At 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity test site, roughly 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, the United States detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb.
Exploding with an energy equivalent to around 25 kilotons of TNT, head of the top-secret Manhattan Project and “grandfather of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer would later say a verse from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita popped into his mind as he watched the bomb’s mushroom cloud stretch nearly 7.5 miles skyward.
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”
A fitting allegory for a bomb that would be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki three weeks later. Representing the only time nuclear weapons have been used in armed conflict, along with the deaths of an estimated 129,000 to 226,000 people, the bombings brought a dramatic conclusion to World War II.
To date, nuclear weapons are the most destructive munitions the world has ever known, deriving their deadly force from nuclear fission (atomic bomb) or a combination of fission and fusion reactions (hydrogen bomb).
An airburst detonation from the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created – the Soviet Union’s 100-megaton Tsar Bomba – would effectively vaporize anything or anyone within 3.8 miles of its blast center. The release of thermal radiation would be significant enough to cause third-degree burns within a radius of 46 miles.
If dropped on a heavily populated area like New York City, an estimated 8 million deaths and almost 7 million serious injuries could be caused by a single 100-megaton Tsar Bomba.
During the Cold War, it was predicted that a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia would have led to the deaths of 35% to 77% of the U.S. and 20% to 40% of the Soviet population. Combined, the U.S. and Russia still account for 85% of the world’s current approximated stockpile of 13,890 nuclear warheads.
Given their potential to cause the instantaneous death of millions and perhaps bring about earth’s total destruction, one would assume nuclear weapons are some of the most closely guarded and secure objects in the world.
Remarkably, however, since 1950, there have been 32 “Broken Arrows:” Incidents involving the unexpected accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft, or loss of nuclear weapons. More shocking, the U.S. military has lost and disturbingly never recovered at least six nuclear weapons in the last seven decades.
Here are the six times the U.S. Military completely lost nuclear weapons.
February 13, 1950
On February 13, 1950, the 17 member crew of a B-36 “Peacemaker,” Flight 2075, took off from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska, for a training flight meant to replicate a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.
The crew was supposed to fly a 5,500-mile route to Montana, conduct a mock bombing run on San Francisco before finally landing at Carswell Air Force Base in Texas. Onboard for the flight was a Mark IV nuclear bomb without its plutonium core.
Based on the earlier Mark III “Fat Man” used in the bombing of Nagasaki, the bomb still contained large quantities of uranium and conventional explosives. Without the plutonium core, however, the bomb could not trigger an actual nuclear explosion.
Not long after taking off, ice accumulated on the plane’s fuselage, causing the B-36 to take on excessive weight. While the B-36 could carry up to a payload of 21,000 pounds (half the weight of the Mark IV bomb), stress from the added weight caused three of the bomber’s six engines to catch fire. Now, flying at half-power, Flight 2075 began to lose altitude at a rate of 500 feet per minute.
Following military protocol, the crew of Flight 2075 jettisoned their nuclear weapons somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Captain Harold Barry then set the aggrieved B-36’s autopilot to steer towards open-ocean before he and the rest of the crew bailed out near Princess Royal Island off the coast of British Columbia.
U.S. and Canadian military search-and-rescue crews located and recovered 12 Flight 2075’s crew, slightly injured but alive. Tragically, five crewmen, including bombardier Captain Theodore Schreier, were never found.
The ill-fated B-36 failed to follow the auto-piloted course, cruising for another 200 miles after being abandoned, before finally crashing on Mount Kologet, 117 miles inland in the Canadian wilderness.
According to crew reports, shortly after being released from the B-36’s bomb bay, the Mark IV’s conventional explosives were detonated, destroying the nuclear bomb. The bomb’s remains assumingly resting somewhere on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean near the Gulf of Alaska.
Later rumors, however, began to swirl that the Mark IV wasn’t actually jettisoned. According to these unsubstantiated claims, the missing bombardier, Capt. Schreier may have tried to limp the B-36 and its nuclear payload back to Eielson AFB after the rest of the crew bailed out.
Proponents of this theory suggested that Schrier (a former commercial airline pilot) being in command of the plane would explain why the B-36 dramatically veered off autopilot and deep into Canada.
