There was nothing unusual about the cold or dark on the afternoon of January 21, 1968. It was the mid-winter at the U.S. Thule Air Force Base in northern Greenland, where the sun disappears from October until February, locking the place in a long, bitter midnight. What was unusual was the aircraft in the sky, a B-52 flying 35,000 feet above the glaciers and sea ice, its presence an international secret, its belly laden with nuclear bombs; its crew fighting catastrophe.
It had started with shivers in the cabin, as the seven men on HOBO-28, the flight’s call-sign, sought to bring heat into a plane afflicted with an unusual chill. Desperate for warmth, they turned to emergency measures to draw warmth from the bomber’s engines. What most of the crew didn’t know was that one of the heat vents in the cabin was buried behind cloth-covered foam cushions. Blasted with scorching air, they burst into flames.
The men rushed to respond, emptying fire extinguishers into the blaze. They couldn’t put it out. Plumes of smoke filled the cockpit, the fire eating at critical aircraft components. The electrical power failed. HOBO-28 was crippled. The crew ejected.
They left behind a B-52 screaming through the Greenland skies with no pilot and a payload of nuclear weapons. This plane was going down, careening toward the narrow stretch of ice that separates Thule, roughly two-thirds up Greenland’s west coast, from Nunavut’s Ellesmere Island. The only question was: What would happen to its deadly cargo?
It’s a question that nearly half a century has done little to answer. Even today, the fate of one of HOBO-28’s four bombs remains the subject of debate, conspiracy theories and lingering unease. Parts of three bombs were definitively identified. But what about the fourth? Is there a nuclear weapon lying on the seabed near Canada’s Arctic waters, leaking radiation or, worse, posing a continued threat of explosive disaster?
HOBO-28 has become, in some ways, the Cold War’s search for Franklin – but this high-latitude mystery is buried not just in deep water, but in military documents marked “secret” and blackened by extensive redactions that hide crucial details. After decades of cleanup work, reports, lawsuits and government inquiries, the truth remains elusive.
HOBO-28 was a flight conducted under Chrome Dome, a U.S. military operation that sought to keep enough nuclear bombers in the air that the nation could retaliate if it came under attack. One element of Chrome Dome involved having a B-52 fly a figure-eight pattern above Thule, just over the pole from the Soviets. With at least one armed plane always aloft, it could fight back against the Communists even if they destroyed the air base.
That meant HOBO-28 was never far from Thule – or, from Canadian shores. When the pilotless plane crashed, it hit 12 kilometres from the base, on the ice, producing a violent shockwave. The 410,000-pound B-52 smashed down at 900 kilometres per hour, scraping an open wound 50 metres wide. Six crewmen parachuted to safety. The seventh died.
Their dogsleds were the fastest way to reach the crash site. Major General R.O. Hunziker, the on-scene commander, observed the irony that “one of man’s most technically complex endeavours had gone astray and that recovery from its effects must depend upon the most primitive of methods.”
The crash site, from its earliest days, posed huge problems for those seeking both to rid the area of radioactivity and ensure this spot of pristine Arctic would not be subject to a nuclear blast from an unexploded bomb. Fires had scorched the ice for 20 minutes, inking a jet-black stain some 160 metres wide and 700 metres long. The explosion had flung debris over an area measuring more than 75 square kilometres. Parts of one bomb were found more than three kilometres from the crash site. All of the metal within eight square kilometres was radioactive.
Project Crested Ice, the name given to the cleanup operation, faced major hurdles. Roads had to be carefully built to the disaster zone, with sufficient time given for the ice to thicken enough for heavy loads. Inuit played a major role in the response. Their dogsleds were the fastest way to reach the crash site. Major General R.O. Hunziker, the on-scene commander, observed the irony that “one of man’s most technically complex endeavours had gone astray and that recovery from its effects must depend upon the most primitive of methods.”
The Inuit contribution didn’t end there: Local Greenlanders built a series of igloos that could be used to shelter the work crews. They also joined the ranks of the hundreds of men engaged in the cleanup, battling windchills approaching 75 below, a cold so formidable that battery-powered devices measured their useful life in minutes. Equipment broke so regularly that one of the three daily shifts had to be devoted to repair and maintenance.
“There was disappointment in what you might call a failure to return all of the components.”
