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In January of 1961, as a result of a mechanical malfunction, a B-52 bomber operated by the United States Air Force dropped two nuclear bombs on the small town of Eureka, North Carolina. The bomb's payload was not detonated and no civilians were harmed as a result of the accident, but tragically, three service members died while trying to prevent the crash and its potential deadly consequences for thousands of families in the area. A historic marker erected near the crash site by the North Carolina Office of Archives and History in 2012. The marker stands to remind the public of this and several other potential disasters that were narrowly averted during the Cold War.

  • Unexploded MK-39 at the crash site
  • Recovery of the second MK-39 buried at the crash site
  • The historic marker is located in the center of town where more people might read it. The crash site is located three miles north of the sign.

Three days after President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, a damaged B-52 carrying two 4-megaton MK-39 nuclear bombs malfunctioned. The plane began to break apart while 8,000 feet over Eureka, North Carolina. The crew hoped to attempt an emergency landing at nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. The crew of the B-52 was ordered to eject-five ejected safely-one crew member didn’t survive the landing, and two more crew members who stayed with the craft died in the resulting plane crash.

The two nuclear bombs on board became part of the debris. The local press were told by military officials that the bombs were told that the bombs were unarmed. They later learned that safety mechanisms on the bombs failed. In 2013, as a result of The Freedom of Information Act, new information revealed that a single safety switch was all that prevented that weapon's detonation. Each of the 4-megaton MK-39 nuclear bombs on board the aircraft each had 260 times more destructive capacity than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

During the Cold War, U.S. military planes carried nuclear weapons each day as part of their strategy of deterrence. According to the military doctrine known as Second Strike Capability, it was imperative to have a nuclear arsenal spread throughout missile silos, submarines, and airborne craft at all times so that it would be impossible for the Soviet Union to launch a single nuclear strike that would not result in retaliation. This idea was connected to the idea of deterrence through "Mutually Assured Destruction"- a related theory of military doctrine that suggested no nation would resort to nuclear warfare if this act would result in the inevitable destruction of their own homeland. 

This incident one of the closest times the United States came close to nuclear disaster during the Cold War, but there are several hundred other accidents and near-misses recorded between the start of the Cold War in 1950 and the thawing of relations between the two superpowers in the 1980s. 

A portion of one of the bombs still lies buried at the crash site. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the property of the crash site where these bomb components remain. For a variety of reasons, the historical marker is located several miles from the crash site. 

Michael Winter, Report: "Nuke that fell on N.C. in 1961 almost exploded," USA Today, eptember 20, 2013 (accessed 9/5/2016) Nuclear Mishap - Wayne County NC, Explore Southern History, (accessed 9/5/16) Josh Harkinson, "That Time We Almost Nuked North Carolina," Mother Jones, November 10, 2014. (accessed 9/5/2016)