- 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
Mars Bluff, South Carolina, is a rural community too small to have its own post office. It is not shown on either the Rand McNally road map of the United States or the one for South Carolina. One might suppose that a nuclear-weapon drop would be the only thing to distinguish it from thousands of similar places across the country. On the contrary. In 1993 the historian Amelia Wallace Vernon published African Americans at Mars Bluff, South Carolina , a distinguished, highly acclaimed book that documents the successful private cultivation of rice by slaves in Mars Bluff and their descendants into the twentieth century and develops persuasive evidence that the technical expertise to raise rice in South Carolina (and Louisiana) came from slaves brought over from middle Africa, where it was the staple crop. In her book Mrs. Vernon locates the rice fields carefully, and several are within a few hundred yards of where the bomb landed. Given the size of Mars Bluff, it is not too surprising that she is also a cousin of Walter Gregg.
When the bomb entered his back woods, Walter Gregg was a 37-year-old conductor with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. He had served in the Army as a paratrooper in World War II and married Ethelmae Helms, whom he met on a blind date in 1942. In January 1953 the Greggs moved into the house they built on land that had been in the Gregg family for more than a hundred years. They planned to live there permanently and built their house with a solid masonry foundation and cypress planking. In its own internal documents the Air Force describes the house as “House, Frame, 224 feet from impact point, extremely well constructed of first class material.”
Air Force officials said they would settle all claims “promptly and fairly,” and a senior legal officer was sent from the headquarters of the Air Materiel Command ostensibly to do this. This officer started by denying the Greggs a housing allowance; they had, he noted, moved in with Mr. Gregg’s brother on the night of the blast and thus were incurring no extra expense. He then moved briskly on to the Greggs’ property claims. In 1958 the Air Force paid claims to its own personnel only on the depreciated value of the damaged or destroyed item, not on the basis of its replacement cost. The claims officer applied this practice scrupulously to the Greggs and insisted they list every item damaged along with its date of purchase and original price. This included such items as Mrs. Gregg’s collection of cut glass inherited from her grandmother, her wedding presents, her crocheted tablecloths, and her collection of 70 china demitasse cups. The Greggs’ Chevrolet sedan was a total loss, and the Air Force provided a rental car for one week—enough time, the claims officer said, for the Greggs to process their insurance claim and buy another one. Satisfied it had protected its own honor and the interests of the taxpayers, the Air Force offered the Greggs a total of $44,000 for the destruction of their house, garage, toolshed, clothes, 6 to 14 chickens (the chickens were free-range, and some were vaporized in the explosion; the Air Force was reluctant to commit itself to a spécifie number without a body count), and everything else. The Greggs refused the offer and turned to their congressman for assistance. He sponsored a private bill permitting the family to sue the U.S. government. The bill was passed, President Eisenhower signed it, the Greggs retained a lawyer and sued the Air Force in federal court. Three years and three months after they’d been bombed, the Greggs finally received the amount the Air Force had originally offered, plus $10,000, from which they had to pay their legal expenses.
The Mars Bluff incident obliged the Air Force to make significant changes. The composition of the high explosive used in nuclear-weapon triggers was promptly reformulated. No longer would it be possible for the explosive trigger in a nuclear weapon to be set off by concussion; the new design required a specific electrical impulse. While the Air Force and the Department of Energy do not discuss such matters, it seems likely that the changes cost hundreds of millions of 1958 dollars. Also, within days of the accident, a regulation was published requiring that locking pins be inserted in nuclear-weapon bomb shackles at all times, including takeoffs and landings.
We may speculate how this incident might have “played” if it had happened in 2000. The relative equanimity with which the press and the residents of Mars Bluff greeted the accident would certainly not have been duplicated. The Air Force’s almost casually accepted assertion that only minuscule amounts of radiation had escaped would have been subjected to the greatest skepticism and rigorous checks by the press. We can also fairly assume that in the 1990s follow-up articles would have explored the Air Force’s parsimonious treatment of the Greggs’ claims. The public, given a chance to contemplate the matter on 60 Minutes , might have believed that the Greggs had a point when they claimed their losses fell beyond the confines of straight-line depreciation.