The debris was collected with care: Not only did workers have to find the bombs, they had to get rid of dangerous radiation. By the end, 600 containers of contaminated metal and snow had been filled and shipped to the U.S. The cost for the cleanup was estimated at $9.4 million, including the purchase of three polar-bear skins by the U.S. Air Force to replace traditional pants that could not be wiped clean. Diplomatic efforts were also substantial: The accident happened during an election season in Denmark, a country that had thought it was free of nuclear weapons. Danes were outraged by the realization that bombs were based on their Arctic turf.
Then there were the Inuit, wondering what had happened to their corner of the world. Though officials said their testing didn’t reveal contamination severe enough to pose a health concern, there was a measurable increase in marine plutonium levels as far as 20 kilometres from the crash site. Among some species of sea creatures tested, plutonium levels were 3,000 times their normal amount.
Still, large mammals, including food species like walruses and seals, were considered safe. And officials attempted to reassure the public that Inuit were safe, too. Two months after the crash, Hunziker wrote, “the radiation hazard had been reduced to negligible proportions.” Scientists working alongside the military said urine samples of local people had not, “with certainty,” detected plutonium. All four bombs had been destroyed, officials said.
But for Greenlanders, those official reassurances were often little comfort. Nuclear weapons had been blown to bits in their backyard, then spread by wind and currents. To them, the crash was merely the latest injustice. Two of their villages, after all, had been moved 100 kilometres away to make way for the Thule airbase. Now those displaced people discovered they’d made way for calamity.
Worse, they could not escape the persistent worry that the cleanup hadn’t found everything, a worry not helped by the fact the U.S. sent a submarine to look for debris on the sea bottom, but said little about what it found.
It was November 11, 2008, more than 40 years after HOBO-28 went down. The Cold War was long over. Much of the world had forgotten the images of parka-clad workers attempting to clear the remnants of a nuclear-armed B-52 from the Greenland ice. But then the BBC World Service dropped a bombshell. “A BBC investigation,” the announcer intoned, “has for the first time proved that rumours of a lost bomb are true.”
“There is no bomb, there was no bomb and the Americans were not looking for a bomb ... No nuclear weapons have been left on the bottom of the sea in Thule, nor was any secondary left.”
The report was based on declassified U.S. documents obtained by a BBC correspondent. The documents were heavily redacted, adding to the suspicion that the U.S. had something to hide. But the uncensored portions were troubling. “Speculate something melted through ice such as burning primary or secondary,” one author wrote. Primaries and secondaries are two of the elements used in thermonuclear weapons. They are both radioactive. They’re the heart of a bomb.
Other documents bolstered the case. Officially, the U.S. had told its Danish counterparts that it launched a submarine merely to conduct a bottom survey. The classified document revealed the real purpose: a “search for object or missing weapon part.”
Interviews with those involved confirmed that all was not as the U.S. military had said. “There was disappointment in what you might call a failure to return all of the components,” William Chambers, a former nuclear-weapons designer who ran a team responding to disasters, including HOBO-28, told the BBC.
The report shook Denmark. Were its waters home to a nuclear bomb? Had the U.S., which continued to maintain a major military presence in Greenland, lied all these years? To find out, Denmark commissioned the Danish Institute for International Studies, a state-funded research organization, to delve into the documents and draw its own conclusions. It took a year for the organization to deliver its 278-page report. It parsed the response to the disaster, sketching the fate of numerous components of each bomb. The report cast doubt on the BBC’s account. It pointed to the “indisputable fact” that a critical component of nuclear weapons, called the tritium reservoir, had broken off all four bombs.
“There is no bomb, there was no bomb and the Americans were not looking for a bomb,” the report found. The institute said its scrutiny of the documents produced “strong indications” the four primaries were destroyed on impact. It also argued “that all four secondaries were destroyed as well.” The submarine search, the institute said, was for a piece of the fourth bomb called “the marshal’s baton,” a half-metre-long cylinder containing uranium. It’s a bomb component, but far from an entire bomb. “No nuclear weapons have been left on the bottom of the sea in Thule, nor was any secondary left,” the institute concluded.
Yet it’s worth pointing out that even that striking conclusion was pieced together from circumstantial evidence and inferences from scraps of information. So even all these years later, uncertainty remains. Until the thick patches of black are removed from the classified documents, until military secrets are brought into the open – until someone who was there can speak honestly – HOBO-28 will remain a mystery. Is there a bomb in Greenland’s Arctic waters?
Perhaps the only certain response is this one: When a B-52 fell from the skies near Thule, within sight of the shores of Nunavut, it made clear once again that the Far North is a land that keeps its secrets.