Originally created 05/02/04

A missing H-bomb lies off Georgia's coast - but is it a danger?



WASSAW ISLAND, Ga. -- The 20-foot Boston Whaler bobs in the swells of Wassaw Sound off Savannah. The engines grumble as Derek Duke peers over the stern. This, he says, is the place.

The water is green and murky, and sunlight turns floating grains of sand to flecks of gold. Deeper, shifting currents churn silt, blotting the daylight. On the dark bottom, empty cans and bottles litter a seabed of fine sand and rough stones.

There seems to be nothing special out here. But beneath the ocean floor off Savannah, an aluminum cylinder lies entombed in silt. It's like an 11-foot-long bullet with a snub nose and four stubby fins. Written on it, its name: "No. 47782." Enclosed in its metal skin: 400 pounds of conventional explosives and a quantity of bomb-grade uranium.

No. 47782 is an H-bomb.

A Mark 15, Mod 0 to be exact, one of the earliest thermonuclear devices developed by the United States. This is the kind whose mushroom clouds boiled in South Pacific tests. It was designed to be 100 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

No. 47782 has rested off Savannah since Feb. 5, 1958.

For decades, people have gone about their lives in this city of antebellum mansions and brick-sidewalk squares with little or no thought to the bomb.

No. 47782 might well have remained a footnote to Cold War history were it not for the man on the boat and his one question: Is it a danger?

* * * *

As a child growing up near Savannah, Derek Duke, now 58, heard the story: A pilot was forced to jettison an H-bomb bomb near Tybee, one of city's barrier islands, after a mid-air collision.

Perhaps that was the beginning of Duke's fascination with nuclear weapons - an interest that grew when he watched Slim Pickens ride a nuke in the movie "Dr. Strangelove." Later, he said, it was his job to ferry H-bombs to overseas bases as an Air Force pilot.

So in 1998, when he stumbled onto some old news stories about the "Tybee Bomb" while surfing the Web, Duke was predisposed to be interested.

At first, he says, he was just curious. It was an interesting bit of military history to look into during time off from his job training commercial pilots at the Atlanta airport.

He searched the Internet and local newspaper archives. He read the limited information available about the Mark 15, Mod 0. Many details, including the amount of uranium it contained, remain classified.

By 1999, his interest growing, he began contacting others who might know something about the case. He talked to residents who lived in the area. He talked to members of the team that had searched for the bomb. He wrote letters requesting unclassified documents.

Then Duke looked up the pilot.

Howard Richardson was surprised by the telephone call from Duke. It had been more years than he cared to remember since he had talked with anyone outside his circle of family and friends about the bomb.

Slowly, Richardson began to share his story - first with Duke and later with The Associated Press.

It was Feb. 5, 1958, and he was a major at the controls of a B-47 bomber - one of a dozen from the 19th Bombardment Wing taking off on a training mission from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. All were carrying H-bombs.

At the time, it was routine for crews in training to carry transportation-configured nuclear bombs, with the detonation capsules removed to prevent a nuclear explosion, the Air Force said. The idea was simple. It gave the crews the opportunity to practice with the bomb, said Billy Mullins, associate director of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons and Counterproliferation Agency.

Before takeoff, Richardson signed a receipt verifying he was taking custody of the bomb from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the agency responsible for keeping track of the country's nuclear arsenal.

The mission was to simulate dropping an H-bomb on a city in the Soviet Union and to evade Air Force fighters sent up to simulate Russian interceptors.

Over Reston, Va., which was unknowingly playing the role of the Soviet city, Richardson's navigator lined up the target on the radar screen and punched the launch button. The button activated a transmitter that recorded how close the crew came to hitting the target.

Then Richardson turned the B-47 south toward home through a screen of "enemy" fighters.

Richardson was an old hand at evading fighters. During World War II, he piloted 35 missions - two on D-Day - in a B-17 nicknamed the "Mississippi Miss" after Richardson's home state. That was 10 more missions than the "Memphis Belle," whose crew gained legendary status as the first to complete 25, he would proudly tell folks.

