“But this is absolute madness, ambassador. Why would you build such a thing?”
—The American president and a Russian ambassador discussing the doomsday machine in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy Dr. Strangelove
Jim, the man who put me up at Tybee Island, was the owner of a small hotel. He was a gray-haired hippie in his sixties. I was having a drink with him and a half Chinese, half-Mexican woman in her thirties named Rebecca, who managed a hotel nearby Savannah.
I asked them about the hotelier business. Jim’s establishment was a recognized historic site dating back to the roaring twenties. He was struggling to maintain it, he said, and it did not sound like a very lucrative venture. Rebecca, on the other hand, was working at a much more profitable location, a beach resort at a place called Hilton Head Island. She had managed numerous hotels in South Carolina, she declared, and was famous for cleaning up places where staff discipline was a problem.
“My boss always transfers me to the worst run hotels to help straighten them out,” she told us. “The last one was a real madhouse. All the staff practiced black magic, and they tried to curse me when I forced them to work harder.”
“What?” I said, laughing in disbelief. “They tried to curse you? How do you know that?”
“Every day I would find dolls that looked like me with pins stuck in them,” she explained. “They scattered them all over the hotel.”
It sounded both frightening and hilarious at the same time.
“I thought they were cute,” she continued, “so I stuck them on the ends of my pencils like troll dolls and made sure all the workers saw that I was not afraid.”
“It sounds like voodoo,” I observed.
“Not voodoo,” she corrected, “hoodoo. It’s different.”
Hoodoo, I learned, is pseudo-Christian magic practiced by converted African slaves, which uses special charms (called mojo), and apocryphal books of the Bible (the sixth and seventh books of Moses) as sources for its spells. It is unique to the southern United States.
Rebecca lived in the heartland of hoodoo. South Carolina is the most Africa-influenced state of the whole union. Next to the capital city of Charleston is Sullivan’s Island, the largest slave port in the history of North America. It is estimated that nearly half of all African Americans alive today have ancestors that arrived there.
Jim asked me where I would be heading next. I told him that I was planning to visit the Carolinas. “I’m hoping to drop by two places where the United States military accidentally dropped H-bombs,” I explained. “There is one in the south and another in the north. Apparently both of the Carolinas have been bombed.”
He was obviously quite surprised by my statement. His response, however, paid me back in kind.
“Really?” he replied with interest. “You mean Tybee Island isn’t the only place where they dropped an H-bomb?”
I had not known it before I came, but on February 5, 1958, an American B-47 bomber dumped a Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb over the Atlantic Ocean just off Tybee Island after a mid-air collision. A three-square-mile area was searched for nine weeks before the authorities finally gave up. The 7,600-pound bomb, which had a potential explosive yield approximately 250 times that of the weapon dropped on Hiroshima, has never been found.
Now, I suspect that many readers may have trouble believing some of the claims in this part of the book, so perhaps a little quick military history is in order before I go any further. Throughout much of the Cold War the American government had bombers loaded with nuclear weapons soaring over the national territory twenty-four hours a day in the event of a Soviet attack. This defense strategy was called “Operation Cromedome” and went on for decades. Those who might feel obliged to mention that Georgia and the Carolinas are a hell of a long way from Russia should realize that it was not just the Carolinas that the nuke-loaded planes were flying over. It was the entire contiguous United States.
In the chapter on Las Vegas, I discussed Edward Teller, the man in charge of the nuclear weapons program throughout most of the Cold War, who constantly clamoured for the United States to pre-emptively nuke Russia. Well, he was actually just the tip of a huge iceberg of military crazies.
Another man named Herman Kahn was a consultant to the Department of Defence around the same time and laid out the nuclear plan that the government eventually adopted. Kahn promoted the development of massive nuclear weapons stockpiles as a deterrent against Russian attacks. Even if there was a nuclear war between America and Russia, he rationalized, some sparse pockets of humanity would inevitably survive. Sure the fallout would be dangerous, but so was crossing the street, right? And food contaminated by radiation could be fed to the elderly, he declared in his book, since they were all going to die soon anyway. He outlined all this in a book called On Thermonuclear War that became required reading for all top military brass.
Kahn’s doctrine of nuclear escalation soon became official government policy. It led to the era of “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD. The Russians were prevented from attacking America, and vice versa, because of the certainty that any attack, no matter how pre-emptive, would inevitably result in a devastating counter-strike. This was the publicly stated plan of the American administration from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to the end of the cold War in 1992.
In response, the Soviets built the “Dead Hand,” a completely self-contained retaliatory system that would automatically trigger massive thermonuclear bombardment of the United States if any atomic explosion was detected on Russian territory. This system was turned on at times of high international tension and was reportedly finely tuned to detect seismic shocks resulting from nuclear detonations. Meaning that if an earthquake happened in Russia at the wrong time the entire world might be plunged into a fiery cataclysm. Or perhaps I should use the present tense here, because it is widely believed the Dead Hand system is still operational.
