Near Nuclear Destruction
Considered By Experts To Be the Closest Call To An Accidential Nuclear Detonation, The '61 Wayne County Bomber Crash Implemented New Safety Measures
GOLDSBORO, NC--It was 50 years ago that tensions were elevated in a cold war arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was common for the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command to be at a constant high alert and for there to be bombers in the air at all times ready to carry out their mission to deliver nuclear weaponry against enemy targets should the orders be given by the President. This posturing helped keep each country in check with each other, realizing the significance that would be involved in all-out atomic warfare.
Located just outside the southern city limits of Goldsboro, is Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Today, it is of considerable importance to our nation’s military with the largest single collection of F-15E Strike Eagles in the world and the primary training facility for this modern war machine. However, years ago, it was home to a Strategic Air Command Wing which was comprised of a sizeable fleet of B-52 Stratofortress heavy bombers.
These larger military aircraft were capable of delivering a sizeable amount of atomic bombs as well as conventional bombs half way around the world. On the night of January 24, 1961, one of these large bombers was passing over northern Wayne County in the vicinity of the communities of Eureka and Faro about 12 miles north of the base.
Just after midnight, the B-52, manned by eight crewmembers, suffered significant structural failure that resulted in the break up of the aircraft in flight.
On the ground, witnesses, many of them asleep in their beds, heard the terrible noise of the falling aircraft and beheld the night sky light up like it was daytime. Burning metal and aircraft parts rained down near the rural crossroads of Faro. The crew had ejected from the doomed B-52, however only three crewmembers out of the eight would live through the ordeal. Meanwhile, the unthinkable was perilously close to happening. Onboard the aircraft were two MK 39 atomic bombs that had a yield of 2.4 to 4 megatons each. Four megatons would have roughly 250 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb.
These types of warheads were not capable of detonation just by the mere drop and several safety devices were in place. However, as the aircraft broke apart and the bombs fell, safety measures failed and reports have been made by expert examination that while both bombs were somewhat armed when they fell, one in particular was just one safety switch away from detonation.
The effects of such an accident are hard to imagine, yet very few people can say just how close this massive explosion came to be. It has been stated that a bomb of this magnitude could have left a crater 1/3 mile in diameter. Houses and buildings would have been obliterated four miles away from the blast. Nine miles from the blast, widespread fires would have resulted and the extreme heat would have caused third-degree burns up to the nine-mile point. Even 12 miles out from ground zero, people would have felt the effects of second-degree burns and structural damage. This also does not account for the radiation that would have ensued, spreading across eastern NC to effect even more citizens in neighboring counties.
One of the bombs fell partially armed with its parachute deployed; this is the weapon that had come so close to detonation. It was quickly recovered by the Air Force, but another bomb had fallen without its parachute and had plummeted at a high velocity into a local farmer’s field and apparently buried itself deeply into the ground. For days on end, the Air Force excavated the field in an attempt to recover what was lost. Some bomb components were apparently recovered, but freezing temperatures and a large man-made hole that constantly filled with ground water, forced the Air Force to abandon its efforts to recover some parts of that last bomb.
The decision was made to buy an easement to the property and after professional reassurance that what was buried deep in that field was safe, all returned back to normal. Still, to this day, state environmental personnel annually check the location to assure that no radiation exists or any dangerous fallout has occurred due to time and the elements.
It would later be determined that the Goldsboro incident was perhaps the closest occurrence of a horrific nuclear catastrophe ever documented. The events in northern Wayne County that night was a wake-up call for the dire need of increased safety measures. Then, President John F. Kennedy, who had only been in office four days when the accident occurred, was notified and immediate step taken to avoid any further serious incidences like the one in Goldsboro.
Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the City of Goldsboro and the Wayne County area have remained a very tight-knit community with very strong public sentiments in favor of supporting the base and rallying for its existence in recent years while efforts to trim military expenses nationwide continue.
Currently, Seymour Johnson is of high value to both the military and the community. Most residents have long forgotten that night’s events, that happened here five decades ago, and the base’s mission is much different today than during the cold war era and a nuclear arms race between two superpower countries.
The heavy bombers have long been gone from Seymour and free-falling bombs are relics by today’s standards. Technology has dramatically improved since that time and most warheads of today are smaller and guided by laser targeting or satellite-specified coordinates for pinpoint accuracy. Many safeguards are in place today and the cold war has been over for years since the economic collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, there’s nothing militarily to be seen in that stretch of rural Wayne County and its appearance looks no different than any other bean or cornfield elsewhere in North Carolina. What lies beneath that field has been mostly forgotten. People who lived in this region however, can be very grateful that what could have been, never was. The recollections are obscured as just an unfortunate plane crash that claimed the lives of five airmen rather than a horrifically vivid account, documented in history for ages to come.