Shared from the 2/25/2018 Savannah Morning News eEdition

Sixty years later, is Tybee bomb still lurking?


Feb. 5, 1958: An F-86 fighter jet collided with a B-47 bomber carrying a 7,600-pound Mark 15 nuclear bomb during a training exercise east of Tybee Island. The disabled bomber jettisoned the bomb in the Wassaw Sound area, where the Wilmington River meets the Atlantic, before making a successful emergency landing at Hunter Army Airfield. A 10-week search conducted by 100 Navy personnel immediately afterward found no trace of the weapon.

2001: A study led by the Air Force Nuclear Weapons and Counterproliferation Agency determined that the bomb was irretrievably lost and best left alone.

July 2004: A small private team led by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Duke discovered high levels of radiation and unusual magnetometer readings at a point just off the southern tip of Little Tybee Island in Wassaw Sound. Using coordinates recorded by the pilot of the B-47, the team determined this was the most likely spot of the bomb’s resting place.

Sept. 30, 2004: The U.S. Air Force, responding to media reports of the findings, decides to conduct its own search of the area in an attempt to discover the source of Duke’s readings. It compiles a team made up of experts from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, National Nuclear Security Administration, and Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

June 17, 2005: The Air Force releases its findings from the search. It concludes that the radiation readings came from a natural mineral deposit. The bomb remains lost.

What is monazite? Federal officials determined the high radiation measured in Wassaw Sound likely came from a deposit of monazite. Monazite is rich in thorium sand, which emits spiked levels of natural harmless radiation. It’s contained in Blue Ridge and Piedmont rock formations inland, and carried to the estuaries of the Georgia coast by the Savannah and Ogeechee rivers. It combines with other heavy minerals to create dark deposits of sand on the beach.

-Staff reports



One of the most powerful weapons of war ever created may still be lurking, waiting to wreak havoc, decades after it disappeared in the shallow water surrounding Tybee Island.

It’s a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb dropped from a badly damaged U.S. Air Force bomber 60 years ago this month.

The weapon is either fully armed with a plutonium capsule that can trigger an explosion a hundred times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, or it has no trigger mechanism but still contains weapons-grade uranium and 400 pounds of conventional explosives.

If it has a plutonium trigger and detonates, the bomb could obliterate a large swath of the Georgia and South Carolina coasts.

If the bomb is missing the trigger, it could still create a gigantic crater, damage structures and possibly crack a hole in the Floridan Aquifer, contaminating the primary source of freshwater for both Georgia and Florida with uranium and saltwater.

In either case, radioactive material could be spewed into the water, onto the land and into the air. It’s simply a question of how far and how much.

Then again, it’s conceivable that the crew of a Soviet submarine retrieved the bomb years ago and government efforts to find it are just a subterfuge to hide the fact that the bad guys beat the U.S. to it.

W. J. “Jack” Howard, who helped design the system for safely handling the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, told a closed door congressional committee that the bomb was fully armed, hence capable of causing devastating damage.



Government officials, along with Howard Richardson, the pilot who intentionally dropped it, claim the weapon lacks the plutonium trigger, hence remains relatively safe if left undisturbed.

Derek Duke, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot who led teams of radiation experts on several searches for the weapon, says he’s not sure whether it’s fully armed or not but we could find out if the government would release classified reports.

Duke says the Air Force assigned serial numbers to every bomb and its plutonium triggering capsule — the Tybee bomb is designated as No. 47782 — and all are tracked by a paper trail listing each weapon and capsule, its location and the person handling it.

He says the paper trail will show whether the lost bomb contained the plutonium capsule and, if not, what happened to it.

“Everything was accountable and still is,” he said recently, while discussing the anniversary of the bomb drop.

Duke said he hopes the media will demand the release of these reports and “pop this thing wide open” to finally answer the lingering question. He also indicated he’s considering another expedition to find the bomb later this year.

A training accident

The only thing all key players in the mystery surrounding the bomb have agreed on is how it wound up near Tybee: It was jettisoned from a B-47 bomber crippled in a collision with an F-86 jet fighter during a training mission in the skies over Georgia on Feb. 6, 1958.

To test our defenses during the Cold War the B-47, which took off from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, was pretending to be a Russian bomber attacking the U.S.

The F-86 fighter accidentally rammed the bomber while attempting to intercept it at 39,000 feet.

The fighter disintegrated but its pilot, Lt. Clarence Stewart, parachuted to safety.

The B-47 suffered severe damage to its right wing. A fuel tank was blown away and one of its four engines was left dangling precariously below the wing.

After determining he could still maneuver the aircraft, Richardson alerted Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah that he was coming in for an emergency landing and asked officials to contact Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters for permission to jettison the bomb in order to lighten his plane by 7,600 pounds and eliminate the danger of it detonating in a crash landing.

