Thursday, October 11, 2007

Chasing Loose Nukes by Lt. Col. Derek Duke, USAF, ret.

AUTHOR: Lt. Colonel Derek Duke, USAF, retired
PRICE: $13.42 (paper) $0.99 (download)
PUBLISHER: Dungan Books

On February, 5, 1958, a pair of B-47 bombers from the US Air Force engaged in a training mission with F-86 night-fighters. One of the F-86s collided with a B-47, and the F-86 crashed. The B-47 successfully landed, but had to jettison its Mark 15 Mod 0 hydrogen bomb into the ocean. The bomb was jettisoned over Warsaw Sound off of Tybee Island, Georgia. The USAF conducted a 90 day long search, but was unable to find the bomb.

This is the summary of facts about the Savannah lost nuclear bomb. The author, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Duke, USAF (retired), believes that the bomb is armed, and capable of detonating at any time. Since the weapon has a 3 megaton nuclear yield, the city of Savannah would be destroyed if it went off. His book, Chasing Loose Nukes, is ostensibly about the hunt for this weapon.

Except that it’s not. The first chapter of “Chasing Loose Nukes” is a rant about radiation exposure suffered during the US above-ground nuclear testing program. Chapter 2 is about the accident and response, concluding with a reproduction of the ordinance passed by the City Council of Tybee Island, GA, requesting that the Air Force find the bomb. The next several chapters are about other “Broken Arrow” incidents, which is the military term for lost nuclear weapons, including Chapter 7, which lists all “known” incidents. It’s not until Chapter 8 when we get back to the actual search. Even then, there is a lengthy digression about the 9/11 attacks, including the author’s efforts to secure the flight line of a pilot training operation at the municipal airport during the attack.

Several more chapters are devoted to detailed technical specifications of all aircraft involved in the Savannah incident, and the book closes with an epilogue admitting that they didn’t find the bomb. Following this, another 111 pages are devoted to appendixes providing technical information. One such appendix lists the radiation levels found in Warsaw Sound, which were deemed to be normal, and indicative of the bomb still being intact.

The book takes a very argumentative tone, in numerous places accusing the government of deliberate negligence with regards to weapons and radiation. In many cases, the government was indeed negligent. But one key allegation of “negligence” is very much in dispute, namely is the Savannah weapon armed?

Col. Duke says it is, based on testimony by the Assistant Secretary of Defense, given to Congress in 1966. The Air Force says it’s not, and one piece of contemporaneous proof, reproduced as an image in the book, agrees with the Air Force. The Mark 15 Mod 0 bomb consisted of two parts – a bomb proper and a removable detonator. Detonator is probably a bad word – thermonuclear bombs like the Mark 15 use a small atomic bomb to start the nuclear reaction. The Air Force, and a receipt, reproduced in the book, says the detonator was not on board. Despite this, Col. Duke repeatedly says the bomb could go off and wipe out the Savannah area.

Based on my military experience, it would seem to me that somebody in the Air Force back in 1958 would have taken a physical inventory of detonators and bombs after the accident, regardless of what the receipt said. If they weren’t short of detonators but were light one bomb, the conclusion would be obvious. The book does not discuss whether or not that was done.

Regarding the book as a piece of literature, I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. It tends to ramble, and the author has taken the “kitchen sink” approach to information – when in doubt, throw it in. The tone varies widely from chapter to chapter, sometimes being as conversational as two guys in a bar, other times more formal. The conversational chapters are most controversial.

In several of the these chapters, the author rails against Defense Secretary McNamara, and provides testimony from former Air Force soldiers to the effect that “we always armed bombs, even during training.” The author seems to think that there was no difference between “alert” missions and “training” missions, and assumes that any mission flown by a nuclear bomber was an “alert” mission. He believes that training missions were labeled as such merely because we were not at war. Despite the author’s Air Force service, he was a transport pilot, not a bomber, and so has very limited personal experience with nuclear weapons.

In the end, it is very difficult to rate the book. On formatting and technical matters, it is competently executed. On content, it is one-sided and argumentative.


reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

Chris Gerrib is a resident of Villa Park, IL and Director of Technology for a Chicago-area bank. Chris is the author of the science fiction novel The Mars Run. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University and is president-elect of the Rotary Club of Darien, IL.

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