In 1961, the Cold War was at its peak, President John Kennedy was only days into his office in the White House, and two nuclear bombs were inadvertently dropped on North Carolina.
It’s a story that couldn’t be told until the United States Government declassified it nearly five decades after the fact, and one that Alabama native Earl Smith can finally tell.
“They said to me, ‘You forget everything you saw; you don’t mention anything about this. You will spend many, many years in prison if you do so,’’’ said Smith, 80, who grew up in Muscle Shoals but now lives, retired, in Lincoln.
“According to all the experts, with the fallout and everything, if the bomb had gone off it would have killed everyone from New York state to the Florida Keys. It was 3.4 megatons, which is up to 161 times more powerful than the bomb dropped in Nagasaki, Japan. It would have killed about 25 million people.”
Smith told his story on the This Alabama Life podcast, hosted by 1819 News’ Don Keith and Andrea Tice.
Because of the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the United States military had planes armed with nuclear weapons flying constantly, to be ready to respond to a nuclear attack at any moment. The belief was that, if the planes were already in the air, they would survive nuclear bombs hitting the United States and be ready to retaliate.
But on January 24, 1961, the B-52 Stratofortress flying a routine patrol over the East Coast of the United States lost its wing, lost its tail, spun out of control, and, perhaps most importantly, lost control of its bomb bay doors – and lost two multi-megaton nuclear bombs.
The plane crashed nose-first into a tobacco field outside Eureka, N.C., about 60 miles east of Raleigh.
Three men died in the crash. Five others parachuted to safety.
That was when Smith, who says he joined the Air Force on a “lark” and the Air Force bomb/ordnance squad because it was both dangerous and had good hazard pay, found himself face to face with the world’s worst nightmare less than a year after his training was completed.
Earl was standing duty for emergency calls when the phone rang at his home on Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.
“I was told there’s a B-52 coming into the base with fuel leaks in the bomb bay area,’’ he said. “And I knew that was pretty serious, so I threw my clothes on and didn’t even take time to tie my combat boots and headed to the base. The plane crashed 15 miles outside of the base [runway]. By the time I got to the base, General Moore had a helicopter waiting for me. He said, ‘Get on board, Get on board!’ And I still didn’t know what was really going on.”
What occurred was that as the plane began to come apart due to structural strain, the bombs were thrown from the plane, dropping to the ground, creating huge craters in the farmland north of Greensboro.
Smith got a firsthand view of this plane debris and inadvertent bomb drop from the vantage point of the helicopter taking him to the crash site. From that point on, Earl would not be afforded a sky-high or clean view but would get down and dirty in the muddy hole, at ground zero, inches away from a nuclear bomb with a digital display window that showed a big “A”. That "A" stands for armed, the sequence by which nuclear fusion could start at any time.
Earl’s training was all for a moment such as this.
“What happened is one of the lanyards on the bomb parachutes got snagged by the plane as it was thrown out, pulling it open and starting the arming procedures,” Smith remembered. “Bomb arming sequences are set at the factory, and no one can tell by the display what the timing is set for, (whether) minutes or hours. The longest delay I think that could be set was for 46 hours.”
Believe it or not, dealing with large nuclear ordnance with an unknown timing mechanism that had already started and what could be the largest catastrophe on US soil was not the prevailing thought in Earl’s mind that day. The years of explosives training in the worst of physical surroundings had made him comfortable with life-or-death situations already.
Instead, it was the ranking officer’s command to go “by the books” in dealing with this problem that rattled his cage and concentration.
“When I got next to the bomb, the first thing the one-star general said to me was, ‘You can’t touch that bomb, we’ve got to get permission from the Atomic Energy Commission,’’’ Smith said. “And I said, ‘No sir, that’s not how it works.’ Here I was, the enlisted man, telling the general what to do. That started to scare me more than bombs.”
Funny, the things that go through a person’s head while they engage in dangerous work that determines if millions of people have another day to live. Smith even found time to make a joke to his buddies in the hole while disassembling the bomb parts, but only after he had achieved the goal of cutting wires and stopping the nuclear sequence that was in play.
“I was down there in the bottom of that hole, and pulling up parts of the bomb from the mud and water, and I pull up the uranium ball from between my feet and through my legs,” Smith said. “[I] handed it over to the other men and said, ‘Well, I probably won’t have any more kids after this.’
“And I never did.”
Smith and the three other bomb technicians, John Fletcher, Joe Fincher and Tolbert Evers, were able to diffuse the danger within a few hours. In the calm and professional execution of their jobs, they averted a potentially massive crisis all before the rest of the world was done with lunch that day.
But Smith’s heroism was not recognized at the time. Instead, what he and the others were given was the threat of imprisonment and severe punishment if they spoke a word about the event, compliments of the US government.
According to now-declassified records, it took a week for a crew to dig out the bomb. Soon they had to start pumping water out of the site. Though the bomb had not exploded, it had broken up on impact, and the clean-up crew had to search the muddy ground for its parts. To this day, it’s unclear why the bomb did not go off.
Smith was finally recognized and presented an American flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol in honor of his brave service to the country.
“Please allow me to express my immense appreciation for your service to our nation,” Sen. Richard Shelby said in his Feb. 2 letter to Smith. “Your bravery and willingness to put yourself in harm’s way is a testament to your character as well as the ideals of our nation."
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