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Government The Military United States

USAF Almost Nuked North Carolina In 1961 – Declassified Document 586

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 @06:52PM (#44908261)

    ...if it had gone off? The Ruskies?

  • by mveloso ( 325617 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:00PM (#44908331)

    Unlike the article implies, the safety design was just fine - after all, the bombs didn't go off.

    Sure, three out of four of them failed - that's why there were four.

    I'd be good for someone with actual statistics knowledge to say what the probability of 3/4/5 safeties failing would be.

  • by Guppy ( 12314 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:03PM (#44908369)

    only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

    Just imagine if there had been a Tin Whisker [wikipedia.org] shorting that switch.

  • by noh8rz10 ( 2716597 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:21PM (#44908489)

    or put it another way, a simple switch on a nuclear bomb failed as it fell to earth, rendering it inoperable. doesn't inspire much confidence for when it is used in war.

    Well, if you choose to ignore the fact that the US has successfully used two nuclear bombs in war...

    I don't care as much about the reliability of bombs used in the past, so much as the reliability of bombs we may use in the future. I'd prefer them to inspire confidence!

    btdubs, does anybody know if this switch failure was a safety feature that worked, or a malfunction of a critical piece that was a lifesaver in this scenario?

  • by Pentium100 ( 1240090 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @09:39PM (#44909309)

    If you are using a thermonuclear bomb (and the only reason that a bomber with such a bomb would be over enemy territory is the intent to drop it on some target) then it means that you are prepared to destroy a city or some other large area. If the plane is shot down then it won't reach the intended target, if it is over enemy territory them it may as well detonate the bomb. Also, this way you prevent the enemy from recovering the bomb and using the uranium/plutonium in his own bombs.

    Let's say in WW2 the Japanese managed to shoot down the plane carrying Little Boy. It the bomb detonated over some other city instead of Hiroshima, would that have made a difference? Even if the bomb detonated over an empty field it would still have made an impression. If the plane quietly went down, then maybe the war would not have ended as soon.

    Such large weapons would either be weapons of last resort by the losing side or an attempt to force the enemy to surrender in fear by the winning side. In any case, detonating it anywhere on the enemy territory would be preferable to having it fall to the ground and not go off.

    At least in my opinion.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 20, 2013 @09:56PM (#44909361)

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki were specifically targeted for their geographic position. The US needed to test it in these places as they had specifically left both cities unbombed through out their entire campaign. The places for the bombs to detonate planned specifically to maximize the information they could gather about the bombs effect.

    Dropping nukes on a whim isn't generally considered well thought out plans.

    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. But you don't spend trillions of dollars in the 1940s making the most powerful weapon ever made and then don't flex your military arm with it.

    Quite a different story most of the western world is told, very unlike what they want you to believe about nukes ending the war. It just happens that the war was grinding to an industrial halt at the same time the bombs were ready, and if they didnt use them then, when would they get the chance?

  • by Artifakt ( 700173 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @11:07PM (#44909691)

    There were significant elements in the japanese government that were comitted to fighting until they got more than just keeping the emperor (and Shinto, a secondary tier issue, because more of the Japanese had informal contacts assuring them the US had a big thing for freedom of religion). They wanted a "No War Crimes Trials" guarantee for the civilians who had overseen the military and possibly for some of the military personnel as well. The US would have probably given them the assurances on religion quickly, but the issue wasn't as far along in the negotiations as the Imperial presence was. The "No War Crimes Trials" bit, that had all the chance of success of a nitrocellulose cat being chased by an asbestos dog in a grove of already burning white phosporus trees, after word got out about Bataan.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bataan_Death_March [wikipedia.org]

                    While I agree that the US wanted to test those devices, you have to include the history of the Japanese Politicians who were holding out. These were the very people who had made one wrong predicition after another, and not gotten fired (or ordered to retire for health reasons or actually to commit Sepuku), despite those mistakes. The ones who had sworn that it would be impossible for the US to hit the Japanese mainland with bombers for at least 2 years if Pearl Harbor was attacked. The ones who told the Emperor that since Hawaii wasn't a state, just a territory at the time, the US would be open to a negotiated settlement behind the scenes, whatever their public actions. The ones who swore that the US would have to let the Japanese take territory for at least 2 1/2 years before they could even possibly see a reversal. These were people who every time they made a claim and it turned out to be blowing sunshine up the emperor's kilt, somebody else died for having pointed it out and potentially embarrassing them, and they went right on proclaiming the inevetability of eventual victory.
                  The US very likely figured the negotiators US diplomats spoke with, were hoping to get a truce, but the warhawks may not have even known what the Ambassador and staff were proposing, and might simply drop the proposals and maybe shoot their own messengers at any time. There were too many well-identified lying bastards, some of whom were known for killing the whole families of people they had political disagreements with, and other such nastiness, who still seemed to be able to just jump in there and gum up any settlement on a whim without facing personal consequences.

  • by Taco Cowboy ( 5327 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @11:33PM (#44909771) Journal

    Let's say the bomb did explode over NC. Millions died.

    A total disaster for the Kennedy administration (it was only his 3rd day as POTUS).

    What would the Kennedy administration do ?

    Would they admit that the explosion was an accident, or would they place all the blames on the then USSR (sneak attack by them commies)?

  • by Howitzer86 ( 964585 ) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @04:26AM (#44910501)
    You're wrong, but there is admittedly more to it. In addition to forcing the Japanese to surrender, the bombs were used to keep the Soviets out. They were imminently prepared for a ground invasion by August, and the use of the weapons was authorized by the author of our first containment policy President Harry Truman.
  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Saturday September 21, 2013 @08:07AM (#44910981) Homepage Journal

    If it had gone off and you were outside you'd probably have been blinded, and died of cancer within twenty years, along with your neighbors.

    This book [wikipedia.org] will scare the hell out of you (I was a teenager when I read it).

    Here's a PDF [kevindeweese.com] of the book. I wish someone would OCR it.

Never buy from a rich salesman. -- Goldenstern