The Night Hydrogen Bombs Fell Over North Carolina

  • By Caron Myers
  • Photography Courtesy of Joel Dobson

A plane carrying two hydrogen bombs crashes in Wayne County and residents rush to find and disarm the weapons.


Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue under the headline, “The Night the Sky Fell.”

On January 24, 1961, blistering orange flames light up an inky sky in the early hours.

A B-52G jet carrying a crew of eight people and two hydrogen bombs disintegrates in midair over the small farming community of Faro in Wayne County. Before the explosion, the jet was in the air for 12 hours — only halfway through its routine mission over the Atlantic Seaboard — when without warning, it lost 19 tons of fuel pressure in just two minutes.

First Lt. Adam Mattocks is 27, a North Carolina A&T State University graduate, and the third pilot on the flight. It is a routine mission. The plane is part of a fleet of about a dozen bombers in the air, ready to defend the country against the Soviet Union as part of the strategic air command.

When the fuel pressure drops, near Raleigh, the pilots set out to try to land at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. The crew, including Mattocks, levels the jet off at 10,000 feet with a technique called “slow flight” that checks to see if the plane has enough fuel to land.

The right wing breaks loose.

While the plane nosedives and spins to the earth, Mattocks unbuckles his seat belt. The pressure of the g-forces flings him 10 feet across the plane and pins him against the floor. He prays. Lord, if I go, take me home to heaven. The copilot opens his hatch and jumps out of the plane. The aircraft commander follows. Mattocks pulls himself off the floor and heads for the hatch. He plummets into the darkness and opens his parachute.
crash site 1EDIT

Lit up

Newspapers interview witnesses who say the explosion looked like daylight, while others liken the spinning aircraft to a Roman candle. A farmer runs to his window and sees his field light up in fireballs. A woman drops to her knees and prays, certain Armageddon arrived. Another man thinks a plane crashed into his parents’ house. All he can see is fire.

The debris field lies north of Musgrave’s Crossroads, near Faro and Eureka.

Billy Reeves, who is 18 and lives outside of Faro, has just gone to bed when he hears a strange sound. His room lights up. He runs to the window. He sees a plane coming down, sputtering twice before it crashes to the ground.

Earl Lancaster, the assistant fire chief for the Faro Volunteer Fire Department, rushes to the scene in his fire truck. Everything burns. Within an hour, helicopters swarm the area, and Air Force officials urge everyone to evacuate. “They told us to git, and we got,” Lancaster tells the local paper.

Although five of the crew members parachute to safety, three men die. The body of 41-year-old Maj. Eugene Shelton, a radio navigator, is found two miles from the crash site, hanging from a tree by his red-and-white parachute.

The bodies of two others — Maj. Eugene Richards, an electronics weapons officer from Toccoa, Georgia; and Sgt. Francis Barnish of Greenfield, Massachusetts — are found in the nose of the plane. They worked in the tail.

Survivors believe the pilot, Maj. Walter Tulloch of San Diego, California, is also dead, but he appears just after dawn, walking out of the mucky swampland.

Meanwhile, someone spots one of the bombs, 11½ feet long, next to a tree near Reeves’s home. Five of the six arming devices have been activated.

Almost Hiroshima

Mattocks lands beside a farmhouse. He pulls off his mask and tells the family who he is; they drive him to the base. But he has no identification. The g-forces ripped his pockets off.

To the guards, he is simply a man improperly wearing a military uniform.

Officers detain him at the gate; he tries to explain. They won’t listen. Twenty minutes later, Tulloch, the pilot, arrives at the gate. He, too, has no identification.

Finally, officers call an ambulance.

Back at the crash site, concern centers on two things: The three dead men and the two MK39 thermonuclear devices — two-and-a-half-megaton bombs — that ejected from the jet as the aircraft blew apart. The bombs are 500 times more powerful than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima, Japan.

The parachuted bomb imbeds itself 18 inches into the ground next to Shackleford Road. It is deactivated without much trouble, loaded onto a truck, and taken to Texas to be analyzed.

The other bomb, though, burrows 50 feet into a swamp owned by C.T. Davis.

The military immediately issues a statement to reporters that two bombs have been recovered, the bombs have been unarmed, and the situation is safe.

Joel Dobson, author of The Goldsboro Broken Arrow, writes later that the military didn’t tell the press the entire truth.

“In reality, only one of those things was true,” he writes. “There were two bombs.”

