Frozen in time


By Christopher Harress

Having come to the end of the most expensive, exhilarating and expensive presidential elections in American history we would be forgiven for neglecting the events of 40 years ago.

In January 1968 the American Government, still embroiled in the disastrous Vietnam War and the seemingly everlasting cold war with the Soviet Union, lost an A-Bomb in a plane crash near to a the American Military base Thule, Greenland.

The Pentagon believed the Soviet Union would take out the base as a prelude to a nuclear strike against the US and so in 1960 began flying “Chrome Dome” missions. Nuclear-armed B52 bombers continuously circled over Thule – and could head straight to Moscow if they witnessed its destruction.

A recent BBC investigation has reunited the two pilots to tell their story of the mission that nearly went so wrong.

On January 21st 1968, the first day in office of Lyndon B Johnson, the B52, armed with 4 A-bombs, crashed on the ice just outside Thule.

Eventually, a remarkable operation would unfold over the coming months to recover thousands of tiny pieces of debris scattered across the frozen bay, as well as to collect some 500 million gallons of ice, some of it containing radioactive debris.

All four bombs had been detonated in the crash, but as the crew did not arm them the bombs were unable to explode. The Pentagon maintained that all four bombs had been destroyed as the bombs were no longer complete, however, the BBC investigation goes further to show that one of the bombs remained lost.

Panic ensued over the department of defense and they sent a Star III submarine to look for the bomb, something they had successfully done of the coast of Spain 2 years earlier.

Documents obtained by the BBC state that due to the winter weather setting in the mission likely have to be abandoned.

The documentary team tracked down a number of officials who were involved in dealing with the aftermath of the incident. One was William H Chambers, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory who once ran a team dealing with accidents, including the Thule crash.

“There was disappointment in what you might call a failure to return all of the components,” he told the BBC, explaining the logic behind the decision to abandon the search.

But the crash, clear-up and mystery of the lost bomb have continued to haunt those involved at the time – and those who live in the region now – with continued concerns over the environmental and health impact of the events of that day in 1968.

These fresh revelations come when Britain is facing up to new evidence of the Nuclear damage that they and the Americans caused between 1957-1962 on Christmas Island in the South Pacific.