Originally created 10/04/04

Islanders divided over living with bomb



TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. - Below the deck of his shrimp boat, the Agnes Marie, W.G. Smith recounts in a voice barely audible over his droning air conditioner the story of his big catch some 40 years past.

It was 1959 or 1960, as best as Smith remembers, as he trawled for shrimp near Wassaw Sound. His net snagged on something large, so heavy he had to get a diver buddy to come shake it loose.

"He dived down and when he came up he said, 'That's a bomb,'" said Smith, 72. "I really didn't think much of it. I thought he was cutting the fool or something."

Smith's story still fascinates his 50-year-old son, Glenn. The younger Smith figures his father caught the so-called "Tybee bomb," a 7,600-pound nuclear device dumped off the Georgia coast by a damaged B-47 bomber in February 1958.

The bomb has become a local legend on this beach getaway 18 miles east of Savannah, for so long it's hard to separate fact from folklore.

For the first time in 46 years, the Air Force last week led a team of experts to Wassaw Sound to investigate reports of radiation traces that might reveal the bomb's location. With the visit, tales of the lost nuke have bubbled to the surface among islanders.

"I thought it was over here, and then I kept hearing it was over there," said Tybee handyman Harold Michael, wildly pointing in several directions from his bar seat at Cafe Loco. "You listen about and there's probably a thousand stories out here."

Islanders remain divided over whether the Air Force should recover the bomb or leave it. The government says the Mark-15 nuke is incapable of an atomic explosion, though it still contains about 400 pounds of conventional explosives.

Some have responded with typical Tybee quirkiness. Local financial adviser Joe Rochefort said he's conspiring with friends to form a "volunteer bomb squad" to spoof the search.

"We're going to wrap up in blankets with divining rods and inner tubes and go out there and find the damn thing," Rochefort said. "We like the notoriety. It's just something to talk about."

Others, like technical writer Ernie Love, see a more serious side to the search.

"It's good that they're looking for it and taking care of business, which they probably should have done 50 years ago," Love said over a cold Coors at Doc's Bar on the beach. "Just think if it would fall into terrorists' hands."

Three years ago, island Mayor Walter Parker and the City Council sent a resolution to the Air Force saying the bomb should be located before the military declared it non-threatening. Five months later, the Air Force rejected a renewed search.

Now, Derek Duke, a retired Air Force pilot who has privately sought the lost bomb for five years, says he's detected radiation patterns that likely mark the bomb's resting place near the southern tip of uninhabited Little Tybee Island, about 4 miles south of the Tybee beach community.

So the military sent a team of 20 experts to gather water and soil samples Thursday to verify or disprove Duke's claim. A final report won't be ready for several weeks.

Pointing on a navigational chart to the spot where his father says his shrimp net snared a bomb four decades ago, about 2 miles from where the Air Force investigated, Glenn Smith said he's been tempted to fetch the nuke himself.

"I asked a friend, 'Can I borrow your boat?'" Smith said. "I said, 'I think I can go get it.'"

Smith's father, who says he let the mystery drop after retrieving his net, sees no need for anyone to seek the lost bomb again.

"My thought is, no. It's been there all these years," he said. "I see no reason. Let sleeping dogs lie."