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USAF Almost Nuked North Carolina In 1961 – Declassified Document 586

Posted by Soulskill
from the south-carolina-would-be-a-more-understandable-target dept.
Freshly Exhumed sends in a story about how close the United States came to accidentally attacking itself with nuclear weapons just a few days after John F. Kennedy took office. "A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the U.S. Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima. The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. 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."
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USAF Almost Nuked North Carolina In 1961 – Declassified Document

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 20, 2013 @06:49PM (#44908239)

    Wouldn't it? (Of course I'm being facetious. What disarmament?)

  • Yikes! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by adisakp (705706) on Friday September 20, 2013 @06:50PM (#44908245) Journal
    FTA: "the final switch that prevented disaster could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt, leading to a nuclear burst."
  • by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:20PM (#44908481) Homepage

    or put it another way, a simple switch on a nuclear bomb failed as it fell to earth

    No, the switch didn't fail - apparently three of its siblings did, but the fact that this one didn't prevented the unarmed bomb from detonating.

  • by DaveV1.0 (203135) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:29PM (#44908543) Journal
    Sure, if you want to lie about it. The switch didn't fail. The switch worked perfectly. The switch was there to prevent detonation and it prevented detonation.

    Your way of looking at it is just a straight out lie.
  • by snowraver1 (1052510) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:39PM (#44908623)
    The point is that of 4 safeguards in place, 3 failed to properly work. That's not concerning?
  • by interval1066 (668936) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:39PM (#44908625) Homepage Journal
    The doomsday clock is already triggered. Yes, "triggered", its been ticking back and forth since 1953. The doomsday clock is actually an indicator, not a countdown timer.
  • by Gadget_Guy (627405) on Friday September 20, 2013 @08:36PM (#44908917)

    And why shouldn't the bombs go off if the plane goes down?

    You can't be serious! Surely this example of crashing in North Carolina is the exact reason why bombs shouldn't explode during crashes. Would you really want an accident during take off or landing to destroy your own airport or carrier? Do you want to take out your own troops on the ground because your plane got shot down before it reached its target?

    A plane spends a large percentage of its life flying over its own country or allied territories. Generally you prefer to not bomb those places if you can help it.

  • by jedidiah (1196) on Friday September 20, 2013 @09:24PM (#44909217) Homepage

    No. You wouldn't want that either. Bombs are supposed to detonate on their target, not in random places. This is especially true for really large bombs that can level entire cities.

    Contrary to what the liberal media will tell you, real armies prefer to destroy what they're actually trying to destroy and nothing else.

    Spraying bullets is for Hollywood.

  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Friday September 20, 2013 @10:22PM (#44909473) Homepage Journal

    You guys are all laughing about this, But when I was in the USAF I was stationed at Beale, Armageddon Air Force Base. They had more B-52s loaded full of bombs ready to carpet-nuke Russia than you could count. Hundreds of B-52s with dozens or maybe even hundreds of H-bombs each, ready to rain nuclear hell on the commies.

    I was 9 in 1961, most of you weren't even born. Many of you wouldn't have been if that thing would have gone off. Laugh about that.

    I saw a lot of scary shit in the Air Force, and that was forty years ago. I can't imagine the shit they have now, when I was in the AF a computer took a whole building. Go ahead and laugh, we have more than global warming and asteroids to worry about.

    Human error could cause our extinction. Laugh away, guys.

  • by evil_aaronm (671521) on Friday September 20, 2013 @10:31PM (#44909511)
    Stand down, soldier. One way or another, we all have to die. Beyond that, at some point, the world / galaxy / universe will end. A sense of humor helps keep things in perspective.
  • by smpoole7 (1467717) on Friday September 20, 2013 @10:46PM (#44909571) Homepage

    > On a side note it is interesting to note that japan were already under the process of surrender

    You're talking to an amateur student of WWII history here. I have to put in my two cents on that one. :)

    Your assertion is disputed, even by Japanese historians. Yes, Hirohito had told his people in mid-summer to begin working toward surrender. But the Potsdam declaration for "unconditional surrender" knocked them back. There were many hardliners in the Japanese military who even considered a coup, followed by a scorched-earth policy. Hirohito didn't demand surrender until after the atomic bombings and after the Soviets declared war. You can decide which was the primary cause. I think it was both.

    The US dropped the bombs for several reasons. Yes, part of it was that they wanted to see the effect on a city. But another part is something that you don't hear discussed much, and that certainly didn't appear in the patriotic films from that era. The fact is, after years of war, morale was slipping in the US military. There were desertions. Some in the military made it clear -- respectfully but firmly -- that it was time to wrap up the game and head home. So, that was another pressure to use the bombs: to get it over with quickly.

    If the hardliners in Japan had held out (and the Allies had no way to know what Hirohito was thinking for certain), Army estimates are that the Allies would have lost around 1,000,000 men if they'd invaded Japan. You can dispute that nowadays, but that was their best estimate. Truman was horrified, and coupled with what I just said -- the threats of desertion and mutiny in the Pacific -- he elected to use the "doomsday weapon.".

    We'll never know for sure. But just as wars rarely start because of one simple reason, the same is true of how they end.

  • by AK Marc (707885) on Friday September 20, 2013 @11:18PM (#44909729)

    On a side note it is interesting to note that japan were already under the process of surrender, and were committed to leaving the war roughly two weeks after the bombs dropped. They had their own terms, to be allowed to keep their emperor as the head of Japanese political heirarchy.

