We lost an H Bomb
John William Tuohy
In 1968 a US plane carrying four H-bombs crashed into sea ice in Greenland and exploded, contaminating the area around the site with radiation.
Operation Chrome Dome was a US airborne alert program initiated in 1961 during the Cold War. As part of the operation’s, nuclear-armed Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers were flown to designated points on the Soviet Union’s border as a deterrent to the Soviets. Four bombers remained on alert each day, with the flights being conducted without the knowledge of civilian authorities in the States.
On or about January 21, 1968, one of the B-52 bombers was assigned to fly over the Thule Air Base, the US Air Force’s northernmost base on the Danish territory of Greenland. The bomber carried four hydrogen bombs.
It was an otherwise normal flight until, six hours into the flight, a fire started in the plane and the crew couldn’t extinguish the flames. A mandatory third pilot named Major Alfred D'Mario had placed three cloth-covered foam cushions on top of a heating vent under the instructor navigator's seat in the aft section of the lower deck. Shortly after take-off, another cushion was placed under the seat which ignited.
The captain declared it an emergency and requested emergency landing at Thule airbase. Minutes later the plane lost electricity and the cockpit was overwhelmed by dense smoke rendering the instruments useless to read and making an emergency landing impossible. Six members of the crew managed to, but co-pilot Leonard Svitenko died in the accident. (Captain Curtis R. was found six miles away from the base, lost on the ice for 21 hours. Although he suffered hypothermia, he survived by wrapping himself in the parachute.)
The bomber had continued flying, over the air base and crashed into dense sea ice in the nearby North Star Bay. The hydrogen bombs detonated on impact, but a nuclear explosion was not triggered due to the design of the weapon. However, the detonation still dispersed a huge nuclear payload that contaminated the area with radioactivity. Gallon and gallon of Jet fuel burned for six hours after the crash, melting the ice sheet sinking the bomber into the ocean.
The entire area was filled with radioactive contamination. Understandably, the Danes demanded the nuclear material not be left in Greenland after the cleanup operation was complete, so the contaminated ice and wreckage were packed in steel tanks and shipped back to the US. Some 700 specialized personnel from both countries had worked for nine months to clean up the site, usually without adequate protective clothing or decontamination measures.
Worse yet, one of the bombs had not been recovered although the US Military insisted that all four bombs were destroyed. In 2008, a partly declassified documents appeared to confirm that within weeks of the accident, investigators realized only three of the weapons could be accounted for.
The Chrome Dome operation was suspended immediately following this disaster. The incident caused a major political scandal in Denmark because the country had designated itself a nuclear-free zone, yet government officials knew that the US Army was stockpiling nuclear weapons there.
In the US, the scandal deepened after it was learned that in 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara proposed cutting the flights because they had been made obsolete by new technology. Also, cutting the operation would save the US $950 million dollars. However, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the plan and McNamara agreed to a compromise of allowing a smaller force of four bombers would be on alert each day. But the SAC continued the operation without the knowledge of civilian authorities who SAC commanders determined did not have the "need to know" about specific operational points.