the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT, and is 500 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

While the accidental dropping of an unarmed smaller nuclear weapon on a farm owned by the Walter Gregg family near Mars Bluff, South Carolina on March 11, 1958 is better known, the unsparing severity of the Goldsboro accident remained covered up by the U.S. Air Force for over 53 years. And while the Mars Bluff bomb’s TNT detonator exploded on impact, seriously damaging seven buildings and injuring six people, that bomb’s plutonium core was not installed, averting a tragedy.

But unlike the Mars Bluff weapon, both Goldsboro bombs not only contained their plutonium cores, but one and maybe both were going through their arming sequences as they dropped after being jettisoned by a breaking-up B-52 bomber, which crashed nearby, killing three crew members.

In the newly-found documentation, Parker F. Jones, a senior engineer in the Sandia National Laboratories responsible for the mechanical security of nuclear weapons, concluded in 1969 that “one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch” that could have “easily been shorted out” was all that stood between the eastern United States and a catastrophic nuclear disaster.

The problems started earlier the morning of the 23rd, when a crew boarded a B-52G Stratofortress bomber at Goldsboro’s Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. First Lt. Adam Mattocks was one of three pilots assigned to fly a routine training mission as part of Operation Coverall, an airborne alert training exercise on the Atlantic coast whose purpose was to keep the Strategic Air Command’s fleet of nuclear bombers in the air for many hours at a time in the event of a war with the Soviet Union.

Shortly after midnight, out over the Atlantic, a KC-135 in-air refueling tanker noticed a fuel leak from the B-52’s right wing as it prepared to connect. Notified at first by Strategic Air Command to remain in a holding pattern to dump enough fuel to attempt a landing, the leak worsened, and the order was given for Mattocks to return to Johnson immediately.

As the plane began its descent to 10,000 feet to prepare for landing, the right wing suddenly folded over and a large section broke off, sending the massive plane into a tailspin. With no ejection seats, the men scrambled to exit the nose-diving plane. Pilot Mattocks was the first to somehow climb out of the top hatch, stand up on the fuselage, jump off and parachute to safety. He was the first person to ever bail from a plane with no ejection, and was one of five survivors, who also had all bailed out in a similar fashion.

The plane itself crashed about 15 miles north of Goldsboro, unfortunately with three crew members still aboard — Sgt. Francis Barnish, Major Eugene Shelton and Major Eugene Richards, who were killed. A nearby farmer, Marshall Suggs, said the crash was an “explosion that sounded like dynamite.” Despite living over two miles away, he said it shook his house.

“No danger of explosion or radiation.” Courtesy the 1–24–61 Rocky Mount Evening Telegram

Meanwhile, the two Mark 39 bombs had separated from the disintegrating aircraft only minutes earlier, and plummeted about 12 miles north of Goldsboro into some farm fields.

And it was when the bombs were recovered that a terrifying reality was discovered.

An Associated Press story in the January 24 Rocky Mount Evening Telegram reported that one of the bombs was found in the B-52 wreckage, but this was not true — it had actually fallen from the crashing plane and slammed into the ground off Big Daddy’s Road nose-first at 700 miles per hour, driving itself over 20 feet below the surface.

That AP story also reported that the second bomb “parachuted safely to the ground” near the town of Faro. This sounded comforting to the average reader but was a terrifying jolt to anyone who knew better. Live nuclear weapons in a war situation deploy a parachute to slow the descent, allowing the weapon to initiate its arming sequence and to give the bomber time to get as far away from the blast zone as possible.

from the UnMuseum

The fact that the second bomb parachuted to the ground proved it was arming itself for a ground burst. And when spacesuit-clad investigators arrived, discovering the bomb and its parachute entangled in a tree with the nose buried 18 inches in the ground, they found three of the four safety triggers preventing explosion had failed. Upon impact, a firing signal was actually sent to the core, and a nuclear apocalypse was prevented by a single, highly vulnerable low-voltage thermal switch.

“The Mk 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52,” wrote Parker Jones in his recently-declassified, Strangelove-influenced report titled “Goldsboro Revisited, or How I Learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb.”

“If a short to an ‘arm’ line occurred in the mid-air breakup, a postulate that seems credible, the Mk 39 Mod 2 bomb could have given a nuclear burst,” Jones concluded.

According to the website nuclearsecrecy.com, a 4-megaton nuclear ground burst at Goldsboro would have had catastrophic repercussions from North Carolina as far north as Philadelphia. It would have created a 2-million-degree fireball about one mile in diameter, with a fatal radiation radius of another two miles, resulting in an estimated 42,000 deaths and 30,000 estimated injuries. Those in an 11-mile radius from ground zero would suffer 3rd-degree radiation burns. Fallout is estimated to have covered almost 39,000 square miles, affecting millions of people.

As devastating as that Faro bomb could have been, the one found on Big Daddy’s Road was not completely innocent either. The device had slammed the ground so hard that it tunneled all the way to the water table, where many pieces were never recovered. The Army Corps of Engineers was forced to purchase an easement from the farmer who owned the field that forbids digging deeper than five feet. Even in 2018, the North Carolina government continues to test that field for radioactive emissions.

Big Daddy bomb excavation and recovery. From the UnMuseum.

During the recovery process, the same low-voltage thermal switch that had prevented the Faro bomb from detonating was found. However, Lt. Jack Revelle, who was in charge of the recovery, was mortified to see it was switched not to “safe” but to the “arm” position. The same switch that prevented detonation on the Faro bomb had actually failed on the Big Daddy bomb.

In a declassified January 26, 1963 transcript of a State-defense meeting, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara acknowledged the accident “… where, by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.” He went on to stress better fail-safe measures be implemented to prevent not only accidents like the one at Goldsboro, but in the event of terrorism or deployment by a rogue nation.

Despite the close call and calls for better safety measures, accidents continued well into the 1960s. Most well-known was an accident aboard the USS Ticonderoga on December 5, 1965, when an attack jet carrying a one-megaton MK43 weapon rolled off the side of the carrier into 16,000 feet of water near the coast of Japan. The plane, the bomb and sadly, the pilot, Lt. Douglas Webster, were never recovered.

Read more at www.dalebrumfield.net

###

Dale Brumfield

Written by

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 10 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade