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May 6

When the Air Force Dropped a Nuclear Bomb on South Carolina

It wasn’t their best moment.

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A version of this story originally appeared on Muckrock.com.

If you ever find yourself traveling on Crater Road in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, be sure and carve out a few moments for a marker commemorating this whimsical footnote in Cold War history - that time the US nearly nuked itself.

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Although the event was written about extensively at the time - and it gets brought up whenever an outlet’s having a slow news day - a 2012 FOIA request by Carlton Purvis led to the release of some rarely-seen photos of the Air Force investigation into the incident.

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As the owner and occupants of Building A…

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as well as Buildings B and C (a garage and children’s playhouse, respectively), Walter Gregg and his family is pretty clearly the aggrieved party in this scenario. This is how the garage turned out…

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And as for the playhouse, that was ground zero - so other than an 70x35 foot crater, there really wasn’t anything left for the Air Force to take pictures of.

Again, the blast was not nuclear - the core had been removed for transit - but the Mark 6 was still packed with the traditional explosives used to set off the chain reaction, and weighed in the ballpark of 7,600-8,500 pounds. One of those lands in your backyard, it’s going to ruin your day.

So, how exactly does 4-ton bomb landing in your backyard ruin your day? Well, as you can see, the front of the Gregg residence escaped with some minor damage …

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although the back, which was facing the explosion, didn’t quite come out so well.

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The inside of the house however, was absolutely destroyed - here we have the dining room, where the remarkably alive Mrs. Gregg was working at the time of the blast …

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the kitchen (which I had to rotate a few times before I could finally figure out which side was which)…

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and the bedroom, which thanks to Mr. Gregg’s pals at the Air Force, has been converted into a sun room, free of charge.

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People as far as five miles away reported broken glass in their homes, and the Air Force looked into a church down the road, which had lost a chimney…

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and more than a few pews…

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to the shockwave. Again - not nuclear.

So, what happened? According to the inquiry, somebody didn’t set up the bomb properly. While en route to England for a training exercise, Captain Earl E. Koehler of the 375th Bombardment Squadron noticed an emergency light which indicated that their payload wasn’t properly harnessed.

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A loose nuke being sufficient cause for alarm, Koehler sent the navigator, Bruce M. Kulka, in to go lock the bomb back into place before it caused any serious damage.

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Turns out, Kulka had to get on top of the bomb in order to reset the locking mechanism, so he reached around for something to use as a handhold … and accidentally pulled the emergency release.

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That’s Kulka all the way on there right there, with the expression that reads “I’m really sorry I blew up your house.”

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Again - not nuclear.

The Greggs ended up suing the Air Force for their trouble, and settled for $54,000 - just shy of $450,000 today. To put that in perspective, ten years later, Johnny Cash would burn down an entire forest, and was fined $82,000, or $570,000. Half a million to drop a nuke on a house? That’s a steal!

Read the full FOIA release here.