How Jack ReVelle Helped Save America from Nuclear Disaster
Jack ReVelle climbed up the steep embankment, the frozen North Carolina dirt crumbling under his weight and mud clinging to his boots.
When connected to the right components — as it had been five days earlier before plummeting at 700 mph towards a swampy field — the pit ReVelle carried contained enough plutonium and uranium to trigger an atomic explosion 250 times more powerful than those that ended World War II.
The pit ReVelle held was the core of one of two identical bombs a B-52 Stratofortress bomber was carrying when it broke up over the small town of Faro just after midnight on Jan. 24, 1961.
“As far as I’m concerned we came damn close to having a Bay of North Carolina,” ReVelle, an OSU alumnus, says more than five decades after the incident. “The nuclear explosion would have completely changed the Eastern seaboard if it had gone off.”
Now He Can Talk
ReVelle holds a 1965 master’s and a 1970 doctorate in industrial engineering and management from OSU.
Before getting his doctorate, he spent 12 years in the Air Force as an explosive ordnance disposal officer. It was a distinguished career in leadership roles.
ReVelle grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Purdue University in 1957 with a degree in chemical engineering. He had completed four years of ROTC and got commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant when he graduated.
He requested USO escort officer. He wanted the cushy job of hobnobbing with Hollywood stars and famous musicians.
“Chemical engineers go into munitions,” he was told.
At the Naval Propellant Plant in Indianhead, Md., he learned to defuse land mines, biological and chemical weapons and booby traps.
“If the booby traps were live, I could have lost a few fingers,” he says.
In 1960, the Navy sent him to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. As commander of Detachment 4 of the 2702nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron, he twice responded to what the military dubs a Broken Arrow, an accident that could result in the launching, firing, burning, detonating, theft or loss of a nuclear weapon.
ReVelle was part of an elite military bomb squad. He knew every bolt, screw and component of a nuclear weapon, how they all fit together and the hazards associated with each part.
“I had the confidence to know when I walked up to that weapon, I knew exactly what it was, I knew exactly what could go wrong, and I knew exactly what I had to do,” ReVelle says.
That much he could always reveal about his military career.
But he always had to keep secret the details of what he was doing in the frigid 1961 winter in a slushy field holding the pit of a nuclear weapon.
Secrecy and rumor — North Carolinians had for years heard about the nuclear bomb buried near Nahunta Swamp off Big Daddy’s Road — shrouded the facts until former Air Force officer Joel Dobson uncovered declassified military records. Dobson was working on his 2011 book on the incident, The Goldsboro Broken Arrow, which is being developed into a feature film.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Dobson obtained a highly redacted copy of an incident report signed by 1st Lt. Jack ReVelle. Searching on the Internet, Dobson found the former nuclear bomb squad commander. Dobson surprised ReVelle by telling him the military had declassified the information.
“I couldn’t talk about it for more than 50 years,” ReVelle says. “When I found out I could, I was stunned. I sat down with my wife and I said, ‘Now I can tell you what I was doing.’ ”
Cold War Tensions
The early 1960s were the height of the Cold War. The U.S. and USSR attempted to check each other’s ideology and power by amassing enough ready-to-fire nuclear weapons to destroy their adversary many times over.
Elementary school children were taught to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear attack. U.S. planes stocked with nuclear bombs fanned out above the coastlines to respond to threats. Silos held nuclear missiles that could be readied for launch in minutes.
ReVelle first responded to a Broken Arrow on June 7, 1960, at McGuire Air Force Base near Trenton, N.J. A high-pressure helium tank had exploded, rupturing the fuel tanks of an air defense missile with a two-minute launch sequence.
Safety devices worked properly and prevented detonation, but the fire-suppression system couldn’t keep the warhead from being destroyed.
“By the time the whole thing was over, the entire missile had melted down, including the plutonium and uranium pit,” ReVelle says.
“With the water streaming down on this exposed melted pit, the alpha particles and the beta particles that are inherently a part of the nuclear material got carried off with the water. Our job was to clean up the radioactive mess.”
