Could a nuclear bomb be buried under a beach you might one day visit? That depends.

If you’re on Martha’s Vineyard there’s a decent chance that an artillery shell could be under the sand—and the same is true if you’re in Scotland.

If you’re on Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia, then, yes, there’s a reasonably good chance that an atomic bomb could be in the sand beneath you, a point that even the United States Air Force doesn’t dispute.

The fact is, there is a missing nuclear bomb—there are several missing bombs—and no one knows where they are.

The issue and problems related to lost nuclear bombs are discussed in my latest book 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation. For ten years I tried to get to the bottom of the story but as soon as I thought I had an accurate tally of lost or accidentally exploded bombs, another would pop up.

For instance, just as I was finishing my first draft, I received Sigmund Alexander’s marvelous record of B-47 accidents, in which he cites two bomber crashes that, according to all available data, should have been categorized as lost nuclear bombs—yet neither accident is in the official records as a crash with nuclear bombs.

Equally, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara made an off-hand remark in the 1960s about a nuke that nearly exploded during a crash somewhere in Texas. But this crash, and near-explosion, doesn’t exist in the official records. Did McNamara confuse the Texas crash for a similar and well-known near-nuclear explosion in North Carolina? In fact, no; he spoke about both in the same sentence.

Here’s the tally:

The official records list two lost atomic bombs off the coast of New Jersey, one lost bomb off the coast of the State of Washington, one off Oahu, one somewhere between Hawaii and Japan, one in Savannah, a few others about which the details are murky, and one in North Carolina. In addition, we have scores of nukes that blew up without going nuclear, including two in Spain, three in Canada, four in Greenland, five in Indiana, two in New Mexico, at least one in California, and one in Morocco that almost certainly went nuclear if only partially.

So what do we make of the lost nukes? Are they dangerous?

Truthfully, no one knows.

The Savannah bomb is perhaps the most controversial of them all because for more than 45 years the official reports said it was armed and capable of a nuclear explosion. The pilot who released the bomb in 1958 disagreed and an investigation was finally conducted in 2001. The Air Force supervised the undertaking and found some handwritten notes on a slip of paper that said it wasn’t armed. They also induced a near-miraculous recanting of sworn official testimony from a key figure and, all-in-all, in 2001, they pronounced the Savannah bomb to be a dud. But, apart from the serendipity of official testimony that apparently turned out to be nothing more than a gosh-darn mistake, and the excellent job of finding a hastily written note scribbled on a piece of paper as a pair of nuclear bombers roared into the sky, the Air Force just didn’t seem to have their hearts in this investigation. The 2001 report was weakened by the inclusion of erroneous data that others in the Air Force had long ago corrected.

For instance, in this incident there was a mid-air collision that damaged the wing of a B-47 bomber, which—according to one official letter—became very difficult to land. The pilot nursed his jet down, but he couldn’t get it on the ground. Not once, but three times, he tried to land and three times he failed, and so he climbed back into the sky, ejected the bomb, and came back for the fourth attempt, which was a perfect landing. All this on a broken wing with an engine hanging by a thread.

Of course all of this was completely false. The pilot of the B-47 bomber was one of the Air Force’s best—an Instructor Pilot, no less. He ejected the atomic bomb as he descended and promptly landed. The old version of three attempted landings was long ago corrected in official Air Force reports but the erroneous version somehow managed to get into the 2001 report pronouncing the bomb safe.

The second problem with the report is the plutonium capsule. If the plutonium capsule was in the bomb, the bomb was armed and capable of a nuclear explosion. If the capsule was not in the bomb, the pilots would have carried it on board in a 65-pound device called the birdcage. Here, again, the 2001 report diverges from the pilots. The report says they carried the capsule. The pilots insist they did not. You would remember a 65-pound birdcage.Bird Cage

This brings us back to the obvious question: How dangerous is the Savannah bomb?

There is sworn testimony that says it was armed, and the pilots are clear that they did not carry the capsule which would also suggest it was armed. But they also say they signed for an unarmed bomb, which could very well be the case. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the lost Savannah bomb is a very dangerous bomb. At the very least, it has a lethal package of explosive in it that was designed to violently compress the plutonium capsule, a package of explosives that once killed more than a dozen men when one accidentally went off in California.

But things get trickier. We also know there’s a bomb in a farm field in Goldsboro, North Carolina, which the Air Force also acknowledges.

One of two hydrogen bombs that landed in a farm field in Goldsboro, NC. The hydrogen portion of the second bomb has never been found. What’s troubling about the Goldsboro bomb isn’t that it might explode—it can’t—but rather how our nuclear experts failed to anticipate the sort of accident that nearly turned half of North Carolina into spun glass. In this particular case, two nuclear bombs were accidentally dropped and inside each bomb the internal failsafe gates were tricked into believing that they were falling toward Moscow when in fact they had been torn free from a B-52 bomber when that bomber blew up in the sky over North Carolina. Down they went, ready to do their horrible thing, ignorant that they were over American soil not Mother Russia, the timers ticking down as the failsafe gates whirred closed only to be denied the final fury by the slimmest margin of one gate and one severed wire.

Exactly how any person who designs failsafe procedures forgot to include the possibility that a bomber might break up in the sky is a puzzle to me, but as I said, two bombs fell, both armed themselves as they rushed toward the ground, except that the hydrogen part of the second bomb was never found and it remains buried in a farm field in North Carolina.

I guess the answer comes down to whom do we trust?

How “expert” are safety experts that didn’t anticipated a bomber breaking up in the sky when they designed failsafe circuits?

What do we make of official correspondence from men in high offices that appears to be sheer fabrications?

And what of the experts that declared the Savannah bomb to be safe?

I don’t know the truth about our lost bombs.

I don’t know how many bombs are missing or what dangers they pose, but I’m inclined to the believe that lost nukes are probably a bad thing and that a few million dollars to pull them out is money well spent.

Handwritten notes on the transfer of custody receipt for the lost Savannah bomb.

Handwritten notes on the transfer of custody receipt for the lost Savannah bomb.

The sworn testimony that the Savannah bomb was capable of a nuclear explosion, which was later recanted.

The sworn testimony that the Savannah bomb was capable of a nuclear explosion, which was later recanted.

The letter claiming three landing attempts.

The letter claiming three landing attempts.

Extract from the 2001 report.
Extract from the 2001 report.

A diagram of the Goldsboro bomb as it armed itself.
A diagram of the Goldsboro bomb as it armed itself.

Air Force Search & Recovery Assessment of the 1958 Savannah, GA B-47 Accident

AF Nuclear Weapons And Counterproliferation Agency

12 April, 2001

The Accident
• On 5 February 1958, a B-47 bomber was on a simulated combat mission from Homestead AFB, FL.
• The B-47 was carrying a single transportation configured (see Bomb description section below) Mk15 Mod 0 nuclear bomb.
• The bomb weighed approximately 7600 lbs. The B-47 had a 10,000-lb. maximum payload capacity.
• It was common practice to train with transportation configured bombs.
• The B-47 had a mid-air collision with an F-86 fighter at approximately 2:00 AM on 5 February 1958.
• The F-86 crashed after the pilot successfully bailed out.
• The F-86 was not directly involved with the B-47 simulated combat mission.
• The B-47 was damaged but flyable.
• Three attempts to land at Hunter AFB, GA were unsuccessful.
• The Mk15 Mod 0 bomb was jettisoned to avoid possibility of conventional explosive detonation caused by a crash landing at Hunter AFB, GA.
• The jettison location was several miles from Savannah, GA in the Wassaw Sound area of the Atlantic Ocean.
• The drop elevation and air speed were approximately 7200 feet and approximately 200 knots respectively.
• The B-47 crew did not see an explosion upon impact.
• The B-47 landed safely at Hunter AFB, GA.

Additional Reading:

15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation, by L. Douglas Keeney