The Air Force digs in Davis’s swamp for the missing bomb. But after 20 feet, the hole begins to fill with water. Crews have 16 pumps; the men suck 20,000 gallons of water an hour out of the hole, but the water keeps coming.

The Air Force fills in the hole.

Parts of the bomb remain in the ground.

Digging for bombs

A half-century later, the morning of January 24 is still vivid to Mattocks and everyone else associated with the events.

“It happened so fast,” says Mattocks, who is now 78 and lives near Jacksonville.

Says Reeves, the 18-year-old who was roused from bed by the explosion: “My room became red as fire,” he says.

The government still collects samples from wells near the crash. The military purchased an easement from Davis and his heirs for $1,000. The agreement says, “no current or future landowner may dig or drill deeper than five feet or ever use the land again in any manner other than growing crops, timber, or pastureland.”

The official account from the Pentagon states that there “was no hazard in the area” but that pieces of the bomb that crashed into the swamp broke off, and one of those pieces was never found.

Dr. Jack Revelle, the officer who deactivated the bombs at the site, says that if one of the bombs had gone off, our state wouldn’t be the same today.

“You might now have a very large Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone off,” Revelle says.
Today, when people walk by the swamp on Davis’s land, they may never know that 50 years ago that same midnight sky lit up in flames and the people of Goldsboro thought the world had ended.

The Crash at Silver Hill

Just two months after the explosion in Goldsboro, another plane goes down in Denton.

A B-52G jet on a routine mission from Dow Air Force Base in Maine flies over Davidson County on March 30, 1961.

At about 9:15 p.m., as the pilot makes contact with a KC-135 jet tanker from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, the atomic bomber crashes four miles from the southern Davidson County town of Denton.

Giant balls of fire burst into the sky. The explosion shakes the ground for miles around the giant crater off Old Silver Hill Road. Windows of homes and businesses blow out. The wreckage scatters across a 10-mile radius as nearby woods and fields rage with fire.

Behind John Frank’s farm, a crater fills with green, red, and blue flames. You can see the plane’s wing descending from the hole, according to The High Point Enterprise. The jet engines lie smashed around the edge of the crater. The heat is so strong, a parachute, with its red-and-white nylon fused together, glues to the roots of the tree. The smell of gasoline and charred flesh fills the air. Fire explodes into the darkness.

Only two men out of a crew of eight survive: Maj. Wilbur F. Minnich, 40, of Des Plaines, Illinois; and First Lt. Glen C. Franham, 25, an electronics warfare officer from Loveland, Texas.

The body of the pilot, Capt. William D. McMullen of Bad Axe, Michigan, is found dangling from his parachute in a tree a mile away.

The survivors bailed out of the jet at 50,000 feet and landed seven miles from the crash site.

At about midnight, military helicopters, searching for other survivors, begin hovering over treetops.

Hours later, as the sun begins to rise, more helicopters and four truckloads of troops arrive to help local law enforcement keep onlookers and souvenir seekers away from the area.

The Air Force states that the bomber did not have any nuclear warheads on board. Fifty-one years later, a crater still remains in the woods off Old Silver Hill Road. Neighbors still find shiny pieces of metal when they dig the ground — small reminders of what happened on that fiery night.

— Caron Myers

Caron Myers is a freelance writer. Her most recent book is Captain Steven, The Little Pirate who Fought the Big C. She lives with her husband, Danny “Chocolate” Myers, in Davidson County. Find more of her archived stories here.

This entry was posted in Eastern N.C., June 2012, Piedmont and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Night Hydrogen Bombs Fell Over North Carolina

  1. Pingback: Hours 31-40 | Tower of Technobabble

  2. Warren says:

    I think the areas of these crashes with some good informational signage would be an interesting place to see and also make a good tourist attraction

  3. Aaron Lancaster says:

    My granddaddy was the asst. fire chief at the time Earl Lancaster. I’ve heard stories all my life about the b52 that crashed , I’ve also sat and recorded the story of that day by First Lt. Adam Mattocks and Dr. Jack Revelle . They told us the story from beginning to end . Mr mattocks nearly escaped he was riding in the navigators seat if I recall correctly and like the article says he had to unstrap an go down or up a flight of stairs while the aircraft was in a downward position spinning . When he jumped out the aircraft and pulled his parachute he said he looked up and seen fire falling around him and he prayed lord keep me safe and he said “As I went down fire fell all around me but never burned my parachute ” . Dr jack story is also as the article describes , I have no reason to doubt that THEASE bombs were ready to go off at any second , we should consider our self lucky and give him the praise . Oh and FYI the water taste funny around here ;)

    • J. Jones says:

      Thanks for the information. It was really interesting. We are truly bless that the bombs didn’t go off. I was only 8 years old then. I would not have seen another birthday. All the praise to God.

