When two nukes crashed, he got the call

In the U.S. military’s euphemistic lexicon of nuclear warfare, there are four terms no one wants to hear.


A “dull sword” is a minor incident involving a nuclear weapon.

A “bent spear” is a breach in the handling of a nuclear weapon.

An “empty quiver” is a nuclear weapon that has been stolen or lost.

And then there is a “broken arrow,” a nuclear weapon that has somehow gone awry. According to the book “Broken Arrow: The Declassified History of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accidents,” published in 2008, the United States government has publicly acknowledged 36 broken arrows in history.

Only one of those involved the potential detonation of two megaton nuclear bombs on U.S. soil. Only one of those could have wiped out half the state of North Carolina and, in the process, triggered a nuclear war.

That broken arrow involved a guy named Jack ReVelle.


The Salvation Army workers take his donations every year, but no one has ever asked about them.

To them, he’s just a little guy in a black Buick Park Avenue.

“I’m 5-foot-6, but I used to be 6-foot-3,” says the laughing 77-year-old man who has made his career as a business consultant and author.

This year, Jack ReVelle and his wife, Brenda, cleaned out their garage on Dec. 5, filled up the trunk with old electronics and hung the overflow clothes in the backseat. They headed for the Salvation Army office in Orange.

Theirs wasn’t much of a donation. But making it was so important to him. Just like it was last year and it will be next year, and the year after that, and all the years he has left on this Earth.

“The Salvation Army showed up that first day,” ReVelle says, emotion in his voice as he recalls Jan. 24, 1961. “I had never had coffee in my life. But they gave us coffee and doughnuts.”

Those Salvation Army workers risked their lives to bring him a cup of coffee. Donating every year, in return, seems so small.

ReVelle drinks coffee these days from a white Salvation Army cup with a paragraph printed on its side: “There is no reward equal to that of doing the most good to the most people in the most need.”

If you ever get a chance to meet ReVelle, ask him why he drinks out of that particular cup. Then prepare yourself.

He’ll tell you about the nuclear bombs. He’ll tell you about how plutonium felt in his hands.

He’ll tell you the joke about how he used to be 6-foot-3.

He’ll tell you how he saved the world as we know it.

For 50 years, he was required by federal government protocol to stay silent. But the most amazing moment of his life isn’t classified anymore.


January 1961. Fear was in the air, and so were nuclear bombs.

The world seemed as if it could explode at any second. The United States had used nukes (bombs named “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945), and the Soviet Union had tested nukes. Each side raced to make more and more bigger, badder bombs to obliterate each other.

The Cold War was nearing its most frigid, dangerous point.

Elementary school children were taught to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear attack.

As President Dwight D. Eisenhower was leaving office in January 1961, he severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, leaving new President John F. Kennedy with a potential Russian/Cuban nuclear threat 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Every minute of the day, every day of the year, U.S. planes stocked with nuclear bombs fanned out above the coastlines, ready to attack.

On Jan. 23, 1961, three days after Kennedy’s inauguration speech, a B-52G Stratofortress took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C. The plane was called “the BUFF,” for Big Ugly Fat (or Flying) Fellow. Its mission was defensive. The eight-member crew patrolled the Eastern seaboard, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, patrolled the airspace over Greenland and then returned.

The plane was carrying two Mk-39 nuclear bombs, each with a 3.8-megaton yield. In blunt terms, each of these bombs had a 100 percent kill radius extending 81/2 miles – 17 miles across. Designed a decade earlier by Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam, the horrific Mk-39 was built to explode in stages, with the detonation of each stage leading to the detonation of the next.

“Each weapon was 250 times the Hiroshima bomb,” said Joel Dobson, author of “The Goldsboro Broken Arrow,” which is being developed as a film by a Hollywood screenwriter. “Anyone in the open would be dead for 17 miles.”

To keep the plane on its mission, the B-52G had to be refueled in midair. Sometime in the early morning of Jan. 24, 1961, the pilot of the refueling plane noticed fuel streaming from the wing of the B-52G.

That was the first sign of trouble.


Jack ReVelle calls himself a “wiseass.” He grew up in Rochester, N.Y. Inspired by Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, he wanted to grow up to be a cartoonist.

But as he grew he learned that, like his brothers, he was particularly good in math. Although it suited his personality, cartooning faded away. In school, ReVelle excelled in chemistry and physics.

