Too close for comfort: Indiana’s brush with a nuclear nightmare


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As a child of the Atomic Age and the Cold War growing up on the far north side of Indianapolis, I never realized just how dangerously close my state came to suffering a major nuclear catastrophe a mere 55 miles away from where I played kick-the-can in the backyard with childhood friends. Sure, we would hear sonic booms quite often, particularly during recess at school, but at our age, the perception of atomic annihilation, radiation poisoning, and/or nuclear fallout were hard to comprehend.

Bunker Hill Visitor’s brochure – Source: kokomotribune.com

Given that some of my relatives would soon be transferred to and live on-site at Bunker Hill Air Force Base shortly after the events of December 8, 1964, is even more ironic. To this day, I can vividly recall visiting them at the airbase when all of us were oh so young.

Background

Source: pinterest.com

Bunker Hill (Grissom) Air Force Base (now known as Grissom Air Reserve Base) is located on the west side of U.S. 31 in north-central Indiana between Kokomo and Peru (see the map at the top of the post). The base was initially established in 1942. In 1957, it became an important part of the Strategic Air Command’s (SAC’s) continuous 24/7/365 effort to defend and protect the United States from a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. By 1960, one-third of SAC’s aircraft, including those at Bunker Hill were on continuous alert status. Even the bombers not in the air at the time were cocked and ready with nuclear weapons.

This SAC’s effort were meant to serve as a deterrent to a unilateral/surprise attack by keeping aircraft flying around the clock with payloads of nuclear weapons. In the event of an attack, these aircraft served as a counterattack strike force, particularly if the American missile systems had been destroyed in the initial Soviet attack.

Flight crews scramble during an alert – Source: kokomotribune.com

As a result of their ready-at-any-moment status, the SAC crews and aircraft were expected to be on their plane and taking off in less than 15 minutes after the klaxon alarm was sounded. To delay beyond this 15 minutes meant they were vulnerable to the initial attack and might not be able to fulfill their designated and deadly mission. Each time an alert was issued, the crews did not know until they were airborne whether they were on a training mission or in fact an actual military strike.

Recent aerial image of Grissom Air Base (formerly Bunker Hill AFB). Note the Christmas tree shaped concrete pads southeast of the runway was where the B-58’s waited in cocked and ready mode during the Cold War – Map Source: maps.google.com

SAC bases were located all across the United States, but two (2) of them the 305th Bombardment Wing stationed at Bunker Hill Air Force Base in Indiana (1960-1970) and the 43rd Bombardment Wing stationed first at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas (1960-1964) and later Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas (1964-1970) were the primary sites for the fastest and latest bomber of the time – the Corvair B-58 Hustler (see photo below) – the world’s first supersonic bomber.

Corvair B-58 Hustler – Source: en.wikipedia.org

These sleek and handsome aircraft were designed to fly long distances at top speeds. As a result, they carried a tremendous amount of fuel (up to 14,000 gallons) and were lighter weight and sleeker than the huge B-52’s, B-47’s, and similar bombers of the Atomic Age. However, the B-58’s came at a much higher price to produce and maintain. Sadly, they also suffered many more accidents than their counterparts, too. This was due to their 60 degree wing/tank design, as well as the angle of takeoff and attack necessary based on the aircraft’s design. While the design of the B-58 Hustler was helpful when flying at great heights, it was not conducive to low-altitude flight.

By the late 1960’s the B-58 with its higher costs and poor safety record had fallen out of favor at the Defense Department and the remaining aircraft were retired to the Military Airplane Boneyard in Tucson, Arizona.

Broken Arrow Incident of December 8, 1964

Just three days before my birthday in 1964, tragedy struck at Bunker Hill Air Force Base. Not just any tragedy, for all airbases were used to crashes and accidents, but this was a “Broken Arrow” incident that involved a payload of nuclear weapons. And not just one nuclear weapon, but FIVE!

Note the reference to no radiation, which was later shown to be incorrect – Source: newspaper.com

It was a cold and windy day in Indiana with snow blowing across the tarmac and runways creating icy conditions. That morning, an alert was sounded and crews rushed out of their quarters to man the bomber aircraft and take off within 15 minutes. As each plane taxied onto Runway 22, they lined up behind one another for quick take-off – a mere eight (8) seconds apart in a formation called minimum interval take off (MITO)” by the Strategic Air Command.

Aircraft #60-1116 was positioned last in this line-up of B-58’s waiting its turn to take-off after taxiing to the northeast end of the runway. At this point, the stories vary on what took place, but needless to say, it was not good. Somehow, control was lost and the plane slid on the ice due to either the weather, the jet blast from the previous plane (deemed the most likely scenario), icy runway conditions, or some other cause. While sliding, the left side of the plane struck electrical equipment adjacent to the runway, collapsing the left landing gear and puncturing the fuels tanks in that same wing.

