February 5th, 1958: The United States Loses a Nuclear Weapon – Maybe

As far as nuclear weaponry goes, there’s really no such thing as a minor accident. I mean, we’re talking about three and a half tons of uranium and plutonium capable of annihilating everything within 20 square miles of its path; the slope between mishap and catastrophe is steep and slippery.  The consequences of an accidental detonation would be devastating to hundreds of thousands of people both in the blast zone and those within the path of its radioactive fall-out.

A thermonuclear bomb is definitely not something you’d want to just lose track of, but astonishingly, on this date in 1958, that’s exactly what happened.


Image Source: Lindsay Magnum, NPR

It was the thick of Cold War, a full decade before the first anti-proliferation treaty, and Air Force pilots were running a training simulation from Homestead AFB in Florida. The purpose of the mission was to test the reaction time of F-86 fighter pilots stationed at Charleston AFB. Three B-47s ran the mission, and one of them was fitted with a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb that had been “safed” by removing the active plutonium trigger. The only reason it was included at all was so the bomber could realistically mimic the speed and maneuvers of an actual Soviet threat.

All seemed to be going well. The waiting F-86 pilots scrambled to meet the B-47s as they came into Charleston’s airspace, but suddenly two of the planes collided, leaving the pilot hauling the hydrogen bomb no choice but to attempt an emergency landing, ditching the bomb into the water before he did. Luckily, both pilots survived.

There was no explosion as the bomb hit the water, indicating it remained intact. Still, despite the relatively shallow waters of coastal Tybee Island, Georgia, subsequent searches failed to locate and retrieve the weapon. After two and a half months of searching, the military gave up.

So, just how dangerous is it to have a probably plutonium-less thermonuclear weapon just hanging out in a coastal bay? That’s a question up for some debate, and the position you take probably depends on just how much you trust the government.

Although some chose not to believe the Air Force’s position that the bomb was “safed” in the first place, there’s a good deal of evidence to suggest they’re telling the truth. Not only does the pre-crash paperwork specify it was a simulated bomb, but records show that removal and replacement of the plutonium core was standard procedure.

The true danger probably lies not with the possibility of a massive blast, especially since decades worth of salt water would have compromised the electronic components needed for one, but with the the uranium that the bomb contains.  Some have voices concerned that someone could use uranium to create a bomb of their own, but modern scientists view that as unlikely.  The bomb is currently believed to be buried under 5-15 feet of silt, which helps keep it stable and unlikely to corrode and seep into the aquifer.

According to a 2008 article from NPR, the Air Force’s position is that the bomb – wherever it may be – is safer just where it is.

“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 it’s left undisturbed, the explosive in the bomb poses no hazard, the report said. It went on to say that an ‘intact explosive would pose a serious explosion hazard to personnel and the environment if disturbed by a recovery attempt.’ ” 

So, although the Tybee Bomb may not be as big of a mystery or threat as it once seemed, it’s hardly the only missing member of our nation’s nuclear arsenal – in fact, dozens of incidents in the past seven decades have led to a number of missing bombs, dotting the waterways of the world.


January 29th, 1863: The Bear River Massacre

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On today’s date, in 1863, near the banks of the Bear River in modern-day Idaho, hundreds of Northwestern Shoshone Indians were massacred by members of the United States Army. As their men lay dying in the deep snow, many Shoshone women were subjected to brutal rapes and the horror of seeing their children beaten to death with rocks. It was the largest massacre of Native Americans in our country’s shameful relations with the indigenous people who first called this land home.

In many ways, the American West of the 1860s was a social and cultural tinderbox. As the Eastern part of the country was entrenched in the Civil War, the west was grappling with the question of whether true co-existence between settlers and Native Americans would be possible.  Not 60 years before, Sacajawea, herself from an Idaho-based band of Shosone, had helped lead Lewis and Clark’s expedition through the newly purchased land. The ensuing decades brought swathes of white settlers in search of a better life, usually at the expense of the native people.

