The Night They (Almost) Bombed Old Dixie Down

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Walter Gregg and his young son were working on a project in their garden shed in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, when the backyard was hit with a nuclear bomb.

What? You don’t recall the time a nuke almost took out the South? It happened on March 11, 1958, when a B-47 plane carrying a Mark 6 bomb was headed to Europe from the Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Georgia. The deadly device was a more sophisticated version of the Mark 3 Fat Man bomb that was unleashed on Nagasaki, Japan, more than 10 years earlier.

The plane hadn’t gotten far from the base when the pilot noticed on the instrument panel that the bomb wasn’t properly in place.

The switch that should have locked it down did nothing, so Captain Bruce Kulka was sent back to see if he could lock the bomb into place manually. Kulka reached over the nose of the bomb to try to pull himself up to see what the problem was, but what he grabbed to give himself some leverage was basically the worst possible thing he could have lunged for: the emergency-release lever.

The Mark 6 dropped down onto the bay doors, the only things keeping the bomb plummeting to the South Carolina countryside below. Its weight combined with the weight of the parachute-less Capt. Kulka, who was sprawled on top of it, started to force the doors open. Kulka managed to scramble back into the plane as the bomb dropped through the hatch.

When it hit the ground below, the A-bomb turned the Greggs‘ garden into a 75-foot crater, destroyed both of their cars and knocked the house off of its foundation. Everyone in the family was injured, though only one was hurt badly enough to spend the night in the hospital.

The outcome for the Greggs, Florence County, and the entire state of South Carolina would have been much different if the bomb had been fully equipped with its nuclear core. In non-war times, the core was kept in the cockpit in something called a “birdcage” and was added to the bomb only if necessary. Had it been installed in the bomb when it fell, everything within a 10-mile radius of the impact site would have died from the fallout.

The Air Force assured the Greggs that they would be compensated for their losses and that the crater would be filled in as soon as the recovery operation was done. In the end, the family was given a mere $56,000 - after they sued for it. The crater is still there.

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January 3, 2012 - 12:23pm
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