Florence is an obscure town in the northwest of South Carolina that the United States military accidentally bombed with a nuke twice the size of the one they dropped on Hiroshima.
On March 11, 1958, an air force officer in a B-47 accidentally pulled the bomb harness release pin and sent a Mark 6 atomic warhead on a 15,000-foot drop to the community below. The resulting explosion created a huge mushroom cloud and left a crater seventy-five-feet wide and more than thirty feet deep. Thankfully, the nuclear material did not detonate, only the standard explosive. The bomb landed almost on top of the home of a man named Walter Gregg, and destroyed it completely, leveling the forest nearby for hundreds of feet in every direction. Gregg’s wife was sewing in the living room and his three children were playing outside in the garden when the explosion happened. Miraculously, nobody was killed, although several members of the family suffered minor injuries. They were saved by the fact that the bomb had buried itself deep in the nearby mud before it went off. If not for that the Greggs and most of the town might have been wiped off the map.
I arrived in Florence at about seven pm, when it was already far too dark to go in search of the crater. So I drove directly to the address of my host, a fifty-year-old single mother with a sixteen year-old son. Her online profile said that she used to perform with a traveling vaudeville act and now worked as an art professor.
They offered me dinner as soon as I came through the door. Dawn was a short black haired woman who reminded me of my mother, and her son, Jacob, was a tall, lanky kid with a goatee. We sat down at the kitchen table and shared some soup and salad.
“We’re actually originally from Montana,” Dawn told me. “We have only been in this state for about a year.”
“So what do you think of the south?”
“Well,” she said, giving an exaggerated roll of the eyes, “it’s a bit scary, to tell the truth.”
“Scary? How so?”
“The level of education here is horrible. And religious fanaticism is everywhere.”
“It’s that different in the north?”
“Hugely different. In America the schools are all under state control, you see. There are no national standards. And southern students are usually way behind the rest of the country.”
“That is kind of scary,” I admitted.
Jacob, who had the demeanour of a man far older than his age, confirmed his mother’s assessment.
“Many of my classmates are forbidden to read Harry Potter because their parents are afraid it teaches witchcraft,” he said glumly.
I changed the subject and asked if they knew the story of the atomic bomb that fell on their town. They did. It was common knowledge in the community. I asked if they could give me directions to it and Dawn quickly sketched out a map.
The following morning I bid Dawn and Jacob goodbye and headed out to Mars Bluff, the area on the outskirts of town where the bomb landed back in 1958. I drove in circles for a while until I noticed a small sign by the side of a dirt road. I pulled over and got out of my car to check it out. Sure enough, it was a memorial telling the story of the bomb.
Behind the sign was a grass and gravel field that met with thick forest about twenty meters off the road. I walked into the trees and found myself on the lip of a large, murky lake. I gazed to the left and right for a few moments, looking for a crater, before realizing I was standing right at its edge. The whole vast lake that stretched as far as I could see was the crater, filled to the lip with rainwater.
The last stop on my whirlwind tour of American nuclear accident sites was Goldsboro, a town about fifty miles south of Raleigh. On January 24, 1961, a B-52 exploded in mid-air here and the two nukes it was carrying fell 10,000 feet into a farmer’s field. When the military arrived on the site to clean up the two square miles of wreckage, they only located one of the warheads, and discovered that five of the six failsafe protection devices on it had been damaged in the crash. If the last switch had failed, some say it would have devastated the east coast of the United States with a blast yield 250 times the force released by both the bombs dropped on Japan.
The other warhead was never recovered, and is presumed to still lie buried somewhere beneath the farmland, nuclear material and all. The Air Force spent about half a million dollars digging around looking for it before they finally gave up. They purchased the section of land where the bomb lies and have quietly fenced it off. Now in the fall, if you pull up an internet map of the coordinates you can see a wild patch of unfarmed land jutting from the middle of an otherwise carefully harvested tobacco crop.
When I was there it was unfortunately a long way from harvest time. A couchsurfing friend familiar with the area had given me directions to the site, but the fields were thick and lush, and unsurprisingly there was no sign announcing UNEXPLODED FOUR MEGATON THERMONUCLEAR WEAPON BURIED HERE! There was, however, a weird roadside church with a huge bomb (or maybe plane)-shaped sculpture on display in its parking lot. I pulled over and got out to inspect it. It was gigantic, and constructed from what looked to be ancient scrap metal. Had it been built from fragments of the 1961 wreckage?
I knocked on the door of the church, but no one was there. There was no plaque explaining the bizarre monument outside, or what it paid homage to. Whoever had built it preferred his anonymity, and apparently liked inside jokes.
I shaded my eyes from the sun with one hand and looked out over thick tobacco fields that hid a weapon of unbelievable mass destruction. I contemplated wading into the plants to investigate, but knew it would be futile. I took a drink from my water bottle and got back in the car to drive away.
I had visited three different nuclear accidents in just a little over three hundred miles, I mused thoughtfully. Not bad for a week’s travel!