A Department of Defense report says ReVelle’s team kept the contamination contained within 100 feet of the weapon’s location. Other reports have disputed the size of the exposed area, but monitoring at the site has found no evidence of radioactive problems.
“That one took only about three days to get under control,” ReVelle says, “but it was a great introduction to Broken Arrows, and I think we did a better job at Goldsboro because of it.”
The Night the Bombs Fell
At 10:56 a.m. on Jan. 23, 1961, a B-52 stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C., took off for a 25-hour, nonstop flight. Keep 19, the flight’s radio call sign for the mission, was to be a routine patrol with two in-air refuelings.
Eight crewman and two MK-39 thermonuclear bombs were on board the B-52, a type of plane known as “the BUFF,” an acronym politely translated to Big Ugly Fat Fellow, because of its size.
During the B-52’s second refueling over Columbia, S.C., crew on the refueling plane noticed a fuel leak coming from the bomber’s right wing.
Dobson’s book recounts a harrowing struggle to correct the problem and safely land the BUFF.
Pump problems prevented purging fuel from the leaking tanks as Keep 19 circled over the Atlantic Ocean. Two engines were shut down to prevent fuel that was pouring into the engine exhaust from igniting a fire. Crewmembers pulled circuit breakers to prevent a spark from causing a blaze. Jet fuel covered the bomb bay, soaked the wheel well and coated the hull’s bottom and electronics.
The crew mentally rehearsed their ejection procedures.
Heading back toward base, Keep 19 descended to 10,000 feet over the North Carolina countryside, lowered its landing gear and began a high, long final approach.
A loud noise echoed from under the airplane, which jerked violently left. The pilots leveled the plane. A louder noise boomed from below. The right wing dropped slightly. The plane turned right. The pilot and copilot yanked the yokes hard left and stomped on the left rudder pedals.
The Big Ugly Fat Fellow did not respond.
At 12:35 a.m. Jan. 24, 1961, Keep 19 crashed 12 miles north of the air base. Its nose landed in a tobacco field a few paces away from Big Daddy’s Road in Faro.
Three men — gunner Frank Barnish, radar navigator Eugene Shelton and electronic warfare officer Eugene Richards — died in the crash. Five others — flight commander and pilot Walter Scott Tulloch, co-pilot Richard Rardin, relief pilot Adam Mattocks, electronic warfare officer Bill Wilson and navigator Paul Brown — parachuted to safety.
The plane had lost its wing, barrel-rolled to the right and cracked in the middle.
Two thermonuclear bombs — each with enough power to leave a crater a third of a mile wide and exterminate all living things within 8.5 miles of its ground zero — had fallen out of the disintegrating, exploding aircraft.
A 6 a.m. phone call startled ReVelle out of a sound sleep at his apartment in Fairborn, Ohio.
“Jack!” his commander barked. “I’ve got a real one for you.”
From the tone of his commander’s voice and his lack of rehearsed protocol, ReVelle knew this one was big.
He pulled on his flight suit, grabbed his overnight satchel and sped in his MG to a waiting jet.
The pilot asked why they were going to North Carolina.
ReVelle was silent.
“Can you tell me?” the pilot asked again.
“No. I can’t,” ReVelle said, uncharacteristically terse.
Within two hours, ReVelle was boots on the ground at Seymour Johnson.
ReVelle climbed into a waiting jeep.
The driver asked, “Can you tell me why you’re here?”
“No. I can’t.”
ReVelle rode toward the bombs.
Finding the Bombs
The bombs could have gone off as the plane crumbled, ReVelle says.
“It could have easily gone nuclear,” he says. “The electrical currents going through the aircraft at the time it’s breaking up could have been sent and misinterpreted by the electronics in the bombs, and that could have caused a nuclear explosion in the air.”
The first bomb to clear the exploding B-52 fell about two miles, its parachute deploying then getting tangled in a tree.
The MK-39 thermonuclear bomb, about the size of a large propane storage tank, stood with its nose embedded about 2 feet in the ground, its tail on top and its parachute caught in tree limbs above.
As the young ReVelle pulled up to the site, someone asked, “Well, what do you think?”
