There are certain indelible images that are forever etched into the minds of most Americans. For younger generations, perhaps it is the site of the Twin Towers on fire after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. For older generations, it might be the site of the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.
The image of that mushroom cloud flattening an entire city is unforgettable. It signaled the end of World War II as the Japanese discovered they were no match for such firepower. It also ushered in a scary period in the world’s history. Super powers, like Russia and the United States, developed these weapons, leaving many to wonder when World War III might commence.
It never came to pass, but Americans almost got a taste of the destructive power of a Hydrogen bomb on its own soil. That is right, a Hydrogen bomb dropped from the sky over North Carolina. Its payload was said to have been 260 times more powerful than the fateful bomb that destroyed Hiroshima during World War II. The bomb made its way all the way to the ground, so why then does no one remember such an event?
The reason for that is that the bomb never detonated. Had it gone off, the Eastern Seaboard might be a much different place. The time was 1961, and an American B-52 bomber was transporting two hydrogen bombs. The bomber was making its flight, when it suddenly experienced problems. The plane broke up in midair, but the bombs remained intact.
The problem was that one of the two bombs saw the breakup as a standard release. It was triggered, and released its parachute, as would be normal procedure. Here is where the story gets much too interesting. Back in the 60s, these bombs were equipped with four safety mechanisms, which were in place to stop the bomb in case of an accident. Ah, but the system did not foresee a breakup of the aircraft as a possibility.
Once the bomb started its descent, three of the safety mechanisms lost their ability. One could not be done while in drop sequence. Two others were rendered useless, due to the plane breaking up. That left one switch, within the bomb, which stood between the East Coast and certain disaster. Luckily, the switch did not activate, leaving the bomb’s payload unexploded.
It was the ultimate lucky break that the country did not see its own nuclear crisis. The incident also spelled out just how tenuous working with weapons of this nature can be. Four safety mechanisms on the bomb and only one worked. That is a scary fact to consider. One lingering question that remains is how did no one ever know this took place?
The answer is that the U.S. government hush-hushed the occurrence, sealing it into records deemed sensitive and classified. It only came to light as a result of recently declassified documents being exposed, which are part of a book written by Eric Schlosser. Parker F. Jones was the head of the Sandia Nuclear Weapons Safety Department, and was quoted in the document as saying, “One simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe! It could have been bad news — in spades if the switch had shorted.” That puts it all in scary perspective, when one takes the time to consider it.