In March 1958, an American B-47E bomber flying en route to Britain dropped its payload — an atomic bomb similar to the infamous Fat Boy — on Florence, South Carolina. Yes, you read that right. Luckily, only six people were injured. No one died.
Blessedly, it didn’t detonate. Well, actually, it sorta did.
The payload was released right over the home of Mr. Walter Gregg of Mars Bluff, a small, rural area of South Carolina. While the bomb was smaller than the nuclear monsters to come, the trigger, 7,600 pounds of TNT, went off on impact, obliterating poor Gregg’s house, injuring his family, damaging a nearby church and houses within a five-mile radius. According to local reports, the TNT itself left a crater 70 by 35 feet wide and was big enough to produce a small mushroom cloud. Greggs received a small settlement.
That’s a lot of TNT. Image: Tom Kirkland / Columbia Star
The Mars Bluff crater is still visible on Google Maps, and it was later found to be one big accident. Apparently a cockpit light flashed indicating the pin locking the bomb to the rack wasn’t engaged. The navigator, Captain Bruce Kulka, climbed into the bomb bay to check things out and — wait for it — accidentally grabbed the emergency release lever.
Despite blowing up a house, the flight crew — who were supposed to deliver the bomb to build up defenses in the UK against the Soviets — were later absolved of wrongdoing and placed back on active duty. As it turns out, someone had thought ahead: the fissile material for the bomb was stowed away separately on the plane.
So while an American bomber did indeed drop an atomic bomb on South Carolina, it wasn’t armed. And, as Cold War expert Bill Geerhart explained, the U.S. has been cheerfully blowing itself up since the Trinity Test, even if destroying farmhouses wasn’t part of the agenda. Still, one major question remains: how the hell does one design a bomb bay that allows the release of an atomic bomb with the simple pull of a lever?
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @drderekmead.