- MARS BLUFF - Once or twice
a year, folks call up Walter Gregg to talk about the time in 1958 when
the Air Force dropped a nuclear bomb on his yard.
- It was an accident, of course, and the bomb's nuclear
rod wasn't inserted. If it had been, the fallout would have covered Horry
County, and Gregg wouldn't be here to talk about a blast that pulverized
his garden, destroyed his home and made his family survivors of South Carolina's
only nuclear accident.
- "Not too many people can say they've had a nuclear
bomb dropped on them," said Gregg, now a garrulous 82. "Not too
many would want to."
- Only two nuclear bombs have been mistakenly dropped in
the United States. Neither accident triggered a nuclear explosion. But
if the nuclear rod had been installed in the bomb that fell on Gregg's
yard, it would have killed everything within 10 miles. The fallout would
have killed thousands in Horry County and Wilmington, N.C.
- Though the mistaken bombing was one-of-a-kind in South
Carolina, nuclear mishaps weren't uncommon during the Cold War. Some nuclear
weapons were lost and never recovered. Bombers have crashed, with their
nuclear payloads, in several states, including North Carolina. However,
none of these incidents resulted in a nuclear detonation.
- "It's certainly unusual," said David Coleman,
a visiting professor of Cold War history at the University of Virginia.
"But there were many examples of times when bombs were dropped or
planes crashed. It's not talked about very much."
- The Air Force has released precious few facts about the
mistake. It says the bomb was dropped from 15,000 feet, and that's about
- "It seemed like it was a lot closer than that,"
Gregg said. "It sounded like it was right on top of us."
- What happened
- The day all hell broke loose was a bright day, March
11. It was 3 p.m., and Gregg and his children were "piddling around"
in the yard.
- Gregg, a rail conductor, and his son, Walter Gregg Jr.,
were making benches in Gregg's workshop. Gregg's daughters and a friend
played in the yard as his wife, Effie, worked inside the house.
- Several thousand feet above, a B-47 was en route to Europe
from Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Ga., to take part in a military
exercise called "Operation Snow Flurry."
- Air Force officials said they have no records about the
whereabouts of the crew. But Gregg said he became friends with them when
they visited years after the accident. They wrote letters back and forth
- a correspondence born of an unlikely mistake - until about 10 years ago,
when the letters stopped.
- In the late '50s, Air Force bombers flying with nuclear
weapons kept the rod of nuclear material safely separated from the actual
bomb. But the bombs still had enough TNT in them to do quite a bit of conventional
- The flight had barely begun when a small, red warning
light came on in the cockpit. It indicated that the bomb wasn't properly
secured in the bay.
- Gregg said a crew member later told him that the co-pilot
thought the red warning light was a glitch. He hit the light with the butt
of his service revolver, and the light went off momentarily. When the red
light returned, he figured something was wrong.
- The co-pilot went back to the bomb bay and discovered
that the egg-shaped bomb wasn't locked into place. He pushed a button he
thought would engage the bomb lock.
- The man hit the wrong button. The bay doors opened, and
the prized 6-kiloton nuclear package fell to Earth.
- Gregg and his son say they heard the B-47 flying overhead
before the accident. Then, in a second, a tremendous blast shook the land.
The air became a whirlwind of dust and smoke. The din reverberated through
the slim trees.
- "You couldn't see 10 feet in front of your face,"
Gregg said. "The only thing I could figure is that that plane had
- Gregg charged into the yard to find his wife and daughters
as the concussion made his ears ring. He felt in a pain in his side and
noticed he had a deep cut under his right arm. But he was more worried
that the tank of heating gas near the house would ignite. He could hear
his family's screams.
- "You can't really describe it," said Walter
Jr., who now lives in Florence. "The noise was incredible, and the
dust was crazy. You can't really describe it."
- Where the garden used to be was a 75-foot-wide crater,
30 feet deep.
- Then the chunks of earth hurled skyward, some weighing
hundreds of pounds, came back down.
- The aftermath
- The lumps flattened Gregg's home and several outbuildings.
Pieces of debris damaged several nearby homes and a church. Smaller pieces
of dirt and rock pelted Gregg.
- When the sky stopped falling, Gregg found his family.
Aside from cuts and bruises, the kids seemed all right. His cousin complained
of back and side pain. His wife, who escaped from the house, was cut on
her head by a piece of plaster.
- Neighbors ran over to see what had caused this sudden
storm of noise, dust and rock. The first person on the scene was a state
trooper who had been driving on the highway. The blast had forced him off
- Gregg said he can only imagine the stunned faces of the
men in the B-47. They reported the accident and were ordered to return
- The Air Force called Shaw and Myrtle Beach air bases
and ordered any available men to Mars Bluff. The military wasn't sure exactly
what had happened and wanted to secure the area.
- In the end, Gregg's entire family spent the night at
the home of their family doctor. The cuts were stitched up, and the bruises
started to heal. Gregg's cousin had to have surgery to repair some internal
bleeding. "It's incredible, if you think about it, that nobody got
killed," Gregg said. The Air Force sent radiation experts to confirm
that no nuclear explosion had occurred. For months after the accident,
Gregg and his family were tested for radiation exposure. None was ever
- "We got to be friends with a lot of them,"
Gregg said of the Air Corps staffers. "One of them came and spent
a week with us about 20 years ago."
- Gregg said the B-47's crew soon was transferred to overseas
bases. They wrote letters apologizing to the man they almost killed.
- "I think they didn't want them talking to reporters,"
Gregg said. "They wanted them as far away from South Carolina as possible."
- The government paid Gregg $54,000 five months after the
accident. The Air Force ordered that all flights ensure bombs were locked
down before takeoff, and no accident similar to the one in Mars Bluff has
- The scene of the accident
- If you drive west toward Columbia along U.S. 301, you've
passed within a mile of the accident site. It's tucked away just north
of a gas station and a Baptist church.
- Gregg and his wife moved to Florence, vegetation and
trees grew in the crater, and all that's left is a barely discernible depression,
covered now with thick vegetation and trees. You have to ask Gregg for
specific directions to the site - otherwise, all you'll get are blank stares
from gas station attendants when you ask where the nuclear bomb fell.
- "The hole is still there," Gregg said. "It's
grown-over, and it's hard to recognize. The hole is there, though, right
where it happened. I wonder how long you'll still be able to see it."
- *Contact DAVID KLEPPER at firstname.lastname@example.org [email@example.com]