It has long been suspected that nuclear weapons flown on B-52s and B-47s during the Cold War were involved in mid-air mishaps and accidents that resulted in bombs being dropped over the United States.
CNN and Fox reported this week that the National Security Archives revealed that in 1961, one B-52’s wing came off in mid-flight over Raleigh and the crew jettisoned two Mk 39 thermonuclear weapons. One bomb’s arming mechanism was activated when it hit and another parachuting down came close to also detonating. The two bombs had three times the explosive force as the one dropped on Hiroshima and had one or two detonated, miilions of Americans on the Eastern Seaboard would have been affected. CNN’s story was titled Two Nuclear Bombs Nearly Detonated in North Carolina.
Until Monday, the government had kept the weapons program classified. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted a couple years after the incident that “by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.”
Operation Chrome Dome was the secret Air Force program flying armed nukes from bases in the U.S. to points near the Russian border during the 1960s. So that we had armed nukes in the air at all times in case of a Russian attack, the planes would fly to Russia, hover just off the border waiting for an order, and when none came, return to the U.S., refueling over Europe. Planes were in the air 24-7, who knows how many at one time, twelve or fifty? But it was our defense against the possibility of a Russian attack and took its toll on SAC pilots and crew as well as on the bombers As in the B-52 over Goldsboro, planes literally came apart in mid-air because of structural fatigue.
Sleeping Dogs, Tony Vanderwarker’s novel which he co-authored with John Grisham, tells the story of a lost nuke jettisoned in a similar situation by a B-52. An old pilot, locked away in a VA hospital by the Pentagon to keep him from revealing what he knows about a lost nuke, is befriended by a nurse who hears him muttering something about a bomb. She goes on a website run by a disgraced Pentagon whistleblower, Howie Collyer, and discovers the threat lost nukes pose.
Contacting Collyer, the two decide to kidnap the pilot to see if he can lead them to the nuke. What they don’t know is that a sleeper al-Qaeda cell has been monitoring the website and his email so they follow the three.
When the Pentagon is alerted that Collyer has kidnapped the pilot and that al-Qaeda is tracking them, they go into action.
Sleeping Dogs dramatizes the frightening alternatives: who will get to the bomb first, Collyer and the nurse who will bring to light the threat the bombs pose, the Pentagon which will deep-six the incident and continue to bury the issue or al-Qaeda which is intent on detonating the bomb, incinerating millions and making the Eastern Seaboard uninhabitable for centuries?
“I knew there was a real threat posed by these lost nukes and I’m glad the government is finally bringing the situation to light,” Vanderwarker says. “Who knows how many other bombs are out there, I hope my novel will help keep the pressure on to keep the bombs as fodder for novelists like me and not the source of some terrible tragedy in the future.”