For certain rural residents of the Carolinas during the Cold War, apocalyptic anxiety hit disturbingly close to home. In 1958 and 1961, the American Air Force lost nuclear weapons over the skies of South and North Carolina, respectively, raining potential apocalypse on the folks below.
In both incidents, complete catastrophe was avoided thanks to that ever-potent combination of foresight and unmitigated dumb luck. And in the former incident, the bomb fell square on some unsuspecting children's playhouse.
The first accident occurred over Florence, South Carolina on March 11, 1958, slightly after 4:30 in the afternoon. An American B-47E bomber was flying from Savannah, Georgia to Bruntingthorpe Air Base in England for exercises — onboard was a Mark 6 30-kiloton fission bomb.
After experiencing some mid-flight difficulties with the bomb's locking pin, Captain Bruce Kulka entered the aircraft's bomb bay to inspect the device. It was at this very moment that the dark slapstick inadvertently started. Recounts American Heritage magazine of the Kubrickian scene that unfolded next:
The task was doomed from the start; later testimony indicated Kulka had no idea where to find the locking pin in the large and complicated bomb-release mechanism. After a tense 12 minutes searching for the pin, the bombardier decided, correctly, that it must be high up in the bomb bay and invisible because of the curvature of the bomb. A short man, he jumped to pull himself up to get a look at where he thought the locking pin should be. Unfortunately, he evidently chose the emergency bomb-release mechanism for his handhold. The weapon dropped from its shackle and rested momentarily on the closed bomb-bay doors with Captain Kulka splayed across it in the manner of Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. Kulka grabbed at a bag that had providentially been stored in the bomb bay, while the more-than-three-ton bomb broke open the bomb-bay doors and fell earthward. The bag Kulka was holding came loose, and he found himself sliding after the bomb without his parachute. He managed to grab something-he wasn't sure what-and haul himself to safety. Moments later the plane was rocked by the shock wave of the blast when the bomb hit the ground.
And Kulka's reaction? "Oh...I dropped the damn thing." Fortunately, the bomb's nuclear core had been stored elsewhere on the aircraft. Unfortunately, the loose 7,600-pound bomb — which contained concussion-activated explosives — fell adjacent to 37-year-old Walter Gregg's home in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, promptly transforming his vegetable garden and his daughters' playhouse into a 70-foot-wide, 35-foot-deep crater.
Nobody died from this explosion, but all five members of the Gregg family (and one visiting cousin) were injured in the ensuing blast. The Greggs would successfully sue the Air Force for $54,000. And the crew of the B-47E? They were initially detained — officials worried this bombing was an act of sabotage — but otherwise avoided reprimand. (The bomber crew at least had the decency to apologize to the Greggs.) Nowadays the crater sits on private property, but you can visit the spot on Google Maps.
The second accidental bombing of the Carolinas occurred around midnight on January 24, 1961, when a B-52G bomber broke up near Goldsboro, North Carolina after a leak was noticed during a standard mid-air refueling. The aircraft's wreckage fell over farmland in the small town of Faro.
Five of the eight crew members survived this crash. Pilot Adam Maddocks managed to survive without an ejector seat, parachuting off the plane as it spiraled to the ground. After the accident, Major Richard Rardin noted the difficulties of crash-landing in rural North Carolina:
I could see three or four other chutes against the glow of the wreckage. The plane hit ten or twelve seconds after bail out. I hit some trees. I had a fix on some lights and started walking. My biggest difficulty getting back was the various and sundry dogs I encountered on the road.
Two Mark 39 thermonuclear weapons were onboard the bomber. One of these bombs parachuted to the ground, whereas the other smashed into a farmer's field at give or take 700 miles per hour, losing its uranium component in the process.
Unlike the 1958 mishap, the Goldsboro crash could have had dire consequences for the Tar Heel State. As the bombs' deactivator Dr. Jack Revelle later admitted, "How close was it to exploding? My opinion is damn close. You might now have a very large Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone off." The University of North Carolina elaborates further on this belated realization:
Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, admitted that when the parachute-less bomb was found, its arming mechanism had accidentally gone through all but one of the seven steps toward detonation.
More alarming information about the crash was revealed later. In 1992, Congress released a summary of the Goldsboro accident indicating that, according to investigators, upon impact the parachute-less bomb had broken into several pieces, one of which was never found. The missing piece contained uranium, and it was believed that it may have struck the ground so hard that it sank deep into the soft, swampy earth.
Lest you think some free uranium is up for grabs, the Air Force has purchased the land where the non-parachuted second bomb fell. For those of you who are now in an apocalyptic mood, here are some other occasions we almost nuked ourselves. And for those readers who just can't wait for civilization to collapse, know that you can always live out your Hunger Games fantasies right outside of Asheville. Finally, check out a more comprehensive list of nuclear whoopsies over at CDI.