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Georgia's Own Offshore Nuclear Bomb

Weapons: In 1958, a B-47 dropped it near an island after an accident so it could land. There's lots of TNT, but the Air Force calls an atomic blast impossible. The government is cool to a demand that it be recovered.

January 21, 2001|RUSS BYNUM | ASSOCIATED PRESS

TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. — Lost beneath the shallow waters and sand off the Georgia coast lies a Cold War relic that lingered for decades only in vague memories and folklore: a 7,600-pound nuclear bomb dumped by a crippled Air Force plane.

Nearly 43 years later, questions raised by a former military pilot and a Georgia congressman have prompted the government to consider renewing its search for the lost bomb near this island 12 miles east of Savannah. The bomb is lost in Wassaw Sound, where the 1996 Olympic sailing competition was held.

The Air Force insists the bomb lacks a key plutonium capsule needed to cause a nuclear explosion, though it still contains radioactive uranium and the explosive power of 400 pounds of TNT.

"It's a nuclear bomb," insists Derek Duke, a former Air Force pilot who's been researching the case for two years. "It's like if I take the battery out of your car, then I try to convince you it's not a car.

"It needs to be found so it moves from the dark, scary realm of lost and unknown and we know where and how it is."

Air Force officials aren't so sure. After weighing the potential dangers of leaving the bomb against the cost of finding it, possibly $1 million or more, they plan to decide soon whether a new search is warranted.

Duke's own search has revived what had become a largely forgotten tale on Tybee Island, a beach community of 4,000 where rustic bungalows rub shoulders with $500,000 homes.

Some Discounted Story as a Legend

In February 1958, a B-47 bomber on a training mission collided with a fighter jet near Savannah and had to drop the bomb to land safely. It was dumped on the south side of Tybee's uninhabited sister island, Little Tybee. The military spent weeks searching for the sunken weapon, then gave up.

For residents who remembered, the bomb was ancient history by the time the Olympics came to town. Others had never heard the story, or discounted it as local myth better suited for "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" than the history books.

"Savannahians have all kinds of tales and legends," said U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican who represents coastal Georgia in Congress. "And part of the Savannah lore was there's a bomb off Tybee. And you'd go, 'Is there really?' "

Contradictory Records Found About Bomb

Kingston was skeptical until Duke came to him last summer with a proposal to find the lost weapon himself using a team of former military experts with technology capable of scanning the ocean floor. Newspaper clippings from 1958 and government documents indicated the bomb was real. But how dangerous was it?

Duke points to an April 1966 letter to the chairman of Congress' Joint Committee on Atomic Energy by W.J. Howard, then assistant to the secretary of Defense. Howard listed four nuclear weapons that had been lost and never recovered.

Though two were described as "weapons-less capsules" and thus incapable of a nuclear blast, the Tybee Island bomb wasn't one of them. Howard listed it and a device lost in the deep Western Pacific in 1965 as "complete" weapons.

At Kingston's urging, the Air Force checked its original records on the bomb and concluded Howard was wrong.

"The bomb off the coast of Savannah is not capable of a nuclear explosion," said Maj. Cheryl Law, an Air Force spokeswoman. As for the uranium still inside the bomb, "to have that hurt you, you would actually have to ingest it."

That doesn't mean the bomb is harmless. High explosives in the 12-foot cylinder, resembling a large propane tank, could cause serious damage if they detonated with a boat directly overhead. There's also the environmental threat of an underwater explosion and radiation leakage killing fish and other sea life.

But there's no guarantee the bomb could be found. Experts have warned the Air Force that tides and strong weather patterns over the years could have moved the bomb out to sea.

Kingston said he's willing to follow the Air Force's lead for now. But he'd like to see some effort, if only a small search covering just a few miles.

"Four hundred pounds of TNT to some folks isn't a big deal," he said. "But if it's your family and your boat that hits it, it is a big deal."

But an Air Force expert on nuclear weapons who has studied the Tybee Island bomb said damage from an accidental explosion would be minimal.

Officials believe the bomb sank at least five miles off the coast, beneath about 20 feet of water and an additional 15 feet of sand and silt, said Maj. Don Robbins, deputy director of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons and Counter Proliferation Agency.

If it exploded, the bomb "would create maybe a 10-foot-diameter hole and shock waves through the water of approximately 100 yards," Robbins said. "Even boats going over it would not even notice. They might see some bubbles coming out around them."

The amount of uranium in the bomb's casing is too low to cause a serious environmental threat, he said.

A month after the Tybee Island incident, in March 1958, a second B-47 dropped a similar bomb, without its nuclear payload, in Florence, S.C. The resulting explosion blasted a crater into the ground and injured six people.

Tybee Island residents, known to ride out hurricane warnings at the beach-side bars, haven't been ruffled by the wayward bomb.

"It was all over the newspapers and the radio. But nobody worried about it," said City Councilman Jack Youmans, 75, who was living on the island when the bomb was dropped. "If it's there, then it's there. That's all."

Tybee Island Mayor Walter Parker said he hasn't received a single phone call from residents about the bomb. And John Mack Adams, an island retiree who writes about local history, hasn't heard much other than a friend's joke about the possibility that their property values could plummet.

"A lot of the locals have lived here all their lives. They look at it kind of like a crapshoot," Adams said. "These folks don't scare too easily."

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