Weird History

The US Air Force Lost A Nuclear Bomb Off The Coast Of Georgia In 1958 - And They Still Haven't Found It  

Stephan Roget
4.4k views
Ranker.com

At around 1 am on February 5, 1958, Major Howard Richardson was piloting a B-47 Stratojet back to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. The Major was cruising along at 38,000 feet following what he thought was a successful top-secret training mission - a simulated bombing in Virginia. Then, the situation went underwater - in every sense of the word.

Unbeknownst to Richardson, the simulation was to feature one more pretend attack - from an F-86 Sabre jet fighter piloted by Lieutenant Clarence Stewart. That’s when disaster struck.

Richardson recounted years later, "All of a sudden we felt a heavy jolt and a burst of flame out to the right. We didn't know what it was. We thought maybe it was something from outer space, but it could only be another plane."Article Image

Flying high in the night sky above South Carolina and Georgia, Lt. Stewart misjudged his approach and slammed into the B-47 - severely damaging both aircraft and knocking an entire engine off the bomber. For his part, Stewart was able to eject and land safely in a swamp near the Savannah River, but Richardson was in for a much more difficult landing. His plane was carrying a four-megaton atomic bomb.

"I thought that if we landed short, the plane would catch the front of the runway and the bomb would shoot through the plane like a bullet through a gun barrel," Richardson said. As that could have caused the fiery demise of all on board, as well as ground crews and civilians in the surrounding area, Richardson made the decision to fly out over the Atlantic Ocean and jettison the nuke - ditching it somewhere in the waters of Wassaw Sound, just off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. 

According to Richardson, "The tactical doctrine for Strategic Air Command gave me the authority to get rid of it for the safety of the crew - that was the number one priority."

The device is believed to have landed somewhere near Tybee Island - and the incident has since come to be known as the Tybee Island mid-air collision. 

An Award-Winning Landing - Despite The 'Broken Arrow'

From the perspective of the US Air Force, Howard Richardson did everything he should have. He followed protocol for a mid-air collision, placed the safety of his crew as the highest priority, and even selected an appropriate place to dump his payload - the shallow waters and silty sand of Wassaw Sound near the mouth of the Savannah River. But his job didn’t end there.

Richardson still had to land a badly damaged aircraft - a task he apparently performed beautifully. Both he and his entire crew escaped the ordeal unscathed. For his efforts, Richardson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Years later, he explained, "We had an accident and I landed the aircraft safely... I did get a Distinguished Flying Cross from a general for that. I thought that would be the story. That's not the story - everything's about the nuclear weapon."

And indeed, with Richardson and crew now safely on the ground, the focus shifted to an increasingly intense search for the missing nuke - an issue that the Air Force refers to as a "Broken Arrow."Article Image

Almost immediately, the US Air Force narrowed down the potential landing areas of the device to the mouth of the Savannah River. This was great for softening its impact, but also made locating the device an incredibly difficult endeavor. 

After two months of sonar studies, dive team missions, and other search-and-rescue attempts, the search was called off - at least in the official sense. The Air Force’s acceptance of this "Broken Arrow" likely stems from the fact that, officially speaking, the nuke that Richardson’s B-47 was carrying was only a "simulated" atomic device.

According to a mission receipt - signed by Richardson himself - that turned up in an amateur investigation of the incident, the bomb in question did contain 400 pounds of conventional explosives and a large amount of uranium - but did not have a detonation capsule attached. This would preclude it from actually detonating.

Unfortunately, that official version of events is up for debate.

No One Can Agree On Whether Or Not The Lost Nuke Is Armed

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The US Armed Forces continued to look for Tybee Island’s broken arrow off and on throughout the ensuing decades. The search was not considered to be one of desperation, given that the official word on the matter is that the device poses very little actual threat. There are those, however, who disagree with that assessment.

In 1966, a Congressional committee was formed to investigate the handful of atomic bombs that had been lost over the previous decade. In written testimony, Assistant Secretary of Defense W.J. “Jack” Howard stated that officials knew of four “complete” atomic bombs that had been lost - and he listed the Tybee Island device as one of them. This admission - which directly contradicts the Air Force’s official records on the matter - was largely forgotten about until it was formally declassified and shared with the media and several politicians by retired Lt. Colonel Derek Duke, an individual who has led the amateur hunt for the missing device in recent years.

