The Tybee Island Bomb

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright©2009 by Charles Glassmire


Sept. 5, 2009

The Tybee Island Bomb

           Tybee Island sits peacefully at the mouth of the Savannah River, at the eastern most point of the state of Georgia. The island forms the breakwater at the mouth of the River where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and its’ seaport is the second largest seaport in the United States. It’s a quiet place, filled with summer tourists, lots of hotels, and bars with names like Uncle Bubbas, StingRays and The Wild Rose. The favorite dish in these establishments is often Red Beans and Rice. Tybee even has its own lighthouse, ($5 to walk to the very top). The 40,000 summer tourists do touristy things like sailing, swimming and walking in the sun, and if you time it just right, you can see an occasional Alligator in a habitat on the beach.

          It’s been 51 years since a wounded Strategic Air Command B-47 dropped an H-Bomb in the waters of Wassaw Sound, some sixteen miles from Savannah, and just south of Tybee Island. Each day, the tides come in and go out with a gentle rhythm, and seem to have washed away the memories of that fateful night so long ago. Many of the natives have forgotten or perhaps never knew of those dark events in February of 1958.

          Afterward, the Air Force searched the waters of Wassaw Sound diligently with a team of UDT navy divers, boats with Sonar, and troops from the 270th Explosive Ordinance Disposal Squadron. They even had a blimp hovering overhead, looking for a hole in the salt marshes or nearby beaches. The search went on for over nine weeks, until well into April of that year and, in the end, nothing was found. Some theorized the weapon was buried into the mud many feet below the mud surface. Finally, admitting to a classic Broken Arrow, the United States Air Force, on April 16th 1958, cancelled the search, and declared the bomb “irretrievably lost”. Then the Pentagon wrote a nice letter to the Atomic Energy Commission (which technically still “owned” the bomb) politely asking the AEC to replace the H-Bomb they had lost:

          “…the weapon is considered irretrievably lost. It is requested that one [redacted] weapon be made available for release to the DOD as a replacement.”

         Certainly Tybee’s City Council wanted everyone to forget what had happened. Councilman Jack Youmans in 2004, said

          “I wish they’d forget about the whole thing. They’re just wasting their time. It ain’t going to hurt anybody. And it scares the hell out of the tourists….”

          It also bothered an Air Force Lt. Colonel by the name of Derek Duke. Colonel Duke lived in Kingston Ga. about 90 miles from the incident. He had operated a National Security Agency operation in Vietnam, and he’d been searching for the lost weapon since 1998, to the annoyance of everyone except a few concerned residents. Pamela O’Brien, A member of Tybee’s Council, stated:

          “I’m pleased to see the attention this is getting…When others in government say they would prefer to put their heads in the sand and forget about it, they should remember that it is the same island that the bomb is buried in.”

          Colonel Duke hired a small crew in the late 90’s including a “retired” CIA officer and some local shrimpers. They examined Air Force records of the bomb release, and estimated where the bomb was deposited. By 2004, he and his crew had been carefully dragging the waters of the sound with Geiger counters and metal detectors, searching for radiation leaking from the weapon.  In that year he claimed to have found an area of “high radiation”. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican said:

         We’re horrified because some of that information has been covered up for years…”

           In August of 2000, after civilian inquiries, Kingston requested the investigation be reopened. The government did so, could not find the weapon (although some indicators found higher than background radiation levels) and did not change its position afterward.

          The 2004 “discovery” by Duke, created outrage in the local population, and Rep. Kingston called for a congressional investigation as to why the Air Force had ceased hunting for the missing bomb. The investigation search was reopened in September of 2004. In a report to Congress back then, the government had admitted there was a chance of dislodging the weapon during accidental dredging or fishing in the area. The area has a lucrative shrimp and fishing industry, and officials were concerned that the high explosive in the weapon could detonate if disturbed. This would scatter radioactive material over the area and contaminate the sea life, pollute the drinking water table, and would be disastrous to the local economy.

          After this third investigation, the Air Force insisted the wisest course was to let the weapon rest, and there was no possibility of a nuclear detonation, since they claimed the “capsule” detonator (called the “pit”) had not been installed in the bomb. This point would be called into question later:

          “…the likelihood that a particular accident would involve a nuclear weapon [detonation] is extremely limited …Our biggest concern is that of localized heavy metal contamination…”

          The question of whether the Plutonium core had been inserted into the bomb was (and is) very much of interest. Without the fissile material, the object is simply a shell containing high explosive. There could be no nuclear detonation. If the Pit was inserted into the weapon, there is a very small possibility of nuclear detonation.

          In 1966, the Chairman of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Chet Holifield, held closed door hearings on missing weapons. He asked Mr. Jack Howard, assistant to the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, to provide a list of lost weapons. The response by Mr. Howard listed two classes of weapons. One class was “weapon-less capsules” and the other “complete weapons”. The Tybee bomb was called a complete weapon. This “Secret” document was declassified in 1994.

          Bert Soleau, the CIA officer from Dukes team, wonders whether the bomb could be recovered by terrorists, and used for their own purposes. The Plutonium is a chemical poison and would be difficult to handle. It would be a serious hazard if disbursed in a dirty bomb, although the alpha radiation it emits is a hazard only if ingested.

          Don Moniak is a nuclear weapons expert with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League in Aiken, South Carolina. He says:

          “I believe the plutonium capsule is in the bomb, but that a nuclear detonation is improbable because the neutron generators used back then were polonium-beryllium, which has a very short half-life. Without neutrons, weapons grade plutonium won’t blow…”

          However, in any fissile material, there are always stray neutrons wandering around. If they bump into a Plutonium 239 nucleus, it could fission, releasing two more neutrons to wander around, and …

                                                 (to be continued)


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