Recently I stumbled across two interesting stories in the News-Argus written 53 years ago, March 20, 1966. One was a recap of the 1961 incident when a B-52G bomber crashed near the Faro community, leaving buried beneath the earth part of a nuclear bomb which remains to this day.
The second story, which probably prompted the first, detailed the recovery of a nuclear bomb from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. That was one of four “lost” when another B-52G crashed off the coast of Spain, known as the Palomares incident.
Locals have read volumes about the Faro (Eureka) incident. A book has been written about it; however, at the end of today’s column I’m including a rerun of the story as written by Jack Lewis five years after the crash, but first details on the Palomares incident.
H-Bomb is near recovery
PALOMARES, Spain (UPI) — A missing American hydrogen bomb located at a depth of 2,500 feet in the Mediterranean was dragged carefully Saturday off an extremely steep slope of the sea bottom to a more favorable recovery area. The bomb was expected to be brought to the surface by Sunday night.
An official U.S. announcement in Madrid said the dragging action will lessen the risk of having the bomb, with its parachute still attached, slip off “its present precarious position into much deeper water.”
The bomb, missing since an air collision Jan. 17, was found Wednesday about five miles off the shore from Palomares by the Naval task force headed by Rear Adm. William S. Guest.
Informed sources said the bomb should be raised before Sunday night unless unforeseen salvage problems or bad weather force a delay.
The vessel expected to lift the bomb out of the water is the USS Hoist, a salvage ship attached to the Navy’s 6th Fleet. The Hoist is equipped with two lifting booms — one of 10-ton capacity and one of 20-ton capacity.
The 22-foot two-man submersible Alvin and the 51-foot underwater research craft Aluminaut — both of which can be equipped with mechanical claws — were expected to secure a line to the bomb and the Hoist would then raise it.
By researching that Palomares incident I am able to bring you information about how that bomb wound up on the ocean floor in the first place.
As with the Faro crash, a B-52G was flying on a Cold War alert mission. It was carrying four MK28 hydrogen bombs. The flight plan took the aircraft east across the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea toward the borders of the Soviet Union before returning home. The flight required two mid-air refuelings.
At about 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1966, the bomber commenced its second aerial refueling with a KC-135 out of Moron Air Base in Spain.
As explained by the B-52 pilot they came in a little fast. “There is a procedure they have in refueling where if the boom operator feels that you’re getting too close, he will call, ‘Break away, break away.’ There was no call for a break away, so we didn’t see anything dangerous about the situation. But all of a sudden, all hell seemed to break loose.”
The planes collided with the nozzle of the refueling boom striking the top of the B-52 fuselage, snapping off the left wing. The KC-135 was completely destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52 broke apart, killing three of the seven crew members.
Three of the weapons were located on land within 24 hours of the accident — the conventional explosives in two had exploded on impact, spreading radioactive contamination, while the third was found relatively intact in a riverbed. The fourth weapon fell into the Mediterranean. The article details part of the recover process for that one. The closing article follows as written by Jack Lewis for the Associated Press.
Nuclear bomb in Eureka? Yes, but who cares?
EUREKA (AP) — People in this tiny Eastern North Carolina farm community have stopped worrying about the bomb.
They may never come to love it, but they have learned to live with the idea that somewhere under the marshy land near Eureka lies buried part of a nuclear weapon.
It was lost Jan. 25, 1961, when a B-52 bomber from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, near Goldsboro some 12 miles away, crashed, spilling its nuclear payload over a 12-acre field. One of the weapons broke apart on impact.
In many respects, the incident parallels that of the recent loss of a U.S. nuclear bomb near Palomares Beach, Spain. And, both planes were from Seymour Johnson.
Part of the Eureka bomb never has been recovered. Behind the town’s seeming indifference to the whole thing are the assurances of military and civilian experts that there is absolutely no danger.
“The missing part is totally inert; it can’t explode and it isn’t radioactive,” explained 1st Lt. Richard Kline, director of information of the Strategic Air Command’s 16th bomber wing at Seymour Johnson.
Civilian radiologists from the North Carolina Department of Health confirmed there was no radioactivity danger after numerous tests of soil, water and vegetation in the area.
The Air Force didn’t give up its search for the missing bomb part without an intensive combing of the crash site.
“They dug a hole big enough to bury the town in,” recalled Jimmy Rose, who operates a combination service station and general store in Eureka.
The Air Force dug as deep as 40 feet over a three-acre area. The search was called off when heavy equipment bogged down in the waterlogged fields.
“Things got churned up so bad all I can grow in the field now is hay,” said Charles T. Davis, who owns the 106-acre tobacco and cotton farm where the crash occurred.
Davis said he has asked the Air Force to compensate for damages, but no settlement has been reached.
The crash site is farmed by one of Davis’ tenants — Johnny Howell. He occasionally finds pieces of the plane wreckage in the field.
“If he worries any about the other thing, he doesn’t let on to me,” Davis said.
Nor, it appears, does anyone else.
The topic dropped from conversation six months after the crash, said Rose, who does business with most of the farmers in the area.
“We were scared when it happened,” he said. “But now there’s just no reason to worry, it’s safe.”
At least one family living near the site thought all of the pieces had been found. When they found out a part was missing they were unperturbed.
In closing its file on the case, the Air Force has accepted the theory that the part was imbedded in the marshy field and that the digging operations only pushed it deeper.
Just what part or how large a piece of the bomb was lost remains a classified secret along with the identification of the part, whether it came from an atomic or a hydrogen bomb.
“What is important,” said Lt. Kline, “is that it is harmless.”
It was not necessary, as it was in Spain, to remove top soil from the Eureka field for disposal at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nuclear Burial Ground at Aiken, S.C., he pointed out.
“Officially, it is a dead issue,” Kline said.
The two bombs involved in the Faro crash were MK39s. “Experts” from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill determined the buried depth of the secondary component to be 180 feet, plus or minus 10 feet. Lt. Jack Revelle, the bomb disposal expert responsible for disarming the device, said the arm/switch was still in the safe position, though it had completed the rest of the arming sequence.
In speaking to a writer in 2011 that same Jack Revelle said: “As far as I’m concerned we came damn close to having a Bay of North Carolina. The nuclear explosion would have completely changed the Eastern seaboard if it had gone off.”
He also said the size of each bomb had more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb, and large enough to have a kill zone of 17 miles.
Based on his remarks, I say we dodged a bullet — a big, big one!
Of the bomber’s eight crew members in the Faro crash, three died. There were five survivors, including the aircraft commander, Maj. Walter S. Tulloch.
Sources: Goldsboro News-Argus and Wikipedia.