Sixty-nine years ago today, an atomic bomb codenamed Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. It was a U-235 device and is one of the only two (so far) nuclear bombs ever used in war. The other is of course the plutonium-based Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki three days later.
While only two nuclear devices have intentionally been dropped on populated areas, there is a long list of Broken Arrows — bombs dropped kind of by accident. Oops! These have ranged all the way from the simplest fission devices, similar to those dropped on Japan, to multi-megaton fusion devices.
I moved to the Midlands of South Carolina about sixteen years ago for a job in pharma, and while I knew vaguely at the time that an atomic bomb was once dropped somewhere in the state, I didn’t know exactly where. I had read that the incident occurred in Mars Bluff. Okay … that didn’t mean dick to me. Where the fuck is Mars Bluff? This will seem alien to anybody who has lived his or her entire life in the great concrete slab of the American Northeast, but down here, there are actually spaces in between cities and towns where you aren’t in a city or a town. Mars Bluff is such a place. Wikipedia lists it as “an unincorporated community in Florence County, South Carolina.” It’s just the name of a region where a few houses are, but it’s not an actual town. You don’t see a “Welcome to Mars Bluff” sign when you drive into it, and so you never really notice it’s there. Anyway, the pharmaceutical plant I worked at was in Mars Bluff, but I didn’t know that until I had been there for several years. The crater left behind by the South Carolina Broken Arrow incident was only a half mile away. It’s a pond now …
The bomb was dropped by a Strategic Air Command B-47 Stratojet bomber on March 11, 1958. Apparently, while passing over Mars Bluff, a light came on in the cockpit indicating that the bomb was improperly secured in the bomb bay. The Captain ordered one of the crew to go investigate, and that guy, while trying to secure the bomb in place, accidentally did the exact opposite of that and triggered the emergency bomb release. He almost fell with the bomb through the bomb bay doors Slim Pickens style, but he managed to grab something and held on for dear life. The bomb made impact immediately behind the home of Walter Gregg and the conventional explosives within the device detonated, severely damaging the home, leveling trees, injuring all five members of the household, and vaporizing several chickens. Fortunately, the fissile plutonium core was not installed in the device at the time, or more chickens may have perished.
I’m sure there are all kinds of lessons to be learned each time an atom bomb accidentally falls to the Earth. One lesson that was hopefully learned by the Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Georgia that day is that, when one of their planes calls them up to say they’ve lost a nuclear bomb, they should probably be given the benefit of the doubt. The way it was supposed to work is that, in the event a bomb is accidentally dropped, the plane would send a sooper-sekret coded message to the base, alerting them. But the guys at Hunter Air Force Base refused to acknowledge the transmission, apparently thinking it was a hoax or a gag, or maybe the Rushkies were up to some devious plot? I don’t know. In the end, the Captain of the plane was forced to put his sooper-sekret code book away, and instead radio the local Florence regional airport, asking them to please call Hunter Air Force Base to say that they lost their bomb. No doubt the air traffic controllers had no problems believing the story: FLO is pretty damn close to the site of impact, and I’m sure they both heard and felt the explosion and could see the black smoke rising into the air.
To mark the 50th anniversary in 2008, the guy who owns the land put up some markers and stuff and built a nice wooden bridge going across a creek to get to it. A small group of the chemistry nerds from the plant came out to pay homage to the hole in the ground at the time. Its actually not very far at all off a main road, but if you go at the wrong time of year, you’re likely to emerge from the woods covered in ticks. I know a guy who took his mother-in-law back there during the wrong time of year. “Gary, Gary, Gary,” as Thimma would say, shaking his head.
There is of course all kinds of information on the incident available online for anyone interested. I would suggest two sites in particular: A blog post here, and a magazine article here. Both are well-written and interesting, and have a lot of background information that isn’t found at many other internet sites. Enjoy!