In 2003, an expedition led by nuclear weapons expert John Clearwater ventured to the remote B-36 crash site. Clearwater and his team successfully located the plane’s bomb shackle, once used to hold the Mark IV in the bomb bay. Clearwater concluded that the Mark IV nuclear bomb was most likely not on board when the plane crashed based on the impressive condition of the bomb shackle and lack of bomb remains.
Instead, the most likely explanation is that Flight 2075’s jettisoned Mark IV is still located somewhere deep on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. However, to date, no nuclear weapon remains have ever been recovered, leaving the escaping crew’s testimony as the only evidence of the bomb’s fate.
March 10, 1956
In early March 1956, four Boeing B-47 “Stratojets” took off from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, for a 4,500 mile non-stop flight to Ben Guerir Air Base in Morocco.
Hours into the flight, the formation descended to 14,000 feet through poor visibility to complete the second of two scheduled in-flight refuelings over the Mediterranean Sea. As the flight punched through dense cloud cover, only three of the original four long-range, high-altitude bombers emerged.
The fourth plane, call-sign Inkspot 59, and its crew of three Air Force officers had vanished entirely.
French news media reported that locals claimed to have seen a sizeable airborne explosion near the Algerian coastal village of Port Say. However, an extensive search by American, British, French, and Spanish Morocco militaries failed to find any evidence of the eventual fate of the missing B-47. The bomber’s crew – Captain Robert H. Hodgin, Captain Gordon M. Insley, and 2nd Lt. Ronald L. Kurtz – were officially declared deceased by the U.S. Air Force.
At the time of its disappearance, official Department of Defense records indicate Inkspot 59 was carrying “two capsules of nuclear weapons material in carrying cases.” The type of “nuclear weapons material” transported by the lost B-47 has never been disclosed. However, the DoD claims “a nuclear detonation was not possible.”
To date, no debris, crash site, or the B-47’s nuclear weapons cargo have ever been found.
February 5, 1958
Shortly after midnight on February 5, 1958, a B-47 bomber under the command of U.S. Air Force Major Howard Richardson took off from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida for a simulated long-distance bombing mission. To make the simulated nuclear strike on Russia as realistic as possible, the long-range bomber carried a 7,600 pound Mark 15 nuclear bomb.
Two hours into their mission, a large explosion rocked the right-wing of the B-47. “We didn’t know what it was. We thought maybe it was something from outer space,” Richardson later recounted to the BBC.
Rather than a UFO, an F-86 Sabre fighter jet, which was not involved in the training flight, had collided with the bomber, ripping a hole in the wing and almost knocking the engine completely off.
The pilot of the F-86 survived the crash after successfully ejecting from the mangled fighter near Sylvania, Georgia. Though badly damaged, the B-47 remained airborne, allowing Major Richardson to attempt an emergency landing at nearby Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah.
Fearing their payload could explode during the emergency landing, the crew requested permission to jettison the 12-foot long Mark 15 nuclear bomb near the mouth of the Savannah River and Tybee Island.
With permission granted and now relieved of the nearly 8,000-pound bomb, Major Richardson successfully landed the damaged B-47 at Hunter Army Airfield. Ultimately, Richardson would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the Air Force for his heroics.
According to DoD records, an exhaustive search was conducted for the jettisoned nuclear weapon, until finally, on April 16, 1958, the Air Force declared the bomb “irretrievably lost.” Subsequent searches by civilian explorers over the years for what has become known as the “Tybee Bomb” have likewise been met with unsuccessful results.
A 2001 report by the Air Force Nuclear Weapons and Counterproliferation Agency recommended that no further search efforts should be attempted, estimating the bomb is likely resting 40 feet below the ocean’s surface, under 12 feet of silt.
The Air Force maintains the bomb was not a fully functional nuclear weapon, claiming it contained a simulated 150-pound cap made of lead used in place of a plutonium core. However, during 1966 Congressional testimony, Assistant Secretary of Defense W.J. Howard described the lost bomb as a “complete weapon, a bomb with a nuclear capsule” and containing a plutonium trigger.
January 24, 1961
On January 24, 1961, the eight-man crew of a B-52 Stratofortress based at nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base were flying on a routine training mission near Goldsboro, North Carolina. In the massive strategic bomber’s bay was not one but two, 3-4 megaton Mark-39 nuclear bombs.