ReVelle stood, studied the weapon, paused and deadpanned, “It’s a bomb.”
He climbed a ladder to reach the arm/safe switch near the rear of the weapon. He saw it was in the safe position.
According to several studies of the incident, the switch may have been the only measure preventing the bomb from exploding on impact. In order for an MK-39 to detonate, seven steps have to be triggered — pulling wires, starting timers and flipping switches, among other things. The arm/safe switch was the only trigger left unpulled.
After ReVelle checked for radioactivity, his explosive ordnance disposal team deactivated the weapon, and the bomb was removed.
The second bomb was more problematic.
The bomb’s parachute lanyard had been severed. The parachute never deployed. The 11-foot-long, 6,750-pound bomb, with a yield equivalent to 3.8 megatons of TNT, approached the speed of sound during its milelong fall, according to a University of North Carolina study cited in Dobson’s book.
The muddy ground swallowed the bomb. Responders located small pieces of the nose section next to the point of impact, which was marked with a 6-foot-deep crater spread 15 feet wide.
But no bomb.
ReVelle carefully poked a long stick into the ground and hit a solid object.
His team dug down nearly 8 feet with hand tools before deciding to bring in heavier equipment such as bulldozers and dump trucks. A command post was set up, and over eight days ReVelle’s squad would dig in an ever-widening circle. Each day, the hole deepened 3 to 5 feet and widened about 10 to 20 feet.
On day two, the men found the top of the bomb’s parachute pack at 12 feet. On day three, a crane removed the parachute pack, and the squad located parts of the nose and a few pieces of the high explosives that had surrounded the radioactive pit. On day four, the first of 92 detonators and more heavy explosives were unearthed.
After the first few days, the worry switched from detonation to radiation exposure.
Snow and cold hampered the dig. Groundwater in the swampy area filled the hole as the crew dug. The military brought in high-capacity pumps to remove the water, but it was a constant battle.
“You combine the cold with the wind, and then some days it rains and then it would freeze over,” ReVelle says. “We’re trying to dig, and we hit the water table. We’re trying to pump out water at the same time we’re digging. … All these things combined made for a real mishmash of undesirable conditions.”
On day five, at 18 feet, the squad uncovered the uranium and plutonium pit.
ReVelle taped his gloves to his sleeves to cover his skin, bent at the knees, stuck his hands into the mud, pulled out the heavy metal sphere, gingerly climbed out of the hole, placed the pit on a truck and watched it leave.
“The reason I was carrying that pit up the side of the hole is because it’s an unwritten rule that the senior person there — whether officer or enlisted — when a particularly hazardous step needs to be completed, that’s the person that has to do the job.”
That same day, the squad would find the second bomb’s arm/safe switch.
“And, it’s on armed,” someone yelled from in the hole.
Silence reigned. ReVelle scurried back down into the hole and verified what he heard.
The military, historians and other have debated for years why the bomb didn’t explode when it struck the ground. Did a broken arm/safe switch give a false armed reading? Was the bomb disintegration so widespread the components couldn’t work together? Was it simply a dud?
“As to whether or not we came close to having a detonation when the bomb impacted,” ReVelle says, “I think that’s a matter of argument.”
Finishing the Job
ReVelle and his squadron would oversee the digging for three more days. After failed attempts to shore up the hole and keep water out, it was decided the principal hazards were under control, and ReVelle and his men were sent home.
“While we were there, my team and I were going about our business,” ReVelle says. “You’re well trained, you’re experienced, you know what the job is, you know what’s expected of you, and you just go ahead and do it.”
ReVelle’s team had located and removed nearly all the bomb’s parts. Only what is known as the secondary, which also contained uranium and plutonium, remain hidden. Digging at the site continued until May 1961. The excavation reached more than 40 feet deep and 130 feet wide. The secondary was never found.
“It can’t go off without the primary,” ReVelle says. “All by itself, it’s just sitting down in the ground. It’s just going through radioactive decay.”
The federal government purchased an easement to the area. No digging or drilling beyond 5 feet down is allowed, and North Carolina conducts periodic radiation testing of the groundwater. To date, no contamination has been found.
