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Bomb away
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The good news is there was neither a big boom nor an ominous mushroom cloud shrouding the skies over Savannah.

The bad?

The infamous “Tybee Bomb”, a nuclear weapon a hundred times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima during WWII, still lurks beneath the shallow waters of Wassaw Sound -- less than four miles from Tybee Island, where it was intentionally dropped from a U.S. Air Force B-47 bomber almost 50 years ago.

A team led by former Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Duke, who has badgered the government for years to locate and remove the weapon he considers a lingering threat to the East Coast, used sophisticated radiation detection devices aboard a boat to search the sound for the missing bomb in late June.

Included in the group were radiation detection expert Joe Eddlemon, owner of Pulcir, Inc. in Oak Ridge, Tenn. and one of the country’s leading experts on radiation detection.; Tybee entrepreneur Don Ernst, who created and hosts the Tybee Bomb web site; retired Navy Lt. Cdr. Art Arseneault of Knoxville, Tenn.; and this writer.

A two-man team covering the event for CBS TV’s “Morning Show,” including former Savannah TV news anchor Jim Carswell, followed along in a second boat.

Arseneault -- who was in charge of the original massive search for the hydrogen bomb jettisoned on Feb. 8, 1958 -- was making his first return to Wassaw waters since conducting that unsuccessful 90-day operation almost a half century ago.

His goal at that time was to lead dozens of military boats, divers, and other personnel tramping through the marshes surrounding the sound in finding and recovering the Mark 15 nuclear bomb designated as weapon No. 47782, reportedly loaded with bomb grade uranium and 400 pounds of conventional explosives.

The “finding” portion of that goal was the same for the most recent search.

We had no intention of touching the weapon -- let alone removing it -- Duke’s plan being to locate the bomb, mark the spot, and urge government authorities once more to remove the aging weapon and any danger it might pose to the surrounding area.

Public furor over the missing hydrogen bomb waned even as the 1958 search continued, when concern about the missing weapon was overtaken by a second accidental dropping of a nuclear bomb. It happened a month after the Wassaw incident, when another B-47 took off from what is now Hunter Army Airfield, then a U.S. Air Force base.

While over a farm just outside Florence, S.C., it dropped a nuclear weapon. While the bomb’s nuclear component was unarmed, its conventional explosives detonated on impact, creating a 70-foot wide crater 30 feet deep. It destroyed the nearby house of farmer Walter Gregg, injuring him and five members of his family. The explosion also damaged several cars, five other houses and a church.

Air Force personnel recovered hundreds of bomb fragments during their clean up of the Florence site and monitored inhabitants of the area for radiation exposure for several months following the accident.

That incident captured the attention of the news media, relegating the Tybee Bomb to a dim memory and occasional cocktail conversation on the island for more than 40 years.

A Savannah resident equipped with a Geiger Counter detected radiation still lingering at the Florence blast site in 2001.

The Tybee bomb -- jettisoned after the B-47 collided with an Air Force F-86 jet fighter during a training exercise testing U.S. nuclear defenses -- has become the subject of growing local and national speculation and controversy regarding its danger, or lack there of, during the last three years.

With its increasing notoriety, the weapon is now generally referred to simply as the “Tybee Bomb.” Retired Air Force Col. Howard Richardson, the pilot who released the weapon, was interviewed at his Mississippi home by this writer two years ago. He said he dropped the bomb over the water fearing it might break loose from his badly damaged plane when he landed at Hunter Field, where the runway was under construction.

Richardson said he was concerned that if he landed short and hit the raised end of the runway “the bomb might shoot through the plane like a bullet.”

Richardson, who had flown numerous missions over the U.S. and Atlantic Ocean with hydrogen bombs aboard as part of an Air Force strike force in readiness for a retaliatory strike against Russia during the Cold War, said he does not believe the weapon he jettisoned near Tybee was armed with the triggering device necessary for nuclear detonation.

But Howard H. Dixon, who was in charge of loading such bombs aboard Air Force planes at Hunter at the time of the incident, has taken issue with the pilot and similar claims by government officials.

Dixon, who reportedly held a key position in the Air Force nuclear armaments program at the time he addressed a special meeting of Tybee’s

City Council in September of 2001, said he never heard of a nuclear bomb being loaded aboard an Air Force plane without a triggering device.

Following that meeting, called specifically to discuss issues surrounding the bomb, council members voted to urge the government to locate the weapon and determine if it poses any danger to the island.

