America’s Lost H-Bomb

Lost H-BombIn 1958, a damaged U.S. B-47 bomber jettisons a nuclear bomb off the coast of Savannah Georgia containing 350 pounds of conventional explosives and an undisclosed quantity of highly enriched uranium. The bomb's explosive yield is 100 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. For weeks, the U.S. Navy and Air Force search for the bomb in the silty waters around Tybee Island. Deemed "irretrievably lost," the 7,600 pound nuclear Tybee bomb is still out there ... The DVD includes an exclusive interview with Fmr. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara.

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During a military training mishap in 1958, a Mark 15, Mod Zero nuclear weapon was lost a few miles from the shores of Tybee Island, Georgia. The bomb was twelve feet long and weighing 7,600 pounds. It’s a big bomb, but it was never found. After studying the flight path of the plane that dropped the bomb, weather conditions of the night of the accident and tidal patterns of the last 50 years, a multi agency task force searched the shoals.

February 5, 1958 – the height of the Cold War. Air Force Col. Howard Richardson pilots his B-47 Stratojet bomber on a training mission in which Reston, Virginia doubles as Moscow – which Richardson is to level, in simulated fashion, with the bomb on board. F-86 Sabre jets scramble to intercept the B-47, but they’re too late and Richardson hits his virtual target. Next Richardson races toward the South Carolina border – friendly airspace in the exercise – still trying to elude the fighter jets on his tail. He pulls complex high-altitude maneuvers, and fires up his radar-scrambling device to cloak himself. It works. A little too well.

Over South Carolina, an F-86 suddenly emerges from cloud cover and slams into the B- 47. Fighter pilot Clarence Stewart ejects at 30,000 feet and watches his jet crash below him. Col. Richardson thinks he can save his plane and heads for the nearest military base. After three approaches at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, Richardson decides the runway’s too short. If he slides off the end, the bomb he’s carrying will shoot through the plane like a bullet through a gun barrel – and he and his crew would be killed. The experienced pilot flies out over the ocean and radios for permission to jettison the bomb. Just before 3am, about 7,000 feet over the water near Tybee Island, Richardson orders the hatch opened – and thermonuclear bomb Number 47782 drops silently into the darkness. The crew reports seeing no explosion. Richardson lands safely – wondering if the bomb did the same.

And is the bomb fully armed? After the incident, the Pentagon sent a classified memo to the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, reporting that “a [REDACTED] nuclear weapon was jettisoned.” Was it “unarmed” or “complete”? Everyone agrees that Number 47782 contains more that 400 pounds of TNT explosives and weapons grade uranium. The US government and Col. Richardson insist the bomb is missing its plutonium capsule, the trigger needed for a nuclear explosion. But Congressional testimony in 1966 from Robert McNamara’s Assistant for Nuclear Defense, W. Jack Howard, called 47782 a “complete weapon” and distinguished it (and another lost on an A-4 in the Western Pacific off of the USS Ticonderoga) from other lost bombs that had no plutonium capsule. Furthermore, the chief of the crew responsible for loading nuclear bombs onto planes at the time claims he never loaded a weapon without its plutonium capsule.

The Mark 15, Mod Zero works like this: On impact, the TNT explodes, causing 175 detonators around the fist-sized plutonium capsule to blow simultaneously. The blasts implode the plutonium, and when it reaches critical mass, it begins a self-sustaining chain reaction of splitting atoms that produces enormous energy. At the same time, the uranium becomes unstable, adding heat and pressure to the expanding fireball. All this combines, within 1/600 billionth of a second, to create the most devastating explosion known to mankind.

The day after the accident, a massive search begins, led by Navy Lt. Cdr. Art Arseneault. Military personnel and civilian experts use hand-held sonar, magnetometers, sonar – even dragging nets and grappling hooks along the muddy shallows. Navy warships and Air Force jets provide security. For three months, they search for any sign of the bomb – yet find nothing. The Pentagon lists number 47782 as “irretrievably lost.” Amazingly, it’s only one of 11 nuclear bombs the US cannot find at the time. These missing weapons are labeled “Broken Arrows.”

A 2001 Air Force report estimates that, if the bomb were ever found, it would take five years and $11 million to recover it. In 2004, the government sent a 20-person team to collect water and sand samples, and countless instrument readings from the sound. The data were sent to federal laboratories for analysis, but the results were inconclusive. The bomb is still there, but no one is sure where, and in what state.

Produced by Marabella Productions LLC

© 2007 Discovery Communications, Inc. - All Rights Reserved

NTSC Widescreen - 52-minutes

PLUS an exclusive interview with Fmr. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara

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