“I was most likely to have my face slapped,” said ReVelle, who graduated from Irondequoit High School in Rochester in 1953. “I had no filter between my mind and my mouth.”

He got accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but his family couldn’t afford it. He went to Purdue University, where students were required to join Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. He joined the ROTC drill team, where he twirled Springfield rifles wearing a fez. They made him the captain.

The only reason he stayed in the military, with which he wasn’t particularly enamored, was because it paid $30 per month during his junior and senior years.

He played trombone in a Dixieland band called the Salty Dogs. He lived in the Tau Epsilon Phi frat house with enough beer flowing to rival anything in “Animal House.”

ReVelle graduated from Purdue in 1957 with a degree in chemical engineering. Since he had completed four years of college military training, a job in the Navy Reserves was waiting.

He requested the cushiest position he could possibly think of – USO escort officer. His duty would be to hang with the celebrities who visited Navy bases.

He didn’t get what he wanted. He was told, “You’re in munitions.”

He had to look up what “munitions” was. His first job was in conventional munitions storage.

He was sent to Johnson Air Base in Japan. And he remembers his time there with a smile. “The Japanese girls called me ‘Kuma,’ which means ‘bear,'” ReVelle said. “I was hairy.”

He drove an Isseta, a tiny, strangely designed car of which the only door was in the front. The steering wheel and windshield pulled away from the driver as the front door opened. ReVelle was cool.

And yes, he eventually became the USO escort officer. He remembers the day hard-edged singer Johnny Cash visited the base. Cash’s career was exploding with “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” among his hits.

When Cash saw ReVelle, he said, “Where do you get a drink around here?”

Like a good escort officer, ReVelle responded, “Tell me what you want, and I’ll bring it.” The answer was whiskey.

ReVelle loved his job, but hobnobbing with the Bob Hopes of the world couldn’t last.

He was assigned to the Naval Propellant Plant in Indianhead, Md. His new job: explosive-ordinance disposal. He practiced defusing land mines, chemical weapons, biological weapons and booby traps. He was taught not to trip over trip wires.

“I would have lost a few fingers if the bombs would have been live,” ReVelle said.

In 1960, he was transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, for his first assignment on explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD. Naturally, they put him in charge.

ReVelle had a girlfriend in Cincinnati, a couple of hours’ drive away from the base. So that he could be immediately reachable, he drove an MG with a primitive car telephone installed in the console.

For Jack ReVelle, life was good.

But 1960 became ’61; the world was becoming a more dangerous place.


The Big Ugly Fat Fellow carrying the nuclear bombs careened over the North Carolina countryside, the crew trying desperately to reach Seymour Johnson Air Force Base’s Runway 26.

Suddenly, the right wing buckled and broke off, sending the plane into a barrel roll. In two minutes, the plane lost 19 tons of fuel.

Then the tail ripped away from the back of the plane.

Seconds later, the crew ejected. The plane was nose-down, heading for an unthinkable disaster.

The sleeping residents of little towns below had no idea at that moment that their lives could end in a flash.

It was Jan. 24, 1961.


ReVelle was startled awake at his apartment in Fairborn, Ohio, by an early morning phone call.

The squadron commander said something strange.

ReVelle and the EOD squadron commander had practiced a disaster phone call many times. Using keywords and numbers they had both memorized, the squadron commander should have given ReVelle a coded message to describe three things: the fact that the U.S. was in the midst of a nuclear emergency, the status of the event and the need for urgency.

In the Cold War atmosphere of 1961, everything had been practiced. Everything had a protocol.

Not this phone call.

“Jack,” the squadron commander said nervously, “I got a real one for you.”

“A real one what?” Jack said.

“B-52 crash,” the squadron commander said, even though it wasn’t a secure line.

At that moment, ReVelle knew this one was big. He quickly pulled on his flight suit, hopped into his MG and headed for the flight line at Wright-Patterson.

When ReVelle’s plane took off and headed for North Carolina, the pilot asked why they were going there. ReVelle stayed silent.

“Can you tell me?” the pilot asked.

“No,” ReVelle said.

ReVelle was about to be put in charge of defusing two nuclear bombs.

To read more, please visit: http://www.ocregister.com/2012/12/31/when-two-nukes-crashed-...

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