Albuquerque's Near-Doomsday

INSIGHTS, Albuquerque Tribune
Thursday, January 20, 1994

Hydrogen Bomb ExplosionA hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped from a plane just south of Kirtland Air Force Base in 1957

By LES ADLER, Special to The Tribune


At 11:50 a.m. on May 22, 1957, I was a 15-year-old sophomore at Highland High School in Albuquerque when the city and a good portion of the surrounding region were nearly obliterated by the accidental detonation of a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb dropped on the outskirts of Kirtland Air Force Base.

First reported to the public in 1986, this early "broken arrow," as such accidents were referred to in military jargon, became as much a historical "non-event" during the intervening Cold War decades as the recently exposed atmospheric radioactivity showers and radiation experiments. Like these tests, it, too, was a product of what Sen. John Glenn has called "the Cold War frenzy which gripped our nation."

Those of us living in the region had long known, and, indeed, were strangely proud of the fact, that Albuquerque was likely to be a major enemy military target due to the region's role in the production, testing and storage of atomic and hydrogen weaponry.

Nearby Sandia Base, nestled in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains, was widely suspected of housing extensive underground storage facilities where much of the nation's nuclear arsenal was guarded. Electrified, barbed-wire double fences, patrolled by guard dogs, were clearly visible from the highway as one entered or left Albuquerque through Tijeras Canyon to the east. Sixty miles to the northwest, the heavily guarded Atomic City of Los Alamos, creation site of the first atomic bombs and then, as now, a major national arms production laboratory, guaranteed our supremacy as a prime Soviet target.

For a town without major league credentials in any other fashion, this fact produced a certain cachet, particularly in an age of bomb shelters, civil defense programs and above ground bomb testing in nearby Nevada.

Year after year in public schools we practiced air-raid drills, dropping to the floor at the wailing of the alarm, huddling under our desks, eyes closed, heads down and covered by our arms so as not to he blinded by the flash of the incoming weapons.

With the irreverence of teen-age black humor, we short-handed our instructions to the essential and much more realistic message: 'bend down, put your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye!"

B-36 BomberOn that particular day in May 1957, unknown to any of us, a huge B-36 bomber with a crew of 13 was preparing to land at Kirtland Air Force base. On board, as recounted in John May's "The Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age" and later interviews with surviving crewmen, was the Gold War's ultimate product. It was a 42,000-pound, 10-megaton hydrogen bomb - the largest weapon ever made in the world up to that time, and the first droppable thermonuclear device - traveling incognito under the code name of Mark 17.

The giant bomber, a mainstay of America's Strategic Air Command forces, was commanded by veteran pilot Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Meyer with the mission of ferrying its deadly payload from Biggs Air Force Base in Texas to Albuquerque's Kirtland field.

Standard operating procedure on all such flights called for the manual removal of the locking pin designed to prevent accidental in-flight release of bombs to allow emergency jettisoning of weapons, if necessary, during takeoffs and landings.

The awkward procedure required a crew member, usually the navigator, to climb into the bomb bay and lean over the body of the bomb at the start and end of each flight to set and later remove the large U-2 pin. On May 22,1st Lt. Bob Carp was assigned the onerous task.

With the plane descending to 1,700 feet and making its final approach before landing at Kirtland, Carp began moving back toward the bomb. As described years later by another crewman, the difficult job resulted in Carp hanging over the 25 foot long, steel-encased weapon, roughly the size and shape of a large whale, "literally by his toes" to retrieve the pin. It was 11:49 a.m.

The plane was nearly four miles south of the airfield, and landing conditions were normal as Carp completed his stretch across the gleaming, rounded shape lying silent and inert in the plane's belly. Packed with the explosive power of more than 10 million tons of TNT, enough to destroy a dozen Hiroshimas or Moscows, this bomb and others like it, always in the air somewhere in the world awaiting coded attack signals, formed the foundation of America's proclaimed military posture of "massive retaliation."

Slim Pickens, Dr. StrangeloveWhat happened next is in dispute. Previously published reports describe Carp reaching up to regain his balance and pull himself into the cockpit, and being unexpectedly jolted as the huge bomber bounced through a pocket of turbulent air. Trying to avoid a fall, according to this version, he grabbed for the nearest hand-hold, a lever that immediately gave way under his weight, triggering a rapid succession of events: the giant bomb under his feet instantly sank, pulled free from its mooring and tore its way straight downward, directly through the closed bomb bay doors, ripping them away and opening a gaping, terrifying hole in the bottom of the plane; and the bomber itself; suddenly released from the weight of its 21-ton payload, bounded upward, gaining more than 1,500 feet of altitude in seconds before the startled pilot could regain control.

In a recent interview, however, Carp, now a businessman in San Francisco, has challenged the turbulence-fall scenario. He asserts --- as the one eyewitness to the entire event --- that a "defectively designed" manual release mechanism had been accidentally pulled into release mode by a snag in his long cable, causing the bomb to drop the instant he pulled the pin.

There is agreement on what follows.

"Bombs away!" reflexively screamed one nearby crewman, his eyes wide with shock as he peered in-to the newly opened void where the weapon and the man had been. According to another witness, Electronics Operator Jack Resen, it was only a few seconds later that Carp, his face, "whiter than any sheet you ever saw," slowly pulled himself out of the remaining bomb bay, yelling even above the deafening roar of jet engines and rushing air, "I didn't touch anything! I didn't touch anything!"

