The Day The Sky Fell
A beautiful blue-sky afternoon it was. As I walked back from my mailbox a freshly killed squirrel with half its head missing fell right in front of me. What a shock. I looked up to see a red-shouldered hawk glide to a pine and watched another squirrel fall to earth. The hawk must have been training a fledgling or in a mood to do humanity a good deed.
The squirrel startled me, but what if … what if something bigger fell. What, for instance, would it be like if a nuclear bomb fell but didn’t detonate? Well, a few people experienced that. It happened. You’d expect a place where the sky fell to have an alien name. Something extraterrestrial, maybe something named after a planet of mystery like that red planet, Mars. Well, Mars Bluff, South Carolina, fits the bill and it was here on a recent Saturday that I went looking for the crater of an atom bomb that fell from the sky sixty-five years ago.
March 11, 1958—A U.S. Air Force B-47 Stratojet carrying a nuclear payload took off from Savannah’s Hunter Air Force Base. It headed out for nuclear training exercises in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Over Florence County, the navigator mistakenly pulled the emergency release pin and a bomb the size of a car fell from the plane.
Though it wasn’t armed with its trigger of fissionable material, its detonator exploded and created a crater estimated to be 75 feet wide and 25 to 35 feet deep. It destroyed a playhouse near the Walter Gregg residence and leveled nearby trees. Nobody died, but several people in the Gregg family received injuries.
Plunging 15,000 feet, that bomb contained more punch than “Fat Man,” the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. But thankfully no mushroom cloud rose over Florence County. Army Times published Bo Peterson’s report in the Charleston Post and Courier on this “Broken Arrow” accident, as the Air Force labels accidental nuclear weapon drops.
An excerpt: “Ella Davis Hudson remembers stacking bricks to make a kitchen to play house. The next thing she knew, the 9 year-old was running down the driveway, blood streaming from the gash above her eye. She doesn’t remember the actual blast from an atomic bomb…. Hudson, a cousin, had been playing with two of Gregg’s children in the backyard.”
Another excerpt with a happier side: “One smile-inducing postscript to the story: The Greggs later appeared on the television show ‘I’ve Got a Secret’ and stumped the panel trying to guess what the secret was.” Yep, it would have stumped you and me too.
Recently I tried to find the crater. I found no signs to help me locate it. I hear local college kids take them as souvenirs. I stopped at a local convenience store and the clerk tried his best to help me but he wasn’t a local, not even from this country. I drove in circles for thirty minutes. No signage and not much help from Google. The next time I’m in the Mars Bluff area, I’ll try again. I’ll see if I can get permission to photograph a place where an extraordinary event came to pass.
Even if I find it, I may not recognize it. Years of vegetation and rain and decomposition have filled the crater in. I hear, though, that you can see fragments of the bomb in the Florence County Museum. I’ll check them out too. One thing’s for sure, the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki left no fragments.
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