7 times the military lost nukes – and 4 times it never found them

US nuclear weapons
An ICBM launch-control facility outside Minot, North Dakota.

The military makes a big deal out of when a rifle goes missing, not to mention when a nuke disappears.

In spite of the fact the program is designed to be “zero defect,” here are seven examples of doomsday devices wandering off (including a few where they never came back):

1. 1956: B-47 disappears with two nuclear capsules

B 47
A B-47.

The first story on the list is also one of the most mysterious since no signs of the wreckage, weapons, or crew have ever been found.

A B-47 Stratojet with two nuclear weapons took off from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida on March 10, 1956 headed to Morocco. It was scheduled for two midair refuelings but failed to appear for the second. An international search team found nothing. The US military eventually called off the search.

2. 1958: Damaged bomber jettisons nuke near Tybee Island, Georgia

On February 5, 1958 B-47 bombers left Florida with nuclear weapons on a training mission simulating the bombing of a Russian city and the evasion of interceptors afterwards. Over the coast of Georgia a bomber and interceptor collided.

The interceptor pilot ejected, and the bomber crew attempted to land with the bomb but failed. They jettisoned the bomb over the ocean before landing safely.

Since the plutonium pits were changed for lead pits used during training, the missing bomb has only a subcritical mass of uranium-235 and cannot cause a nuclear detonation.

3. 1961: Two nuclear bombs nearly turn North Carolina into a bay

Air Force B-52 bomber
A US Air Force B-52 bomber in 1957.

On January 24, 1961, a B-52 carrying two Mark 39 bombs, each 253 times as strong as the Little Boy bomb that dropped on Hiroshima, broke apart in a storm and dropped both of its bombs.

One survivor of the crash, the pilot, was able to alert the Air Force to the incident. The first bomb was found hanging by a parachute from a tree, standing with the nose of the weapon against the ground. It had gone through six of the seven necessary steps to detonate. Luckily, it’s safe/arm switch, known for failing, had stayed in the proper position and the bomb landed safely.

“You might now have a very large Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone off,” Jack Revelle, who was in charge of locating and removing the weapons, said. The other bomb’s switch did move to the “Arm” position but, for reasons no one knows, it still failed to detonate, saving tens of thousands of lives.

4. 1965: Loss of Navy plane, pilot, and B43 nuclear bomb

A Navy A-4 Skyhawk was being moved aboard the USS Ticonderoga during a military exercise December 5, 1965 when it rolled off its elevator with a pilot and a B43 nuclear weapon loaded. The plane sank quickly into waters 16,000 feet deep.

The status of the weapon is still unknown. The pressures at that depth may be enough to detonate the weapon and the waters were so deep that it would’ve been hard to detect. If the weapon is still intact, it would be nearly impossible to find as very few vessels can make it down that far.

5. 1966: B-52 crashes into KC-135, four thermonuclear bombs are released over Spain

US Air Force nuclear H bomb radioactive contamination Spain
A US soldier looks through material found after a B-52 bomber collided with a tanker plane during aerial refueling, January 17, 1966.

On January 17, 1966 a B-52 was approaching a KC-135 for refueling when the bomber struck the tanker, igniting a fireball that killed the crew of the KC-135 and three men on the B-52.

The plane and its four B28 thermonuclear bombs fell near a small fishing village in Spain, Palomares. Three were recovered in the first 24 hours after the crash. One had landed safely while two had experienced detonations of their conventional explosives. The explosions ignited and scattered the plutonium in the missiles, contaminating two square kilometers.

The fourth bomb was sighted plunging into the ocean by a fisherman. Despite the eyewitness account, it took the Navy nearly 100 days to locate and retrieve the weapon.

6. 1968: B-52 crashes and a weapon is lost under the Arctic ice

Like the Palomares crash, the January 21 crash of a B-52 resulted in four B28 bombs being released. This time it was over Greenland and at least three of the bombs broke apart.

Investigators recovered most of these components before realizing they had found nothing of the fourth bomb. A blackened patch of ice was identified with parachute shroud lines frozen within it.

Recovery crew speculated that either the primary or secondary stage of the bomb began burning after the crash and melted the ice. The rest of the bomb then plunged through the Arctic water and sank. The weapon is still missing, presumed irrecoverable.

7. 1968: The sinking of the USS Scorpion

USS Scorpion
USS Scorpion.

The USS Scorpion, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, was declared presumed lost on June 5, 1968. The loss was especially troubling for the Navy since the boat had been following a Russian research group just before its disappearance.

