Map reveals missing US nuclear bombs – and there could be more

The locations of three nuclear bombs lost by the US military

On July 16, 1945, the US detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb. Weeks later, it dropped two more, the bomb’s terrible power destroying the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Since those dark days, it has not dropped any more.

But it has lost three – maybe even six.

There have been so many incidents involving nuclear weapons in fact, they have their own name – ‘broken arrow’ events.

Broken arrow incidents are often described as the unexpected launching, firing, theft or loss of a nuclear weapon, but so far there are no recorded cases of bombs having actually been stolen – although nuclear material has been.

That is little comfort though in a world where at least three bombs have been lost and never recovered.

All three have happened at sea, meaning they lie somewhere beneath the waves, undisturbed but very disturbing.

The mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, August 9, 1945 (Picture: Getty)

The first incident took place on February 5, 1958. Two planes collided during a training mission off the coast of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. One of the planes, a B-47 bomber, carried a 3.8 megaton hydrogen thermonuclear bomb, 190 times more powerful than the ‘Fat Man’ explosive that destroyed Nagasaki.

The plane’s pilot, Colonel Howard Richardson, feared the bomb could break loose and drop over land, so jettisoned it over the waters around Wassaw Sound. For two months a team of 100 Navy personnel tried to find the bomb, but it could not be located.

Rumours circulated that a Russian submarine had retrieved it, but a 2001 survey of the waters suggested it was buried in up to 15 feet of silt. An Air Force report stated that the bomb would pose no hazard if still intact.

A Mark 15 thermonuclear device, similar to the bomb lost off the coast of Georgia (Picture: US Department of Energy)

However, if it is a fully-functioning bomb with a plutonium trigger – something disputed by the government – an above-water explosion would create a fireball more than two miles wide.

In 1965, on the other side of the world in the middle of the Vietnam War, the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga was deployed in the Philippine sea, around 80 miles off the coast of Japan’s Okinawa island.

On December 5, Lieutenant Douglas Webster was coming into land, flying an A-4E Skyhawk attack aircraft. The plane was carrying a one megaton thermonuclear bomb.

A Navy A-4E Skyhawk (Picture: National Archives and Records Administration)

All seemed well, until the plane manoeuvered onto the ship’s aircraft elevator and could not be stopped. Despite those on board trying to block its tyres, the plane, Lt Webster and the bomb rolled over the side of the deck, quickly sinking out of sight.

None were ever seen again.

Just three years later, the USS Scorpion, a nuclear attack submarine, was lost to the depths of the Atlantic ocean, around 400 miles southwest of the Azores. 

All 99 of the sub’s crew perished. 

A pair of nuclear-tipped torpedoes were also lost to the sea.

What happens to nuclear weapons lost at sea?

In autumn 2022, a British nuclear submarine descended perilously close to its ‘crush depth’.

Speaking at the time about the dangers of underwater nuclear weapons, Dr Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow in sea power at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said there was little risk of them being accidentally launched.

‘A pretty valuable [weapon] would be lost or severely damaged,’ he said.

‘This means potentially radioactive waste within the oceans, because it would be very difficult to salvage [the wreck or missile] under those conditions at those depths.

‘But there would be no immediate massive radioactive risks.

‘For example, the Russians have been dumping the radioactive waste from their nuclear submarines in the Arctic for a very long time, for decades in fact, so the risk tends to accumulate when you have years of radioactive material being dumped in a given part of the ocean.’

But these are not the only incidents.

In March 1956, a B-47 bomber is thought to have crashed into the Mediterranean Sea while flying from Florida to an airbase in Morocco.

The exact weapons it was carrying have never been disclosed, but B-47s typically carry the same nuclear bomb as lost off the coast of Georgia two years later.

And in North Carolina, near the city of Goldsboro, there is probably a nuclear bomb buried in a field.

Which countries have nuclear weapons?

Nine countries have nuclear weapons:

Russia (5,889)
United States (5,224)
China (410)
France (290)
United Kingdom (225)
Pakistan (170)
India (164)
Israel (90)
North Korea (30)

Six nations also host nuclear weapons on behalf of other countries:

Italy (US)
Turkey (US)
Belgium (US)
Germany (US)
Netherlands (US)
Belarus (Russia)

It is one of two carried by a B-52 bomber that crashed shortly after take-off on January 24, 1961. Although the bomb’s tail was found ploughed 20 feet deep into the muddy ground, its core remained missing. With a bomb on the loose, the military simply bought the area around it to stop anyone else accidentally (or deliberately) finding it.

While the second bomb was recovered, its parachute becoming tangled in a tree, accounts state that all but one of its arming mechanisms had been activated – although other reports state they had been rendered ineffective.

However, the tale still highlights how close unsuspecting towns and cities have come to unintentional nuclear disaster – and only account for US broken arrow incidents. Nine countries are nuclear armed, with a further six hosting weapons on their behalf.

In 1986, the Soviet submarine K-219 sank off the coast of Bermuda, and is believed to have been carrying up to 30 nuclear warheads.

In total, there are around 12,500 nuclear warheads in the world.

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