The Colonel and the Bomb

Can a forty-year-old lost Cold War relic be brought to life?

Somewhere in Wassau Sound, near Tybee Island, Georgia, a Mark-15 bomb sits beneath the ocean floor. The bomb may be nuclear, or it may not be. It may be buried under five feet of sand, or it may be buried under forty. It is probably intact, but no one knows for sure, because the night it was dropped—February 5, 1958—was highly chaotic. The B-47 carrying the bomb, on a training mission that started in Florida, collided in midair sometime after midnight with an F-86 fighter plane on a simulated attack mission. The F-86 crashed after its pilot safely ejected. The B-47 caught fire, and its pilot jettisoned the bomb into the sea before landing. The Navy never found it, despite an intensive nine-week search.

"The Tybee bomb is a great mystery," says Derek Duke, a fifty-six-year-old former Air Force colonel who lives near Savannah. "And everyone is lured to a mystery." Absent a federal search for the weapon, Duke wants to conduct his own search. He just wants to locate it; he plans to leave excavation to the government. He is very determined. In a recent e-mail he told me that he intends to scour Wassau Sound in "a high-tech extremely visual search vessel exotic to the eyeballs" and has assembled a team "like the famous TV 'A-Team.'" It includes, he wrote, "the original US Navy search Commander"—the man who guided the 1958 hunt for the Tybee bomb—"plus a 30 year veteran CIA officer who has agency permission to be here. Nukes and counter terrorism was his bag, and maritime ops ... and the Navy Captain who launched Charles Lindbergh Jr. in 1966 off the coast of Spain in a Woods Hole deep dive sub to retrieve a live H bomb 2200 feet down in a canyon on the ocean floor, plus the man who supplied the 'General Lee' Hot Rod in the Hit TV show first filmed in Atlanta, 'The Dukes of Hazard.'"

Harris Parker—who did not design the General Lee, although he did work on some of the cars in the show—is actively researching the bomb's whereabouts; the other team members serve as infrequent advisers to Duke. The colonel himself has no underwater-search experience. He is a flight instructor for a major airline and spends his spare time reading about plane crashes and soldiers missing in action. Since he learned of the missing Tybee bomb—in 1998, while trolling the Internet—he has not raised any of the $1 million or so his search would cost. He has, however, obtained permission from a friend to use a $2 million treasure-hunting boat rigged with a sonar system and a state-of-the-art cesium vapor magnetometer.

Duke's plans may be quixotic, but they do shine light on an old fact. As many people are vaguely aware, the Tybee bomb has plenty of company beneath the world's oceans. From 1950 to 1968 the U.S. military, by its own admission, lost eight other such pieces of Cold War materiel at sea: three complete nuclear bombs, two nuclear-bomb capsules, and three bombs without capsules. The ordnance is still down there, off the New Jersey coast, off the Azores, somewhere in the vicinity of Morocco. And each bomb or capsule is shrouded in secrets. Consider the Mark-43 that rolled, along with its airplane, off a ship into 16,000 feet of water near Okinawa in 1965. "The aircraft, pilot and weapon were not recovered," wrote W. J. Howard, then an assistant to the Secretary of Defense, in a 1966 letter to Congress explaining this accident and three others. "No public announcement of this incident has been made, nor is any intended."

Most experts agree that the lost weapons, including the Tybee bomb, pose little danger, because they're entombed, making detonation unlikely. Duke is unpersuaded. He contends that if a major hurricane were to hit Tybee, the bomb could wash up onto the island and explode. "There hasn't been a big coastal storm to hit that area in a hundred and fifty years," he told me. "They're overdue, and the government knows it."

Duke says that weapons have emerged from stormy seas and exploded before, although he is hazy about where and when. He does have documentation to support his belief that the Mark-15 off Tybee is nuclear-capable: Howard's letter, which was declassified in 1994, describes the Tybee bomb as a "complete weapon," meaning that its tip contained plutonium.

