Most of these broken arrows occurred during the Cold War between the late 1950s and the mid-1960s.
This was a time of massive nuclear weapon stockpiling, with constant movement and transportation of these devices.
During the the Cold War it is estimated that SAC (Strategic Air Command) had nuclear weapons on-board bombers 365 days a year.
These bombers typically followed four main routes that passed over Greenland, the Mediterranean, Japan and Alaska. Considering the vast distances involved and the lack of fuel capacity to allow planes to cross oceans on one tank of fuel, these missions required midair refueling, a dangerous operation which, along with the threat of other possible midair problems, such as storms, enemy fire, or simply running out of fuel, lie at the heart of some of the cases of disappearing nukes.
Our first case occurred March 10, 1956 when a B-47 Stratojet took off from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
This was to be a non-stop transatlantic flight to deliver two nuclear weapon cores in special transport cases to an undisclosed
overseas base. Considering the distance involved, two in-flight refuelings were scheduled. The first went off without a hitch. The plane never showed for its second refueling over the Mediterranean Sea. Considering the cargo the plane had been carrying, a search was immediately launched to try and locate the missing aircraft, but no trace of the plane, debris, the crew, or its nuclear payload could ever be found. The bomber just disappeared. It is assumed that the plane went down somewhere over the Mediterranean, possibly due to running out of fuel, but no one has any idea where, and the plane’s disappearance, as well as the location of the missing nuclear cores, remain a mystery to this day.
This occurred over the Atlantic in 1968, when an American B-52 bomber went down over Greenland and crashed into the ice of North Star Bay, near Thule Air Force base. The conventional explosives in the nuclear device detonated. Unfortunately, the plane had been carrying four nuclear warheads, at least one of which was never recovered and is thought to have been sealed in the ice after the explosion melted it and it subsequently refroze. Additionally, uranium, tritium and plutonium were scattered over a 2,000-foot area. This lead to serious health problems for those who engaged in the recovery efforts. So sensitive was this incident that the military covered it up for decades. It is still unknown as to how many of the four bombs onboard were actually lost and to what extent the radioactive contamination spread. The missing bomb or bombs have never been found and presumably still remain trapped somewhere down in the Greenland ice.
This occurred on December 10, 1965 on the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga. The carrier was on its way to Yokosuka, Japan from Vietnam. An A-4E Skyhawk carrying a B-43 hydrogen bomb was coming up one of the carrier’s aircraft elevators to be prepped for takeoff. The plane simply rolled off the deck into the ocean, with its pilot and nuclear weapon. The plane would sink approximately 16,000 to the ocean bottom and has never been located. To make matters worse, experts were concerned that the extreme depth might actually detonate the bomb. The incident was kept under wraps by the government for a long time since acknowledging it admits that the U.S. had nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and that they defied a treaty with Japan not bring nuclear weapons into Japanese territory. To this day the location of the plane, its pilot, and its nuclear payload remains unknown.
This occurred in April of 1989. The Russian submarine Komsomolez experienced a catastrophic fire on board during a mission off the coast of Greenland. The damage crippled the sub and sent it 5,500 feet to the bottom of the ocean along with the two nuclear warhead equipped torpedoes it was carrying. The nukes were never found.
On May 22, 1968, the American nuclear submarine the USS Scorpion was on its way back to Norfolk, Virginia from a three month training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, was 320 nautical miles south of the Azores when it suddenly vanished along with its two nuclear warheads. The U.S. was first convinced that the Russians were involved in its disappearance, but the wreckage of the sub was later found strewn about the bottom at a depth of 10,800 feet by the research ship Mizar. Because of the depth involved, the nuclear warheads were never recovered and remain on the bottom of the sea.
On July 28, 1957, a C-124 transport plane began experiencing technical problems with two of its engines which lost power after it departed Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The flight crew could not keep the aircraft level causing the jettisoning of its two nuclear weapons off the East coast of the United States. The weapons promptly sank to the ocean bottom never be seen again. Although the C-124 landed safely near Atlantic City, New Jersey, neither the warheads or their debris were never located.
On September 25, 1959, a U.S. Navy P-5M aircraft carrying a nuclear depth charge went down in Puget Sound near Whidbey Island, Washington and was never seen again, its nuclear payload also lost.
On January 24, 1961, a nuclear accident nearly occurred when a B-52 bomber carrying two fully operational nuclear warheads flying on alert over Goldsboro, North Carolina, experienced a defective fuel line and sudden structural failure in one of its wings. The plane’s wing disintegrated, causing the plane to crash, killing three of its crew. The two nuclear weapons were released during the breakup at an altitude of between 2,000-10,000 feet. Emergency parachutes on the warheads, deployed as planned for one nuke and that weapon would later be safely recovered. However, the second warhead’s parachute malfunctioned and the weapon plowed into some swampy farmland, smashing it to pieces and sending debris flying over a wide area. It would later be revealed that the weapon had had a high probability of accidentally detonating, as five of the six onboard safety devices had failed, leaving only a single safety which saved the entire area from a devastating nuclear explosion. Although many of the bomb’s components were eventually recovered, the highly enriched uranium core was never found even after a search of the area by the military. It is thought that the extremely dangerous core had lodged itself as far down as 165 feet in the marshy, waterlogged ground. Such was the concern over the missing core that the Air Force acquired an easement on the land which requires anyone planning to develop the area or start any sort of construction to first obtain permission from the military in order to keep the weapons grade core from falling into the wrong hands.
