In the early days of the Cold War, the United States wanted to make sure it could launch a retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union as quickly as possible if it launched a nuclear strike. The goal was 15 minutes. This was before the advent of submarines that launch ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missile silos. From 1960 until 1968, America maintained that 15-minute ability to pepper the globe with nukes by putting pilots on 24-hour alert. For more than a decade, hundreds of U.S. pilots criss-crossed the planet in planes loaded with nuclear bombs. To keep up with brutal hours, many of the pilots and crew took amphetamine.
America lost a lot of nukes in that ten-year period. Some of them are still missing. At least one is armed.
As noted in Task & Purpose, the U.S. military had 32 nuclear accidents during the Cold War, and six of the weapons are still unaccounted for. Every story of a Broken Arrow—the military term for a missing nuke—is harrowing, but what happened off the coast of Japan in 1965 was especially frightening.
On December 5, 1965, U.S. Navy Lt. Douglas Webster was supposed take an A-4E Skyhawk loaded with a nuclear bomb into the sky. On the USS Ticonderoga aircraft carrier, stationed in the Philippine Sea about 70 miles from Okinawa, Japan, the crew loaded the weapon onto the vehicle and Webster got into the cockpit. The crew then pushed the plane to an elevator that would bring it up to the flight deck.
The plan was for Webster to fly around, then land back on the aircraft carrier where the crew would unload the weapon. Webster never made it into the air. The Skyhawk rolled out of the elevator and the crew began to frantically wave at Webster, calling on him to hit the breaks. “According to testimony during the post-incident Board of Inquiry investigation, the pilot seemed oblivious to the whistles and was looking down,” Chief Petty Officer Delbert Mitchell, who was on the crew that loaded the bomb onto the Skyhawk, told the U.S. Naval Institute in 2019.
Navy crew desperately tried to stop the Skyhawk, but they only managed to pivot it in place as it rolled inevitably to the side of the carrier. It hit the netting on the side of the elevator, broke through it, and fell into the ocean. The nuke was armed. “We never saw Lieutenant Webster after he climbed into the cockpit or knew what efforts he might have attempted to get out of the Skyhawk, but we were stunned to witness a plane, pilot, and nuclear weapon fall into the ocean,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell and the rest of the ship looked into the ocean and watched as the Skyhawk sank into the ocean, its landing gear sticking straight up into the air. Efforts to save Webster and recover the nuclear bomb started immediately. The Navy called in other ships to aid with the search but discovered no sign of the missing nuke or plane—they only ever found Webster’s helmet.
The Navy did not talk about the incident for decades. It reported the incident to Congress a year later when the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy was studying the shocking number of Broken Arrows, but the general public wouldn’t learn that America had lost an active nuke off the coast of Japan until 1989.
Japan was and is a U.S. ally, and it needed places like Okinawa to stage troops for the Vietnam war. The country—for obvious reasons—has strict laws about its allies bringing nuclear weapons into its territory.
It’s hard to know what will happen to an active nuclear weapon at the bottom of the ocean. “The environmental impact is expected to be nil,” Lt. Cmdr. James Kudla, a Navy spokesman, told the press in 1989.
Other nuclear accidents related to U.S. bombers have not had “minimal” environmental impact. Two crashes, along with the development of submarine-launched nukes and ICMBs, helped put an end to America’s strategy of keeping methed out pilots in the air 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The first was the 1966 Palomares crash. In January of that year, a B-52 carrying nukes collided with a tanker during mid-air refueling. They smashed into the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. The B-52 was carrying four nukes. The conventional explosives in two of them detonated on impact with the ground and contaminated the area. Spain told NATO it couldn’t fly in its air space anymore if it was carrying nukes.
The second incident happened in 1968 in Greenland. A B-52 carrying nukes near Baffin Bay caught fire. The crew couldn’t land the plane or control the blaze and they abandoned it. The B-52 crashed and spread nuclear materials through the sea and ice in Greenland. After the incident, the policy of keeping nuclear bombers in the sky at all times was politicaly untenable and the U.S. leaned heavily on silos and submarines instead.
And somewhere out there in the Philippine Sea a nuclear bomb waits, salt water slowly corroding it. It’s probably long past the point of detonating, but the nuclear material is still there, waiting to slip into the water.