The night two atomic bombs fell—on North Carolina

Sixty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, a B-52 bomber disintegrated over a small Southern town. An eyewitness recalls what happened next.

Published 22 Jan 2021, 19:57 GMT
Firefighters hose down the smoking wreckage of a B-52 Stratofortress near Faro, North Carolina, in the ...

Firefighters hose down the smoking wreckage of a B-52 Stratofortress near Faro, North Carolina, in the early morning hours of January 24, 1961. The plane released two atomic bombs when it fell apart in midair.

Photograph by Bettmann Archive, Getty

Billy Reeves remembers that night in January 1961 as unseasonably warm, even for North Carolina. But it got a lot hotter just before midnight, when the walls of his room began glowing red with a strange light streaming through his window.

"I was just getting ready for bed," Reeves says, "and all of a sudden I’m thinking, 'What in the world…?'"

The 17-year-old ran out to the porch of his family’s farm house just in time to see a flaming B-52 bomber—one wing missing, fiery debris rocketing off in all directions—plunge from the sky and plow into a field barely a quarter-mile away.

“Everything around here was on fire,” says Reeves, now 78, standing with me in the middle of that same field, our backs to the modest house where he grew up. “The grass was burning. Big Daddy’s Road over there was melting. My mother was praying. She thought it was the End of Times.”

Like any self-respecting teenager, Reeves began running straight toward the wreckage—until it exploded.

“Then I ran the other way,” he says.

Within an hour, in the early morning of January 24, a military helicopter was hovering overhead. Above the whomp-whomp of the blades, an amplified voice kept repeating the same word: “Evacuate!”

“We didn’t know why,” Reeves recalls. “We didn’t ask why. We just got out of there.”

What the voice in the chopper knew, but Reeves didn’t, was that besides the wreckage of the ill-fated B-52, somewhere out there in the winter darkness lay what the military referred to as “broken arrows”—the remains of two 3.8-megaton thermonuclear atomic bombs. Each contained more firepower than the combined destructive force of every explosion caused by humans from the beginning of time to the end of World War II.

A wing and a prayer

If there were such a thing as a friendly neighbourhood military base, it would be Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near sleepy Goldsboro, North Carolina. Largely hidden behind woods, walls, and wetlands, the base has been an unobtrusive jobs-and-money community asset since World War II.

Despite a notable increase in air traffic in late 1960, the good people of Goldsboro had no inkling that their local Air Force base had quietly become one of several U.S. airfields selected for Operation Chrome Dome, a Cold War doomsday program that kept multiple B-52 bombers in the air throughout the Northern Hemisphere 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each plane carried two atomic bombs. (Pictures of Hiroshima show the destructive power of atomic bombs.)

Bombers flying from Johnson AFB in January 1961 would typically make a few training loops just off the coast of North Carolina, then head across the Atlantic all the way to the Azores before doubling back. The gas-guzzling B-52s, called BUFFs by airmen (for Big Ugly Fat Fellow, only they didn’t say “fellow”) had to be refuelled multiple times during each mission.

It was following one of these refuelling sessions that Captain Walter Tulloch and his crew noticed their plane was rapidly losing fuel. Then they began having electrical problems. Tulloch briefly resisted an order from Air Control to return to Goldsboro, preferring to burn off some fuel before coming in for a risky landing. But soon he followed orders and headed back.

At about 5,000 feet altitude, approaching from the south and about 15 miles from the base, Tulloch made a final turn.

That’s when the B-52 fell apart.

As part of the Cold War-era Operation Chrome Dome, U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers flew globe-spanning missions day and night out of several U.S. airfields, including Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

Photograph by Department Of Defense, The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

“Tulloch had the B-52 lined up to land on Runway 26, but suddenly the plane started veering off to the right, toward the hamlet of Faro,” says Joel Dobson, author of the definitive book on the crash, The Goldsboro Broken Arrow. “Then it started rolling over and tearing apart.”

