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The Night 2 H-Bombs Fell on North Carolina (Told By the Man Who Dismantled Them This Day in 1961)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 25, 2024 3:00 am

The Night 2 H-Bombs Fell on North Carolina (Told By the Man Who Dismantled Them This Day in 1961)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 25, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, on January 23, 1961, a B-52 bomber crashed in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Two H-bombs—each 250 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan, fell to the ground. Earl Smith dismantled those bombs and he's here to tell us the story!

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See AT& slash Samsung for details. This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show. On January 23rd, 1961, just four days after President John F. Kennedy was sworn into office, a B-52 bomber crashed near Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. Two H-bombs, each 250 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan marking the end of World War II, were thrown out and fell at a velocity of 700 miles per hour and crashed into Goldsboro, North Carolina. Information about this event was kept classified until 2013. This is the true story of that mission as told by the man who actually dismantled the hydrogen bombs in the aftermath of an accident that could have been the worst man-made disaster in history.

Here is Earl Smith with the true story of the Goldsboro Broken Arrow. Well, I graduated high school in 1956 in Hatton, Alabama. And like everybody else around there, the day after you graduate high school, you go to Kalamazoo, Michigan. So I go to Kalamazoo to visit my brother. I had a brother and two sisters live there.

And my brother had a neighbor about my age. And so we decided to go downtown on a Saturday morning just to fool around. And so there was a recruiter station. I said, let's go and make that thing.

God, I think we're going to join. So it was in the morning we were down there. So by three o'clock that afternoon, we was pulling out on a train for the processing station in the Air Force.

So anyway, when I went back, my brother was about to have a heart attack. He said, you did what? I said, I joined the Air Force. No, you didn't.

Yeah, I did. I got to leave this afternoon. And I left. We signed up on a buddy plan.

After that, I never saw my buddy again. So he goes to California for schooling. I go to Texas. And the first school I went to is called Munition School. And they give you different tests to see kind of what you qualified for. So this first assignment, they send me down to Puerto Rico, the Ramey Air Force Base.

So I go down to Puerto Rico there. And while I'm doing the job what the Munition maintenance calls for, which is basically taking care of the bombs and the ammo and the storage area and loading them on the plane, what have you, well, the Air Force decided to start an airborne alert with nuclear weapons. So we had 33 B-36 bombers down there.

So they started what they call Operation Curtain Razor. Every day at one o'clock, a plane would leave Ramey. And at the same time, another plane would leave North Africa. There's one always in the air and five on the ground, or five days on the ground when loaded with nuclear weapons, each one ready to go, and ammunition.

So anyway, when I leave Puerto Rico, they formed a new squadron called the 53rd MMS, which is Munition Maintenance Squadron. And we wound up at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. Back then, you know, I just figured I'd rather disarm a bomb than eat when I was hungry, you know, but real reckless, you know, back then. But I'm the same kid that when I was growing up, all the little neighbor kids older than me, they taught me into turning over a neighbor's beehive and stuff like that.

And I'd throw his bucket in the well, the old Doug Wells, and I'd do stuff like that. I was real daring. So I guess it stemmed from back from something like that. I had put in for bomb disposal school, but before you can get in, you have to, I understand, have to have a grade of 90 or above, I believe, from Munition Maintenance for them to put the money behind you. And it's strictly voluntary. So I received an appointment after a few months to go to EOD school in Indiana and Maryland. Well, the school, the school, like I say, was extremely hard.

You just literally live from day to day and hope you can make it through another day. Because the man, when they're in the indoctrination, first of all, they take you out in this field. It's about a 20-acre field, and they have everything that's ever been thrown, dropped, or projected from all over the world up to a V-1 and V-2 rocket. It hasn't got to the, you know, the big rockets at the time. And a man tells you, he said, gentlemen, before you graduate this school, if you're fortunate enough to graduate this school, you'll be able to walk up to any piece of ordinance out here and tell me what it is, what kind of explosive you've used in it, what kind of fusion system, and what country it's from, and how to disarm it.