Getting no immediate response, Richardson released the bomb just off Tybee, then turned to make a harrowing landing at Hunter. Struggling to keep his damaged plane aloft, he was forced to land at very high speed and skipped skyward after touchdown. He was able to bring it to a halt by firing a parachute, then jamming on the plane’s brakes.

Richardson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroic landing.

When SAC officials finally contacted the pilot, they directed him to jettison the bomb 20 miles out to sea, far away from Tybee or other populated areas, but the instructions came too late.

A massive search for the weapon in and around Wassaw Sound, just south of Tybee, was immediately initiated involving divers and dozens of boats, some dragging grappling hooks.

Lt. Cmdr. Art Arseneault directed the search which continued for 90 days before it was abandoned with the bomb officially listed as “irretrievably lost”.

There was little public furor over termination of the search, mostly because attention was diverted a month after the search began when a second bomb was accidentally dropped, and its conventional explosives detonated near Florence, S.C.

That bomb, which fell from another B-47 when its pilot accidentally pulled its emergency release pin, blasted a 30-foot-by-70-foot crater and spewed toxic radiation over the area.

It exploded on a farm, injuring the owner and five members of his family, destroying their home and damaging five other houses and a church.

Government crews cordoned off the area for weeks while tons of radioactive soil were removed.

That incident and the passage of time caused most folks to lose interest in the Tybee bomb and it remained pretty much forgotten until a document was inadvertently declassified almost 50 years later.

Document spurs new search

The document, presented in 1966 to a closed-door meeting of the U.S. Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy investigating nuclear accidents, said the lost Tybee weapon was fully armed, hence capable of causing a catastrophic nuclear explosion.

Howard, who was Deputy Secretary of Defense under Robert McNamara and considered the world’s foremost authority on nuclear weapon safety, signed the statement.

Howard later returned to his former position at the Sandia National Laboratories, which is charged with integrating the country’s nuclear weapons systems and overall nuclear weapon safety.

It was not until 1994, almost 30 years after stipulating the bomb was fully armed, that his document was declassified. It went unnoticed until Duke discovered it in 1998, prompting him to research the lost bomb and urge the government to find and remove it.

After Duke started raising questions about the weapon and the declassified document, government officials claimed Howard had made a mistake in his sworn statement. They said the bomb was relatively safe since it contained no plutonium trigger.

According to Duke, the government’s claim is ridiculous because anyone who worked for McNamara and made such ahorrendous error would have been hung by his thumbs.

“Robert McNamara was notorious for micromanaging everything and he would certainly have reviewed and approved Howard’s statement before it was given to the congressional committee,” Duke said.

Far from being fired, Howard was promoted, placed in charge of improving the safety of the country’s entire nuclear weapons arsenal and singled out for praise. He was named executive vice president of the laboratory and was one of only three men inducted into the Sandia Hall of Fame. Defense Secretary McNamara even awarded him the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service.

“That just wouldn’t have happened if Howard had made such a huge mistake,” Duke says.

Responding to such concerns, former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston met with 15 officials from various branches of the government in Washington to gather facts about the lost bomb.

He said he asked the group “hard questions,” was assured the bomb was not armed and posed little danger if left alone, “and I don’t think they would lie.”

When Kingston asked why so much time and money was spent on the initial search if the bomb was harmless, officials told him they feared “unfriendly types” might get their hands on it or a shrimper might accidentally get it tangled in a net.

Even if the bomb lacks a triggering device people are kidding themselves by downplaying the danger, he said, noting that “400 pounds of TNT may not be a big deal to some folks, but if it’s your family and your boat that hits it, it is a big deal.”

At Kingston’s urging, the Air Force examined its original bomb drop records and said the toxic, heavy metal uranium in the weapon was so dense it would not drift far from the bomb casing, even if it was fractured. But they also said it could be a hazard to nearby marine life and acknowledged that its conventional explosives could blow up if the bomb was disturbed, causing an underwater shock wave endangering any people or boats in the area.

Richardson, who remained in the Air Force and was promoted to colonel prior to his retirement, endorsed the government’s position saying he signed a preflight “Temporary Possession” document on which was scribbled the word “simulated” to describe the weapon. He said this proves it had no trigger.

Col. Richardson said he wished folks would forget the incident since he hoped to be remembered as a decorated pilot but feared he would forever be known be as the man who dropped the bomb. He passed away in January, just two weeks before the 60th anniversary of the bomb drop. He was 96.

Meanwhile, Duke gathered a team of experts to address a public hearing in Tybee’s City Hall to warn islanders about the weapon’s possible danger and encourage them to urge the government to find it.