The Lemhi-Shosone tribal website explains:

“The NWB of Shoshone, comprising several bands, had close contact with the white settlers moving in the ever-growing tide of westward expansion. They found themselves in the unenviable position of being precisely where immigrants would pass on their way to the Pacific; that, combined with the critical perception people had of Native Americans at the time, resulted in a recipe for disaster. The NWB Shoshone were a starving people that winter, and the occasional friendly offerings of food by nearby residents had dwindled as the Shoshone were blamed for skirmishes and the atrocities to other groups nearby.”

Governmental reports from the time show that there was significant concern about the well-being of the native tribes as large groups of settlers moved into the region; specifically Mormons in search of religious freedom and tolerance, and gold prospectors making their way to Montana. Not only did increased land use by the migrants lead to a decrease in productive hunting, but pleas for help were ignored and the Shoshone resorting to raiding ranches in search of food.

The tension between the Shoshone people and white settlers ran high towards the end of 1862, often involving real or perceived theft of livestock and, more than once, attacks on settlers resulting in death. To protect the interests of isolated California during the war and to keep tabs on the Mormons (who the government never really trusted due to the influence of Bringham Young), federal troops were ordered to Utah, establishing Ft. Douglas in Salt Lake City. They were led by Colonel Patrick Connor, an Irish born Mexican-American war veteran.

Following a suspected Shoshone-led attack on a group of lost miners, an arrest warrant was issued for of their three chiefs. Col. Connor prepared an expedition, 300 men strong, to travel north to their encampment for a surprise ambush.

The attack took place at first light.

The Shoshone fought back; they had known that such a battle was imminent and had put some preparations into place. Still, their arsenal was no match for that of the 3rd California Volunteer Infantry Regiment. From Military History Online:

“From a purely military point of view, Connor’s fortune was that the Shoshone had ran out of ammunition. Every advantage was afforded to the Shoshone fighters that day. The weather was exceptionally cold, and the snow very deep. The weather had not allowed the Union troops to get their howitzers to the battlefield, so they were not a factor. The site of the fight was very well naturally fortified, and the fighters were bold in their tenacity to fight. All of these factors favored a strong defense. Better supplied Shoshone warriors could have made this a very different day for history and for Col Connor.”

Col. Connor began to lose control over his men hours into the battle, and most reports indicate that he wasn’t overly concerned at their brutal and inhumane treatment of innocent survivors. In addition to raping and murdering the Shoshone people, the troops set fire to their homes, stole their horses, and destroyed most of their winter food supply before leaving. According to Connor’s official report:  “We found 224 bodies on the field, among which were those of the chiefs Bear Hunter, Sagwich, and Leight. How many more were killed than stated I am unable to say, as the condition of the wounded rendered their immediate removal a necessity. I was unable to examine the field.”

Most historians put the number of dead Shoshone much higher. Col. Connor never mentions the behavior of his soldiers in the aftermath. He spent the rest of his tenure out west fighting against Native Americans and was later promoted to General.

The band of Shoshone that was attacked that day never fully recovered. Other local chiefs, seeing their fate, agreed to move to reservations established later that decade by President Johnson. And, like so many other events in the realm of government/Native American relations, the Massacre at Bear Creek remains a mostly unknown and entirely reprehensible part of our nation’s history.



January 26th, 1700: The Orphan Tsunami and Cascadia Earthquake

It is the year 1700, close to midnight on January 27th, and in the small village of Kuwagasaki along the northeastern Japanese coast, villagers awake to a frightening warning: get to higher ground immediately.  Water has begun to pull back from the shore, exposing the rocks and flora underneath, and a large wave, 2-5 meters in height, has been spotted in the distance.  It is a tsunami. Although not a frequent occurrence, tidal waves like this have come to shore before, and the village leaders know the signs. But, as the water begins to pour into the village, destroying homes and crops in its path, they are puzzled. No earthquake, the usual predecessor — and obvious warning sign — has been felt.  Where did this massive wave come from?

