30 Jul 19
Posted by: J. R. Stocker

On 5 December 1965, a United States Navy A-4 Skyhawk light attack aircraft was toppled from an elevator on the port side of USS Ticonderoga, an Essex-class aircraft carrier. It quickly sank, taking its pilot Lieutenant (JG) Douglas Webster and a B-43 megaton-range nuclear free-fall bomb with it. It was the only time to date an American carrier has ‘lost’ a nuclear weapon, for which the US codename is ‘Broken Arrow’. Ticonderoga had just completed four weeks of operations off Vietnam, initially ‘Dixie’ Station in the south, then ‘Yankee’ station in the north. It was now on passage to Yokosuka in Japan for some ‘R&R’ before returning to combat operations over the Christmas period. There was no flying that day. Instead, Lt Webster and his aircraft were conducting weapon-handling drills using a live (not drill) nuclear weapon. The B-43 had been attached to the aircraft, which was being taken up to the flight deck. It was not connected to a ‘mule’ (aircraft tractor) and instead was being manhandled by about a dozen sailors. Just as the Skyhawk rolled onto the elevator (deck-edge lift) the ship turned to starboard and heeled accordingly. The aircraft continued to roll backwards and went over the side. It sank about 80 miles east of the Japanese Ryukyu islands near Okinawa, where the water depth is 2,700 fathoms (nearly 5,000 metres). The aircraft, the bomb and the body of Lt Webster have never been recovered.

That’s the story of how the USN lost a nuclear bomb. Winchester’s account of it takes up just nine pages. Broken Arrow also provides background on the ship, the A-4 and the unfortunate pilot, all told in a somewhat American ‘folksy’ style that will not be to every reader’s taste. Much of it is anecdotal or personal recollection. The real story is what happened afterwards…“the biggest Cold War story you’ve never heard.” A Board of Inquiry was convened onboard as soon as the ship arrived in Japan. After witnesses had been interviewed the ship returned to operations off Vietnam as scheduled. Winchester provides details of these, including aircraft losses both in action and due to accidents, but they don’t really contribute to the story of the lost nuclear weapon. Nor do we need to be told about minor incidents such as a boiler technician (stoker) hurting his leg on a fishhook.

The investigation report concluded that the pilot had failed to apply the aircraft’s brakes when required. No one else was to blame and no further action was taken. There were rumours that the bomb itself was already damaged and an ‘accident’ was a convenient way to get rid of it. Such a conspiracy theory can probably be dismissed but the incident was kept very quiet. The potential embarrassment of losing a nuclear weapon was compounded by the ship’s destination – Japan – where the US Government had undertaken not to take nuclear weapons. It was not until 1989 that news of it emerged in Newsweek. An official statement then heightened the sense of cover-up, stating that the bomb was lost 500 miles from land – but that was the Chinese mainland. Japanese territory was a good deal closer.

What neither the book nor the original enquiry address is why a live weapon would be used for handling drills, why a nuclear-laden aircraft would be moved manually (pushed) onto an elevator and why the ship would turn, no matter how gently, when this evolution was taking place. There was clearly no coordination between the hangar and the bridge. Even allowing for a more relaxed attitude to basic safety precautions all those years ago, it still seems an extraordinary omission. Broken Arrow contains some fascinating pieces of detail. For example, despite having steam catapults and operating jet aircraft, the ship still had a wooden flight deck, which needed regular repair. Readers will remember the ungainly appearance of the A-4 when on the ground, with its long undercarriage for such a small aircraft. It was designed to carry an early, bulky nuclear weapon and needed the ground clearance. There is the basis of a good magazine article here, but not enough for a book fully half of which is ‘padding’.