When the Air Force Dropped a Nuclear Bomb on South Carolina
It wasn’t their best moment.
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.
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.
As the owner and occupants of Building A…
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…
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 …
although the back, which was facing the explosion, didn’t quite come out so well.
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 …
the kitchen (which I had to rotate a few times before I could finally figure out which side was which)…
and the bedroom, which thanks to Mr. Gregg’s pals at the Air Force, has been converted into a sun room, free of charge.
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…
and more than a few pews…
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.
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.
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.
That’s Kulka all the way on there right there, with the expression that reads “I’m really sorry I blew up your house.”
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.
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