A few weeks before, the Air Force and the plane’s builder, Boeing, had realised that a recent modification—fitting the B-52’s wings with fuel bladders—could cause the wings to tear off. Tulloch’s plane was scheduled for a re-fit to resolve the problem, but it would come too late. He knew his plane was doomed, so he hit the “bail out” alarm.

Of the eight airmen aboard the B-52, six sat in ejection seats. Adam Mattocks, the third pilot, was assigned a regular jump seat in the cockpit. The youngest man on board, 27-year-old Mattocks was also an Air Force rarity: an African-American jet fighter pilot, reassigned to B-52 duty as Operation Chrome Dome got into full swing. At this moment, it looked like that chance assignment would be his death warrant.

“Basically, Mattocks was a dead man,” Dobson says. His only chance was to somehow pull himself through a cockpit window after the other two pilots had ejected.

“He was a very religious man,” Dobson says. “He told me he just looked around and said, ‘Well, God, if it’s my time, so be it. But here goes.’”

The B-52 crash was front-page news in Goldsboro and around the country. Five of the plane's eight crewmen survived to tell their story.

Photograph by of Wayne County Public Library

It was a surreal moment. The B-52’s forward speed was nearly zero, but the plane had not yet started falling. It was as if Mattocks and the plane were, for a moment, suspended in midair. He seized on that moment to hurl himself into the abyss, leaping as far from the B-52 as he could. He pulled his parachute ripcord. At first it didn’t deploy, perhaps because his air speed was so low. But as he began falling in earnest, the welcome sight of an air-filled canopy billowed in the night sky above him.

“Mattocks prayed, ‘Thank you, God!’” says Dobson. “Then the plane exploded in midair and collapsed his chute.”

Now Mattocks was just another piece of falling debris from the disintegrating B-52. Somehow, a stream of air slipped into the fluttering chute and it re-inflated. Mattocks was once more floating toward Earth. Looking up at that gently bobbing chute, Mattocks again whispered, “Thank you, God!”

Then he looked down. He was heading straight for the burning wreckage of the B-52.

“Well, Lord,” he said out loud, “if this is the way it’s going to end, so be it.” Then a gust of wind, or perhaps an updraft from the flames below, nudged him to the south. He landed, unhurt, away from the main crash site.

After one last murmur of thanks, Mattocks headed for a nearby farmhouse and hitched a ride back to the Air Force base. Standing at the front gate in a tattered flight suit, still holding his bundled parachute in his arms, Mattocks told the guards he had just bailed from a crashing B-52.

Faced with a dishevelled African-American man cradling a parachute and telling a cockamamie story like that, the sentries did exactly what you might expect a pair of guards in 1961 rural North Carolina to do: They arrested Mattocks for stealing a parachute.

A bomb too far

I am bouncing along the backroads of Faro, North Carolina, in Billy Reeves’ pickup truck. He pulls over near a line of trees perpendicular to Shackleford Road.

Slowed by its parachute, one of the bombs came to rest in a stand of trees. Examination of the bomb’s mechanism revealed it had completed several automated steps toward detonation, but experts disagree on just how close it came to exploding.

Photograph by U.S. Air Force

“That’s where they found the intact bomb,” he tells me. “Its parachute opened, so it just floated down here and was hanging from those trees. The tip was barely dug into the ground.”

A little farther, a few more turns, and his voice turns somber.

“Right up there,” he says, nodding toward a canopy of trees hanging over the road, his voice catching a bit. “That’s where they found the dead man hanging from his parachute in the morning. So sad.”

Of the eight airmen aboard the B-52, five ejected—one of whom didn't survive the landing—one failed to eject, and another, in a jump seat similar to Mattocks, died in the crash. To this day, Adam Columbus Mattocks—who died in 2018—remains the only aviator to bail out of a B-52 cockpit without an ejector seat and survive.