As soon as the letter became public, a now-elderly Howard recanted his testimony, claiming that he was mistaken all those years ago. According to Army Lieutenant Colonel Steve Campbell, “We called Mr. Howard recently, and he agreed that his memo was in error. And he is in complete control of his faculties.”

It’s an explanation, however, that many - including Duke - do not buy, and there’s some circumstantial evidence that points toward a cover-up.

Four months after the Tybee Island mid-air collision, the Atomic Energy Commission altered its rules - banning the use of any form of atomic devices in training exercises. It’s a curious change, given that the US Air Force’s official stance is that the incident only involved a simulated device, and therefore posed no real risk of disaster. To skeptics, that sounds more like an agency realizing it made a mistake and changing its policy to prevent it from happening again.

The Search Was Officially Called Off - But It Continues To This Day

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As more people begin to doubt the government’s official stance on the Tybee Island broken arrow, the amateur search for the lost device has heated up considerably. Retired Lt. Colonel Derek Duke remains at the forefront of this movement and, at one point, it actually looked like he hit paydirt.  

The US Air Force officially called off the search for the broken arrow back in 1958, and dubbed it "irretrievably lost." The only real risk of detonation would come if the device was aggressively disturbed, they claimed, and they used this line of reasoning to justify the discouragement of any subsequent searches. However, Duke wasn’t hearing it, so he set out in 2001 to make one more attempt to locate the device.

In explaining his desperation, Duke stated, “The key to this whole thing is that there's a high chance of human interaction with that bomb. It's in shallow water. A fisherman could stumble across it, and it's nuclear. The government's worst nightmare is that we'll find it and expose the truth - that they're putting people at risk. We've got to find that bomb.”

In 2004, Duke and his team detected high levels of radiation around the area of Wassaw Sound that is believed to be hiding the device - albeit under more than a dozen feet of silt - and announced his findings to the media. The federal government investigated, however, and determined that the radiation was a result of naturally occurring monazite deposits.

And so, the search continues.

In Any Case, There May Be Danger Lurking At The Bottom Of Wassaw Sound

The jury may still be out on whether or not the Tybee Island broken arrow is an armed-and-ready device or not, but it's still loaded with 400 pounds of conventional explosives, which could be set off if the device were ever to be disturbed.

This disturbance could be triggered either by those intentionally searching for it or some other unintended circumstance. As the Navy stated in 2001, the "intact explosive would pose a serious... hazard to personnel and the environment if disturbed by a recovery attempt." Derek Duke has suggested that a major weather event could result in the device being thrown ashore and perhaps into the city limits of Savannah, Georgia - though this possibility seems like a longshot at best.

The story of the lost atomic device remains well known enough that a 2015 hoax stating that it had been discovered by amateur Canadian scuba divers went viral, only to be quickly debunked.

For those who believe the government has been covering up the non-simulated nature of the device, however, the situation is significantly more dire. Though it’s impossible for the sunken device to release its full hydrogen payload without the proper codes being entered, it could still erupt if its detonator is present and remains active. Article Image

The presence of that detonator remains the major point of contention when it comes to debating this issue. Anyone who falls on the side of a cover-up, however, remains understandably worried about the prospect of a live atomic device hiding in the shallow waters near one of the most populated cities on the Eastern Seaboard. 

If that’s stressful to think about, try to understand how it must have felt to be Howard Richardson - who some still blame for ditching the device right next to a major US city. Richardson, who passed in 2018, lamented in 1999 that "I've been living with it now for 51 years."

As it turns out, a broken arrow inevitably leads to a troubling legacy for an Air Force pilot. It's a veritable Sword of Damocles for both Richardson and the East Coast of the United States at large. As he put it, "At this age, you think about the things you'll be remembered for. What I should be remembered for is landing that plane safely. I guess this bomb is what I'm going to be remembered for."