Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lost: One Nuclear Bomb

In 1958, during a practice exercise for the U.S. military, a B-47 bomber plane collided with an F-86 fighter plane off the coast of Tybee Island. No one was injured, partially because the bomber’s crew ejected the Mark 15 nuclear weapon they were carrying. After several recovery missions, the bomb was presumed lost. It’s still somewhere off the island’s coast.

Photograph of MK15
(source: Wikimedia Commons)
As a native Savannahian, I have heard and repeated this “missing bomb” story approximately a million times. But while “There’s a nuclear bomb out there” is a great conversation starter on beach days, until recently I was unsure if the bomb was fact or only an urban legend. It didn’t help that I first heard this unbelievable tale from an intimidating economics teacher who liked to tell his students that the bomb could go off at any second.

Though the “go off at any second” part is an exaggeration, the weapon really was ejected into the waters off Tybee Island. The incident even has its own Wikipedia page, which comes in handy for convincing incredulous beach-goers. In more detail, a folder from Senator Max Cleland’s papers entitled “Savannah Nuclear Bomb” gives a good picture of the situation (Series V, Box 38, Folder 24).

Apparently, it was not uncommon for nuclear weapons to go missing. Military historian Doug Keeney was quoted in a newspaper article about the Tybee case saying that the military lost seven other bombs around the same time as the Mark 15. This became such a problem that the military ended these types of tests in 1966 because of the number of accidents.

A little less than 50 years after the bomb was dropped into the ocean, Savannah residents started to become concerned. In response to citizens’ worries, the 2000 newspaper article, “Bomb Lost off Coast May Hold Plutonium,” assured that the bomb would “probably would not blow up unless jarred by a strong force.” But if those ‘may’s and ‘probably’s did not put minds at ease, the Department of Defense conducted another search for the bomb, which was estimated to be anywhere between one and 10 miles off the coast.

Photograph of Senator Max Cleland
at the Capitol, 1997.
(source: Max Cleland Papers, Electronic Records
ER 14)
At the onset of the search that began in 2003, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted an Air Force official as stating that “although the bomb shell contains some radioactive material, it is not an amount that would endanger public health.” This half-century old bomb got so much attention in the early days of the new millennium that Senator Cleland offered a public statement calling for “the most environmentally safe and common sense solution.”

Whether the bomb posed any real threat or not, an extensive search which utilized a $2 million GPS search vessel followed. Despite all these efforts, after two months, the bomb was declared “irretrievably lost.”

So, it’s probably still out there, and this Summer I can continue to spread my favorite bomb fact in good conscience.

Post by Rachael Zipperer, student assistant, Russell Library 

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