Greetings listeners and welcome to Wildfulness episode #55, Bomber Down! I’m Lisa Cole, your guide and host.
When the wind is howling, and snow is falling fast and furious, it’s good to be some place safe and warm. After hearing today’s episode, you will appreciate that safety and comfort even more. Today’s episode is one of drama, historic and political significance, and heroism, all taking place against the backdrop of a devastating Garrett County winter blizzard. You’ll hear how in 1964, at the height of the Cold War, a huge B-52 bomber,carrying a terrifyingly large nuclear payload of two bombs 1,100 times the strength of those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, crashed in that blizzard, deep in the wilderness of the 56,000 acre Savage River State Forest in Garrett County. Local heroes turned out to try to find and rescue the missing crew and to wrestle the bombs back to safety.
Click below to listen to the full audio file of this episode:
It was approximately 1:40 am on January 13, 1964, as the small town of Grantsville, hunkered down through a severe winter blizzard, that the B-52 armed with two thermonuclear bombs slammed into Big Savage Mountain. It’s vertical tail, later found to be structurally inadequate, sheared off in the howling gale, leaving the plane to spiral rapidly towards the earth, as its five-man crew tried to eject. The plane was one of at least a dozen U.S. bombers kept in the air at all times, 24/7, that flew directly toward Russian air targets before breaking off their routes as part of a Cold War initiative dubbed Operation Chrome Dome.
The rationale for Operation Chrome Dome was a simple, grim calculus. In the event of a first-strike nuclear attack by Russia, U.S. bombers would already be in a position to deliver a retaliatory strike as part of an unfolding Armageddon. The program ran from 1960-1968, and was not exactly accident-free. Whether during mid-air refueling, damage during a storm, or onboard fire caused by a malfunctioning heater, several deadly accidents occurred during the run of Operation Chrome Dome. To many of us in the next generations, the Cold War seemed for so many years to be a thing of the past, nothing but vague memories of bomb drills in the halls of elementary schools, and people who built fallout shelters in their backyards. But lately, with Russia in the news daily, these tales of espionage and real and looming nuclear threats, are the things of nightmares. What would have happened if those bombs had gone off? Well, the truth is, it would have obliterated much of the Eastern seaboard of the United States.
Buzz One Four – The Plane
The call sign of the B-52 bomber that crashed in Garrett County was Buzz One Four. That’s also the title of the amazing documentary video that’s available for free, in its entirety, on Amazon Prime, which was produced by the grandson of one of the crew. What were the B-52’s like? Here are just a few fascinating facts:
- The official name of the B-52 is “Stratofortress.” However it is more popularly known as “BUFF” or Big Ugly Fat F***** (or “fellow,” for the polite among you).
2. It’s a long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber with a 185-foot wingspan (that is the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa!)
3. B-52’s were first delivered for military service in 1955, and are still used today. They have played a key role from the Cold War and the Vietnam War, to Desert Storm and the Global War on Terror. The Air Force has recently decided to extend the service life of the B-52 through the 2040s. At that point, some of the B-52 airframes will be approaching an incredible 90 years old, making the planes considerably older than anyone flying them.
4. In 1966, actor and World War II veteran Air Force Reserve Brig. Gen. Jimmy Stewart (also a USO tour vet!) flew his final combat mission on board a B-52 over Vietnam. I never that the Jimmy Stewart I watch every Christmas in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” was a Brigadier General and a fighter pilot. Wow.
Why Were They Flying Anyway?
All the crew members were from Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Ga., the plane’s home base. They were flown on Jan. 12 to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts to bring a B-52 and its two nuclear bombs back to Georgia. The plane needed some routine maintenance and the men only expected a routine flight to get it to Georgia for repairs. Foul weather had forced the plane to land at Westover during its return from Europe, where it had had an engine issue. And the rest, as you’ve heard, is history.
What happened to the crew when the plane crashed in the Savage River Forest? Initially, all five of the crew were presumed dead, due to the severity of the cold, the depth of the snow, and the vast remoteness of the crash area. The temperature was between 10 above and 10 below zero at the time of the crash, the snow was hip deep in many places, and the visibility was poor. Because the plane was being transported from Westover to Turner on a routine maintenance run, several of the crew were not even properly dressed for the weather, which contributed to the odds against their survival in the blizzard.
