"We thought the world was going to end," said Virginia Hudson. The 82 year old resident of Eureka NC was talking about the January 24, 1961, a B-52 bomber that crashed near Big Daddy's Rd in Faro NC.
For years there has been a quiet rumor about that plane crash.......... that there were nuclear bombs aboard the plane. The recent release of several documents including a report by the Sandia National Laboratory titled "Multi- Megaton Bomb was virtually 'Armed' when it crashed to earth in North Carolina" and published by the National Security Archive have shed light on the persistent rumor. The truth is that there were two nuclear bombs aboard the plane and while local residents and the nation have had evidence that they existed, they were not informed as to how close they were to detonating during that accident.
The residents had been very used to having large aircraft fly overhead since they are close to Seymour Johnson Air Force base, where this and many other military planes flew out of. The B-52 was part of Operation Coverallairbone, a Cold War plan to have aircraft in the air at all times. In this way, not all of the US aircraft could be caught on the ground during an attack and they would be able to immediately head for targets in China, Russia and Soviet bloc countries.
This B-52 suffered a "failure of the right wing" according to the report, which I suppose is an official sounding way of stating that the wing came apart. It was during the spin of the plane that the two nuclear bombs came loose from the plane and began the fuzing process........... in other words, they had begun the arming process. The two MK 39 nuclear bombs hit the ground separately and very fortunately did not detonate. According to the report, weapon one had the safety pin yanked during the plane's breakup but the Arm/Safe switch remained in the Safe position as it parachuted intact to the ground. The second weapon did not deploy a parachute and free-fell to the ground but with it's own arming problems. The Arm/Safe switch on that bomb did remain in the Safe location but the impact with the ground rotated the switch drum to the Arm position and damaged the switch contacts. It could not have detonated with that damage but it sounds a bit like someone caught a very lucky break or two.
Another document that was released discusses two other B-52/nuclear bomb crashes, one in Palomares Spain in 1966 and Thule Greenland in 1968. The crash in Spain involved a US plane and refueling tanker crashing in mid-air, which caused three of the nuclear bombs to explode and scattered plutonium contamination as well as having divers search in the Mediterranean for another bomb. The crash in Thule happened on the ice covered bay near the Thule airbase and resulted in four bombs exploding to scatter radioactive debris. The report from James Miller, US Department of the State, had originally been heavily redacted on it's initial release but it has been released again with much of the redacted information available.
The two MK 39 nuclear bombs that were aboard the NC B-52 weighed 10,000 each and would have yielded 3.8 megatons for explosive force. In comparison, the bombs that the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki yielded 0.01 and 0.02 megatons. The bomb in Hiroshima destroyed about five square miles of the city and killed 140,000 people. Three days later, the larger bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing 80,000 people and destroyed 2.6 square miles of the city. The explosion in Nagasaki was contained by its location between several mountains. If either of the bombs that landed in NC had exploded, the lack of a large, industrial population would possibly led to a lower death toll but the devastation to the surrounding area could have been terrible.
Almost immediately after the crash, the government told the press and the local residents that there nothing to fear............couldn't possibly have exploded, were unarmed and posed no threat of radiation. They did purchase an easement around the site to prevent digging and they claim that they do test the area water for contamination, which hasn't been found. What also hasn't been found is a good 50-60 lb chunk of the bomb which may be the reason they don't want any digging in the area. The second bomb had disintegrated on impact and the government did find the radioactive materials and remove them from the crash site. After a few weeks of digging though, they gave up fighting the water levels in the hole and filled the three acre, 40 foot deep hole. It is estimated that the rest of the bomb may be 180 feet deep in the ground.
In 2012, a historical marker was erected in Eureka to mark the event's location. It simply states "Nuclear Mishap" and does not list the names of Major Eugene Shelton, Major Eugene Holcombe Richards and Sergeant Francis Roger Barnish, who lost their lives in the B-52 crash I am glad that each year, more of the truth is revealed about historical events but until now, I don't think many of us could have imagined how close we as a nation came to our own nuclear disaster.
"By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted," Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera.