A Nuclear Bomb Off the Coast of Georgia

A mid-air collision in 1958 caused a nuclear bomb to be dropped in the waters of Georgia. It is debated whether the bomb is active, but it remains undiscovered in the sands. If the bomb is indeed active, what can be done to remove the threat?

Mk15

A B-47 in flight
A B-47 in flight

February 5, 1958, a simulated combat mission was being carried out by Colonel Howard Richardson in a B-47. He took off from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, carrying a thermonuclear bomb. Upon reaching Georgia, Richardson collided with an F-86 in mid-air! The F-86 pilot immediately ejected and the jet crashed. However, the B-47 was still airborne, but needed an emergency landing. The biggest concern for Richardson was that an emergency landing could cause detonation to the bomb! He released the bomb and it sank into the waters near Tybee island.

An aerial photo of Tybee island
An aerial photo of Tybee island

The bomb itself was a Mark 15 nuclear bomb (or Mk-15). 7,600 pounds, 12 feet long, and 400 pounds of uranium and explosives, this bomb would leave a 3.8 megaton blast. It had uranium, but whether the bomb was functional is debated. The official Air Force Search & Recovery Assessment stated that:

An Atomic Energy Agency (AEC) to Air Force “Transfer of Custody” receipt, dated 4 February 1958, confirms no nuclear capsule was present, therefore no nuclear yield was possible.

In addition to that, a form signed by the aircraft commander states that the bomb had a 150-pound cap made of lead. So where is the conflict? Assistant Secretary of Defense W.J. Howard stated, in a 1966 Congressional testimony, that it was a “complete weapon, a bomb with a nuclear capsule”. He even claimed that one of the two warheads to have been lost to date even had a plutonium trigger aboard! Whether active or not, radioactive materials were in the bomb and it was lost in the sea.

Slim Pickins' ride from Dr. Strangelove
Slim Pickins’ ride from Dr. Strangelove

Beginning just two days after the crash, one hundred Navy personnel joined the Air Force 2700th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron in a search. Their report shows disappointing results:

A three square mile area was searched using the Air Force 2700th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron and approximately 100 Navy personnel equipped with hand held sonar and galvanic drag and cable sweeps.

– Water depth in the search area was approximately 8-40 feet.
– The Air Force declared the bomb irretrievably lost on 16 April 1958.

The Mk-15 was entirely lost and remains that way. It is believed that sand has covered the bomb by up to 15 feet. Yet, this could actually be a good thing. Being covered in that much sand, corrosion moves much slower. Worst would be if the bomb were slightly exposed, allowing for the rapidly shifting sands to speed corrosion. Uranium at this point would leak into the Atlantic! And in an area affected by tropical storms, this leads to trouble for a much larger area. Thus far, radiation levels have not spiked in the area, so the bomb remains lost but docile for now.

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