Somewhere beneath the shallow waters near Tybee Island, 12 miles east of Savannah, lies a 7,600 pound unexploded nuclear bomb that was dropped by a crippled Air Force plane in 1958. It’s lost somewhere in Wassaw Sound, the place where the 1996 Olympic sailing competition was held.
The Air Force says the bomb isn’t dangerous, because it’s missing the plutonium capsule needed to cause a nuclearexplosion, although it still contains radioactive uranium and has the explosive power of 400 pounds of TNT. “The bomboff the coast of Savannah is not capable of a nuclear explosion,” said Major Cheryl Law, an Air Force spokesperson. As for the uranium inside the bomb, “to have that hurt you, you would actually have to ingest it.”
“It’s a nuclear bomb,” counters Derek Duke, a former Air Force pilot who has been researching the case for 2 years.”It’s like if I take the battery out of your car, then I try to convince you it’s not a car. It needs to be found so itmoves from the dark, scary realm of lost and unknown and we know where and how it is.” Duke has proposed to find thelost bomb by using a team of military experts who had technology capable of scanning the ocean floor.
Duke found an April 1966 letter written to the chairman of Congress’ Joint Committee on Atomic Energy by W.J. Howard,who was then secretary of Defense. There were four nuclear weapons listed that had been lost and never recovered. Twowere described as “weapons-less capsules” that were incapable of creating a nuclear blast, but the Tybee bomb wasn’t one of them. Howard listed the Tybee bomb and another bomb, lost in the Western Pacific in 1965, as “complete” weapons.
The Air Force has checked its original records on the bomb and announced that Howard’s letter was wrong. They estimate it will cost a million dollars to find the bomb, so they would prefer to leave well enough alone. Also, there’s noguarantee that it could be located, since tides and weather patterns over the years could have moved it out to sea.
Duke’s search was inspired by a nearly forgotten story he heard about Tybee Island, which is now a beach communityfilled with expensive homes. In February, 1958, a bomber on a training mission collided with a fighter jet near Savannahand had to drop the bomb in order to land safely. It was dumped in the waters near a small island near Tybee, calledLittle Tybee. The military spent weeks searching for it, then gave up.
Some Tybee residents discounted the story as a myth. “Savannahians have all kinds of tales and legends,” said U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston. “And part of the Savannah lore was there’s a bomb off Tybee. And you’d go, ‘Is there really?'”
“It was all over the newspapers and the radio. But nobody worried about it,” said Tybee city councilman Jack Youmans,75, who was living there when the bomb was dropped. “If it’s there, then it’s there. That’s all.”
But Kingston isn’t taking it so lightly. “Four hundred pounds of TNT to some folks isn’t a big deal,” he said. “But ifit’s your family and your boat that hits it, it is a big deal.”
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