All around the crash site, Reeves says, local residents continue to find fragments of the plane. There are tales of people still concealing pieces of landing gear and fuselage. Shortly after the crash, Reeves found an entire wooden box of bullets.

“They took the box,” he says. “Wouldn’t even let me keep one bullet.”

But by far the most significant remnant of that calamitous January night still lies 180 feet or so beneath that cotton field. Although the first bomb floated harmlessly to the ground under its parachute, the second came to a more disastrous end: It plowed into the earth at nearly the speed of sound, sending thousands of pieces burrowing into the ground for hundreds of feet around.

The basketball-sized nuclear bomb device was quickly recovered—miraculously intact, its nuclear core uncompromised. The U.S. Government soon announced its safe return and loudly reassured the public that, thanks to the device’s multiple safety systems, the bomb had never come close to exploding. (Related: I trekked to a nuclear crater to see where the Atomic Age first began.)

Despite decades of alarmist theories to the contrary, that assessment was probably correct. Like a bungee cord calculated to yank a jumper back mere inches from hitting the ground, the system intervened just in time to prevent a nuclear nightmare.

Ironically, it appears that the bomb that drifted gently to earth posed the bigger risk, since its detonating mechanism remained intact. Robert McNamara, who’d been Secretary of Defence at the time of the incident, told reporters in 1983, "The bomb’s arming mechanism had six or seven steps to go through to detonate, and it went through all but one.”

“The bottom line for me is the safety mechanisms worked,” says Roy “Doc” Heidicker, the recently retired historian for the Fourth Fighter Wing, which flies out of Johnson Air Force Base. “On the other hand, I know of at least one medical doctor who was considering moving to Goldsboro for a position, but was concerned that it might not be safe because of the Goldsboro broken arrow. So there’s this continuing sense people have: ‘You nearly blew us all up, and you’re not telling us the truth about it.’”

But the story of America’s nuclear near-miss isn’t really over, even now. That’s because, even though the government recovered the primary nuclear device, attempts to recover other radioactive remnants of the bomb failed.

The main portion of the B-52 plowed into this cotton field, where remnants of one of its two bombs are still buried.

Photograph by Bill Newcott

If I were to hold a Geiger counter to the ground of the cotton field in which Billy Reeves and I are standing, chances are it would register nothing unusual. Dirt is a remarkably efficient radiation absorber. But about 180 feet below our shoes, gently radiating away with a half-life of 24,000 years, lies the plutonium core of the bomb’s secondary stage.

The bombs in the B-52 weren’t mere Hiroshima-class atomic weapons. They were Mark-39 hydrogen thermonuclear bombs. Each contained not only a conventional spherical atom bomb at its tip, but also a 13-pound rod of plutonium inside a 300-pound compartment filled with the hydrogen isotope lithium-6 deuteride. If you think of the Mark-39 as a pipe bomb, the heat thrown off by the secondary device is the nails and shrapnel that make the initial explosion exponentially more dangerous.

Reeves remembers the fleet of massive excavation equipment that was employed as the government tried to dig up the hydrogen core. But the area’s water table was high, and the hole kept filling in. Eventually, the feds gave up. They filled in the hole, drew a 400-foot-radius circle around the epicenter of the impact, and purchased the land inside the circle. The plot is still farmed to this day. Workers just have to refrain from digging more than five feet down.

Skimming the tree line beyond the far end of the cotton field, a military plane is coming in on final approach to Johnson Air Force Base. Reeves lives under that flight pattern, and every day brings a memory of that chaotic night in 1961.

“When the planes come in, and the windows begin to rattle, I still get the chills,” he says.

We trudge across the field toward Big Daddy’s Road, where our vehicles are parked.

“Actually, we’ve been really lucky,” he says. “Other than that one, there’s never been another military crash around here.”

The muddy ground sucks at our shoes.

"Course," he adds, "the one accident we did have dropped a couple of atom bombs on us…"

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