“Broken Arrows” in South Carolina and Greenland

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“Broken Arrows” in South Carolina and Greenland

Broken Arrow, in case you haven’t seen the movie by the same name, is when the US Government somehow loses control of a nuclear weapon.  Now, I knew about the one in Greenland (more on that one in a minute) but an interesting article in The Air Force Times the other day discusses the nuclear weapon accidentally dropped on a small town in South Carolina.

First, the video, so you’ll have the full context.  From Mike Rowe on the History Channel:

And a more personal account from the Air Force Times:

MARS BLUFF, S.C. — Ella Davis Hudson remembers stacking bricks to make a kitchen to play house. The next thing she knew, the 9 year-old was running down the driveway, blood streaming from the gash above her eye.

She doesn’t remember the actual blast from an atomic bomb.

Sixty years ago, on March 11, 1958, an Air Force bomber dropped a nuclear weapon on a farm in the rural Mars Bluff community outside Florence. The radioactive payload either wasn’t loaded in the warhead or didn’t detonate — the stories differ.

But the TNT trigger for the bomb blew a crater in Walter Gregg’s garden some 24 feet deep and 50 feet wide. The blast shredded his farm house about 100 yards away. Hudson, a cousin, had been playing with two of Gregg’s children in the backyard.

The atomic warhead would have been 30 kilotons — twice as powerful as the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in World War II. Florence, five miles away, would have been obliterated. Most of the rest of the 30,000 residents of Florence County would have been wiped out or sickened by radiation.

The video talks about how the crewman pulled the wrong lever……Man.  Time have changed.  We had to tape up the pins to our grenades just on the off chance we did something stupid, but the plane didn’t have some sort of warning over the lever that drops the nuclear weapon?  I’m no safety expert, but in a military with cartoon pictures on the side of weapons systems showing how to use them, I’d like to think there was something more protecting the dropping of the most devastating weapon of all time than just a random lever.

From my trip to Thule, Greenland and the research I put into the article I wrote about it for The American Legion Magazine (which you can read here) I knew about the so-called Thule Incident (from wiki):

On 21 January 1968, a B-52G Stratofortress, serial number 58-0188, with the callsign "HOBO 28" 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. 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) and a mandatory third pilot (Major Alfred D'Mario).

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. 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, and the stowed cushions ignited. 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. He attempted to fight it with two fire extinguishers, but could not put it out.

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. 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. 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.

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. The conventional high explosive (HE) components of four 1.1 megaton B28FI model hydrogen bombs detonated on impact, spreading radioactive material over a large area in a manner similar to a dirty bomb. "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.

What ensued was Project Crested Ice (or apparently alternately referred to by those involved as “Dr. Freezelove”) , to try and recover the weapons to whatever extent they could, to ensure that the contamination didn’t spread, and to do so before the rest of the ice melted.  Now, picking up part of a nuclear weapon sounds bad enough to begin with, but the temperature in that area is between -40 and -70 every day.  When I was in Thule it was -57 every single day.   Each morning when I went to the chow hall, which was only about 200 meters from the “hotel” I was staying at, I would arrive for breakfast with a frozen beard, and as I waited in line I would pull little beads of ice out of my beard. 

Here’s a video that the Air Force put out that seems to be downplaying the threat, presumably because it ended up causing huge political headaches, for the Danish, the US, the Greenlanders and others.

Although the video praises the men and says that “all tasks were accomplished,” in 1987 and in 2000 reports would surface in Denmark that not all the weapons were recovered.  In 2007, the BBC concluded the same, and a Freedom of Information Act request would unearth a 1968 document which unequivocally state that "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.”  So yeah, somewhere off the coast of Thule, frozen in the ocean is a loose nuclear weapon.

And if you really want to feel uncomfortable, watch this video the Air Force put out in 1980 about Broken Arrows and our responses to them:

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You're right! That's not a B-52! It appears to be a B-47. Who knows what the History channel was using this photo for...but for the story of "Broken Arrow" it's being alleged to be a Buff.

Ex USAF Radar-Nav

Do you not know of the nuclear bomb in the ocean off the coast of Tybee Island (Savannah), Georgia. It's reported to still be there.

I was the shift supervisor stationed at Weisbaden AB, Germany in the 7499th Support Group, Group Flight Following Post (GFFP) when we received the initial radio call from HOBO 28. We immediately relayed the message to SAC Headquarters and then decrypted the message and relayed the information to the group staff. That was one of those "hold your breath" moments because we had no further contact with HOBO 28 and had no idea what had happened to them. We just prayed that they were able to bail out and be rescued.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.