The Bomb Alarm System,
the Thule B-52 Crash of 1968
...and a Very Long Phone Line

Thanks to J. Jason Wentworth for contributing this fascinating tale from the Cold War

The Bomb Alarm I know about was actually accidentally triggered once, and I will share the story about this with you. A late friend of mine, Gary Moore, worked at the Bell Telephone Company in Miami between 1957 and 1967. After leaving them in 1967, he worked for Federal Electric Corporation at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland from late 1967 to 1969. He worked in the submarine cable building, where the cable came onto the base from the sea. The Bomb Alarm cabling passed through the building. There was also a large equipment cabinet associated with this cabling that Gary would sometimes use as a bed for catnaps during long shifts.

In 1968, a B-52 on airborne alert carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed just offshore near the base. It narrowly missed the submarine cable building. Gary saw the plane crash on the ice and explode, followed by four other blasts that were the high-explosives in the H-bombs going off.

At the moment of the crash, he was talking with his parents in Miami over an illegal direct telephone link he had set up with the help of friends and other people at several telephone companies between Miami and Greenland. This establishment of this link is a story in itself! He estimated that he made about $50,000 worth of free, illegal calls over the link.

At the time there was only one outgoing "Morale Line" available on-base, and the waiting line to use it was *very* long. Gary and his friends established the direct link partly for the challenge, just to see if they could get away with it. Gary "paid" several people at the intermediate Canadian and US telephone companies by selling them cameras and audio equipment he could buy at the base PX for much less than their prices in the US and Canada. These US and Canadian telephone company employees patched together various unused cable pairs (plus a few microwave links) along the ~5000 mile route between Miami and Thule. Friends of his at Bell Telephone in Miami installed a dedicated drop line from his telephone pole to his house and installed a hidden switch box in the pantry. This would ring the kitchen telephone when he called his parents (his family all lived together in his home).

While he was talking with his parents the B-52 crashed, and the whole base immediately received a message ordering all outgoing base communications to be shut down. He only had time to tell them, "A bomber just crashed near here! I have to get off the line right now, but I'm okay. I'll talk with you when I can. Goodbye."

What Gary didn't know at that moment was that the B-52 had hit the Bomb Alarm cable outside, which caused an erroneous nuclear detonation alert to be sent to the US! For some time before outgoing communications were re-established, SAC thought that Thule Air Force Base had been hit with a nuclear bomb and went to a heightened state of alert. Gary's parents saw the story on the news that night ("Communications with Thule AFB lost") and feared the worst.

The aftermath is equally interesting. From his station in the submarine cable building, Gary was able to listen in on outgoing communications as well as on-base communications. He heard several telephone calls in which base officers were talking with their colleagues in Washington, discussing how to "get their stories straight" for the subsequent investigation so that they could cover their posteriors. It turns out that an extra (seventh) body was found near the crash site, cut in half at the torso. The B-52 airborne alerts had become routine by 1968, and apparently someone had been allowed aboard the B-52 for a "joy ride" during this flight. This was of course strictly against policy, so the officers involved with the B-52 operations had to practice classical "CYA" tactics to save their careers and avoid possible prison sentences.

Gary recorded several of these conversations with the idea of writing a book about the incident. He was preparing to mail the tapes to his parents in Miami. He let a friend of his, an Air Force Major, hear the tapes, and he advised Gary to erase the tapes. He said, "Military Airlift Command is the only way in or out of Thule for mail and cargo. If they find your tapes and discover what you've recorded, they'll make sure you vanish and aren't found until the Spring thaw!" This scared Gary, so he dutifully erased the tapes.

That B-52 crash also directly resulted in the creation of the Poker Flat Research Range , a sounding rocket launch facility located 50 km north of where I live in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Defense Nuclear Agency had been planning a series of high-altitude barium release tests to be launched from Greenland in 1969. The "Ban The Bomb" sentiment was running high in the Danish parliament at that time, and after the B-52 crashed they forbade any nuclear-related testing on Danish territory.

The Defense Nuclear Agency desperately needed a high-latitude launch site for their sounding rockets, and they decided to set up a temporary range at Poker Flat. Professor Neil Davis of the University of Alaska Fairbanks had been trying to establish a sounding rocket range at Poker Flat for several years, and he persuaded NASA to let him launch his sounding rockets at Poker Flat. After his initial missions, he was able to get NASA to continue supporting the range, which is owned by the UAF (it's the only university-owned sounding rocket range in the world). Thus the Poker Flat Research Range was born.

For more information about this incident and its repercussions, see:
The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Chapter 4)
by Scott D. Sagan
1993, Princeton University Press
ISBN 0-691-03221-1

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Created on November 16, 2002 at 16:35 by Albert LaFrance