And everybody's punching everybody. Yeah, sure, uh-huh. Yeah.

I mean, it's, but before you leave that school, that's one of the easier things you can do. You're not even getting into the big, big missiles and what have you. But really, the nuclear bombs hadn't entered, hadn't entered my mind.

I just, I never dreamed that I'd have anything dropped in my lap like was dropped in my lap. But once I get back to my base after I graduate, and it happened to be my night on standby. It was January, it was actually January the 23rd, 1961, when the control tire called me. And they said, uh, we have a B-52 coming in, tail number 0187, with fuel leaks in the Bombay area. Well, I knew that was serious, because when they go to let the landing gear down, you possibly have sparks, could, you know, create a fire. And I lived off base, so it had been a snow on the ground. It was about 10 degrees that night, so I got dressed right quick, and I didn't bother to lace my boots on.

I just wrapped the strings around them, tied them. But by the time I got to the base, they determined it had crashed off base about 12 miles. So General Moore had already had a helicopter waiting for me, because the AOD man has a first priority on what they call a broken arrow. The bomb that fell was a Mark 39 bomb, which is actually 3.8 megatons of explosive. And a lot of people don't know how much a megaton is. If you take a railroad car, a coal car, and you load it heaping up with TNT, it would stretch all the way across the United States and back in far Chicago. That's only one megaton.

This was 3.8. And you've been listening to Earl Smith, the true story of the Goldsboro Broken Arrow, and that occurred on this day in 1961. You're going to want to hear the rest of this story here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life, and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Subscribe now to Variety Confidential wherever you get your podcasts. And we continue here with our American stories. And we just learned from Earl Smith that just one of the two hydrogen bombs that fell on Goldsboro, North Carolina on this day in 1961 contained 3.8 megatons of explosives.

Here's Earl making that statistic understandable to laymen. The experts claimed that it would, with the fallout and everything, if one of them had gone off, it would kill everybody all the way from New York City all down the eastern seaboard to the tip of the Florida Keys. So pretty much wiping off the whole eastern seaboard. It was 250 times stronger than what was dropped on Hiroshima. That was only 40 kilotons. So this thing was just a monster. So when we get out to the things, he had the light under the helicopter and we're flying around and I see a parachute. I said, my God, they're not supposed to be connected. So I said, set me down as close as you can get to it. And the guy said, I don't want to get too close. I said, it don't matter, buddy. You get me as close as you can. So General Moore tells me, he said, now you can't touch that bomb or anything until we get permission from Atomic Energy Commission.

I said, no, sir, that's not the way it works. And that scared me. So I got off and see what to do. And I woke up to the bomb. When I opened that access door and saw that red A, I mean, I just, I just turned cold. I mean, it's scariest thing. I was 24 years old. And, and as the old saying, what am I doing here?

You know, that is something I just didn't sign up for. But it was, it was, it was armed and functioning. And I thought, I really thought at that point, when I couldn't find that other bomb, I thought I was dying.

I mean, it's funny what you can tell your, your mind, you can tell yourself. And I did, I was paying, I had the pains in the chest and everything was right around. I mean, buddy, I knew I was going, I was going fast, but I had to get, get done what I could. And I happened to look over in the distance.

There's about a five mile area that was literally lit up over parts of the plane burning. And I saw an ambulance over with the big, big cross on it. And I started to feel better for some reason or other, you know? So a few hours later, a few hours later, every general seemed like an Air Force showing up.

And General Moore, who was, General Moore was one star general and General Sweeney, who was the, the, the commander of Eighth Air Force, which I was assigned to. Anyway, he starts asking me, what all, what did you do first? Blah, blah, blah, blah. And I said, well, I'm probably in a lot of trouble. He said, what do you mean? Well, when General Sweeney found out that I had been told by General Moore that I had to get permission from the Atomic Energy Commission, he turned to his aide and said, get General Moore over here. I said, oh Lord, I'm in trouble. So General Moore comes up and the very words he said to General Moore, he said, General Moore, if you don't know this man's damn job, I suggest you have him up to your office about two to three times a week for coffee and donut so he can explain to you what the hell he does. Oh Lord, my heart just sunk because General Moore is going back to Eighth Air Force and here I'm going to be stuck on base with this general.