Flames immediately erupted from left wing, quickly engulfing the aircraft and its payload of five (5) nuclear bombs intended for the Soviet Union, not north-central Indiana. With the plane in flames the commander and defense systems operator evacuated the cockpit and barely escaped the flames. Unfortunately, the navigator, Captain Manuel “Rocky” Cervantes was trapped. In a last ditch effort to same himself, he ejected from the plane using the escape pod system designed for emergencies at high altitude. As a result, the chute never had time to deploy and slow down his decent. He later died after being removed from the escape pod, which landed more than 500 feet away from the accident.

Wreckage of aircraft #6–1116 on the runway – Source: indystar.com

Meanwhile firefighting and emergency response crews were trying to put out the fireball and secure the nuclear weapons on board, which were now engulfed in flames. This is where the failsafe efforts of the Pentagon saved north-central Indiana from a much greater catastrophe. The detonators were routinely kept separate from the nuclear bombs to avoid an unintended nuclear explosion.

Wreckage of B-58 aircraft #60-1116 – Source: rangebeanindiana.com/2019/08/19/indianas-nuclear-accident-the-broken-arrow-at-bunker-hill/

Firefighters had difficulty extinguishing the flames on at least one of the bombs during this emergency and had to resort to digging a pit in the frozen ground, placing the bomb in the hole, and covering it with sand to put out the flames.  Despite their efforts, radioactive materials were released during the hours it took to extinguish the raging fire.

View of the wreckage – Source: indystar.com

The tragic accident at the northeast corner of Runway 22 was horrific (see photos above). Here’s a 2002 government summary of the tragedy that took place on December 8, 1964.

“On December 8, 1964, during a routine Operational Readiness Exercise, a B-58 Hustler strategic bomber skidded off a runway at Bunker Hill AFB, Indiana (later renamed Grissom AFB). The aircraft ran over several electrical fixtures and the landing gear subsequently collapsed, rupturing a fuel tank. The resulting aircraft fire burned portions of the five nuclear weapons on board to various extents, but did not cause detonation of the high explosives. Records indicate that site personnel had difficulty extinguishing the fire of one weapon. The fire was extinguished by placing the weapon in a pit (approximately 150 feet from the aircraft) and covering it with sand. After the fire was extinguished, the weapon was removed and sent to an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) facility. The recovered weapons and weapon debris were sent to AEC facilities where analyses indicated that plutonium was not released to the environment during the accident because all plutonium-bearing components were intact. Portions of the runway and adjacent soils were subsequently excavated and buried nearby along with the remaining aircraft wreckage at the site referred to as AOC 8. With subsequent boundary restructuring, the burial site is currently located outside the Grissom ARB cantonment area (i.e. outside the fence-line) and is now considered BRAC property under the control of the AFRP A.”

SOURCE:FINAL DECISION DOCUMENT FOR NO FURTHER ACTION AT B-58 HUSTLER BURIAL SITE (AREA OF CONCERN 8)” Grissom Air Force Base, Indiana NOVEMBER 2002

Radiation Findings

Thankfully, none of the nuclear weapons aboard the aircraft detonated. There are conflicting accounts on whether other high explosives did or not. By 1998, tests at the burial site for the aircraft remains and some of the affected soils (located several hundred feet away from the actual accident site) could be removed. This was accomplished in 2000.

But, further reading of this 1999 report and a subsequent one from 2002 show that radioactive contamination also took place at the accident site itself and remained there many years later. A 1996 study by the Indiana Department of Health, found higher than normal levels of depleted uranium (DU) and gamma ray radiation present at the crash site. This report indicated the following:

“The Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) performed gamma exposure rate measurements and collected soil samples from the accident site (AOC 3). The ISDH identified an area with gamma radiation exposure rates eight to ten times background rates. A soil sample collected at the accident site contained concentrations that were several hundred times higher than background for uranium-238 (U-238). Uranium-235 (U-235) and uranium-234 (U-234) concentrations were also elevated in proportions similar to that of depleted uranium (DU). It was concluded that the elevated levels maybe due to the presence of DU from the weapons. Plutonium concentrations were consistent with the typical background levels.” (emphasis added in bold)

SOURCE: “FINAL DECISION DOCUMENT FOR NO FURTHER ACTION AT B-58 HUSTLER BURIAL SITE (AREA OF CONCERN 8)” Grissom Air Force Base, Indiana NOVEMBER 2002

Unearthed wreckage of 60-1116 in 1998 – Source: rangebeanindiana.com/2019/08/19/indianas-nuclear-accident-the-broken-arrow-at-bunker-hill/

The report notes that neither plutonium nor chemical agents were identified at the accident site. This is good news as Indiana dodged a very dangerous bullet. But this finding does not alter the fact that gamma rays and depleted uranium did contaminate the accident site and continued to do so for many years following the crash.

