On January 23, 1961 a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, NC as part of Operation Chrome Dome, the code name for a mission run from 1960 to 1968 in which at all times B-52’s armed with nuclear weapons flew around North American airspace.
Around midnight the bomber hooked up with an aerial refueling tanker but aborted the process when the tanker crew noticed a fuel leak in the B-52’s right wing. Ground control ordered the aircraft to head for the Atlantic Ocean approximately 120 miles to the east, but upon arriving over the ocean the aircrew radioed that the fuel leak had become critical.
Ordered to immediately return to Seymour Johnson, the massive bomber became more unstable as it began its approach to the base. At 9,000 feet the pilot ordered the crew to eject- six men bailed, five of which survived, and two men died in the crash. Incredibly, Lt. Adam Mattocks managed to exit the plane from the top hatch without an ejection seat and survive, the only known case in the history of the Air Force.
As the plane fell it spun and broke apart, spreading debris over a two square mile area near the small farming community of Faro, twelve miles north of Seymour Johnson AFB. Among the debris hurtling from the sky were two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs with a yield of 3.8 megatons each. To put that in perspective, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of approximately 15 kilotons versus the Mark 39’s 3,800 kiloton yield, more than 250 times more powerful.
One of the bombs deployed its retarding parachute and came to rest vertically on the ground. The parachute of the second bomb did not deploy resulting in the 10,000 pound bomb hitting the ground at 700 miles per hour and disintegrating. Pieces of the tail were found 20 feet below ground but some of the plutonium and uranium travelled more than 150 feet into the ground and were never recovered because of extensive ground water flooding. Tests are carried out on a regular basis still today to ensure that the radiological contamination has not spread or intensified.
What makes this tale so terrifying is the fact that the bomb that came to rest above ground had begun the arming procedure and the failure of a single switch was the only thing that prevented the bomb from detonating. For decades the Department of Defense played down the chances of detonation but a 2013 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request confirmed earlier reports from researchers that a nuclear disaster was narrowly averted. It very well could be that there is more information held by the DoD but still classified.
The following is a clip from a 2010 documentary produced for Sandia Labs, the facility tasked with nuclear weapons developments. The video was initially classified but several years ago released as a result of a FOIA request.
My interest in this stems from the fact that I was born and raised in Goldsboro, NC and had the bomb detonated I would not be here today. I was yet to be born but both of my parents were children at the time and would have died either from the blast itself or radiation poisoning. To really get a sense of the scale of destruction, check out the Nuke Map online. Enter a location and bomb yield and it will show the area of destruction, with estimated casualties and fallout areas. Suffice it to say if the Goldsboro bomb had gone off my home county would be a smoldering wasteland for centuries to come.
North Korea and Pakistan, two awful regimes, both possess nuclear weapons and tensions between Russia and the US have escalated to near-Cold War era levels. There have also been calls for Australia and other countries to join the nuclear club as a safeguard against North Korea and China. Whether it’s a friendly ally or rogue regime, nuclear proliferation should be stopped at all costs. As the Goldsboro Broken Arrow has shown, nuclear annihilation need not start with an act of aggression.
For more you can check out The Goldsboro Broken Arrow by Joel Dobson. This is the best single resource for detailed information on the incident. There is also video of a talk Mr. Dobson gave in 2013 at the Wayne County Museum in Goldsboro, NC that was aired on C-SPAN and can be viewed here.