In the early days of the Cold War, rural North Carolina residents narrowly escaped disaster. Former N&O writer G.D. Gearino retold the story.
It happened early in the morning of Jan. 24, 1961. A B-52 bomber from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro developed trouble shortly after refueling in midair. As the crew sought to return the craft to the base, the plane fell victim to what the Pentagon's official narrative euphemistically described as a "structural failure of the right wing [resulting] in two weapons separating from the aircraft."
In other words, the B-52 broke apart in the air thousands of feet above North Carolina and two nuclear bombs fell out.
The bombs, along with the various pieces of the plane itself, landed on farm fields near the crossroads community of Faro, a dozen miles north of Goldsboro. Three members of the eight-man crew were killed; the body of one of them was found hanging from a tree. No one on the ground was injured, but it took firefighters from 10 rural companies hours to bring the fire under control. When dawn broke, Air Force officials began searching for the bombs.
One was found intact and barely damaged. Its parachute -- a standard feature on the nuclear bombs of that era -- had opened, allowing the bomb to settle to earth relatively gently. Its nose was embedded in the ground, and because the parachute lines had become entangled in a tree, the bomb was hanging vertically, looking for all the world like a dud bomb from the cartoons. It posed no danger.
That wasn't the case with the other nuclear bomb.
Its parachute failed to open or was severed, and when it hit the ground -- probably traveling at maximum velocity -- the bomb buried itself in a field adjoining Big Daddy's Road, leaving a big crater as evidence of its presence.
The Air Force had three immediate responses to the accident: It sealed off the crash site to everyone but official personnel; it reassured news reporters that both bombs had been recovered; and it hauled equipment to the crater and began digging for a bomb that, in fact, had not been recovered at all.
Over the next five days, various pieces of the bomb were excavated. But after two weeks, when the digging had reached a depth of nearly 50 feet and the crater was 200 feet in diameter, the recovery faltered. The crash site adjoins the Nahunta Swamp and the water table in the area is extremely high. Despite using numerous pumps, it was difficult to keep the huge hole emptied of water. Eventually, the Air Force gave up. The recovery effort was halted on May 25, the hole was filled and the Air Force purchased an easement from the landowner so that it could control access to the site.
These are the undisputed details of the event. Almost everything else about it remains open to question.
In the early '60s, people tended to believe what the government told them. An indication of that can be found in the news coverage that followed the B-52 crash.
The News & Observer, for instance, had a front-page report of the event in the next day's paper. But because the Air Force had declared that both weapons were recovered and that there was no danger from radiation, interest quickly tailed off. On the second day, there was a relatively short account of interviews with the B-52's surviving crew. (The story noted that Air Force officials "would not permit questions about the nuclear weapons the plane carried.") By the third day, the news had migrated to the back page, where it got a two-paragraph mention.
That was it for almost two decades.
In 1980, word leaked out from the Pentagon that five of the six switches on the recovered Goldsboro bomb had been tripped. Later, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara confirmed the report during a news conference in Washington. Anti-nuclear activists subsequently declared that this was America's closest brush with disaster from an atomic bomb.
The Air Force acknowledged that the B-52's midair disintegration that night "caused some of the weapon components to operate as designed, as if an intended release had occurred." But, a spokesman said, two safety devices -- presumably, the sole intact arm/safe switch and the pilot's unactivated arming switch in the cockpit -- "functioned as intended."
Ultimately, [Chuck Hansen, the author of "U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History," as well as a contributor to the Nuclear Weapons Databook and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists] thinks both parties are correct: The Goldsboro crash was indeed the closest we came to disaster, but even if all six arm/safe switches had been tripped, the bomb still wouldn't have ignited because it hadn't been armed by the pilot. -- The News & Observer 8/11/2002
In 2000, students at UNC's School of Journalism and Mass Communication produced a web project called Broken Arrow: Goldsboro, NC, The Truth Behind North Carolina's Brush with Nuclear Disaster.