After eight days of deactivating the Broken Arrow, ReVelle returned to his Ohio apartment.
He sat down at his kitchen table with pen and paper to write a letter to his parents.
ReVelle began to write but paused. He lifted his hands from the paper and stared at them as if they weren’t his.
“I just saw my hands start to shake.”
The Rest of the Story: Jack ReVelle
OSU alumnus Jack ReVelle’s life since he deactivated two nuclear bombs in 1961 has been anything but low key. He’s continued to be a leader.
In the spring and summer of 1962, ReVelle was an operations officer during the final 25 atmospheric nuclear tests at Christmas Island, with the duty of defusing a bomb if something went wrong.
After ReVelle’s second tour in Japan, he applied for a master’s program with the Air Force Institute of Technology. He had received his chemical engineering bachelor’s from Purdue University in 1957. The Air Force program contracted with several universities, and ReVelle was a bit surprised when he was assigned to OSU.
While still in the military, ReVelle received his OSU master’s in industrial engineering and management
“The Air Force was allowing me more time than I really needed because I took a full load of courses, so I actually got started on my doctorate,” he says.
ReVelle didn’t have time to finish his doctorate because duty called. The Air Force assigned him to posts in Waco, Texas, and Saigon, Vietnam. In 1967 ReVelle returned to the U.S. for a post with the Defense Nuclear Agency, where he was assigned to stockpile management.
After nearly 12 years of a successful military career — he rose to the rank of major and was awarded the Bronze Star while stationed in Vietnam as well as the Joint Service Commendation for his work in quality assurance with the Defense Nuclear Agency — ReVelle resigned from the military.
With support from the G.I. Bill, ReVelle returned to OSU to finish his doctorate in industrial engineering and management in 1970.
The degree propelled ReVelle into a career filled with more awards, including the 2006 Lohmann Medal — the highest honor given by OSU’s College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology.
After getting his OSU degree, ReVelle spent eight years in higher education as a department chair at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and as founding dean of the School of Business and Management at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
Next he worked 22 years in positions such as chief statistician at Hughes Electronics, the leader of continuous improvement at Raytheon Missile Systems and director of the Center for Continuous Improvement for GenCorp Aerojet.
ReVelle authored several works, including Quantitative Methods for Managerial Decisions (1978) and Safety Training Methods (1980, revised 1995); chapters for numerous other texts; expert-system software packages; and hundreds of technical articles. His work has been published in industry journals and magazines such as Quality Progress, Industrial Engineering, Industrial Management and Professional Safety.
ReVelle lives in Orange, Calif., with his wife of 45 years, Brenda, an attorney. The couple has a daughter Karen, a graphic designer and photographer (she took her father’s portraits for this article) based in Orange County, Calif.
ReVelle is in the consulting business, running ReVelle Solutions. He has consulted for such clients as General Motors, Hallmark, Boeing and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He has recently been consulting with the company designing and manufacturing the second-generation bullet train in China.
Outside his California home is a football-shaped sign boldly declaring, “Cowboy Fans Live Here.”
ReVelle says it’s unlikely that without his OSU
education he could have achieved all he has since the days in a swampy North Carolina field securing two nuclear bombs.
“I am proud to be a Cowboy,” he says. “I want everyone to know it.”
ReVelle's Industry Awards
2012 Dorian Shainin Medal by the American Society for Quality
2006 Lohmann Medal by OSU’s College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology
2006 Induction into Purdue University’s ROTC Hall of Fame
1999 Akao Prize by the Quality Function Deployment Institute
1999 Distinguished Faculty Award by the National Graduate School of Quality Management
1997 Led Hughes team awarded Arizona Governor’s Award for Quality
1994 Led Hughes team awarded Arizona Pioneer Award for Quality
1993 Fellow of the Institute of Industrial Engineers
1992 Fellow of the American Society for Quality
1991 Taguchi Recognition Award by the American Supplier Institute
1990 Distinguished Economics Development Programs Award by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers
1987 Fellow of the Institute for the Advancement of Engineering