Act III Episode 8 - The Search for the Lost Nukes
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon ordered some questions be answered in response to a report on Ian Fleming’s 007 spy-fiction thriller Thuderball and recently released movie on the possibility that Fleming got the idea for the fictional story of an international terrorist cartel recovering two nuclear bombs from the ocean floor from the accidental disposal of two 20 megaton nuclear weapons in the ocean off of Cape May, New Jersey on July 28, 1957.
Since the Air Force had lost the nukes the Chairman of the Chiefs ordered a four star Air Force general to look into the whole affair, and the general ordered a full bird Colonel in Counter-Intelligence to determine if there was a national security leak of classified information if Ian Fleming had learned about the accident and used it as the basis for his Thunderball story because it was officially classified a “Broken Arrow” Top Secret incident and downplayed to the media as the public safety was not threatened at the time, .
The Colonel was also instructed to determine if there was a public safety issue today, some six years after the accident. The Colonel then passed on the CI-mission to a Captain and the public safety issue to a Second Lieutenant who ordered a Staff Sergeant to investigate and file a F-301 Report that would be classified.
The Staff Sergeant responsible for the public safety issue didn’t know where to begin looking into the accidental disposal of two 20 megaton nuclear weapons of mass destruction and what dangers they posed to the public safety, so he called Bob Schoelkopf, a high school friend who was in charge of training the dolphins for the Sea World Act at the Steel Pier on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, which was just north of where the accident took place
It being late on a Sunday afternoon Bob was in his office that overlooked the Diving Horse act and the Deep Sea Diving Bell, and was quite surprised to hear from his old school friend, and even more perplexed by the nature of his questions.
“Bob, this is strictly off the record, but I need to know if you or if you know anyone who tests and monitors the sea water for pollution?”
“Sure,” Schoelkopf replied, “we do it all the time. We look for fecal matter, industrial pollutants fertilizers, insect and bug killing chemicals and the like…”
Schhelkopf was perplexed by the question.
“You mean nuclear radioactivity?”
“Yes,” came the stern replay.
“No,” Schoelkopf said, “we don’t normally test the waters for that.”
“Well Bob,” the Sergeant began, “we have a problem, and I’ll give you the basic facts, but this is all deep background and off the record, and you can’t quote or repeat what I have to say, but I want you to know because you can help me and possibly help avert a national catastrophe.”
The Air Force guy who knew Bob from college days, only a few years ago, explained how on July 28, 1957 an Air Force cargo plane C-124 took off from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and after losing two of its four engines, utilized emergency procedures and dumped its cargo two 20 megaton nuclear warheads with Plutonium 239 that were never recovered.
After a few moments of silence, Sshoelkopf asked, “So what do you want me to do about it?”
The military wanted to know if they did routine testing of the water samples from Atlantic City to Cape May, and if they did could they include testing for radiation?
The problem, the Air Force sergeant explained, was not that the war heads would explode, that was not possible, the problem was the metal container the bombs were in would rust through and the bomb casing would leak the Pu 239, one of the most dangerous substances known to man, and contaminate the entire North Atlantic Ocean.
The other problem, the sergeant hesitated to verbalize, was that the Soviets or as in the movie Thunderball, some rogue terrorist group would locate and retrieve the warheads and make a dirty bomb out of them that could be used to blackmail the nations of the world, just as in the movie, but, he noted, that was not a credible possibility, at least in the eyes of the Department of Defense analysists.
Schoelkopf, who was having growing doubts about the ethics of training dolphins to do tricks, after reading Dr. John Lilly’s book “The Mind of the Dolphin,” realized that the porpoises, like man, were mammals, and not fish, and since they have the same sized brain as man, communicated among themselves and were easy to train to do tricks, should not be captured and trained like circus animals. Now he believed that the dolphins were actually smarter than man, and maybe al of mankind were knuckleheads.
After pulling a science book off his office shelf, Schoelkopf read: “Plutonium is a transuranic chemical element with symbol Pu and atomic number 94. It is an actinide metal of silvery-grey appearance that tarnishes when exposed to air, and forms a dull coating when oxidized. Created when uranium atoms absorb neutrons, it was discovered in 1940 at the University of California, Berkeley, and made during World War II for use in atomic weapons. Nearly all plutonium is man-made, and emits alpha particles…”
Taking it all in and then sitting back and thinking about it for awhile, he picked up his desk telephone and called the Margate Beach Patrol Headquarters and asked to speak to Joel Fogel, a lifeguard who just got off duty and was checking out his equipment for the day. Schoelkopf knew that Fogel was an environmentalist as well as an adventurer, and had started a non-profit research organization Water Watch International that tested waters for pollutants.
Fogel too said that testing for radioactivity was new to him, but he would look into it, and after asking why he was doing this, Schoelkopf told Fogel the basic deep background of the “Broken Arrow” nuclear accident that deposited two 20 megaton nuclear warheads about 100 miles off of Cape May in 1957 and have not been able to find them or retrieve them, and they’re now worried the metal casings may have corroded and may release the Pu 239 into the water.
“Do you know what the half-life of Pu 239 is?” Fogel asked, knowing the answer he gave up without waiting, “24,000 years.”
“Well we won’t be around for that,” said Schoelkopf, “and maybe this will hasten our departure from this planet if they’re not located and retrieved.”
Besides being a lifeguard and adventurer Joel Fogel was a stringer for the New York Times and within a few days of the phone calls between the Air Force sergeant at Dover, Bob Scholekopf and Joel Fogel, the New York Times ran a front page story “Air Force Lost Two Nukes -Thunderball For Real,” a story that was subsequently picked up by the Washington Post, Time and Newsweek magazines and Life and Look as well as all of the network radio and TV stations, including KYW TV 3 who put their crack investigative team on the story since they were already in the vicinity.
Before the week was about, by Labor Day weekend, to ensure the public’s safety, every lifeguard stand at the Jersey Shore from Manasquan to Cape May Point was equipped with a portable Geiger counter with instructions to check and monitor any debris that washed ashore for signs of radiation.
So now, the Ocean City Police boardwalk squad had noise decibel meters while the lifeguards were checking for radiation, and public safety was being maintained.