By Robert Myles
Goldsboro – Papers recently obtained by a journalist under freedom of information laws (FOIA requests) show just how close the US Eastern seaboard came to being engulfed in a nuclear holocaust in 1961.
According to a report carried by The Guardian, an atomic bomb, 260 times more powerful than that exploded over Hiroshima in 1945, almost went critical in North Carolina. The incident occurred on Jan. 23, 1961 when a B-52 bomber broke up in flight. As a consequence, two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were released over Goldsboro N.C.
Normally, in such an incident, fail-safes would have prevented nuclear weapons from posing a threat but in the Goldsboro incident, one of the bombs behaved as though it had been dropped intentionally.
The bomb’s parachute opened to slow down its descent but as The Guardian reports, “The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.”
The nuclear bomb which nearly went live over North Carolina was in a different league from the first and, to date, only nuclear devices detonated in wartime over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the end of World War II. The Goldsboro bomb had a yield of 4 megatons, the equivalent of 4 million tons of explosive TNT. By comparison, the nuclear bomb which laid waste to Hiroshima, known as “Little Boy” and dropped from a B-29 predecessor of the B-52 which broke up in 1961, had an explosive yield of 16 kilotons of TNT — a mere 0.4 per cent of the Goldsboro weapon.
Had it detonated, the Goldsboro bomb would have caused an event of apocalyptic proportions, affecting heavily populated cities as far away as Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
At the time of the North Carolina incident there was speculation as to its possible severity but fears of a nuclear disaster were played down by US government officials, who consistently denied that inadequate safety measures had put lives at risk.
In a report of 1961 incident written eight years after the event, Parker Jones, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, charged with responsibility for the mechanical safety of the US nuclear arsenal said that three of the four mechanisms designed to prevent accidental firing had not worked properly.
In his report, Jones concluded, “The bomb MK 39 Mod 2 did not have the appropriate security mechanisms for airborne use on board a B-52.”
In a hat-tip to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” a satire concerning a nuclear holocaust, Jones titled his report, “Goldsboro Revisited or: How I learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb.”
Further information on the Goldsboro incident was uncovered by journalist Eric Schlosser in the course of research associated with an upcoming book concerning the nuclear arms race titled, “Command and Control.”
But what happened in the skies above North Carolina in 1961 is by no means an isolated incident. As a result of numerous Through FOIA requests, Schlosser said he stumbled on 700 “significant” accidents and incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1968 alone.
Commenting on the revelations, Schlosser told The Guardian, “The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy.”
Jones continued, “We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here’s one that very nearly did.”