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. They didn't go off, but 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.
"What the status of the weapons were at that time was unknown, so we were working in the dark," Jack, now 83, tells his daughter, Karen, 47, at StoryCorps.
Of the two bombs, one had its parachute deploy, and it landed in one piece. For Jack and his 10-person crew, it was much easier to deactivate and haul away than the other bomb, whose parachute had not opened.
"This huge, multi-ton weapon penetrated the ground at 700 miles an hour and buried itself in the swamp," Jack says.
The crew set out on the harrowing task of digging it up.
"The first couple of days there, they didn't even have food for us. Nothing. It was snowing, it was raining, it was frozen — that's why we worked in shifts, sometimes on our hands and knees," he says.
The team had to recover the component that contained the arm safe switch, as well as 92 detonators burrowed in the ground. Each detonator contained a small amount of explosives and looked like a hand grenade.
When they finally found the switch that shows whether the bomb is armed or in safe mode, it was on "arm." That meant the bomb could explode at any time, depending on the status of the remaining safety features in the weapon — which were unknown.
"We all knew what we were there for and the hazards that we were facing," Jack says. "So we pulled it up out of the mud and brought it up over this wooden rickety ladder that we had to the surface of the ground in a safe condition."
The group carefully extracted each detonator they found by hand and then shipped most of the components – both radioactive and explosive — to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in nearby Goldsboro, N.C.
It took the men eight days to manage the two bombs. And after the mission, Jack sat down to write his parents a letter.
"By the time I'd written 'Dear Mom and Dad,' my hand was shaking," he says. "I thought to myself, 'My God, where have I been? What have I been doing?' "
Had one or both of the bombs detonated it could have changed the state's landscape — and ReVelle says that it could have been misinterpreted by the U.S. military as an act of aggression from the Soviets.
"You 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," he says. "At the time, nobody knew it, but it could have easily been the start of another world war."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Time for a little-known piece of history, which comes to us from StoryCorps. In 1961, an American bomber was flying over North Carolina when it broke apart, and the two hydrogen bombs in the plane fell into a tobacco field. They did not explode. If they had, the bombs would have been about 250 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima.
Lieutenant Jack ReVelle, an Air Force munitions expert, was called to the scene. And his job was to make sure the bombs did not go off after they were on the ground. ReVelle came to StoryCorps with his daughter, Karen, to talk about what happened.
JACK REVELLE: One night, I get a phone call from my squadron commander. And instead of using all the code words that we had rehearsed, he says, Jack, I got a real one for you. You don't often have two hydrogen bombs falling out of aircraft onto U.S. property. The weapon was 3 feet across in diameter and about 9 feet long. And it looked like a Washington Monument right in the middle of a bunch of trees.
What the status of the weapons were at that time was unknown. So we were working in the dark. Once we determined it was safe to handle, we used the crane to tip it over and put it on the back of a flatbed truck. But the second bomb, the parachute had not deployed. And this huge, multi-ton weapon penetrated the ground at 700 miles an hour and buried itself in the swamp.
KAREN REVELLE: You started digging, you and your crew. How many men total did you have with you?
J REVELLE: Ten - we call them the Terrible 10. I knew all of them very well. But nobody was cracking jokes like they usually did. And the first couple of days there, they didn't even have food for us - nothing. It was snowing. It was raining. It was frozen. That's why we worked in shifts, sometimes on our hands and knees.
And as we started digging down, trying to find the second bomb, one of my sergeants says, hey, Lieutenant, I found the arm safe switch. And I said, great. He says, no, not great. It's on arm. But we all knew what we were there for and the hazards that we were facing. So we pulled it up out of the mud and brought it up over this wooden rickety ladder that we had, to the surface of the ground, in a safe condition.
The next morning, I got up and showered and shaved and decided to sit down to write a letter to my folks. And by the time I'd written, dear mom and dad, my hand was shaking. I thought to myself, my God, where have I been? What have I been doing?
You have to understand, had one or both of the weapons detonated, you would have 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. At the time, nobody knew it. But it could have easily been the start of another world war.
INSKEEP: Jack ReVelle, speaking with his daughter, Karen ReVelle, at StoryCorps in Santa Ana, Calif. Details of what happened in 1961 were classified for more than half a century. This interview will be archived, along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.