Just three days after President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated and just a few months before the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, the United States barely escaped a nuclear disaster of unprecedented proportions when a B-52 aircraft carrying two hydrogen bombs broke apart in the sky over Goldsboro, N.C.
Experts estimated that had either bomb detonated, the lethal fallout could have spread to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and perhaps even New York City, putting millions of lives at risk and laying waste to the countryside.
A low-voltage switch associated with the bombs functioned properly, and it is believed that is all that prevented the devastating explosion when the bombs struck the ground.
Last weekend, The Guardian, the London newspaper that is more and more a source of significant international news, published what had been a secret government document describing the 1961 incident. The Christian Science Monitor also reported on the topic.
Although government officials insisted the public was never in danger, the newly published document quotes a senior engineer in the Sandia National Laboratories (which were responsible for the mechanical safety of the hydrogen bombs) that only “one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe.”
Eight years after the incident, the Sandia scientist, Parker F. Jones, wrote a report he titled “Goldsboro Revisited or: How I Learned to Mistrust the H-bomb” and in it he stated conclusively that “one simple, dynamo-technology, low-voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe.”
So we were very lucky.
Not only could it have been catastrophic in terms of its impact on the affected areas, almost certainly it would have raised the already tense American fears associated with the Cold War.
Those in the Tampa area at that time well remember those fears because MacDill Air Force base was widely regarded as a likely target for Cuban missiles — supplied to Fidel Castro by the Soviet Union — should the Cold War get hot.
The Guardian reported that “Jones found that of the four safety mechanisms in the Faro (the small town near Goldsboro where the bombs actually fell) bomb, designed to prevent unintended detonation, three failed to operate properly. When the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, and it was only that final, highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity.”
The Christian Science Monitor said the two bombs landed in a field and a meadow near Faro and that there’s now a roadside marker commemorating the “nuclear mishap.”A spokesman for the Pentagon once insisted to a wire service reporter that the bombs were, in fact, unarmed and could not have exploded.
There have been similar near-misses. In 1958, a 7,600-pound Mark 15 nuclear bomb disappeared in deep water near Tybee Island, Ga., after a bomber and a fighter jet, both on training missions, collided. The bomb has never been found, and — the Monitor added — “arguments continue to this day about whether the lost Tybee Island nuke was armed.”
In the political climate of the time, one can only imagine the consequences had there actually been an explosion as a result of either incident.