Hours into the flight, the aircrew discovered that the B-52 had a fuel leak in the right wing during a scheduled aerial refueling. Abandoning the refueling attempt, the crew opted to try and make it back to Seymour Johnson Air Base. However, the plane’s fuel leak began to worsen, dumping close to 37,000 pounds of fuel in less than three minutes.
Descending below 10,000 feet, pilots reported they had lost control of the aircraft, and the decision was made for the crew to bail out. Six crew members successfully ejected or bailed out of the rapidly descending aircraft. However, one airman did not survive the parachute landing. Two additional aircrew members tragically never made it out of the doomed plane and were killed in the eventual crash.
Somewhere around 1,000 to 2,000 feet in altitude, the out-of-control plane began to break apart, causing the two nuclear bombs to be released from the erstwhile B-52.
After separating from the bomb bay, three of the four arming mechanisms on one of the Mark-39 nuclear bombs activated after separating from the bomb bay, causing the bomb to begin charging the firing capacitors and deploying a 100-foot-diameter parachute.
Slowly descending by parachute, the bomb ultimately landed intact, standing upright amongst the aircraft wreckage, which covered a nearly 2-square-mile area of a tobacco and cotton farm in Faro, North Carolina.
The second nuclear weapon failed to deploy its parachute, sending the bomb plunging into a nearby muddy field at an estimated 700 miles per hour. Explosive ordnance crews would later find the tail section of the nearly 12-foot long bomb 20-feet below ground.
Bomb recovery crews also made the horrifying discovery that the second nuclear weapon’s trigger switch was in the “armed” position. Lieutenant Dr. Jack ReVelle, the munitions expert who led the bomb recovery team in 1961, would later recount, “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.””
After the crash, the Pentagon claimed the bombs were unarmed and incapable of causing a nuclear explosion. However, formally classified documents released through the Freedom of Information Act in 2013 revealed only a single low-voltage trigger switch prevented both thermonuclear bombs from detonating.
According to ReVelle, the yield of each Mark-39 bomb contained 250 times more destructive power than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Had either bomb gone off, it would have produced a 100% kill zone of seventeen miles from the initial blast, and lethal nuclear fallout could have traveled as far away as New York.
While the first bomb, which descended by parachute, was recovered intact, uncontrollable ground-water flooding caused the military to abandon excavation for the second Mark-39.
To this day, the second nuclear bomb’s thermonuclear stage, containing uranium and plutonium, remains buried deep in the North Carolina soil. The Army Corps of Engineers also purchased a 400-foot circular easement over the still-buried nuclear weapon to prevent any curious digging.
So to recap, not only did the U.S. military irretrievably lose a nuclear weapon, but the “Goldsboro Incident” is also, arguably, the closest the U.S. has ever come to suffering a catastrophic, albeit self-inflicted, nuclear strike.
December 5, 1965
In late October 1965, the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga departed from U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay in the Philippines, purportedly for joint training maneuvers in the Philippine Sea.
After 31-days of being haze grey and underway, on December 5, naval crews attempted to move a Douglas A-4E Skyhawk light-attack aircraft, piloted by Lieutenant Douglas M. Webster, from the #2 hangar bay to the #2 elevator.
Inexplicably, while being removed from the carrier’s hangar bay, the Skyhawk rolled over the side of the aircraft carrier, sending the plane, with Webster still inside, careening into the sea. Equally shocking, when it went overboard, the Skyhawk was carrying a single B43 nuclear bomb.
Disturbingly, rescue crews never located or recovered Lt. Webster, the Skyhawk, or the 12.5 foot, 2,000-pound nuclear bomb.
Adding more discomfort to the entire situation, the Department of Defense never disclosed the accident had occurred until 1981. Even then, the Pentagon only acknowledged the accident had occurred some 500 miles from land in the Pacific Ocean, in a terse three-sentence accident report.
Contradicting the Pentagon’s initial version of events, in 1989, Greenpeace and William Arkin, a naval expert with the private Institute for Policy Studies, uncovered official Navy documents showing the Ticonderoga had actually been on combat duty for the Vietnam War and not on a joint training exercise at the time of the accident.