And I'm a little old airman, first-class enlisted man, you know, and they made him look bad, made him look real bad. Nothing ever came of it, but I was more scared of that than I was the bomb. I wasn't worried about the bomb.

I knew I could take it. Well, about an hour and a half later, three more EOD men, a Sergeant Fletcher and a Sergeant Fincher and a Sergeant Evers, they came out in the pickup and we proceeded to disarm the first bomb. And what happens, those bombs are so powerful, they have to be let down by parachutes because they blow the plane out of the air, but they can be set up to 46 hours. This can be that long a delay because they don't worry about the Russians coming up and disarming them because if they don't do exactly the steps as they're supposed to be, it'll blow up anyway. So we knew that part too.

So you got to do disconnect one CKT wire and then wait three minutes or so and then, you know, the steps, you have to do it exactly. So that's the reason for the parachute. So anyway, we get this bomb taken care of and I called out the motor pool for them to bring a flatbed truck out so they could get down in the lift to get this bomb to go back to the base.

In other words, it's taken care of. Well, eight and a half hours after this happened, this Lieutenant Revelle shows up with a crew from SAC headquarters, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and he comes marching out there like little Lord Fortenroy, taking in charge. Well, the first thing he did was we finally found the second bomb and it was, well, it really took about three days before we really got to the part because everything had to be done. We had to be real careful digging because we had 92 detonators that were alive and those had to be, each one had to be counted for them to put in a little container and get back to the base. Well, when they got down, dug deep enough for the big after body part where the parachute was still in, Lieutenant Revelle and his group removed that out of the ground.

It was just that after body. Well, I was the lowest ranking man on there, so I got the good duty of getting down in the hole, down in the muddy water and icy water and everything, reaching down in the hole and pulling up parts of the bomb and identifying what each one was and I reached down and I got the nuclear core, routed it up between my legs and I handed it to some, I don't remember who it was, but I told them I probably won't ever have any more kids and I didn't after that. So, once we got all of that stuff out in a tritium bottle, then there wasn't really anything else for them to, you know, that's explosive to where the big the big diggers couldn't come in and the local people wouldn't drink the water. They were scared to death. They wouldn't drink the water, so we got permission to bring three of the old timers around.

I can't remember even what their names were, but anyway, I took a cup and poured some water in it and I drank it and I said, you know, do you think I would drink it if, you know, so you know, so that kind of gave them peace of mind. So, I never heard any more thing about that, but they told us to didn't want the public to know what we were looking for. There was one a part had which weighed about 3,000 pounds which was uranium 235 and 238. It hit hard pan and kept going and we were looking for this.

That's what all the digging was going to be about, but they told us to tell everybody when they were a reporter, anybody asked if we were looking for a part to an ejection seat. It made made a lot of, now that's what we actually had to say, but one poor man was a scarecropper and he looks up and sees this humongous parachute was something and he thought the Russians were invading, so he grabbed a pone of cornbread and some milk and some blankets. They found him seven hours later under some bushes where they were looking for a Major Shelton. He was something who killed him. The three bodies were killed and two bodies were in the wreckage immediately close to where the bomb was, but five men survived. One man, Captain Maddox, he didn't have an ejection seat, so when everybody else ejected, he said he saw a hole and he just dove for it, never dreaming he'd get out. So he made it through and then he used to ride somewhere back to the base.

He still had a parachute and the gate guard was talking about going to arrest him, thought he stole a parachute, but nobody to my knowledge has ever escaped jumping out of a jet plane and survived. And you're listening to Earl Smith and my goodness, what he was up to that day in North Carolina. Well, we never knew about it until fairly recently. There's been a book written about it, a big bestseller. It's being optioned as a movie. The Goldsboro Broken Arrow is the thriller by Joel Dobson. The book inaccurately recounts the story from the perspective of Jack Ravel and that's why we're bringing you Earl Smith's account.