The B-47 wasn't much like the lumbering World War II bomber. It was easier to handle, "more like a fighter than a bomber," Richardson said. Using high altitude maneuvers and electronic counter measures, he evaded the F-86 fighters launched over Virginia to intercept him.

When he and his two-man crew crossed into North Carolina at more than 37,000 feet, they were back in friendly skies. As far as the crew was concerned, the training mission was over.

Suddenly, the B-47 shook violently. Seconds later, flames shot of the No. 6 engine.

The B-47 had just collided in mid-air with one of the "enemy" fighters.

Richardson and his crew could see the No. 6 engine dangling off the wing. The wing's main support beam was broken and the horizontal and vertical stabilizers, which gave the pilot control, were damaged.

Struggling to keep the bomber under control, Richardson headed for the nearest airfield, Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. His co-pilot, 1st Lt. Robert Lagerstrom, issued a "Mayday," telling the Hunter tower it was coming in damaged and heavy.

The news from the tower operator wasn't good. The runway was under construction. The front of it had not been smoothed out.

"I thought that if we landed short, the plane would catch the front of the runway and the bomb would shoot through the plane like a bullet through a gun barrel," Richardson said.

The Air Force's tactical doctrine listed the safety of a crew as a pilot's No. 1 priority. So, on that clear, moonlit night, Richardson turned the B-47 toward sea and dropped the bomb in the ocean. Then he limped back to a safe landing on that rough runway.

For nearly 10 weeks, Navy divers searched the shallow, murky waters near Tybee Island for the bomb. The weather was bad, the water cold, the visibility poor. On April 16, 1958, the military declared the bomb "irretrievably lost."

The bomb became one of 11 "Broken Arrows" - nuclear bombs lost during air or sea mishaps, according to U.S. military records.

Four months after Richardson's accident, the Atomic Energy Commission changed its policy, banning the use of nuclear bombs during training exercises.

As Duke was learning all of this, he turned up a copy of the Atomic Energy Commission receipt Richardson had signed. Written in ink near the top of the document was the word "simulated." That, according to the Air Force, meant the bomb, containing 400 pounds of conventional explosives and an undisclosed amount of uranium, did not have a detonation capsule. Without it, there was no risk of a nuclear explosion.

That was reassuring. And it might have been the end of the story if not for another document Duke soon acquired.

This one was a letter, written in 1966 to the chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, recounting the testimony of Assistant Defense Secretary Jack Howard before a 1966 congressional committee investigating the country's missing and lost nuclear weapons.

Howard, the letter says, testified there were four complete nuclear weapons, including detonation capsules, that were missing or lost. Among them: the bomb Richardson had dropped off the coast of Georgia.

Decades later, Howard recanted his testimony after Duke gave the letter to the media and elected officials.

But which version was really true?

That's when Duke's curiosity turned to determination to find the bomb.

"Until that point, I bought the military's story," he said. "But not now. Something is just not right."

He began studying topography maps, tidal charts and weather patterns. But Duke knew he needed help navigating the waterways. In Harris Parker, he found both an expert and a partner.

The two are an unlikely pair of allies. Duke, 5-feet-8, is compact and full of nervous energy. Parker, 64, is tall and laconic, tanned and weathered by decades in the sun. He's a sometime treasure hunter, sometime movie consultant, and one of his business cards identifies him as a marine coordinator for the John Travolta movie, "The General's Daughter."

Together, Duke and Parker spent countless hours trolling Wassaw Sound, which connects the mouth of the Wilmington River to the Atlantic Ocean. They dragged Geiger counters behind their boat and brought up sand from the ocean floor to test.

Mapping every inch of their effort, they identified what they believe is a plume of radiation, although the readings are only slightly higher the sea's natural radiation level.

But the plume wasn't near Tybee Island. Rather, it was just off Wassaw Island, about 20 miles from Savannah. Perhaps the bomber crew had mistaken one landmark - an old World War II bunker - for another near Savannah when it dropped the bomb.