Former Sgt. Howard H. Dixon raised new concerns when he told islanders he was in charge of loading nuclear bombs at Hunter from 1957 to 1959, had loaded hundreds on planes, and “never in my Air Force career did I load a nuclear weapon without installing a nuclear capsule in it first.”

Bert Soleau, who identified himself as a former Central Intelligence Agency agent, said he was concerned that terrorists might retrieve the bomb and use the highly enriched uranium, lithium and beryllium it contained to build weapons to stage an attack on U.S. soil.

Describing the danger from such material, Pam O’Brien, an expert on nuclear contamination from Douglasville, said leakage from the lost bomb could easily enter the food chain and endanger the population of the entire East Coast.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous” for the Department of Energy to say the biggest risk from the bomb is heavy metal contamination and then claim it’s no big deal since it won’t contaminate drinking water,” she said. “Plutonium is anightmare, a catastrophe. It can get in everything—your eyes, your bones, your gonads—you never get over it. They need to get that thing out of there.”

Tybee’s City Council passed a resolution urging the government to find and remove the bomb.

While awaiting government action, Duke conducted several search expeditions in and around Wassaw Sound. One of them, in June of 2004, included Arseneault, the same man who headed the original 1958 search, and Joe Eddlemon, a radiation detection expert from Oak Ridge, Tenn., who brought along exotic electronic sensing equipment.

Eddlemon said he detected unusually high radiation and radioisotopes in a football field-sized area near Tybee and, while intense interference precluded positive identification of the source, he couldn’t rule out the possibility that it came from the missing bomb.

Duke said the high readings could emanate from old, impure uranium like that in weapons of the Tybee bomb’s vintage “which crumbles when it oxidizes” and he returned to the site with professional divers to obtain soil samples for testing.

Just three months later, after Duke sent Air Force officials the results of his searches and appeared on national television to voice his concerns about the missing bomb, the government staged its own high-profile search.

This time a host of heavy hitters from the military and the offices of the Secretary of Defense, National Nuclear Security Administration and Sandia National Laboratories took part and held press conferences for national and international media representatives before and during the expedition.

The operation, accompanied by divers and what was termed the latest scientific equipment, was directed by Dr. Billy Mullins, the senior technical/scientific adviser to the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force on Nuclear Weapons and Weapons Systems.

Dr. Mullins said the results of the search, which included radiation measurements and retrieval of sand samples from numerous locations, would be disclosed in several weeks, once all the data was analyzed.

But the results were not released until June of 2005, nine months after the expedition.

The report said radiation had been detected but it came from monazite, a harmless mineral in the sand that emits high levels, rather than the bomb.

It also said because of the possible “unacceptable environmental impact associated with asearch and recovery operation,” the Air Force “concurs with expert conclusions that it is in the best interest of the public and the environment to leave the bomb in its resting place and remain categorized as irretrievably lost.”

Other possibilities

Lost it may be, but not necessarily as close to Tybee as most reports indicate. It could have been stolen years ago by the Soviets and may now be under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s purview.

Retired U.S. Coast Guard Capt. C. W. Jenkins, who was in charge of the Port of Savannah and helped arrange for military divers to join the original search in 1958, said he suspects this occurred not long after the original search.

Jenkins told a Charleston, S.C. journalist in an email that he and arepresentative of the Office of Naval Intelligence interviewed two Thunderbolt teenagers who reported that they were lost in fog while fishing offshore when they saw asubmarine. They said they paddled up to it and asked for directions from aman on its deck who was dressed in civilian clothes and spoke perfect English. He directed them back towards Tybee.

Jenkins said the boys drew a sketch of the sub they saw and it matched Russian submarines of that era, several of which had been spotted off the East Coast. The interview led him and the navy official “to believe a Russian sub had recovered the bomb,” he said.

But Jenkins said officials in Washington claimed “the water was not deep enough for this type of sub, and therefore dismissed the report and to this day we do not know the truth.”

Jenkins was never able to get back to the reporter. He died just 11 days after sending the email.

The journalist said his newspaper filed aFreedom of Information request to get a copy of Jenkins’ report on the sub from both the Federal Bureau of Investigations and U.S. Navy, but was told that either there was no information about it in their files or they did not keep records that far back.

If officials knew the bomb was recovered by the Soviets, it would be reasonable to suspect they would try to keep it a secret. A Soviet recovery would validate their claim that the bomb poses no danger to the area and explain their reluctance to conduct any further searches. It would also make that highly touted 2004 search and long delayed report on its findings an expensive cover-up operation.

What remains certain is that 60 years after the bomb was dropped, it remains a mystery, still lurking in the fog-shrouded shallows surrounding Tybee and in the memories of arapidly dwindling number of its aging residents.

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