He was the guy who did the work, not the guy who wanted the credit, and we know the difference between those two when it comes to political theater and showboaters. When we come back, we're going to continue this remarkable story, the story of how one of the world's greatest man-made disasters was averted and that occurred on this day in 1961 here on Our American Stories. DraftKings Sportsbook, an official sports betting partner of the NFL playoffs, is bringing you an offer that will help make the playoffs electrifying. New customers can bet five bucks on any game and get 200 instantly in bonus bets. Download the DraftKings Sportsbook app now and use the code DK1.

New customers can bet just five bucks to get 200 instantly in bonus bets only on the DraftKings Sportsbook with code DK1. The crown is yours. Resources. Abusers in Hollywood are as old as the Hollywood sign itself. Underneath it lies a shroud of mystery. From Variety, Hollywood's number one entertainment news source and iHeart podcast comes Variety Confidential. I'm your host, Tracey Patton, and in season one, we'll focus on the secret history of the casting couch. So join us as we navigate the tangled web of Hollywood's secret history of sex, money, and murder. Subscribe now to Variety Confidential wherever you get your podcasts. Ranch for dipping.

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Product availability may vary by region. See app for details. And we continue here with our American stories. And we love telling you these stories from history because they're important.

And my goodness, these are things ordinary Americans do that are, well, they're just extraordinary. Let's return to Earl Smith picking up with three other men who helped him dismantle the hydrogen bomb. And that occurred on this day in 1961 in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

They're the real heroes too. Like I said, they're all dead now. And what had happened before this, before I found out about all this, somehow this Lieutenant Ravel had found out the other three guys were dead. So he thought I was dead too. So he proceeded to tell the story like all this, how he took care of that bomb, which was a bunch of crap.

I mean, just out and out blatant lie because he had nothing to do. That bomb was ready at the time. He got shot and come on, was taken care of, ready to go back to the base. And I imagine he was quite shocked when he found out that I was still alive. After I come up there and there was a lot of publicity about it, after I got back home, this movie producer called me from Paris, France, and he said he was making a movie called The Cold War. And he loved to tell my story in it. And he said, I'll fly you back up there and we'll pay all your expenses and everything.

I said, okay. So I went back up there in April of that year. Well, the man who, Kurt Keller, who is a principal person, he is, he wants everything to be historically correct.

And he's the President of Historical Society for Goldsboro. Well, this Lieutenant, when he was telling his story, me or neither three of the other guys were ever mentioned about anything, never mentioned, never mentioned. So that set me on fire about getting everything straight.

So that's when I went back. They, they, or Kurt Keller invited me up to tell the story. As a matter of fact, when we made this movie, the man is flying over from Paris, the guy who's the Director or President of Historical Society, he said, this Lieutenant Ravel was invited to be a part of it too. He said, I'll take bits. He won't show up.

And guess what? He didn't. I was sure hoping to hell he would.

I was after all that he told and this stuff. And, and after three dead men, Sergeant Fincher, Sergeant Fletcher, and Sergeant Evers, with all they'd done and they couldn't defend herself. And the way he did that, I lost any respect I ever might've had about him. And then when they write this book, they write this book, I think they ended up being two books.

I've only seen one, Broken Arrow over at Goldsboro. The man that wrote that, I finally had talked to him and I said, I don't hold you. I said, first of all, I asked him, where did you get this information? And he said, well, from Lieutenant Ravel. I said, well, he pulled you a bunch of crap. And then I proceeded to tell him about what really happened. And he said, well, I figured he was an officer and a gentleman.

And I said, well, you kind of figured wrong on this one because he, he, he wasn't turned out to be other than that. But he never showed up when we went to film this movie, but that's the way it happened. I remember everything just, just like it was yesterday. I don't, cause when something like that, it's so vivid.

I mean, something it's so important. You just don't forget it. But like I said, I never thought we were told to never, ever mention it. They say, you don't ever speak of this. You don't ever, you ever, you never, never, ever, ever speak of it. So that scared this old boy.

