Nuclear mishap: Field hides remnants of atomic bombs dropped on NC 62 years ago
History in North Carolina was almost irreparably changed when two nuclear bombs fell from a crashing military airplane, landing in a field near Goldsboro.
The site where one of the atomic bombs fell is marked today by an unusual patch of trees standing in the middle of an otherwise unassuming field. One of the bombs fell intact, with a parachute to guide its fall. The other, however, slammed into the mud going hundreds of miles per hour and sank deep into the swampy land. By many accounts, officials were unable to retrieve all of the bomb's remnants, and some pieces are thought to remain hidden nearly 200 feet beneath the earth.
"Only a single switch prevented the 2.4 megaton bomb from detonating," reads the formerly secret documents describing what is known today as the 'Nuclear Mishap.'
Why didn't the bombs explode? And what would have happened to North Carolina if they did?
The atomic bombs nearly dropped on NC were far stronger than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan
"It could have easily killed my parents," said U.S. Air Force retired Colonel Carlton Keen, who now teaches ROTC at Hunt High School in Wilson. He grew up in Wayne County, only a few miles away from the epicenter of the Nuclear Mishap.
Thousands could have died in the blast and following radioactive cloud, especially depending on which direction the winds blew.
"Long-term cancer rates would be much higher throughout the area," said Keen.
Today, many North Carolinians have no idea how close our state came to being struck by two powerful nuclear bombs.
"If it hit in Raleigh, it would have taken Raleigh, Chapel Hill and the surrounding cities," said Keen. "These nuclear bombs were far more powerful than the ones dropped in Japan."
While many drive past the site of the 'Nuclear Mishap' every day without even realizing it, there are some scars remaining from that chilling night.
"If you look at Google Maps on satellite view, you can see where the dirt is a different color in parts of the field," said Keen. "That's where military officials dug trying to find the remnants of the bomb and pieces of the plane."
According to Keen, officials dug down 900 feet deep and 400 feet wide searching for pieces of the bomb, until they hit an underground water reservoir, which created a muddy mess.
"They got the core, the plutonium pit," he said. "So it can't go high order or reach radioactive mass."
North Carolina was one switch away from either of those bombs creating a nuclear explosion – mushroom cloud and all.
"It gives me chills," said Keen.
Planes flying over NC with nuclear bombs common during Cold War
Eight crew were aboard the gas-guzzling B-52 bomber during a routine flight along the Carolina coast that fateful night. Only five of them made it home again.
It may be scary to consider – but nuclear bombs were flown back and forth across North Carolina for many years during the height of the Cold War.
"We literally had nuclear armed bombers flying 24/7 for years and years," said Keen, who has himself flown nuclear weapons while serving in the U.S. Air Force. However, he said, "We have rigorous protocol in place to prevent anything like this from remotely happening."
Because of that rigorous protocol, Keen says it's surprising this kind of 'Nuclear Mishap' would have happened at all.
On that night in 1961, the bomber carrying these nukes sprung a mysterious fuel leak. Before coming in for a landing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in the populated Goldsboro, the pilot decided to keep flying in an attempt to burn off some gas – an action he likely hoped would help prevent the plane from exploding if the risky landing should go wrong.
However, the leak unexpectedly and rapidly worsened. Immediately, the crew turned around and began their approach towards Seymour Johnson. Five crewmen ejected and one climbed out a hatch, watching from their parachutes as the B-52 literally broke apart in the air. As the pilot lost control, two hydrogen bombs separated from the plane, falling to the North Carolina fields below.
Photos from the scene paint a terrifying picture, and a famous quote from Lt. Jack Revelle, the bomb disposal expert responsible for disarming the device, reveals just how close we came to disaster: “Until my death I will never forget hearing my sergeant say, 'Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch.' And I said, 'Great.' He said, 'Not great. It’s on arm.'"
Just as a million tiny accidents occurred in just the wrong way to bring that plane down, another million tiny accidents had occurred in just the right way to prevent those bombs from exploding.
When asked the technical aspects of how the bombs could come 'one switch away' from exploding, but still not explode, Keen only said, "The Lord had mercy on us that night."
And instead of going down in terrible history, the night has been largely forgotten by much of North Carolina.
Today, a historic sign marker stands in Eureka, N.C., three miles away from the site of the 'Nuclear Mishap.' That sign, a small patch of trees, and some discolored dirt in a field are the only reminders of the fateful night that happened exactly 62 years ago today.
Podcast: Hear the history of North Carolina's 'nuclear mishap'
WRAL's Hidden Historian Heather Leah is a seventh-generation North Carolinian with a passion for preserving the state's culture and history. Listen as WRAL's Amanda Lamb and Heather Leah discuss what happened the night North Carolina was almost changed forever.