What lies beneath ...

One Georgia man takes the plunge in search of a Cold War relic

Forget about sharks. Swimmers off the coast of Tybee Island need to watch out for a cousin of this baddass when taking a dip this summer. Tread lightly.
Forget about sharks. Swimmers off the coast of Tybee Island need to watch out for a cousin of this baddass when taking a dip this summer. Tread lightly.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League

Savannah, Ga. evokes images local eccentrics, Gothic Revival architecture and Spanish moss. But for retired U.S. Air Force Col. Derek Duke, residents of coastal Georgia have something else hanging over their heads.

Buried under the shallow waters of the Savannah River lies what may be a thermo-nuclear bomb. The U.S. government considers it irretrievably lost, but Duke wants it raised from the sea.

Certain facts are not in dispute. On Feb. 5, 1958, a B-47 Bomber deployed on a training mission suffered a mid-air collision with an F-86 Fighter. The bomber caught fire and after repeated efforts to land the plane, the crew jettisoned its payload; a 3,500kg MK-15 thermonuclear bomb—into the water south of Little Tybee, five kilometres east of Savannah.

When a month of searching failed to turn up the bomb, Navy and Air Force crews gave up looking for it.

It’s now 43 years later and the bomb's exact location and destructive potential remain a mystery.

Duke's concerns over the bomb’s explosive potential are fueled by a 1966 document prsented to the Joint Council on Atomic Energy by then Deputy Secretary of Defense W.J. Howard.

Howard was asked by the council to compile a list of missing nuclear bombs. He came up with four, two of which were identified as nuclear-capable. The Tybee bomb was at the top of this list.

The difference between a nuclear-capable and non-

capable bombs is the presence of a plutonium or highly enriched uranium capsule, or "trigger", which initiates the thermo-nuclear reaction. A fully armed MK-15 model has up to three megatons of explosive power—about a hundred times stronger than the atomic versions dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

In a letter to Congressman Jack Kingston, who was enlisted by Duke to promote action on the part of the government, Under Secretary of Defense Dean Oliver stated the bomb was never armed and that Howard made a mistake back in 1966. Howard has since confirmed Oliver's letter.

Duke, however, is unsure.

A communiqué issued by ASSURE, the underwater recovery company founded by Duke to find the bomb, questions Howard's original written submission to the Council on Atomic Energy because of its handwritten corrections and lack of proper annotation. Duke feels the manner in which the corrections were made raise doubts concerning their authenticity.

"That was a very serious error if he did make that mistake. I've never seen a document that corrects that mistake," Duke told the Tybee News.

Now a commercial flight instructor, Duke began researching the Tybee bomb on the internet two years ago. He offered his services to the Air Force and assembled a supporting cast, comparing it to the "famous TV A-Team," in a recent Atlantic Monthly report.

The ‘A-Team’ includes the original U.S. Navy search Commander who led the 1958 hunt for the bomb; a 30-year CIA veteran who specializes in Nukes, counter-terrorism and maritime operations; the Navy Captain who launched Charles Lindbergh Jr.'s successful 1966 mission of the coast of Spain to recover a live hydrogen bomb, and finally, of all people, a man named Harris Parker, who according to Duke, supplied the 'General Lee' Hot Rod in the hit TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, and worked on cars for the show.

After a career change, Harris is searching for the bomb.

The dramatic potential of his mission was apparent to Duke from the start. He planned to launch a feature film about the nuke entitled Zero Count, starring a young autistic savant named Bobby Zero, endowed with great mnemonic powers by a freak laboratory explosion.

Nor was the millennial zeitgeist lost on Duke, who originally feared the bomb might contain a timer designed to induce explosion at the stroke of midnight, on January 1, 2000. "We were concerned that the bomb had a Y2K problem," Duke told AM. “Bobby Zero had to beat the clock."

When 1/1/00 passed and even the most paranoid back-woods survivalists emerged from their compounds, Duke revised his cinematic plans. He now intends to chronicle the search for the bomb in documentary form.