The storm-driven crash of Buzz One Four and its nuclear payload near Grantsville in 1964 made an indelible impact on the Cold War program that put the crew and public at risk.
Fifty years later, Operation Chrome Dome is nearly forgotten, but memories of the crash on Big Savage Mountain remain painfully fresh among the crew members’ families and the rural Appalachian residents who helped recover the bodies.
Gary Finzel, 69, said his overnight trek through hip-deep snow with five others to recover the frozen remains of Air Force Maj. Robert Lee Payne was the worst night of his life. “I can see him sitting there on his hunkers on the banks” of Poplar Lick, Finzel said Tuesday. “I still see him the same as if it was yesterday.”
The accident on Jan. 13, 1964, is memorialized by stone markers in the small but close knit community of Grantsville, about 100 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, and at the spots where three of the five crew members died. The incident made an indelible impact on the local residents who turned out to try to locate and save the crew, and the Grantsville museum contains artifacts and other memorabilia to make sure their story is never forgotten.
Major Payne succumbed to exposure in the Savage River State Forest after ejecting from the crippled B-52. Bombardier Maj. Robert Townley’s remains were found in the wreckage on adjacent private land. The tail gunner, Tech Sgt. Melvin F. Wooten, bailed out and died from exposure and injuries near Salisbury, Pa., nearly 15 miles north of the crash site.
The pilot, Maj. Thomas W. McCormick, and co-pilot Capt. Parker C. “Mack” Peedin ejected and survived. Neither is still living.
A heavily redacted Air Force report on the accident attributes the crash to a bulkhead structural failure that caused the vertical fin to separate from the plane during weather-related turbulence. But Wooten’s widow, Carol, called it the result of a “stupid” Strategic Air Command decision to fly the plane that night. She was left with three young children, including a newborn.
“Mel was supposed to be on leave because of the baby,” she said. “They insisted, you know, that he go on this, and of course, he wouldn’t say no. It was just going to be an overnight thing and be right back. Well, needless to say, it didn’t work that way.”
So, before we continue on with our story, let’s hear a few messages:
First, this project was funded in part by the Mountain Maryland Gateway to the West Heritage Area & Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, and we are grateful for their continued support. Thanks as well to Deep CreekTimes for their continued assistance with helping us get the word of Wildfulness out and about.
What About Those Bombs?
So, now, what about those bombs? Due to the remote location of the aircraft, it was not until January 15th that efforts were successful in removing the nuclear bombs from Big Savage Mountain. A local stone quarry operator used a “highlift” to raise the bombs onto open flat bed trucks. Rumor has it that the bombs were cradeled in the back of the quarry trucks with mattresses but I cannot confirm that is trued. Incredible by today’s standards, the flat beds remained open, with only tarps and straps covering the bombs. A small sign attached to the rear of the flat beds succinctly read—“Explosives.” Maryland State Police escorted the trucks from Big Savage Mountain to Maryland Route 36, and from there, to United States Route 40 and Cumberland. A trip across Blue Bridge into Ridgeley, West Virginia, and the short trip along narrow Route 28 brought the bombs to Cumberland’s Municipal Airport for transport. Residents recall the tarpaulin covered objects on the flat beds that were parked along the airport terminal road. The Air Force dispatched a Douglas C-124 Globemaster II to the Cumberland Airport, probably the largest aircraft to land at the facility.
Close Calls are Often Unknown
So often, the risks that we take, or that we are subjected to, are really not fully known until weeks, months, or years later. I recently watched the movie 13 Days that described the harrowing two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis. So much about how close we came to World War III was not known until decades after the event itself. But that experience, as terrifying as it was, led the U.S. military to create Operation Chrome Dome. Which of course, led to that awful night in January of ’64.
So as we draw to a close, let’s all remember, the heroes who flew and crewed the bombers, that paid in some cases, the ultimate price, and also the Garrett County local heroes, without whose efforts, the loss of life and potentially of nuclear material, could have had much more devastating results.
That concludes Episode #55, Bomber Down! Don’t forget to share this podcast and please let us know if you liked it, or how you think it could be even better!
And, as always,
Stay Wild, My Friends!
Baltimore Sun article:
Mountain Discoveries Magazine Article: http://www.mountaindiscoveries.com/images/fw2007/b52.pdf
Artifacts from the Western Maryland Historical Library (Whilbr):https://digital.whilbr.org/digital/collection/p16715coll7/search