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This Day in History: Lt. Jack ReVelle, Cold War Hero

On this day in 2020, a hero passes away. Lt. Jack ReVelle is best known for his efforts to disarm two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs that were inadvertently dropped on North Carolina in 1961.


At the time, an American B-52 bomber had been attempting an emergency landing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Instead, its wing sheared off, and the bombs separated from the crashing plane. (See Wednesday’s story.)


ReVelle was put in charge of cleaning up the mess. He was then only 25 years old.

The young Air Force weapons disposal specialist had been in Dayton when the crash occurred, but he and his team quickly boarded a plane. He arrived in North Carolina to discover one bomb relatively stable already. Its parachute had opened, bringing the huge bomb gently to the ground.


“I could see it from the Jeep,” ReVelle later explained, “not more than 100 yards from the road. There it was, the first of the two weapons, this huge monolith, about the size of a large propane tank, standing on its nose with its parachute shrouds caught in some trees.”


The bomb was loaded on a flatbed truck and hauled off. The next bomb would be more challenging: Indeed, there was very little evidence of it at first. There was just a big hole in the ground.


“Nobody ever expected a nuclear weapon about 3 ft in diameter, about 12 ft long and weighing 6,700 lb to penetrate the ground and keep going!” ReVelle marveled. “It was unlike anything we’d ever heard of.”


The dig to retrieve the bomb was nearly impossible. The water table was close to the surface, so water kept pouring into the hole. At one point, ReVelle’s team had 16 high-capacity pumps working 24/7. The hole was 50 feet deep, but the pumps still weren’t keeping up.


“There was a slurry of mud and hazardous materials,” ReVelle said, “so we had to step gingerly while we were in the hole as we identified and carefully picked it all up. The longer we dug, the more components we located. . . . What a terrible mess to be in!”


After a few days of digging, they found the arm/safe switch. “Until my death I will never forget hearing my sergeant say, ‘Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch,’” ReVelle said. “And I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘Not great. It’s on arm.”


There is still disagreement about how close the bombs came to exploding, but ReVelle’s opinion is that it “was damn close.”


The primary core of the bomb was found on the 5th day, and ReVelle carried it out. It was very heavy, about the size of a volleyball. “As I carried it up out of that hole,” he said, “I remember thinking, ‘Don’t drop it.’”


He was wearing only military fatigues and gloves, which would prove to be a problem.


ReVelle finally returned home after 8 days on site. He hadn’t been in contact with his family, so he sat down to write a letter to his parents. “By the time I’d written ‘Dear Mom and Dad,’” he later explained, “my hand was shaking. I thought to myself, ‘My God, where have I been? What have I been doing?’”


For decades, he couldn’t tell anyone what he’d done, but that all changed with a phone call in 2011. The call came from historian Joel Dobson, who was writing a book. The episode had been declassified. ReVelle was free to talk.


He finally told his wife what he had done.


The ending to ReVelle’s story is a sad one. Around the time that Dobson contacted him, ReVelle’s health began declining. Exposure to radioactive materials had given him a disease that would ultimately kill him.


He died in his sleep on January 26, 2020.


“Jack was a true believer,” his wife concluded after his passing. “He believed in America. And he believed in his promises.”

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