Jettisoned from a B-47 bomber after a mid-air collision in 1958, the nuclear weapon is said to lie in relatively shallow waters off Little Tybee Island.
This past summer a Statesboro-based salvage expert, Derek Duke, claims to have recorded increased radiation in Wassaw Sound where the bomb may have landed.
Mr. Duke provided information on the bomb which indicated he may have found increased readings of radiation in a particular area, says Lt. Col. Frank Smolinsky, Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public Affairs.
We thought it was prudent to measure and evaluate his readings and review his collection techniques.
Comprising 20 experts from the Air Force, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the U.S. Navy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the National Laboratories, the team, led by Dr. Billy Mullins, was ready last Friday to begin the search.
The Air Force has for years insisted the bomb was not armed and poses no threat. The bomb was jettisoned in a training configuration, which means without a nuclear capsule, and was not then nor is now capable of a nuclear explosion, Lt. Col. Smolinsky says.
But Dukes data seems to have added a new sense of urgency to the generations-old local conundrum, now firmly esconced in local folklore.
Weve brought expertise and personnel to collect water and soil samples in Wassaw Sound, Lt. Col.Smolinsky says. Well take samples on our own to see if we can verify Dukes readings. We hope to either confirm or not confirm them -- we have every intent to do exactly that.
Lt. Col. Smolinsky stresses that the Air Force sending a team here does not necessarily mean they support Dukes conclusions. He also took pains to point out that the Air Force has not solicited or pressured Duke into any research or salvage operation of his own.
This is not the first time the Air Force has been to Savannah looking for information on the bomb.
Immediately following the incident in 1958, an exhaustive nine-week search resulted in the Air Force not finding the bomb, Lt. Col. Smolinsky says. We decided then that the weapon was irretrievable, but that doesn't mean we washed our hands of it. It just meant we didn't believe with the technology then available that we could locate it.
Four years ago, the Air Force again sent investigators for a significantly lower-profile fact-finding mission.
We also came down in 2000 and did a sitdown and sharing of information. We didn't find anything significant to go on involving the presence of increased radiation, Lt. Col. Smolinsky says.
Its easy to be a Monday Morning Quarterback but I do think if someone else had presented this at an early time we might have done this sooner.
Lt. Col. Smolinsky says it is simply too soon to say when the Air Force will have results from last weeks study.
We just can't speculate on that. Well take samples and send them to National Laboratories. Obviously assessing them will be a priority, but it does fall into the work flow, he says. We fully expect to present our findings in a formal report that will be releasable.
Lt. Col. Smolinsky says should the Air Force positively locate the bomb, there is no question about who can claim the weapon.
The U.S. Air Force maintains ownership of this weapon, he says. If anyone would try and do anything with that bomb, if found, we will exercise every option to make sure that doesnt happen.
The original incident that started it all happened during a training exercise over Screven County, when an F-86 fighter made contact with a B-47 bomber during a simulated bomb run.
The B-47s pilot, Col. Howard Richardson (see this week's Letters to the Editor), made for open water and jettisoned the bomb in his successful effort to bring the bomber down safely at Hunter Field (then an Air Force base), for which he was decorated. No one was hurt in the incident.