At the time it was lost, the Scorpion was carrying two Mark 45 antisubmarine torpedoes (ASTOR). The wreckage would not be found until October 1968. The USS Scorpion is still on the floor of the Atlantic under 3,000 meters of water and the cause of the sinking remains unknown. The torpedo room appears to be intact with the two nuclear torpedoes in position, but the Navy can’t tell for sure.

Recovery of the torpedoes would be extremely challenging, so the Navy monitors radiation levels in the area instead. So far, there has been no signs of leakage from torpedoes or the reactor.

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How a top-secret Navy mission to find missing submarines stumbled upon the wreckage of the Titanic

The Titanic
The Titanic.

  • In 1982, the Navy sent oceanographic researcher and Navy Cmdr. Robert Ballard to find two submarines that sunk in the 1960s.
  • To hide Ballard’s real purpose, it was billed as another search for Titanic, which Ballard long dreamt of finding.
  • After accomplishing the Navy’s mission, Ballard used his time left at sea to locate the lost ocean liner.
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The RMS Titanic was billed as “unsinkable.” Many conflicting reasons have been proposed as to why but, nonetheless, they were proven wrong. When the RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean, she took with her over 1,500 of her 2,224 estimated passengers and crew.

Countless expeditions were sent to go salvage the wreckage, but it wasn’t until 1985 when it was “suddenly” located. For many years, there was a shroud of mystery surrounding exactly how it was found.

The truth was later declassified by the Department of the Navy. As it turns out, finding the Titanic was a complete accident on the part of US Navy Cmdr. Robert Ballard, who was searching for the wreckage of two Navy nuclear submarines.

Ballard had served as an intelligence officer in the Army Reserves before commissioning into the active duty Navy two years later. While there, he served as a liaison between the Office of Naval Research and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

He spent many years of his life dedicated to the field of oceanography. Even before enlisting, he had been working on his own submersible, called Alvin, with the Woods Hole Institute. He’d continue designing submersibles and technologies until he finished his famous craft, the Argo. The Argo was equipped with high-tech sonar and cameras and had a detachable robot called Jason.

Titanic
The Titanic.

It was then that the US Navy secretly got in touch with Ballard about finding the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion in 1982. Both nuclear submarines had mysteriously sank at some point in the 1960s, but the US government was never clear on what exactly happened.

The approximate locations of the submarines were known, but exactly how well the nuclear reactors were holding up after 20 years on the ocean’s floor was a mystery. They sent Ballard and his team to go find out. To cover their tracks, they said they were embarking on a regular expedition to search for the lost Titanic (which, despite the outcome, wasn’t the objective at the time).

The mission was to take four one-month-long expeditions – two months per lost submarine. Ballard asked if he’d ever get the chance to look for the Titanic while he was out there, a chance to fulfill his childhood dream. The Navy struck a bargain. They said that he could look for the sunken behemoth after he found the two subs, if time and funding permitted.

He received his funding and set off with the French research ship Le Suroit. Ballard kept most of the crew in the dark, opting instead to stick with his cover story of searching for the Titanic. He’d personally go down in a submersible and check on the status of each nuclear reactor and their warheads. He had a rough idea where to look, but he followed debris trails on the relatively smooth ocean floor to get to each destination.

titanic
The Titanic in Cobh Harbor, Ireland, April 11, 1912

Once he finished checking on the USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, he had 12 days remaining. Between the two wrecks was a large debris field that littered the ocean floor. This was far from where many experts claimed the Titanic would be.

Just like the two submarines, Ballard believed that the Titanic imploded, leaving behind a massive trail of debris as it drifted to its final resting place. He used what he learned from the submarines and applied the same theory to the Titanic.

First he found the ship’s boiler, and then, eventually, the entirety of the hull.

He knew that his remaining time was short and a storm was quickly approaching, so he marked his exact location on the map and returned to the wreckage the following year. For a year, he didn’t tell a soul, for fear of others showing up and trying to remove artifacts from the ship. He eventually returned on July 12, 1986, and made the first detailed study of the wreckage.

Ballard would later investigate the wreckages of the Bismarck, the RMS Lusitania, the USS Yorktown, John F. Kennedy’s PT-109, and many more.

The story of the Titanic, of course, would later be turned into a film that won 11 Academy Awards – which conveniently left out the fact that the ship’s wreckage was actually discovered due to a top-secret government operation.

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