With all the talk of late regarding nuclear bombs from North Korea and Russia and such, I was reminded this week of something I’d heard when I was a kid that you might not know a thing about.
But maybe you should.
When I was a kid we spent many of our summers at Fernandina Beach, which is just above Jacksonville. Amongst all the families and kids I came to know was one boy, the name escapes me, who shared that his dad was part of a group working nearby trying to recover a big bomb that had been lost some years back.
As a kid, the gravity of what he was talking about never really registered with me. At least that was the case until some years later when reading in the Jacksonville newspaper about what happened with a hydrogen bomb near Tybee Island in 1958 brought it into clear focus.
On February 5 of that year a 7,000-pound hydrogen bomb was lost off the Georgia coast when the pilot of the B-47 it was being carried on, Air Force Col. Howard Richardson, dropped it into the water after an F-86 fighter jet accidentally collided with him during a training mission. The fighter jet’s pilot, Lt. Clarence Stewart, didn’t see Richardson’s plane on his radar, and descended directly onto Richardson’s aircraft. The impact ripped the left wing off the F-86 and heavily damaged the fuel tanks of the B-47.
Richardson, carrying a two-man crew, was afraid the bomb would break loose from his damaged plane when he landed, so he ditched the bomb in the water before landing the plane at Hunter Air Force Base outside Savannah. Stewart ejected and eventually landed safely in a swamp on the South Carolina side of the story.
Thankfully, being February, it was too cold for the gators to be active enough to consider him a potential meal, as had happened to other victims of plane crashes in the area.
He nearly froze to death, suffering frostbite on his fingers that nearly prevented him from firing off his flare gun to signal for help. The flare exploded at his feet, but the noise from the gun set off a hound to barking, and a curious game warden eventually found him — though he was sure he was looking for a poacher.
The Navy searched for the bomb for more than two months but never found it.
Today the government recommends it should remain in its’ resting place. In a 2001 report on the search and recovery of the bomb, the Air Force said that if the bomb is still intact, the risk associated with the spread of heavy metals is low. If left undisturbed, the explosive in the bomb poses no hazard, the report said. It went on to add that an “intact explosive would pose a serious explosion hazard to personnel and the environment if disturbed by a recovery attempt.”
Perhaps the question should be — what happens if it were to be disturbed by something other than a “recovery attempt’?
In this month’s Garden & Gun magazine, a new twist to the lost bomb story arises. It seems a shrimper named Bubba Smith shared a story to his closest friends before he passed away in 2006 that bears retelling.
Around 1960, Bubba snagged something in his nets in front of the Tybee public fishing pier that was so heavy that the outrigger on his boat buckled when he tried to raise it. Just trying to save his nets and thinking he had probably hung up on an old submerged engine block of a wrecked trawler, Bubba hired a local diver to go down and size things up.
The diver surfaced wide-eyed and exclaimed, “It’s a bomb!”
So, being a shrimper and not even knowing what kind of bomb but just knowing his boat couldn’t pull it up, Bubba cut the object loose and, in his words, “left the son of a (expletive) right there.”
It was only after he left the whatever kind of bomb it was “just off the dock at the old guard station” at Tybee that Bubba found out about the story of the lost hydrogen bomb. For decades it worried him, and the only reason he spoke up was because he had a granddaughter living on Daufuskie Island, and he feared the next time some shrimper snagged that thing she would die in a nuclear explosion.
That was his main motivation for ever even sharing his tale.
When I was a kid, I heard tales all the time about Russian submarines regularly being sighted off the Northeast Florida coast. My own eyes confirmed as much off the beach at Fernandina one of those long lost summers ago, as a sub with a big star and sickle popped up off the beach one morning.
I never could figure out why they were over there so much — but now I guess I know. As far as anyone knows, the Russians never found the bomb either — or at least they never let anyone know if they did.
So if any of you sportsmen ever find your lines hung up on something near the Tybee Island fishing pier, I suggest you just cut it and go on.
Some trophies carry a bigger bang than others.