- Historic Sites
“Aircraft 53-1876A Has Lost A Device”
How the U.S. Air Force came to drop an A-bomb on South Carolina
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
Within seconds the more-than-three-ton weapon broke open the bomb-bay doors.
In case of an unscheduled bomb drop, Air Force regulations required the crew to immediately notify its base by a special coded message. Because the procedure had never been used, the operations center at Hunter Air Force Base did not recognize the strange incoming message. As a final indignity, the pilot was reduced to radioing an open, uncoded message to the civilian tower at the Florence airport six miles west of Mars Bluff asking them to advise Hunter by telephone that aircraft 53-1876A had lost a “device.” The plane then turned back to photograph the site with its aerial camera. This was not difficult; the plume of smoke was easily visible from nearly three miles up. Because the plane could not dump fuel, it descended to the denser air at 6,000 feet, where it circled for 2 hours and 26 minutes before landing uneventfully.
The concussion from the explosion injured all five members of the Walter Gregg family (Mrs. Gregg was sewing in the front parlor, and her son, Walter Junior, was standing next to his father in the toolshed) as well as their cousin, Ella Davies. They were taken to the Florence hospital, where Ella, who had 31 stitches, was kept overnight and the others released. Although the Greggs certainly knew their problems stemmed from some sort of explosion, it was not until that evening at the hospital that Walter Gregg learned it was caused by a U.S. Air Force bomb.
The Florence Morning News knew the real cause of the problem several hours before Gregg did. The call came into the paper just before 5:00 P.M. and was taken by Thom Andersen, who would one day be the News ’s managing editor but who was then a cub sportswriter. He was the only reporter in the newsroom; the others were down the street at the courthouse attending a trial, and Anderson went there to tell his superiors about the explosion. They speculated that an external fuel tank had dropped and told him to check on it in the morning. Anderson, however, was not convinced, and he rounded up a freelance photographer and took off for Mars Bluff. They got a ride to the site with a senior Air Force officer who had just arrived and needed directions; their car was waved through hastily established checkpoints manned by the Civil Air Patrol and the state police. Anderson quickly discovered the actual nature of the explosion, the photographer got pictures of the crater and the wreckage of the house, and the next day the Morning News had four articles on the accident, with photographs, on its front page—substantially better coverage than The New York Times was able to give the event. In addition to the thrill of covering what was certainly the biggest story in the area in a decade, Anderson was flattered to field telephone inquiries about the incident from the foreign press. Things got even better for him when he received a number of checks from those news organizations, a pleasure previously unknown to Florence cub sports reporters.
The reception of the B-47 crew back at their base was perhaps more difficult than their flight. By regulation, all crew members on missions carried loaded pistols. As the crew clambered out of the aircraft, they were met by armed air police, who relieved them of their weapons and took them to a room in the base operations center with mattresses hastily arranged on the floor. They were told they would be obliged to stay here “at least overnight”; they were not allowed to contact their families or anyone else. The fear seems to have been that they had dropped the bomb deliberately. Later that evening, General LeMay, who was by then vice chief of staff of the Air Force, called Captain Koehler directly to get a telephone briefing on what had happened. LeMay, perhaps the only operational commander in the Air Force who had actually performed maintenance on his bombers, understood Koehler’s explanation, and the crew was released.
The accident was featured prominently in the national and international press. The New York Times’s columnist Harrison Salisbury commented, and the prime minister of Great Britain reassured the House of Commons. Overall, what is surprising is that coverage essentially disappeared after three days, and despite conflicting statements from the Air Force, the press did not investigate whether radioactive material had been released into the atmosphere. This casual acceptance stands in stark contrast to the media frenzy that accompanied the accident at Three Mile Island 21 years later. As it turned out, classified Air Force radiation studies released in 1997 indicate that radiation after the Mars Bluff explosion was barely above background levels. As was the rule in peacetime, the fissionable nuclear core of the weapon was stored elsewhere in the aircraft in what was called “the birdcage.” In a war situation, the crew would have transferred the nuclear core from the birdcage to the bomb bay and inserted it into the bomb.