Radio Operator George Houston, seated nearby, alertly responded by sending a distress call to the Kirtland tower. To the stunned operator, he reported the ominous news: "We've dropped a hydrogen bomb!"

The bomb itself plummeted downward with frightening speed, the 1,700 foot drop far too short for its parachutes to slow its descent. Long before the plane could pull away, the weapon smashed into the nearly barren mesa, where a lone New Mexico cow peacefully munched sagebrush, oblivious to the source and immediacy of its own destruction. There was an earth-shattering explosion as the weapon detonated.

The Cold War is now officially over. Both the looming presence of the Soviet Union, which so terrified us in that era, and the imminence of nuclear war have vanished from the horizon. More than 36 years have passed since that day in May 1957, when my classmates and I, unknowingly, were nearly vaporized by our own forces.

For most of the intervening years the American public knew nothing of what had happened, and, officially, of course, the event didn't happen at all.

It was only in 1986 when an Albuquerque newspaper published an account based on military documents recovered through the Freedom of Information Act that the rest of us learned of this accident, and the many other Broken Arrows, both civilian and military, that occurred both at home and abroad.

If exposure of these events is the first step in understanding them, then a subsequent stage should be a frank admission by all of us that we knew and even tacitly approved of the conditions that brought about those near-misses and what we might more appropriately call "poisoned arrows," the above-ground nuclear tests, the uranium mines and nuclear plants whose careless use contaminated our soil, ionized our atmosphere, poisoned our animals and even irradiated our own bodies.

And if we did not know of them, like the "good Germans" who did not know of the concentration camps, then why not? What ferocious system of denial allowed us not to know, allowed us to shield ourselves from what should have been evident? Who is there to blame in a democratic society, finally, but ourselves?

Even the military investigators assigned to the case assessed no blame to the Air Force officers involved in the accidental bombing of Albuquerque.

According to the investigation, Field Command, a division of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, conducted recovery and clean-up operations at the site shortly after the nonevent. What they found was a crater 12 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter, blown, fortunately, in uninhabited land owned by the University of New Mexico.

Only the bomb's conventional explosives - those necessary but not sufficient to start the nuclear chain reaction - were triggered by the fall, and, according to the experts, no radioactivity was detected beyond the lip of the crater. Traces of the luckless cow, reportedly, were scattered over a much wider area.

Reports were filed, and the case was closed for nearly three decades. The trail was allowed to grow cold.

Today anyone attempting to follow the footprints left by our Cold War ancestors to discover the truth of those days sooner or later finds them leading directly to the gates of the little known National Atomic Museum at Kirtland Air Force Base.

There, in and around an innocuous, hangar-like building with flaking military paint and a general air of disuse, many of the gigantic and monstrous fossils of that Jurassic Age have been put on public display.

The unmistakable bulk of a decommissioned B-52 bomber along with aging missiles and launchers are the building's only distinctive features. But the museum's most significant statement --- to those who know the region's history --- is its very placement a scant distance from that unmarked Broken Arrow site.

Inside the cavernous structure the visitor walks by and even touches the dull and solid sides of the famous Little Boy and Fat Man bombs, inert duplicates whose twins ignited and vaporized the sky above Hiroshima and Nagasaki in those fatal microseconds in August 1945 that initiated the age of atomic warfare.

Down the line are the surprisingly varied mutations on the original design that evolved with amazingly rapidity in the fertile, early decades of the Nuclear Age: small, swift versions to fly or swim on their own; larger, ponderous models to be carried aloft by other giant creatures and dropped from the sky; rounded bombs, elongated torpedo-types, some sprouting tailfins, others made to fit ship-board, rail or truck launchers, beneath airplane wings, on top of early rockets.

It is finally toward the end of the line, however, that one is brought up short by the glimpse of something out of proportion even to its own species.Mark 17 Hydrogen Bomb, National Atomic Museum, Albuquerque

There, lying on its side in the half-darkness of a corner is what must surely have been the mother of all these bombs, an enormously massive, tapered bulk whose 3 and 1/2-inch-thick steel skin seems stretched to the breaking point around its whale-like body.

Extending 25 feet from nose to tail, standing more than five feet in diameter at its core and with a total weight of 41,400 pounds, this was evidently nature's ultimate experiment in size. At what scale does any creature exceed its own ecological niche?

Here, etched in steel, was the answer to that abstract question, as well as to the much more personal issue that had brought me to this place. For this, indeed, was Mark 17 itself, the bomb whose ill-fated twin had haunted my memories for years.

It was, in fact a replica of the same bomb unforgettably portrayed as being flown into nuclear oblivion by the insane General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's pathbreaking masterpiece, "Dr. Strangelove," the film that publicly repudiated the crazed logic of the arms race for the first time.

Decades after the elusive facts of that May day in 1957, we thus encounter another of those hidden footnotes of our own times, this one a long-dead, extinct beast, beached with its other, smaller cousins on a remote desert shore, stranded in a darkened corner of a hollow exhibit hall.

If there is a lesson to be learned here and in the discovery of other events that "didn't happen" simply because we did not know of them until now, it is not whom to blame, but rather the many ways in which blind fear, magnified by secrecy, can turn all of us into our own worst enemies.

Adler is a professor of history at the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University in California.

Aerial View of Albuquerque, circa 1950 Aerial View of Albuquerque, circa 1950

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National Atomic Museum, Albuquerque

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