A second study in 1999 by the United States Air Force IERA confirmed the higher than normal levels of depleted uranium at the accident site. The report summarizes its findings as thus:

“In 1999, AFIERA performed a radiological characterization of the site (IERA-SD-BR-TR-2000-0002). The results of the survey confirm that a small area of the site investigated contains depleted uranium contamination. The investigation area was about 8,800 square meters and had an estimated excess surface activity concentration of 1 pCi/g averaged over the entire area. Within this area, the contamination zone is limited to an area of 1000 square meters, with a mean excess uranium activity concentration of 7 pCi/g. This report details a remedial action plan for the site.”

SOURCE: Remedial_Action_Workplan_1964_B-58_Accident_Site_G.pdf

Source: Remedial_Action_Workplan_1964_B-58_Accident_Site_G.pdf

Clean-up to satisfactory environmental standards took place in with plan goals and a final report from 2000 indicated the following:

“The goal was to select areas for remediation where surface soils DU contamination levels exceeded 6.4 pCig of DU, with a final status goal not to exceed 8 pCig. This report describes remedial actions completed and final site status. An area of 300 square meters was remediated, with excavated volume estimated at 105 cubic meters. The residual DU on the site is estimated at 1.3 pCig, based on final status soil samples. The remedial action met all goals. Although the installation has no present interest in utilization of the site for other purposes, the site meets unrestricted public use criteria recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. No further remedial actions are recommended for the site.”

SOURCE: https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/ADA387061

Summary and Conclusions

Given the invisibility of radiation, cleanup of a nuclear incident can be a difficult and challenging endeavor. Despite the brave efforts by firefighters and emergency responders in 1964, radiation remained at this crash site for multiple decades after the accident. As a result, many people were exposed to the remaining radiation without knowing it.

Secondly, while reading and reviewing the accounts of the December 8, 1964, Broken Arrow incident at Bunker Hill (Grissom), Air Force Base, it was troubling to see how the severity and dangers associated with the accident were minimized. It appears that prior to this event, the state of Indiana was not even aware that nuclear weapons were present on the base.

“The air force and the press played down the incident. An air force spokesman acknowledged for the first time that there were nuclear bombs in Indiana, but he insisted on the term nuclear “device.” He said there was nothing to worry about. Five nuclear bombs engulfed in a roaring, 12-hour fire was a news story for just two days.”

SOURCE: http://www.indystar.com/story/entertainment/2018/12/13/indianas-broken-arrow-time-5-nuclear-bombs-caught-fire/1831690002/

In addition, in the hours following the accident, spokespersons for the military indicated the plane had been unarmed and there had not been a radiation release, when in fact five (5) nuclear devices were aboard the aircraft and radiation contamination did occur and remained present for another 36 years!

“Base officials confirmed that the accident involved one of Bunker Hill’s nuclear strike bombers, but claimed the airplane was unarmed and there was no danger to the public.”

“Just as promised there was a news conference at the Base hospital the next day. Reporters were reassured that the accident was contained and there was no danger of radiation.”

SOURCE: http://www.grissomairmuseum.com/content/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/A-Requiem-for-Rocky-web-article1.pdf

Granted the accident took place in an era when military secrets were adamantly protected and fear of the Soviet Union were at their peak, but given the inherent dangers associated with nuclear weapons, too much secrecy can have long-term deadly consequences.

So, while Indiana may have been spared a cataclysmic disaster, it did not fully avoid the unseen dangers associated with the Atomic Age. In fact, “for the next 40 years former airmen would blame serious cancers on radiation exposure from the accident.”

Why it took so long to address the remaining area(s) if onsite radiation is unknown, though the fact that portions of the property were being sold off to private interests for an industrial airpark probably hastened the need to address the topic. The fact that final remediation finally took place so long after the incident is a very sad testament to the Pentagon’s past commitment to the long-term health and safety of it’s armed forces and the local communities where they lived and served.

Recent News

Artist’s depiction of the B-58 Hustler exhibit – Source: grissomairmuseum.com/content/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Hustler-Hut-Brochure.pdf

On a somber, yet more positive note, the Grissom Air Museum located on the base is establishing a new exhibit on the B-58 Hustler that will display one of these remaining aircraft still in existence in a weather-protected hangar named in honor of Captain Manuel “Rocky” Cervantes. To help announce plans for this new facility, two Gold Star children, including the daughter of  Captain Cervantes were present. More information on this exhibit is available via this weblink : https://www.grissomairmuseum.com/hustler-hut

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If you are interested in more information about Bunker Hill (Grissom) Air Force Base, here is an image link to a book about the base and its history that is available through Amazon.com*. The second book also available through Amazon.com*, includes a brief segment on the December 8, 1964, Broken Arrow incident at Bunker Hill (Grissom) Air Force Base.

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*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using these links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Also, the following novel available through Amazon.com* uses Bunker Hill (Grissom) Air Force Base as its backdrop.

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*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using these links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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