Winter 2013/2014 -- The year was 1958 and the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a fierce arms race in the midst of the cold war. As tensions escalated between the two global superpowers, everyone hoped for the best but prepared for the worst. In preparation, the United States not only amped up weapons at home, but they reinforced training and defense with British allies as well.
On the 11th of March, a crew consisting of pilot Capt Earl Koehler, co-pilot Capt Charles Woodruff, navigator/bombardier Capt Bruce Kulka, and crew chief Sgt Robert Screptock took off from Hunter Air Force Base in a B-47 en route to Bruntingthorpe Air Base in England for training exercises. Due to the potential looming crisis, this was not just any training exercise - it was a nuclear weapons training exercise, so a Mark 6 30-kiloton fission bomb was onboard.
Shortly into flight, the crew received an alert that there was a problem in the bomb bay area, and Capt Bruce Kulka worked his way to the back to investigate. He quickly realized the problem was with the locking pin, but the captain had difficulty pinpointing its exact location. After a 12-minute search, he realized the locking pin had to be somewhere above the device, but as a man of short stature, Capt Kulka was not able to see over the bomb. In an ill-fated move, the captain decided to climb high enough to get a good look, but in the process accidently grabbed the emergency release as a hand-hold. When Capt Kulka pulled the release, he and the three-ton bomb dropped down on the bay doors. Seconds later, the doors burst open, sending the bomb plummeting to earth. Kulka narrowly escaped sliding out after the bomb but managed to grab hold of something and pull himself back to safety.
The bomb struck the ground close to a farmhouse in Mars Bluff, North Carolina, leaving a 70-foot wide, 35-foot deep crater in its wake. The blast virtually destroyed the house, but all six individuals in close proximity miraculously survived with only minor injuries.
So how did the bomb not destroy all of North Carolina and its inhabitants? The nuclear core was not housed in the device due to Air Force standard procedure for transporting. Instead, it was stored onboard separately in the "birdcage." This mishap is a prime example of why standard procedures are in place. In this case, that one procedure prevented thousands of potential fatalities.
Not knowing the extent of the damage, the plane immediately circled back after the accidental drop to take aerial photos--yet another procedure. The crew continued to follow procedures by attempting to notify Hunter Air Force Base. There had never been a similar incident, so the base didn't recognize the coded transmission from the aircraft. But Hunter had to be immediately notified, so Capt Koehler radioed the closest airport in Florence, South Carolina, and asked on-duty personnel to call Hunter and let them know that "aircraft 53-1876A had lost a device."
In the meantime, help had arrived on the scene for the Gregg family: Mr. and Mrs. Gregg, their children Walter Jr., and Effie, and a young cousin named Ella Davies. Ella had gone to play with her cousins after school and was hit by debris from the playhouse. As a result, she required 31 stitches and was the only individual hospitalized due to the incident.
In an interview many years later, Ella reflected back on the events of that day. She said, "When the thing fell, I remember hearing it, it was the whistle of the bomb coming down. I thought it was an airplane or jet flying over."
When the incident occurred, the Gregg family had no idea what had happened, but because of all the media attention from the Cold War crisis, they assumed the farm had just been bombed by the Russians. It wasn't until the next day, that they discovered what had actually happened.
"After I left the hospital," recalls Ella, "the General from Shaw Air Force Base, where the plane was held, came over and visited. He had a book and doll for me. He sat around and talked with the family. He was there as a concerned person."
"At the time, we were all just glad to be alive and went on with our lives." Ella said. "I did a shoot 22 years later with a documentary crew, and I remember being amazed at how bitter my cousins were, whereas I walked away without any long-term effects except this amusing story. It was just something that happened."
The most important outcome of this mishap is that everyone involved did walk away. Since 1958, there have been many changes to policies and procedures. Planes have been outdated or upgraded, and what is commonly transported by AMC has greatly changed since the Cold War. Today, AMC transports cargo either at home or somewhere around the globe on a daily basis. So, if you happen to be onboard and have to go into the cargo bay in-flight, watch what you grab hold of so you don't have a mishap of atomic proportion.
The Florence Museum of Art, Science, and History, only a short distance from Mars Bluff, houses a large collection of photos, memorabilia, and articles from the incident. More information can be found at www.roadsideamerica.com/story/16444 or by visiting the museum located at 558 Spruce Street, Florence, South Carolina.