Sunday, August 18, 2013

The day they dropped the bomb on South Carolina

Many times, we folks of a certain age talk about the good old days of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. We talk about how good it was; parents could let their children roam the neighborhoods unsupervised with no worries. Traffic was sometimes slow but you never had the traffic jams that we face today. The country was growing; our soldiers were back from war and beginning their families, buying houses and cars and the future looked bright. There was only one big worry back then and it was a big one – the cold war!

For the first time in history, mankind had the capability of destroying itself and the planet. The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were involved in a battle of rhetoric backed up by two ever growing arsenals of nuclear weapons. This was all balanced by a principle call “Mutually Assured Destruction” or by its appropriate acronym, “MAD”! As kids, we were subjected to bomb drills where we all had to cram ourselves into the hallways of our schools, covering our heads and waiting for the all clear. Mainstream media fed this paranoia with special shows similar to the one by CBS sometime in the late 50s that was a dramatization of the destruction of the east coast. I will never forget the segment of the show where the protagonists received a message from the railroad station manager at Palatka, Florida that he had observed a flash and mushroom cloud from the direction of my home town, Jacksonville. That sure made me think.

This all came to a head in October of 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis that very nearly heated up the cold war. But fortunately cooler heads prevailed and the crisis was averted on October 28, 1962, when US President John Kennedy and United Nations Secretary-General U Thant reached an agreement with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the missiles were dismantled and removed from Cuba. To this day, most of us think that the cold war ran its course with no bombs being dropped.

Just don’t tell the residents of Mars Bluff, South Carolina that. On March 11, 1958 a U.S. Air Force B-47 Stratojet from the 308th Bombardment Wing took off around 4:34 PM Eastern time from Hunter Air Force Base near Savannah, Georgia. The B-47 was on a route to the United Kingdom for Operation Snow Flurry. Back in those days all bombers were required to carry nuclear weapons in the event of war breaking out with the Soviet Union during their deployment. During the flight the captain of the plane observed a fault light in the cockpit indicating that the bomb harness locking pin for the transatlantic flight did not engage. Air Force Captain Bruce Kulka, the navigator was sent to the bomb bay area to investigate. Access to the cramped bomb bay area was via a tunnel that ran back over the forward main landing gear wells from just behind the navigator’s station below the pilot and copilot’s cockpit, to the bomb bay located between the forward and rear main landing gear. As Kulka was reaching around the bomb to pull himself up out of the narrow passageway, he mistakenly grabbed the emergency release pin instead of the handhold for that purpose. The 7,600 pound Mark 6 nuclear bomb fell to the floor of the B-47 its weight forced the bomb bay doors open and the bomb fell 15,000 feet down to Mars Bluff, an unincorporated community in Florence County, South Carolina.

Fortunately, the bomb did not contain the removable core of fissionable uranium and plutonium which was stored in a secure compartment on board the plane where it could be retrieved by the navigator who was trained to arm the bomb in flight. We all remember the depiction of this process in the movie “Doctor Strangelove” in which Slim Pickens as Major T. J. "King" Kong armed the weapon. Although the Mars Bluff bomb did not contain the fissionable elements that made it nuclear, it did contain over 7,000 pounds of conventional explosives used to trigger the nuclear core. The resulting explosion created a mushroom cloud and crater estimated to be 75 feet wide and 25 to 35 feet deep. It destroyed Walter Gregg’s home and leveled nearby trees. Nobody was directly killed from the blast but several people in Gregg's family were injured from the explosion. The crater is still preserved, but obscured by a swamp.

As scary as this story is, I find a theme of confidence and hope in it. I remember the fear of attack that we all lived with on a day to day basis. Even back then there was a certain longing for the good old days. After all, they knew how WWII was going to turn out. They weren’t too sure how the cold war was going to end. Today we look at terrorism, crime, global unrest, climate change and a host of other problems that are part of our daily lives. It is not surprising that we have that same nostalgia for the 50s, and early 60s because we know the outcome of the problems we faced then. Today our problems seem insurmountable, but so did those problems years ago. So, I have faith that mankind will somehow muddle through these problems too. There are good people everywhere that are the core of our civilization. We will find our way, to paraphrase Gloria Gaynor: “We will Survive!” Oh MY!

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