Memory Lane

Eight days, two H-bombs and the team that stopped a catastrophe.

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Nearly 60 years ago, a U.S. B-52 bomber carrying two hydrogen bombs broke apart over rural North Carolina. The bombs fell into a tobacco field but didn’t go off. If they had, each 3.8-megaton weapon would’ve been 250 times more destructive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Lt. Jack ReVelle, then a 25-year-old Air Force munitions expert, was called to the scene. His job: make sure the bombs did not explode. ReVelle and his team spent eight harrowing days searching for components in stormy weather. All eventually were found and rendered safe. Had either of the bombs exploded, the explosion “would’ve created a bay of North Carolina, completely changing the configuration of the East Coast of the United States, and the radiation could have been felt as far north as New York City,” ReVelle says. It could also have been misinterpreted by the Soviets as an act of U.S. aggression, even though no one knew what what happened. “It could easily have been the start of another world war,” he muses.