What happened to these missing nuclear weapons?

nuclear weapons
A shot of the aftermath of The Manhattan Project, the first nuclear bomb detonation.

Losing a weapon is never a good thing, but when that weapon is military, the stakes are even higher. Yet that’s exactly the case for many missing nuclear weapons that were once owned and produced by the United States. 

Perhaps even worse, there have been an incredible 32 incidents with misfired weapons since their introduction in 1050. These weapons are known as “broken arrows,” whether they misfired or were discharged and/or lost due to human error. Despite all the training and safety protocols in place, accidents still happen. 

Take a look at these incidents and how something as large (and dangerous) was able to be lost at the hands of U.S. forces. Let’s face it, we’re not talking about bullets, but bombs. Nuclear bombs weigh hundreds of pounds; they take up lots of space. And they have to be transported with extreme care. 

A shot of an earlier nuclear weapon.

Missing nuclear warheads:

Feb. 13, 1950

The U.S. Air Force was traveling from Alaska to Texas and began to have engine trouble. Rather than crash with a nuclear weapon on board, the airmen dropped their Fat Man (AKA a 30-kiloton Mark 4). It went into the depths of the Pacific Ocean and was never recovered in the 70+ years since. Rumor has it that its plutonium core was not in place – the part that makes the weapon go boom, but it was still equipped with uranium, still making the missing piece nuclear. 

March 10, 1956

This time, two nuclear cores and a 3,400-kilogram Mark 15 went MIA when a B-47 bomber was lost. The plane is believed to have gone down in the Mediterranean Sea as it was making its way to Morocco. In any case, the plane or any of the nuclear parts are still unaccounted for to this day. 

Feb. 5, 1958

Another water drop, another lost bomb. This time, during a training mission near the Savannah River, two Air Force planes collided. Unable to land without causing an explosion, a B-47 released its Mk 15 nuclear weapon before making a successful landing. The bomb could never be found. 

Jan. 24, 1961

Here’s where it starts to get even more interesting! Near the town of Goldsboro, North Carolina, a B-52 crashed while it was in possession of two 24-megaton nuclear bombs and their cores. However, one uraniam core was left behind after digging efforts were unsuccessful. The first bomb was found an incredible 20 feet underground. Once it was clear the latter couldn’t easily be discovered, the Army Corps of Engineers bought the land, including a 400-foot radius of the area and have restricted (legal) digging in the area to this day. 

A “Fat Man” bomb, or gravity bomb photographed in the 1940s.

Dec. 5, 1965

Next, comes a scene we wouldn’t believe even if we saw it ourselves. An entire plane fell off the USS Ticonderoga and into the Pacific Ocean. With the pilot in tow, the A-4E Skyhawk and its one-Megatron thermonuclear bomb rolled off the ship’s deck and began sinking immediately. The aircraft was never found. 

In fact, the U.S. Navy didn’t even admit the accident had taken place for another 15 years. Even then they lied about the location, due to its proximity to Japan. However, Japan figured out the lie, realizing it was just 80 miles from their coast. For good measure, they banned the U.S. from carrying any nuclear weapon into their air or sea space. 

Springtime 1968

The date is hazy, but there’s no denying that the USS Scorpion sunk into the Atlantic Ocean. The entire crew wasn’t the only thing lost on the ship, however. It was carrying two nuclear-tipped weapons that also sunk deep into the sea. 

It’s worth noting that these events all happened decades ago and have hopefully been prevented in decades since. If another nuclear weapon has gone missing, it’s likely that we won’t hear about it for decades to come, if at all. We can only take stock in knowing that, if we can’t find these weapons, hopefully, our enemies aren’t better searchers than our own military.