Representatives of both the Air Force and Defense Department subsequently contended that the weapon was not armed, hence is of little danger and should be left where it is.

But an Air Force report claiming the weapon is harmless stipulated that if it could be found it would be too dangerous to attempt to recover. The report said conventional explosives the bomb contains might detonate, injuring the recovery crew and possibly blowing a hole in the Florida Aquifer, a the major source of drinking water for Savannah, Tybee and a large portion of the Southeast.

The report went on to estimate that a search for the missing weapon would take five years and cost $23 million.

A scientist addressing the special Tybee Council meeting contradicted those estimates when he said the plutonium aboard the bomb “would be the oldest now in existence. It would be the most radioactive ever, since plutonium becomes more radioactive with age, and should be pretty easy to find.”

In recommending that the bomb not be disturbed and should remain classified as “irretrievably lost”, the Air Force report said it has only a low risk of leakage of the highly radioactive material it contains.

Those on the other side of the issue have suggested Col. Richardson, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving his entire crew when he successfully landed his damaged aircraft at Hunter after releasing the bomb, has been pressured to support the official government position.

Some suggest the government has refused to search for and remove the weapon because it would necessitate evacuating the entire area for safety, which could cause panic and have a major impact on the local economy.

In addition, they claim that, as usual, military and government authorities are reluctant to admit they were wrong in failing to remove the bomb earlier.

Duke, who attempted to organize several independent searches after federal authorities rejected his recommendations that the bomb be found and recovered, says one of the most revealing indications of a possible cover-up is provided by a previously secret government document which was declassified in 1994.

It is a memo sent by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy W. J. Howard in April of 1966 to the then chairman of the U.S. Congress’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. The memo refers to the bomb dropped near Tybee a “complete weapon” and mentions two additional accidents “resulting in the loss of weaponless capsules.”

Government spokesmen subsequently claimed Howard erred in indicating the bomb was fully armed. Duke, however, says it was common Cold War practice preceding U.S. deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles to keep U.S. bombers fully armed with nuclear weapons as a first response in case of an attack by Russia.

“They did not have time to return to their bases to have the weapons armed in the event of war,” he said.

Duke received support from Congressman Jack Kingston during one of his earlier attempts to persuade the government to locate and remove the bomb. It was apparently that support which ultimately resulted in a special Air Force hearing in Washington, D.C. attended by 15 officials from various branches of government.

Kingston, in a telephone interview, said he asked “hard questions” during the hearing, including one asking why the government had spent so much time, money and manpower on its initial search if the bomb posed no danger.

He said the answer he was given was that the government did not want “unfriendly” types to get their hands on it and was also concerned that a shrimp boat might accidentally capture it in a net.

Kingston said he was told the weapon had no warhead and posed no danger, adding “I don’t think they would lie.”

“I told Derek that until someone steps forward with information, we have no proof at all,” Kingston said, but added that he had told government officials he never intended “to close the door on the matter, and if new technical development occurred I would look into it in five years or whenever.”

The congressman said he was surprised when he was told the government had developed no super sensitive equipment which could easily spot the weapon since the original search 50 years ago, and that if it had such equipment he would certainly push for a search.

Some said Kingston seemed naive in his belief that all government officials are truthful, recalling that U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell joined White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, his assistant John Ehrlichman and President Richard Nixon himself in lying about Watergate.

Duke said he is most concerned by the portion of the Air Force report

which said the “lost bomb is buried in very shallow coastal water in only a few feet of sand and is probably still completely intact,” particularly in view of the World Trade Center attack and more recent threats of terrorist activity.

“This bomb could be in mint condition, still ready to do its designed purpose, a hydrogen bomb explosion of mind-boggling power,” he said.

This opinion was supported by chemist and former CIA operative Bert Soleau, a member of the initial team Duke put together three years ago to try to locate the bomb.

Soleau, listing a number of deadly radioactive components in the weapon, said he is gravely concerned that it could be located and retrieved by terrorists who could easily utilize these components to make other weapons to wreak havoc in the U.S.

Pam O’Brien, a long time activist on nuclear issues who lives in Douglasville, Ga., shared Soleau’s fears regarding the weapon’s nuclear package during another telephone interview.