While Duke may have opted for the less dramatic celluloid form, a fictionalized version of the events in Tybee might not be out of place at local multiplexes.

Broken Arrows, as the U.S. Department of Defense terms the most dire of nuclear snafus, have served as plot devices for spy novels and actions movies for years. John Woo even lifted the title for his 1996 action flick starring John Travolta and Christian Slater.

Sometimes though, reality is more frightening than fiction.

The U.S. Department of Defense first published a list of nuclear weapon accidents in 1968 that detailed 13 serious accidents between 1950-1968. By the time the list was updated in 1980, the number had climbed to 32 serious accidents.

At the same time, documents released by the Navy cited 381 nuclear weapon incidents between 1965 and 1977.

Accounts vary as to just how many missing bombs are still out there.

Atomic Audit, a 1998 book edited by the Steven I. Schwartz, reveals that 11 nuclear bombs remain unrecovered.

According to Princeton researcher Joshua Handler though, at least 50 nukes rest at the bottoms of oceans worldwide.

Handler, co-author of the Greenpeace Neptune Papers, which chronicled naval accidents around the world between 1945 and 1989, has continued to investigate the missing bombs, particularly in Russia.

"They're more adjusted to post-Cold War openness than our guys"

"On a human level you would have a more detailed discussion on nuclear weapons and naval nuclear issues with a Russian officer than with a U.S. officer," Handler recently told CNN.

Alexander Lebed, Russia’s former chief of national security, recently told Reuters that the location of as many as a hundred Russian one-kiloton suitcase bombs cannot be accounted for.

“We must seriously look for them or else humankind cannot rest in peace,” said Lebed.

Back in Tybee, locals are taking things lightly.

"It's been there long enough now that I don't think it's any worry," councilman Jack Youmans told the Savannah Morning News.

"Why would they have been hauling around an armed atom bomb, or whatever kind it was? They don't train with live bombs."

"Back during the war, a whole plane crashed right out there in the marsh. That was a bigger commotion," said Youmans, 73.

Government officials see no need to sound the alarms.

A recent Air Force study maintained the bomb is both unarmed and irretrievable; located under about 6-7 metres of water in Wassau Sound—the paddle sports site during the '96 Olympics—but buried so deep in silt as to be harmless. If the unarmed bomb exploded, “it would create maybe a 10-foot diameter hole and shock waves through the water of approximately 100 yards," said Maj. Don Robbins, deputy director of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons and Counter Proliferation Agency.

"Even boats going over it would not even notice. They might see some bubbles coming out around them."

Duke doesn't buy it.

"It's a nuclear bomb. It's like if I take the battery out of your car, then I try to convince you it's not a car," he told the Associated Press.

Nuclear or not, an MK-15 carcass would contain highly reactive lithium and toxic beryllium, as well as more than 180 kilograms of aged TNT.

"We know the dangers that this lost weapon can pose and we strongly recommend that it be searched for with new technology," added Duke. "We want the weapon located and either removed or encapsulated and contained. In either case, Savannah deserves a full disclosure of the real risks.”

Nuclear Nomenclature

Codes used in internal documents by the U.S. Department of Defense.

BROKEN ARROW A Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff term to identify and report an accident involving a nuclear weapon or warhead or nuclear component.

NUCLEAR WEAPON ACCIDENT An unexpected event involving nuclear weapons or nuclear components that results in any of the following:

  • Accidental or unauthorized launching, firing, or use by U.S. forces or U.S supported Allied forces of a nuclear-capable weapons system.
  • An accidental, unauthorized or unexplained nuclear detonation.
  • Non-nuclear detonation or burning of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component.
  • Radioactive contamination.
  • Jettisoning of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component.
  • Public hazard, actual or perceived.

BENT SPEAR A Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff term used in the Department of Defense to identify and report a nuclear weapon significant incident involving a nuclear weapon or warhead, nuclear components, or vehicle when nuclear loaded.

EMPTY QUIVER A reporting term to identify and report the seizure, theft, or loss of a U.S. nuclear weapon.

FADED GIANT A reporting term to identify an event involving a nuclear reactor or radiological accident.

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