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On February 5, 1958 a B-47 Stratojet bomber carrying a hydrogen bomb on a night training flight off the Georgia coast collided with an F-86 Saberjet fighter at 36,000 feet. The fighter was destroyed and the bomber's wing was damaged and one of its engines was partially dislodged. Maj. Howard Richard, the bomber's pilot, was ordered to jettison the hydrogen bomb before landing. The bomb was dropped near the mouth of the Savannah River in the shallow waters of the Wassaw Sound, which is near the town of Tybee Island.

Declassified documents show that the hydrogen bomb was a "Mk-15, Mod 0." The plutonium in the bomb was manufactured at the Hanford facility. It was four tons and had the potential to create a blast more than 100 times the size of the Hiroshima explosion. The bomb's only fail safe was the physical separation of the plutonium capsule, or pit, from the rest of the weapon. Besides the primary nuclear capsule, the bomb also had a secondary nuclear explosive or sparkplug. This hollow plug is made of either plutonium or enriched uranium (exactly which is still classified) that is filled with fusion fuel, most likely lithium-6 deuteride. Lithium is highly reactive in water. Besides the plutonium, the bomb could contain several other radioactive materials such as uranium and beryllium, along with 400 pounds of TNT, which deteriorates over time and becomes more sensitive.

Wassaw was cordoned off without explanation while the Air Force searched for the missing bomb. After eleven weeks of searching, utilizing ground troops, underwater divers and overhead blimps, the Air Force could not locate the bomb. The search for the bomb was suspended when forces had to be diverted to Florence, South Carolina were another hydrogen bomb had been accidently dropped.

The search for the bomb near Tybee Island was never resumed. In a memo from the Pentagon to the Atomic Energy Commission, the bomb was described as "irretrievably lost." Although the search for the bomb was discontinued, it was still acknowledged as being dangerous. In a classified memo to Congress, the Atomic Energy Commission warned of the "possibility of accidental discovery of the unrecovered weapon" and requested monitoring of the area. In a statement to the press, the Pentagon and the AEC admitted if the high explosives in the hydrogen bomb were detonated, radioactive materials would be scattered. The press release claimed that the possibility of this happening was "extremely limiting."

Local awareness of the bomb was renewed when a deep sea salvage company, run by former Air Force personnel and a CIA agent, disclosed the existence of the bomb and offered to locate it for a million dollars. Local residents responded to the revelation with fear and outrage. The Air Force claims there is no need for concern and that the only danger is "localized heavy metal contamination."

Whether or not the bomb could accidentally cause a thermonuclear detonation is up for debate because of conflicting documents. Officially the government claims that the weapon's capsule needed to trigger a nuclear blast was not in the bomb. However, this contradicted a 1966 letter written by Assistant to the Secretary of Defense William Jack Howard to the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Weapons. The letter, declassified in 1996, reviews the Congressional testimony that Howard gave on lost and nuclear weapons. The bomb off of Tybee is mentioned as being complete with its capsule. To this day it has still yet to be found.

References


Tybee Island news article

Tybee island bomb - wikipedia 

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