More importantly, records revealed the nuclear weapon had actually been lost some 70 to 80 miles from Japan and on its way to port call at a U.S. base in Okinawa. Consequently, the U.S. government was forced to finally acknowledge that one of its nuclear bombs still likely rests under nearly 16,000 feet underwater, roughly 80 miles from Japan’s Ryukyu Islands.
News that a nuclear weapon had been lost near Japanese territory sparked a bit of a diplomatic crisis. The only nation to have ever been on the receiving end of nuclear weapons, Japan forbids nuclear weapons to cross inside its borders.
Japanese officials expressed “serious concern” and pressed for “full details” from the United States about the incident. Local media and the Japanese public offered some more sharply worded responses, criticizing the Japanese government for allowing America to violate the nation’s “non-nuclear principles” and demanding the U.S. retrieve its lost nuclear bomb from their nearby shores.
For their part, the U.S. Navy has maintained the plane and nuclear bomb are located in water too deep to make a recovery possible. The Navy has also said there is no threat of an accidental atomic explosion or release of harmful radiation.
So somewhere 70 to 80 miles off the coast of Japan rest the remains of a U.S. Naval Aviator, fighter jet, and nuclear bomb, at least 43 times more potent than the one dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Meanwhile, for the last 56 years, the U.S. government’s response has been, “Meh.”
In February 1968, the Skipjack-class nuclear submarine, USS Scorpion, was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea with the 6th Fleet, tasked with surveilling Soviet naval activities in the area.
The Scorpion suffered several mechanical malfunctions early into the deployment, including a Freon leak in the ship’s refrigeration systems and a small electrical fire. However, the four-month deployment was relatively uneventful, aside from these far-from-catastrophic issues and typical Cold War intrigue.
On May 16, the Scorpion made an emergency stop at Naval Station Rota in Spain to drop off two sailors; one for a family-related emergency, the other for health-related concerns. Afterward, the Scorpion detected a Soviet Echo II-class submarine and guided-missile destroyer near the Azores while plotting a course back to its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia.
Shortly before midnight on May 20, the Scorpion transmitted radio traffic to a Navy communications station in Nea Makri, Greece, for “an unusually long period,” lasting nearly 24 hours until after midnight on May 21.
In a final message intended for Naval Station Rota, Commander Francis Slattery said the Scorpion was closing at 15 knots and a depth of 350 feet on a Soviet submarine and research group “to begin surveillance of the Soviets.”
On May 27, American media began to report that the Scorpion was overdue for arrival in Norfolk. By June 5, the Navy officially declared the Scorpion and her crew of 99 sailors “presumed lost.”
After an extensive search, in October 1968, the Navy research vessel, Mizar, finally located sections of the Scorpion’s hull, at a depth of roughly 10,000 feet and 400 nautical miles southwest of Ponta Delgada, Portugal, and the Azores archipelago.
Theories for what caused the catastrophic loss of the Scorpion have ranged from system malfunctions, the accidental explosion of a torpedo, to an intentional attack by the Soviet Union.
An official Navy Court of Inquiry ruled that “the cause of the loss cannot be definitively ascertained,” leaving the Scorpion’s sinking a source of ongoing controversy and mystery.
Less mysterious, when the USS Scorpion sank, it carried two Mark 45 torpedoes equipped with W34 nuclear warheads. The idea behind the anti-submarine nuclear weapon was to deliver a powerful blast that could simultaneously wipe out several enemy subs with a single torpedo.
The Navy has only ever released a few photographs of the stricken sub, and no physical surveys of the wreck site have ever been made public. Though the Scorpion’s remains rest within international waters, because the sunken vessel is considered a “military graveyard,” it is illegal for anyone to dive down or tamper with the wreck.
The Navy says the Scorpion’s two nuclear torpedoes and nuclear reactor are periodically “monitored” to check for radiological leaks and ensure the deadly weapons haven’t been disturbed.
Nevertheless, thousands of feet below water’s surface and in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean rests the tragically abandoned remains of an American nuclear attack submarine, 99 U.S. sailors, and two nuclear-tipped torpedoes.
On an upside, since the USS Scorpion, the U.S. military hasn’t lost any nuclear weapons in the last 53 years- at least, that we know of.
Of course, there is that whole other issue of claims that UFOs have interfered with America’s nuclear arsenal, but that’s a different story.