    Yes. The Japanese had put out feelers to see if a conditional surrender (we keep our government and our weapons, we just stop shooting and you, and you stop shooting at us. Oh yeah, and we keep China) would be accepted. None of the terms were reasonable for a nation that started a war, let alone all of them. But yes, nobody doubts the cease-fire-like surrender had been mentioned. The US was pushing for an unconditional surrender, which is generally the only one accepted when the surrendering party started the war. Yes, there could have been some armistice, but nothing that would have gotten Japan out of China and disarmed or punished the leaders that started the war.

  • by CodeBuster (516420) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @01:15AM (#44910045)

    Human error could cause our extinction. Laugh away, guys.

    Human error very likely will cause our extinction yet. In fact, it's something of a minor miracle that we haven't already wiped ourselves out. As you know well, since around 1952 and continuing until present there are still hundreds of nuclear warheads on alert and ready for immediate use. Beyond that there are several thousand more which could be reactivated or made operational within hours, days or weeks. There is also the matter of climate change and the ongoing destruction of the natural environment that sustains all life on this planet. Personally, I rather doubt that humanity will see another thousand years if some big changes aren't made within the next few hundred or so. However, that doesn't mean that we cant laugh at the absurdity of it all or appreciate the irony of an intelligent species using that very intelligence, often cited as our greatest advantage, to bring about our own annihilation.

  • by cusco (717999) <> on Saturday September 21, 2013 @01:28AM (#44910077)

    My nieces and nephews really can't comprehend what it was like to grow up with the constant knowledge that at any moment civilization and perhaps all multi-cellular life on the planet could end. To have 'Duck And Cover' drills in grade school and be sent home with maps for your parents showing what buildings were listed as Fallout Shelters (even though our small town was two hours from the closest reasonable target). Hearing the sonic boom of the B-52s based out of McCord AFB as they passed overhead, and seeing the radar dome of the inner-most ring of the DEW line every time we drove to Empire.

    In some ways I'm glad, but at the same time it has left them without a sense of how real the danger still is.

  • by Gavagai80 (1275204) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @01:54AM (#44910133) Homepage

    It probably would've been good for his presidential popularity/authority. With it being his third day in office nobody could've blamed him for making the military incompetent, and huge national tragedies (including accidental ones) usually cause Americans to rally around their leaders and vote more powers to their president.

    And certainly Kennedy wasn't going to blame the USSR, possibly start a nuclear war, be made a fool of by other countries not seeing evidence for USSR involvement (for example NORAD would not have seen a soviet plane), probably be arrested by a military coup who would rather admit blame than die, etc.

  • by evilviper (135110) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @02:29AM (#44910221) Journal

    If carrying A-Bombs across the eastern coast is a routine flight I would love to know what the USAF considers an exceptional flight.

    This was 1961, at the height of nuclear proliferation. The US government was selling uranium-235, in blister packs, out the back door of every nuclear power plant. Radioactive material was the iPhone of its day. Nobody knew enough to be afraid of it, yet. We were a small step away from having millions of plutonium-powered cars driving around.

    It's only today that we're hyper-sensitive about the risks of accidents... Back then, we were pretty sure we'd be on the receiving end of 1,000 Soviet ICBMs any old day, so a stray US nuke wasn't such a big deal.

    Of course, if one nuke HAD accidentally gone off over over US soil, you have to wonder if the military could own-up to their failure killing tens of thousands of dead Americans, or if it would be called a Russian attack and cause a full-scale retaliation.

  • by Alef (605149) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @03:22AM (#44910381)

    One can of course argue about hypotheticals, but the fact remains that the US chose to two densely populated civilian targets, with the intent to massacre as many civilians as possible, as efficiently as possible, most of them women, children and elderly. They did this without warning, and they chose to drop two bombs with such a short interval that the Japanese hardly had a chance to fathom what had happened before the second one dropped. The original plan even was to drop four, but they apparently had the decency to change their minds before manufacture of the other two had finished.

    No matter what rational one can come up with, there is no other word for those actions that atrocities. That a lot of Americans will not recognize this, I personally find despicable. As former US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara said, quoting General LeMay: ""If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?".

  • by Howitzer86 (964585) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @04:09AM (#44910453)
    With that in mind, I wonder what top secret close calls Russia suffered during those days... If their nuclear program was anything like their space program I'm sure they had a few.
  • by AmiMoJo (196126) * <mojo @ w> on Saturday September 21, 2013 @05:22AM (#44910613) Homepage

    Yes, part of it was that they wanted to see the effect on a city.

    That is the part which is inexcusable. If they just wanted to end the war there were plenty of other targets which had military value but fewer civilian casualties, or even just sparsely populated areas that could demonstrate the weapon's power. Instead they went straight for the maximum suffering, maximum casualties, maximum crime against humanity option.

    I'm sorry, but there can be no justification for testing nuclear weapons on human beings, even if they are your enemy.

  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Saturday September 21, 2013 @08:30AM (#44911061) Homepage Journal

    Hearing the sonic boom of the B-52s based out of McCord AFB as they passed overhead

    The B-52s were (and are) subsonic. I heard the booms, too, from aircraft at Scott AFB, and that was a MAC base. Probably in both cases they were fighters that were stopping off for fuel or something, because cargo and transport planes were subsonic as well.

A committee is a group that keeps the minutes and loses hours. -- Milton Berle