Leakage from the bomb could enter the food chain, endangering both the environment and the entire population of the East Coast, she warned. O’Brien said the government was “absolutely ludicrous” in claiming that “dispersed uranium concentrations would be so low that health effects would be negligible” in the event the bomb actually exploded.

“It’s a nightmare and their own people know it,” she said. “Plutonium is a nightmare... a catastrophe. It can get in everything... your eyes, your bones, your gonads. You never get over it. They need to get that thing out of there!”

She said it would be foolish the accept Air Force statements at face value, given the military’s track record for secrecy about all things nuclear.

“The fact that they’ve got a nuclear bomb stuck out in Wassaw Sound is absolutely immoral apart from anything else,” she said.

“I can’t believe they’re not moving heaven and earth to remove this.”

The June 17 search covered a wide swath along the mouth of Wassaw Sound from where the water tanks on Tybee Island were clearly visible.

Duke was enthusiastic about the prospects of finally pinpointing the bomb’s location because he had recently obtained specific information concerning the precise moment the bomb was dropped. He had the position and speed of the plane and wind conditions to narrow his field of search and triangulate the area where his calculations showed the bomb hit the water.

“I got that information directly from Col. Richardson,” he said, adding that the pilot recorded those details in the log book he kept strapped to his knee during his ill-fated flight.

“What amazed me was to learn that the government did not give Art Arseneault any of these details before he conducted the original search,” said Duke. “That was weird. There are a lot of weird things about the bomb and what has happened since.”

Arseneault said his original search concentrated on the south end of the sound, near and on Wassaw Island, based on information Air Force officials provided him regarding the drop site. He said his divers and small boats were provided with no radiation detection equipment.

After earlier searching the same section covered by Arseneault, Duke, based on his new calculations, now concentrated on an area closer to Tybee, toward the north end of the sound.

Once reaching that area Joe Eddlemon went to work with his radiation detection devices, including a gamma ray, X-ray spectrometer for detecting and identifying radioisotopes, a sodium iodide pistol, scintillation detector and photo multiplier tube among other exotic equipment, much of which required specially constructed waterproof cases.

Eddlemon, who serves as a consultant for hospitals and agencies such as Homeland Security, is familiar with this equipment and serves as a representative for several manufacturers.

He spent most of the day checking readings from his instruments, some of which Duke helped him lower overboard on cables as the boat passed over the generally 12-foot deep area.

Eddlemon said his instruments showed readings in the search area were far higher than normal (by a factor of four, or 3,000 as opposed to 500), and were worth further examination -- although he could not be sure they emanated from a nuclear weapon.

“They could come from NORM (naturally occurring radioactive material) which is high enough in some areas to be hazardous,” said Eddlemon, noting that his equipment also detected radioisotopes but intense interference in the area precluded positive identification of the source.

Still, he said he did not consider the search a total loss since the radiation around the site could be caused by the missing bomb.

“I’d like to get some samples of the sand on the bottom in that location and bring it into the lab for more precise testing under high resolution,” Eddlemon added.

Duke, who said he plans to acquire the samples and get them to Eddlemon as soon as possible, seemed far more confident than his radiation expert that they had gotten close to the bomb’s location.

He said he had run radiation tests all over the sound and the present site, which Eddlemon’s tests narrowed to a small fan-shaped area about the size of a football field, was the only one producing such high readings which Duke claimed would not be typical of the NORM effect.

“There are free air gamma radiation readings at this site and there are high levels of readings in the sea bed,” he said.

Duke also said he hopes to send a diver equipped with a magnotometer to scan the bottom of this area and, based on the high readings determined in the current search, believes he can nail down the specific location of the missing hydrogen bomb.

“If we don’t find anything in either the samples or the bottom search, I’m going to give up,” he said. “I’ve been at this too long and the Air Force is never going to do anything.”

Later, he returned to his animated discussion of the high readings they had just found, speculating that they indicated old, impure plutonium like that used in bombs like the Tybee bomb.

“The U-235 they used was only about 93 percent pure, so it had some U-241. And that plutonium starts to crumble when it oxidizes,” said Duke, noting that this is what may have caused the unusually high radiation readings.

After yet another painstaking day-long search in June, Duke finally called the effort off and returned with his group to the dock near Skidaway Island from which they had departed that morning.

One of the last to leave the dock was Art Arseneault, now over 80 and the picture of an aging sailor, who shuffled slowly off to his car to head for his Tennessee home after his second seemingly unsuccessful search for the elusive Tybee Bomb.