How Did a Cold War Nuclear Bomb Go Missing?

By Staci Dekunder

Is there a nuclear bomb lost just a few miles off the coast of Savannah, Georgia? It seems that we will never know, but theories abound. While it is easy to get caught up in the narrative of these theories, it is interesting to look at the facts of what actually happened to piece together the causes leading up to the event. This analysis may not tell us if the bomb is still under the murky Wassaw Sound waters, but it can tell us something about how the event happened.

Around 2 am on February 5, 1958, a training exercise was conducted off the coast of Georgia. This was during the most frigid period of the Cold war, and training was underway to practice attacking specific targets in Russia. During this particular training mission, Major Howard Richardson was flying a B-47 bomber carrying a Mark 15, Mod 0 Hydrogen bomb containing 400 pounds of conventional explosives and some quantity of uranium.

The realistic training mission also included F-86 ‘enemy’ fighter jets. Unfortunately, one of those jets, piloted by Lt. Clarence Stewart, did not see the bomber on his radar and accidentally maneuvered directly into the B-47. The damage to both planes was extensive. The collision destroyed the fighter jet, and severely damaged the fuel tanks, engine, and control mechanisms of the bomber.   Fortunately, Stewart was able to safely eject from the fighter jet. Richardson had a very difficult quest ahead of him: to get himself and his co-pilot safely on the ground without detonating his payload in a heavily damaged aircraft. He flew to the closest airfield; however, the runway was under construction, making the landing even more precarious for the two crew members and for the local community that would have been affected had the bomb exploded upon landing. Faced with an impossible situation, Richardson returned to sea, dropped the bomb over the water, observed that no detonation took place, and returned to carefully land the damaged bomber.

The Navy searched for the bomb for over two months, but bad weather and poor visibility did not make the search easy. On April 16, 1958, the search was ended without finding the bomb. The hypothesis was that the bomb was buried beneath 10 – 15 feet of silt and mud. Since then, other searches by interested locals and the government have still not identified the location of the bomb.   In 2001, the Air Force released an assessment which suggests two interesting points. First, the bomb was never loaded with a ‘detonation capsule’, making the bomb incapable of a nuclear explosion. (Until this time, conventional wisdom suggested that the detonation capsule was included with the bomb.) Second, the report concluded that it would be more dangerous to try to move the bomb than to leave the bomb in its resting place.

While we may never learn the location of the bomb, we can learn from the incident itself. Using a Cause Map, we can document the causes and effects resulting in this incident, providing a visual root cause analysis. Beginning with several ‘why’ questions, we can create a cause-effect chain. In the simplest Cause Map, the safety goal was impacted as a result of the danger to the pilots and to the nearby communities as the result of a potential nuclear bomb explosion. This risk was caused by the bomb being jettisoned from the plane, which was a result of the collision between the fighter jet and the bomber. The planes collided due to the fact that they were performing a training mission to simulate a combat scenario.

More details are uncovered as this event is further broken down to include more information and to document the impact to other goals. The property goal is impacted through the loss of aircraft and the bomb. The bomb is missing because it was jettisoned from the bomber AND because it was never found during the search. The bomb was jettisoned because the pilot was worried that the bomb might break loose during landing. This was due to the fact that the planes collided. The planes collided due to the fact that the F-86 descended onto the top of the B-47 AND because they were in the midst of a training exercise. The fighter jet crashed into the bomber because the bomber was not on radar. The planes were performing an exercise because they were simulating bombing a Russian target, because it was the middle of the Cold War. The search was unsuccessful because the bomb is probably buried deep in the mud AND because the weather and visibility were bad during the search.

Finally, the ‘customer service’ goal is impacted by the fact that the residents in nearby communities are nervous about the potential danger of explosion/radiation exposure. This nervousness is caused by the fact that the bomb is still missing AND the fact that the bomb contained radioactive material, which was due to routine protocol at the time.

Evidence boxes are a helpful way to add information to the Cause Map that was discovered during the investigation. For example, an evidence box stating the evidence from the 2001 Air Force report that the bomb had no detonation capsule has been added to the Cause Map. A Cause Map is a useful tool to help separate the facts from the theories. Click on “Download PDF” above to see the full, detailed Cause Map.