History Has Forgotten This Bizarre North Carolina Event From More Than 60 Years Ago
Ordinarily, a round clump of trees in the middle of a field might signify an oasis of sorts. And that may be true for the lush roundel seen below and located in a field 12.4 miles north of Goldsboro, North Carolina. But this unsuspecting spot is also the site of where two thermonuclear bombs dropped on North Carolina in a horrific accident that occurred in 1961 – and part of one of those bombs is still there.
On January 23, 1961 as a crew aboard a B-52 bomber from nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro were conducting a mission of aerial refueling with a tanker, things went from bad to worse after the tanker alerted the pilot of the B-52 that there was a fuel leak in his right wing.
The B-52 bomber, similar to the one depicted below, soon dropped all 37,000 pounds of fuel in a mere three minutes as the leak worsened. The Commander was directed to return to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. But neither the plane nor the bombs made it safely back to base.
The situation quickly worsened and, in what may have been a terrifying split second, the pilot gave the command for the crew to abandon the plane (and the two thermonuclear bombs aboard). At 9,000 feet, five crew members escaped from a hatch or by way of ejection. One of them didn't survive the parachute landing. Two other crew members died aboard the plane. Somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 feet in elevation the plane broke up and the two thermonuclear bombs aboard were released from their hold.
Wreckage from the B-52 plane was scattered over a two-mile swath approximately 12 miles north of Goldsboro. But the two bombs both fell in one tobacco field. If you know what you're looking for (that roundel of lush green trees), then you'll be able to spot the very location as you drive by on Big Daddy Road (a.k.a. Rural Route 1534) north of Goldsboro in the vicinity of Eureka, North Carolina, and three miles south of Faro.
The Mark 39 thermonuclear bomb, depicted below, was in service from 1957 to 1966.
It measured nearly 12 feet long and three feet wide and weighed approximately 6,500 pounds. As of sometime around midnight on January 23, 1961, the U.S. military's inventory of Mark 39s was decreased by two.
The first Mark 39 thermonuclear bomb to be recovered was actually upright. In the photo below you can see the tethers from the bomb's parachute, which got caught in a tree at the point of impact.
Post analysis of the crash site determined the switch that activated detonation upon impact was in the SAFE (as opposed to the ARM) position. Had it, or the other bomb detonated, it's estimated that total destruction would have occurred and the kill-zone would have included an 8.5-mile radius.
Speaking of the other bomb: the switch for that bomb had somehow ended up in the ARM position! However, by some stroke of luck, the switch was damaged by the muddy conditions and the bomb, which lodged deep into the ground (some 190 feet), was intact.
Due to the depth at which it sat and the mud and water present in the ground, only a portion of this bomb was recovered. The rest remains some 180 to 190 feet under the roundel of trees you can see from the road.
The recovery team extracted the core of the device which was needed to trigger a nuclear event and left behind the thermonuclear stage of the device. The section still in the ground contained uranium and plutonium.
After abandoning the recovery of those remains, a 400-foot diameter easement above the device was obtained by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. The circular grouping of trees marks that spot.
In 1969, the military circled back to examine the incident. In a professional review, a nuclear safety supervisor wrote in a report that was declassified in 2013, "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe."
Some may say that on January 23, 1961 the stars aligned for America and the folks in this rural and coastal area of North Carolina.
It’s true we definitely averted a major incident when those bombs didn’t detonate in 1961. But let’s also not forget that three members of the United States Air Force died as a result of this unfortunate accident. The marker pictured above was erected in their honor 51 years after the accident. It can be seen in the tiny community of Faro, three miles north of the location where the bombs landed.
Did you know or had you forgotten about these two bombs dropped on North Carolina way back in the 1960s?
This isn’t the only aviation-related accident in North Carolina’s history. Keep reading to learn about the
1994 crash of USAir 1016 in Charlotte, and a 1983 small plane crash whose wreckage is still located along a hiking trail in the mountains of North Carolina.
OnlyInYourState may earn compensation through affiliate links in this article. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.
Explore North Carolina