This one happened on Feb. 5, 1958, when a powerful, 7,000 pound Mark 15 hydrogen bomb, with over 100 times the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb, disappeared over Wassaw Sound only 12 miles from Savannah, Ga., a city with a population of over 100,000 people. A B-47 Stratojet bomber piloted by Howard Richardson, Bob Lagerstrom and Leland Woolard, had been engaged in a night training flight over Sylvania, Georgia at an altitude of 36,000 feet when it accidentally collided with an F-86 Saberjet fighter, destroying the fighter and damaging one of the bomber’s wings. After three unsuccessful attempts to land with their payload aboard, the pilots were then instructed to jettison their nuclear weapon before trying to attempt another emergency landing, so pilot Maj. Howard Richardson dropped the bomb over the Wassaw Sound off of Tybee Island in a location near the mouth of the Savannah River before finally managing to land safely at nearby Hunter Army Airfield.
It was thought at the time that the recovery of the nuclear weapon would be fast, since it had been ditched in shallow water, yet this would not be the case. The area was completely shut off by the military and a massive search was launched for the missing nuclear weapon, including aerial searches, underwater divers, and meticulous scouring of the surrounding land by soldiers. After 2 months the bomb had still not been located. Shortly after, the military called off the search and deemed the weapon to be “irretrievably lost.” In the wake of the failed attempts to recover the lost nuclear weapon, the military went through great pains to enact a cover-up of the event and it has only come to light in the face of partially declassified documents gradually released on the incident. The Air Force would later claim that the missing bomb posed no threat if left undisturbed, but gave the warning in a declassified report that “an intact explosive would pose a serious explosion hazard to personnel and the environment if disturbed by a recovery attempt.” It also made sure to monitor all dredging in the area, stating in another declassified document: "There exists the possibility of accidental discovery of the unrecovered weapon through dredging or construction in the probable impact area. … The Department of Defense has been requested to monitor all dredging and construction activities."
Showing that humans have the disturbing propensity to not learn a single thing, it later came to light in a partially declassified memo that the Air Force had wasted no time in promptly requested a new nuclear warhead to replace the lost one. The memo states: "The search for this weapon was discontinued on 4-16-58 and the weapon is considered irretrievably lost. It is requested that one weapon be made available for release to the DOD (Department of Defense) as a replacement."
The missing nuclear weapon of Tybee Island has never been recovered and still lies somewhere in the water near a major American metropolis. As its existence has become known, there has been a great deal of outrage directed towards the military for losing the bomb in the first place, as well as its sudden decision to call off its search for it despite the potentially devastating consequences it could pose to the populace. Understandably, local residents want an investigation relaunched, and want the bomb found and removed. The Air Force has countered various accusations by stating repeatedly that the bomb poses no threat and even trying to downplay the threat by claiming the bomb was not fully functional. This claim stands in stark contrast to a recently declassified 1966 congressional testimony of former assistant secretary of defense W.J. Howard, who stated that the Tybee Island bomb was a “complete weapon, a bomb with a nuclear capsule,” and that it had represented one of only two weapons lost up to that time that was complete with a plutonium trigger.
In addition to the obvious danger of having a fully operational nuclear weapon lying so close to a major city, there is also the matter of the plutonium and other hazardous materials, such as uranium and beryllium, leaking into the environment. This is potentially horrible news for people and wildlife of the area, as well as for the rich crabbing industry of Wassaw Sound. There have been extensive efforts by several salvage companies to try and locate the missing bomb since its existence became public, but there are also those who think that it should be left alone. The bomb contains many dangerous elements, including the highly unstable lithium deuteride, as well as the over 400 pounds of TNT designed to act as a catalyst for the plutonium trigger to implode and thus create a nuclear explosion. These have been slowly degenerating from being submerged for so many years. It is thought that any attempt to remove the bomb could be a highly perilous proposition. One can only hope that if someone does manage to find and retrieve it that it will be someone with good intentions and not one of the many enemies of the U.S. who would love to get their hands on some unguarded, unsecured intact nuclear weapon. The Tybee Island lost nuke remains elusive, sitting out there in the ocean somewhere posing an ill-defined threat. The Pentagon has notoriously been secretive about the whole affair and has seemingly failed to engage in any in-depth analysis of the situation.
"Weapons that are on the ocean floor are hardly unlikely to explode. Perhaps this risk is somewhat greater with the bombs that were lost on land. But virtually nothing is known about whether such bombs can explode spontaneously." Said by: Otfried Nassauer, an expert on nuclear armament and the director of the Berlin Information Center for Transatlantic Security says:
Don Moniak, a nuclear weapons expert with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League in Aiken, South Carolina said: "There could be a fission or criticality event if the plutonium was somehow put in an incorrect configuration. There could be a major inferno if the high explosives went off and the lithium deuteride reacted as expected. Or there could just be an explosion that scattered uranium and plutonium all over hell."
The bottom line is we don’t know what will happen. Perhaps more of an impending threat is the risk of leaked radioactive or other dangerous substances from these missing weapons. Lithium, beryllium and enriched uranium are all building blocks of nuclear weapons that can cause a whole laundry list of health problems in humans and wildlife, as well as irreversible environmental damage. The effects of corrosion on such lost nukes could mean that such dangerous materials could be released slowly into the environment over decades. The problem is only exacerbated by the Pentagon’s determination on putting a lid on the extent of the problem and its insistence on secrecy. There is also the obvious threat of some terrorist group attaining these lost nuclear materials.