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The 8 Nuclear Bombs Lost At Sea and the 1 Lost in a Muddy Field

PortandTerminal.com, September 9, 2020

Broken Arrows: This is the story of the eight nuclear weapons lost at sea and the one that went missing in a muddy field in North Carolina.

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – If you’re of a certain age, you may remember a movie starring John Travolta and Christian Slater from 1996 titled “Broken Arrow” about the theft of two nuclear weapons. While the movie was fictitious and apparently not great, Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a 53%, it did deal with a very real security problem – Broken Arrows.

The military uses the term “Broken Arrow” to describe any incident in which a nuclear weapon is lost, stolen or inadvertently detonated.

The U.S. admits to having 32 Broken Arrows worldwide. Of those, depending on your sources and who you believe, at least six and perhaps as many as nine have been lost and never recovered.

When a nuclear bomb goes missing over land it is invariably quickly found. Even when lost at sea, no expense is spared in recovering a lost nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, some do go missing and for obvious reasons, those lost at sea are the most difficult to find.

This is the story of the eight nuclear weapons lost at sea and that mysterious one that went missing in a swampy hole in North Carolina.

Missing Bomb #1

Open bomb bay doors of a B-36 bomber
Open bomb bay doors of a B-36 bomber, photographed in 1951.
Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Date: February 13, 1950
Location: Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean
An American B-36 bomber en route from Alaska to Texas during a training exercise lost power in three engines and began losing altitude.

To lighten the aircraft the crew jettisoned its cargo, a 30-kiloton Mark 4 (Fat Man) nuclear bomb, into the Pacific Ocean. The conventional explosives detonated on impact, producing a flash and a shockwave

While the bomb didn’t contain a plutonium core and couldn’t trigger a devastating nuclear blast, it still contained large amounts of uranium. The bomb’s uranium components were lost and never recovered and presumably lie somewhere on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

The crew had to parachute out of the airplane as it descended. Its wreckage wasn’t found until four years later – bomb missing.

A Mark 4N (Fat Man) nuclear bomb sitting on its cradle

Missing Bomb #2

Map

Date: November 10, 1950
Location: Quebec, Canada
A B-50 jettisoned a Mark 4 bomb over the St. Lawrence River near Riviere-du-Loup, about 300 miles northeast of Montreal. The weapon’s HE [high explosive] detonated on impact. Although lacking its essential plutonium core, the explosion did scatter nearly 100 pounds (45 kg) of uranium – not exactly a bomb but dangerous enough to make this list. The plane later landed safely at a U.S. Air Force base in Maine.

Missing Bombs #3 & 4

Boeing B-47
Boeing B-47 similar to the one that went missing while carrying two nuclear bombs in flight.

Date: March 10, 1956
Location: Exact Location Unknown
A B-47 carrying two nuclear weapon cores from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to an overseas airbase disappeared during a scheduled air-to-air refueling over the Mediterranean Sea. After becoming lost in a thick cloud bank at 14,500 feet, the plane was never heard from again and its wreckage, including the nuclear cores, was never found. Although the weapon type remains undisclosed, Mark 15 thermonuclear bombs (commonly carried by B-47s) would have had a combined yield of 3.4 megatons.

Missing Bomb #5

A B-52G Stratofortress bomber aircraft taking off from a runway.
A B-52G Stratofortress bomber aircraft taking off from a runway. 

Date: January 24, 1961
Location: Somewhere in a North Carolina Muddy Field
A B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 thermonuclear bomb broke up in midair. The pilot in command ordered the crew to eject at 9,000 feet. Both bombs in the payload were also ejected.

The first bomb that descended by parachute was found intact and standing upright as a result of its parachute being caught in a tree.

The second of the two bombs plunged into a muddy field at around 700 miles per hour. Its uranium core was never found despite intensive search efforts to a depth of 50 feet – it is likely still buried in up to 200 feet of mud and dirt.

To ensure no one else could ever recover the weapon, the USAF bought a permanent easement requiring government permission to dig on the land.

Air Force personnel working in an underground pit to recover parts of the MK-39 nuclear bomb
Air Force personnel working in an underground pit to recover parts of the MK-39 nuclear bomb

Missing Bomb #6

A 7,600-pound Mark 15 nuclear bomb
A 7,600-pound Mark 15 nuclear bomb like this one was lost near Tybee Island, Georgia and never recovered

Date: February 5, 1958
Location: Tybee Island, Georgia, United States
In a simulated combat mission, a B-47 collided with an F-86 near Savannah, Georgia. After attempting to land at Hunter Air Force Base with the nuclear weapon onboard, the weapon was jettisoned over water. The plane later landed safely.

According to the U.S. Air Force, the bomb did not contain a plutonium core and therefore could not be considered a functional nuclear weapon, though that has been debated. Whether you believe the U.S. Air Force on this matter is a personal call. The weapon was never located and recovered.

Missing Bomb #7

The USS Ticonderoga refueling while at sea.
The USS Ticonderoga refueling while at sea.

Date: December 5, 1965
Location: Pacific Ocean 80 miles off Japan’s Ryuku island chain
An A-4E Skyhawk attack aircraft loaded with one B43 nuclear weapon rolled off the deck of the USS Ticonderoga. Pilot, plane and weapon were never found having sunk in 16,000 ft of water

After 15 years of denying it happened, the U.S. Navy finally admitted that the accident had taken place, claiming it happened 500 miles from land in the relative safety of the high seas. This turned out to be not true; it actually happened about 80 miles off Japan’s Ryuku island chain, as the aircraft carrier was sailing to Yokosuka, Japan after a bombing mission over Vietnam.

These revelations caused a political uproar in Japan, which prohibits the United States from bringing nuclear weapons into its territory.

 American B-43 nuclear bomb (shown here on a dolly)
 American B-43 nuclear bomb (shown here on a dolly) similar to the one that rolled off of the Ticonderoga in 1965

Missing Bombs #8 & 9

USS Scorpion, 22 August 1960, off New London, Connecticut
FILE PHOTO: USS Scorpion, 22 August 1960, off New London, Connecticut

Date: Spring, 1968
Location: 400 miles to the southwest of the Azores Islands
While returning to home base in Norfolk, Virginia, the U.S.S. Scorpion, a nuclear attack submarine, mysteriously sank about 400 miles to the southwest of the Azores Islands. It was one of four mysterious submarine disappearances in 1968.

In addition to the tragic loss of all 99 crew members, the Scorpion was carrying two unspecified nuclear weapons—either anti-submarine missiles or torpedoes that were tipped with nuclear warheads.

At the end of October 1968, the Navy’s oceanographic research ship Mizar located sections of the hull of Scorpion on the seabed, about 400 nmi (740 km) southwest of the Azores under more than 3,000 m (9,800 ft) of water. 

The U.S. Navy periodically revisits the site to determine whether wreckage has been disturbed and to test for the release of any fissile materials from the submarine’s nuclear reactor or two nuclear weapons. Except for a few photographs taken by deep water submersibles in 1968 and 1985, the U.S. Navy has never made public any physical surveys it has conducted on the wreck.

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