So I kind of put it out of my mind, you know? Well, first of all, they said something that bothered me for many years because they were telling everybody that all the parts were found. And I knew that piece of uranium, 238 and 238 was still in that ground.

And I didn't know where anything might've moved, where it might've finally started doing something to the water supply. And it bothered me for many years about the people living down there. And, and, and, but we were told, no, you don't talk about this.

You don't, you know, but they were telling, the Air Force was telling, we were looking for an ejection seat to see what killed Major Shelton. And they spent a little over a million dollars digging. Now, now me, now a million dollars in 1961 was a lot of money, a lot of money. So they, they let us know right quick, you don't talk about it.

And President Kennedy had only been in office four days. And that was his first, first speech I think he had to make about our, our press report, I guess. But like I said, I know there were a lot of generals, a lot of generals there, and, and a lot of media had started showing up and they finally had, well, they threatened them with a $25,000 fine. That's what, now they couldn't keep them out, but that's, that's what they did. But it was, boy, they'd say, hell no, you don't say a word about this. Don't say a word about this.

Don't say a word about it, you know. So I don't think that there is, I thought for a long time I worried about it, but because when you think about it, the radiation would have come from, from the core and we got the core out. But this, this other is buried so deep, that uranium, that's where it comes from, out of ground anyway. So, so it's still underground.

They're doing, they do regular testing on it. But in my later years, I, I got in, I mostly selling RVs up, Dandy RV up in Oxford. And these men came in and they were EOD men. So I mentioned to one of them, I said, you know, I, I was an ex-EOD man. I said, I worked on a little job up in North Carolina.

And he looked, looked at you, you worked on that job? I said, yeah. I said, it sure did. I said, I was, I was on standby.

I had it by myself for an hour and a half. He said, you know, it's all over the internet. And I said, well, no. I mean, so boy, I finally got in and got on there and after reading all that stuff, my blood started boiling and all that crap he was telling, you know. And I mean, not, not only just for myself, for the other men that risked their lives.

When you go out on something like that, you don't know what's going to happen. And, but for him to come in and try to take credit for something somebody else did, it was just not right. No way in the world. I don't, I don't hold any animosity toward him.

He's at the time I could broke his neck when I first heard about it, but, but you're not supposed to hate. And I mean, this, the whole thing was just, I mean, just, just, just like something, something that never, it's never happened. And you've been listening to Earl Smith telling the story of disarming a hydrogen bomb, no, two hydrogen bombs that fell on North Carolina back on January 23rd, 1961.

This event was kept classified until 2013. And by the way, assuming that everyone had died, Lieutenant Jack Ravel decided to well do what we all know people like this did what he thought he could do, take advantage of an opportunity and take credit for work done by other men. No surprise that he wasn't showing up wherever Earl Smith showed up because my goodness, Earl would have had detailed memory of disarming that bomb that let's face it. Lieutenant Jack Ravel simply couldn't or didn't have a great story. And by the way, we always welcome your stories, send them to our American

And this is just a look. You don't hear a guy talking about himself in heroic ways. He, he did what he was trained to do and he did it with a bunch of guys and a whole bunch of guys died probably trying to get this plane to land safely and not create again, what would have been perhaps the worst manmade disaster in human history. Earl Smith's story, the story of a man who disarmed a couple of H bombs. And that occurred on this day in 1961, the year of my birth here on our American stories.

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So join us as we navigate the tangled web of Hollywood's secret history of sex, money and murder. Subscribe now to variety confidential wherever you get your podcasts. The Pro Bowl games presented by Verizon are taking over Orlando with the league's biggest star players and you the reimagined spectacle feature skills, competitions, NFL legends and unforgettable player moments all leading up to Sunday star studded AFC versus NFC flag football finale at Camping World Stadium. Be there live for an action packed weekend. The Pro Bowl games presented by Verizon Sunday, February 4. Tickets start at just $30. Go to Pro Bowl calm slash tickets to get yours today. Transcribed by
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