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March 11, 1958 - Florence, South Carolina
A B-47 bomber accidentally drops its payload, causing property damage and injuries at the impacted area following the explosion
March 11, 1958
DOD: On March 11, 1958 at 3:53 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, a B-47E departed Hunter Air Force Base, Georgia as number three aircraft in a flight of four en-route to an overseas base. After level off at 15,000 feet, the aircraft accidentally jettisoned an unarmed nuclear weapon which impacted in a sparsely populated area 6-1/2 miles east of Florence, South Carolina. The bomb's high explosive material exploded on impact. The detonation caused property damage and several injuries on the ground. The aircraft returned to base without further incident. No capsule of nuclear materials was aboard the B-47 or installed in the weapon.
CDI: Accounts of this widely reported accident describe the bomb falling in the garden of the home of Mr. Walter Gregg in Mars Bluff, S.C. The high explosive detonation virtually destroyed his house creating a crater 50-70 feet in diameter and 25-30 feet deep. It caused minor injuries to Mr. Gregg and five members of his family, and additionally damaged five other houses and a church. The clean-up effort required several days. Air Force personnel recovered hundreds of pieces of bomb fragments that were carried off as souvenirs by local residents. The inhabitants of Mars Bluff were examined for several months to see if they had been exposed to any radiation. Five months later the Gregg family was awarded $54,000 from the Air Force. After this accident Air Force crews were ordered to "lock in" nuclear bombs. This reduced the possibility of accidental drops but increased the hazards if the plane crashed.
Triggering a Nuclear Exchange
"The explosion of a nuclear device by accident-mechanical or human-could be a disaster for the United States, for its allies, and for its enemies. If one of these devices accidentally exploded, I would hope that both sides had sufficient means of verification and control to prevent the accident from triggering a nuclear exchange. But we cannot be certain that this would be the case."
John T. McNaughton
Assistant Secretary of Defense
July 27, 1956 - Overseas Base, England
A B-47 crashes on the runway and into an igloo holding three Mark 6 nuclear bombs and 24,000 lbs of high explosives.
July 27, 1956
DOD: A B-47 aircraft with no weapons aboard was on a routine mission making a touch and go landing when the aircraft suddenly went out of control and slid off the runway, crashing into a storage igloo containing several nuclear weapons. The bombs did not burn or detonate. There were no contamination or cleanup problems. The damaged weapons and components were returned to the Atomic Energy commission. The weapons that were involved were in storage configuration. No capsules of nuclear materials were in the weapons or present in the building.
CDI: The crash occurred at Lakenheath Royal Air Force Station. 20 miles northeast of Cambridge, England. The plane was part of the 307th Bombardment Wing and had recently come from Lincoln Air Force Base, Nebraska. As part of what was called "Operation Reflex," B-47 bombers were regularly rotated, usually on a 90-day basis, to bases in the United Kingdom and North Africa. In the storage igloo were three Mark 6 nuclear bombs, each 12 feet long and 6 feet in diameter. Each bomb had about 8,000 lbs. of TNT as part of its trigger mechanism. The blazing jet fuel did not ignite the TNT and was extinguished by the base fire fighters. The four crewmen [of the aircraft] were killed. "It is possible that a part of Eastern England would have become a desert" had the TNT exploded and showered radioactive materials over a wide area, said a now retired Air Force general who was in the U.K. at the time. "It was a combination of tremendous heroism, good fortune and the will of God," said a former Air Force officer who was on the scene.
It is not clear when American nuclear weapons were first deployed to Europe. The process went through several stages. In early July 1950 President Truman approved the stockpiling of non-nuclear components at forward bases in England. On December 6, 1950, President Truman endorsed the Joint chief's request that non-nuclear components of atomic bombs be stocked on board the aircraft carrier, USS Franklin Roosevelt, stationed in the Mediterranean.