The Orphan Tsunami of 1700 impacted over 600 miles of Japanese coast, miraculously sparing the lives of most of those impacted, but leveling buildings and destroying crops. For almost 300 years, the origins of the waves remained a mystery, until an amazing breakthrough that combined geological research, historical examination of traditional Japanese record keeping, and a sociological look at the oral traditions of the indigenous people of the American Pacific Northwest.

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“The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” by Katsushika Hokusai

According to the USGS, 81% of the world’s largest earthquakes occur along the Circum-Pacific Seismic Belt, known in popular culture as the “Ring of Fire.”  Stretching from the eastern shores of Asia to the western shores of the Americas, the Ring unites the hemispheres through a dangerous and active series of plates, faults, and seismic activity. But, which of those plates could produce an earthquake powerful enough to send a tsunami to the shores of Japan, but far enough away for the earth not to shake under her inhabitants’ feet? The answer to this doesn’t only fulfill a historical question, but it provides a modern solution: knowing where powerful quakes originate helps save lives.

As geologists delved further into the concept of plate tectonics in the 1960s, they discovered that some regions are more capable of producing massive, “megathrust” earthquakes that can register high on the Richter scale and precipitate massive damage.  The obvious choice for the origin of such a quake would be the around the Aleutian Arc, relatively close to Japan and a known site of active earthquakes. Still, as geologist Brian Atwater points out in his comprehensive study of the quake, The Orphan Tsunami of 1700, Alaska isn’t a good source. When a massive, 9.2 quake originated from there in 1964, residual tsunami waves in Japan weren’t close to as numerous or powerful as the reports from 1700. Further geological studies of soil deposits placed the last quake of that magnitude there to somewhere around the year 1200, ruling Alaska out completely.

But there was another area of the Pacific Northwest, long thought to be incapable of producing megathrust quakes, that was yielding some interesting results. In the mid-1980s, Atwater and other geologists discovered evidence that the land along the Cascadia region (from Vancouver, B.C. to Northern California) had dropped. Tidal mud and sand were found in layers under solid ground, and the stumps of dead cedar and spruce trees lay buried underneath layers of sediment forming “ghost forests”. Dendrochronologist David Yamaguchi was able to analyze the rings of the dead trees and determine that they were alive until at least 1699, and radiocarbon dating placed the event from 1695-1720. Whatever happened in Cascadia happened quickly -archaeological sites unearthed in the later part of the 20th-century show woven baskets and rocks from encampments completely buried under deposited earth and sand.

It seemed as if science was producing important clues, but historians were unable to verify them through records. The Cascadia of 1700 was a world that would be virtually untouched by Europeans for over 100 years until the Lewis and Clark expedition made it’s way to Fort Clatsop in the winter of 1805. The native tribes did not have written language, so no documents exist that can verify the existence of a massive earthquake,  However, research scientist Ruth Ludwin and others documented oral traditions telling of floods, quakes, and a battle royale between a Whale and Thunderbird – the water and the earth.

In the mid-90s, Japanese research teams with the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and the University of Tokyo put all the pieces together. Transferring traditional Japanese time and date keeping from local zasshos (logs which recorded daily conditions in each magistrate), accounting for differences in longitude, and the nearly 5,000 miles the tsunami would have to travel, the Japanese team established not only a date, but a time.  At 9 p.m. on January 26th, a massive quake struck the Cascadia region, probably just around 9.0 on the Richter scale. Ten hours later, its tsunami hit the shores of the eastern prefectures of Japan.

The date determined by Japanese record keeping from 1700 matched perfectly with geological evidence unearthed centuries later, and local folklore that had been passed on for generations. It proved that the Cascadia subduction zone was and likely still is capable of producing destructive and powerful quakes. It’s not only a piece of the puzzle, but a warning for the future.

This mysterious piece of history was finally solved, thanks to the scientific and anthropological evidence that supported a bold hypothesis and provided the answer to a centuries-old question as to what probably happened.