  4. Littletoyman says:

    Whew!!! I live in Charlotte at the time and never knew, thankfully until now.

  5. Dboykin says:

    Don is correct for carrying a thermo-nuclear device in 1965 but not for 1961. The crash and it’s after math propmpted JFK to demand the Airforce create new rules for flying the devices around the country. Before 1962 the bombs were carried “live”. The warfare officer need only flip a toggle switch to arm it. Due to the nature of the “rat trap” triggering device, it was possible for the bomb to explode on impact as a hydrogen bomb with total yeild. Had this device exploded with the atmospheric conditions of that night, nearly everything from about Smithfield to Elizabeth City would have been evaporated instantly or radiated with in just a few minutes. Today it would ba a waistland and totally uninhabitable.

  6. Don Evans says:

    There are several errors in the above story. I flew on B52G bombers in the late 1960’s.
    Nuclear bombs are not armed to go nuclear, this is only done while in the air and only then if a real war broke out. It is necessary to receive coded messages while in the air from SAC command BEFORE the final part of the bomb in screwed into the device. Prior to that act, the bombs are safe as can possibly be made but they are NOT capable of going nuclear without the second device installed in them. They still have TNT in them that if it goes boom you’ll not want to be near it but it is not, prior to this fuse we’ll call it, being install in a nuclear device. Therefore, there is a huge difference in the bomb before and after the fuse is installed.
    Also, on the bailout procedure, B52G’s had ejection seats (6), the normal crew is 6 but there are 3 other seats that are not ejection type. So there can be 6 to 9 people on board any of these planes on any particular site. The problem in the story is all the people stated that jumped from a hole in the airplane where they would all have ejection seats that literally blow them out of the plane and each seat has a hatch below it that it goes out of. The sequence of things that happen in a specific order on an ejection seat is not only interesting but happens extremely fast. On the G model 4 of the 6 seats go out the top of the plane and the 2 others go out the bottom. Once a bailout is called for by the pilot, one of the bottom seats (nagivator) goes first, then any crew on board that doesn’t have an Eseat jumps out that hatch hole made by the nav’s seat but the pilot stalls the plane by pulling the nose up and you jump (hopefully) at that moment the plane is standing still, before it starts it’s fall back to earth.
    The Sgt who would have been the gunner (based on rank) that said he worked in the rear of the plane is wrong also. On the G model it was one of the changes made to move the one’s in the tail forward to the cabin area up in the front of the plane. The gunner had a radar screen and closed circuit tv monitor to aim the guns located in the tail of the airplane. It had (in my time, 4 50 caliber machine guns pointing aft. It was more like a video game of today.
    The G model had two decks upper and lower, up top was the pilot and co-pilot, behind them on upper deck was the ECM, Electronic Counter Measures, (his job was to jam any enemy radar or other type signals from fighter craft or ground missile sites SAM’s), and the gunner and they faced toward the rear of the plane, downstairs was the bombardiere (sp) and the navigator. So if it was a G model there is a lot of misinformation regarding the plane and the bombs. However if it was a earlier model called a B52F then the part about the men seated the the tail would be accurate.
    It’s pretty much impossible for anyone who doesn’t have a ejection seat to escape except on the controlled bail out procedure!
    I was also stationed at Dow AFB at Bangor Maine around 1965 – 1968. I have considerable flying hours on the B52G’s, I’m really amazed that we are still using them, It’s a real tribute to Boeing Aircraft, American ability and more so to the dedicated Air Force personel that maintain them, it was and still is a awesome airplane.

    Don Evans

    • Mike says:

      And now, today, we see evidence in the form of unclassified documents that validate much of this story. The one bomb was indeed just one low volt switch from being detonated. Looks like the old guy who wasted tons of space above wasn’t accurate at all.

    • Ray Pender says:

      Don, you seem to know the G model very well, as you described normal bailout procedures. The article state that the wing broke off sending the plane plumeting and spinning toward the ground. It would be impossible for the pilot to pull up from this and stall the plane. Just saying…….

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