In August 2000, Duke gave the Howard letter to U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican. Kingston, in turn, asked the Air Force to investigate whether a live nuclear bomb might be lurking off the Georgia coast.

On April 12, 2001, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons and Counterproliferation Agency reported that the bomb was likely buried about 5 to 15 feet in silt somewhere below the ocean floor. There is "no current or future possibility of a nuclear explosion," the report said. And if left undisturbed, the conventional explosives in the bomb posed no hazard.

During the initial search in the 1950s, Navy divers did not turn up any radiation readings.

In fact, the uranium in the bomb is of less concern for radioactivity than as a heavy metal, Mullins said. "Where you have a problem with it, is if you ingest it," he told The AP.

Recovering it - at an estimated cost of $5 million - didn't seem worth the trouble or the potential danger to Savannah's fresh water supply, he said. "As we see it, there's zero risk to anybody leaving it where it is."

Nonetheless, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks some folks in Savannah began to worry. A town hall meeting was called to discuss the bomb and the Air Force findings. A crowd showed up. CNN broadcast the debate, which continued in the Letters to the Editor section of the local paper.

Duke stoked the flames. "If we're so worried about terrorists getting ahold of nuclear weapons, why aren't we doing anything about this," he says. "Right down there, somewhere, is the material to make a dirty bomb."

So Duke, Parker and a handful of others formed a company to look for the bomb and submitted a bid to the government to locate it. The bid - $900,000-plus - was denied.

Sitting at a table at Parker's Savannah home, Duke tips a 32-ounce disposable soda cup on its side.

"This is the capsule," he says.

Over the course of an hour, Duke painstakingly maps out the detail of his effort and his findings. It's part history lesson and part treasure hunt with a bit of conspiracy theory thrown in. He skips over or challenges any evidence that contradicts his position.

Parker, meanwhile, co-wrote a script, titled "The Tybee Bomb," a Tom Clancy-esque mystery. Duke distances himself from the script, which Parker says its just another vehicle to stir interest in recovering the bomb.

But the script, along with the creation of the company, led some to wonder about their motives.

* * * *

At home in Jackson, Miss., Richardson eases onto a couch, and riffles through several expandable files of documents.

He pulls out pictures taken in 1958 of his damaged plane, a firsthand account he wrote about the accident, and an article printed in a flying magazine.

Nearby, on the floor, sits a framed copy of the bomb custody receipt.

Richardson, 82, is a big man with a gentle heart. He doesn't like to speak ill of anyone, but ...

"Derek Duke just doesn't know what he's talking about. I keep telling him he's wrong," Richardson said. "The paper says no capsule on board. I think I know what I signed for."

He has come to believe Duke and Parker are motivated more by money than by virtue. He points to the government bid and now the movie script.

"They are scaring those people in Savannah for no good reason," he said.

Richardson pauses, shakes his head and speaks softly, perhaps more to himself than anyone else.

"At this age, you think about the things you'll be remembered for. What I should be remembered for is landing that plane safely. I guess this bomb is what I'm going to be remembered for."

"If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't have dropped it," he said. "After all this grief and pain, it just isn't worth it."

Back on the Boston Whaler, Parker and Duke check the onboard Global Positioning Satellite gear as they motor toward the spot where they believe the bomb rests.

Their efforts are at a standstill. They don't have the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to take the search underwater. They don't have the backing of the military, the government or local elected officials.

"Does it pose a real threat? I guess we really don't know. But I think the military needs to take care of its unfinished business," Duke says. "They left this out there for us to deal with. I'd sure like for someone to know where it is, and what, if anything, it's doing to our environment."

Parker brings the boat to stop a few hundred yards from the soft, fine sand of Wassaw Island. He turns off the engine, letting small, wind-driven waves lap at the boat and push it along.

It's quiet, sedate, except for the occasional bird or dolphin breaking the surface.

"It's down there," Duke says. "Somewhere."