Last July, Duke took the letter to Jack Kingston, a Georgia congressman. Kingston, who was running for re-election, apprehended its crackle. At a press conference he called on the Air Force to ascertain whether the Tybee bomb was in fact nuclear.

The Air Force had no choice. Dutifully its researchers went to the archives. They unearthed a receipt signed by the pilot of the B-47 just before takeoff. The receipt indicates that the bomb contained a "simulated"—that is, non-nuclear—capsule. The Department of Defense holds that this receipt is correct and that Howard's 1966 letter is not. "Classified production and maintenance records make clear that the Mod Zero was the only type of Mark-15 available on Homestead Air Force Base at that time," Army Lieutenant Colonel Steve Campbell, a spokesman for the department, says. "We called Mr. Howard recently, and he agreed that his memo was in error. And he is in complete control of his faculties." Chuck Hansen, a nuclear-weapons historian and the author of U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History (1988), concurs with the military's assessment and thinks that looking for the weapon would be "a waste of time and money." A federal committee is looking into whether or not the government should renew its search for the Tybee bomb.

The committee's report is due this summer. I called one of its authors, Lieutenant Colonel Don Robbins, of the Air Force, for a preview. Robbins said, "The bomb sits on top of an aquifer, sir, and that aquifer supplies fresh water to the local populace, sir. Dredging activities could breach the aquifer, allowing salt water to seep in, thus contaminating the drinking water. Where is the local populace going to get its water, sir?"

With his impeccable military-ese, Robbins sounded like a drill sergeant in a movie. I found this curious, because soon after Derek Duke began researching the Tybee bomb, he conceived of the weapon not only as a hazard but also as grist for a film—an eerie one, titled Zero Count. "In one very powerful scene," Duke told me, describing the script, "there is an explosion of blue light from a laboratory. A guy bursts out the door, screaming, and a pregnant woman is walking by. As he falls to the ground, his hands graze her womb. The child is born with incredible autistic powers in terms of numbers. His name is Bobby Zero; he's fascinated with the number zero."

This fascination was crucial to the script's plot. Early in his research Duke believed that the Tybee bomb might be fitted with a countdown timer—a clock that would "zero out," inducing explosion, at midnight on January 1, 2000. "We were concerned that the bomb had a Y2K problem," Duke says. "Bobby Zero had to beat the clock."

Not until late 1999 was a workable script finished (too late for pre-Y2K release),—and New Year's Day, 2000, came and went without nuclear incident. Duke dropped his plans for a feature film and envisioned instead a documentary that would chronicle a search for the bomb. The documentary would be laced with tension: "The key to this whole thing is that there's a high chance of human interaction with that bomb," he explains. "It's in shallow water. A fisherman could stumble across it, and it's nuclear. The government's worst nightmare is that we'll find it and expose the truth—that they're putting people at risk. We've got to find that bomb."

A search wouldn't be easy, according to David Jourdan, the president of Nauticos, a Maryland firm specializing in underwater search and recovery. "I don't want to be a wet blanket," Jourdan told me, "but sonar isn't really going to be effective for them. The water's too shallow. So they're going to have to use the magnetometer, and it's not like they're looking for a huge ship. That bomb is small. I'm sure its magnetic signature is practically zero. And it's buried near shore, where the current and weather are apt to move it around. How do they know where it is? They're going to be out there making fifty-foot swaths with the magnetometer, going ten miles an hour. They could spend a lifetime and find nothing."

Duke, however, hopes that his search for the bomb will be quick and decisive, like the moment of triumph in a good mystery novel. "We could take a search vessel out there and find it on Day One," he says, "because we know to within a hundred yards where it is. That bomb was dropped at a certain time, at a certain altitude, from a plane going a certain velocity. We've done the math—I can't tell you any more. I don't want to paint a nuclear bull's-eye, because one of those idiots who bombed the World Trade Center or Centennial Park, in Atlanta, could go searching too. But I think we can find it."

When would the search begin? I asked.

"Summer is the perfect time," Duke said, "because you have a calm sea state. If we get the money, we could have a search under way within seventy-two hours."