Broken Arrow by Jim Winchester

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Explaining the loss of a nuclear bomb is only a small part of the wealth of historical information Jim Winchester provides in Broken Arrow: How the U.S. Navy Lost a Nuclear Bomb (Casemate, 272 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $19.99, Kindle).

The Navy lost a one-megaton weapon during a 1965 loading drill. Deck crewmen of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga (“Tico” in Navy slang) accidentally pushed an A-4 Skyhawk, which carried the bomb, into the South China Sea. Trapped in the cockpit, the pilot, twenty-four-year-old Lt JG Douglas Morey Webster, sank with the plane and the weapon. The Navy covered up the accident for nearly a quarter of a century.

Jim Winchester presents step-by-step accounts of the incident, its aftermath, and related events. An authority on Navy operations, Winchester has written or edited more than twenty books on military topics. His best-know work is a history of the A-4 Skyhawk. He also has gone to sea with ships from several of the world’s navies.

As background for understanding the significance of the lost bomb, Winchester provides the following:

  • A history of the Tico
  • The short life of Douglas Morey Webster
  • Difficulties inherent in aircraft carrier operations
  • The Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP)—a targeting matrix for nuclear weapons
  • The investigation and cover-up of the loss of the bomb
  • Tico fighter-bomber action over North Vietnam

Each category contains eye-opening information. For example, the Tico, commissioned in May 1944, barely survived hits by Japanese kamikaze fighters in World War II. Thereafter, the rebuilt ship seemed accident-prone with problems such as a “stopcock incident” that caused the ship to start sinking as far as the hanger deck. Winchester vividly shows that working and living aboard a carrier exposes crew members and fliers to a continuous stream of accidents and death during both war and peace.

11111111111111111111111111A redacted accident report written in 1965 did not mention a nuclear weapon involved, but it did place the greatest blame for the accident on Webster, primarily citing him for inattention.

Winchester’s discussion of the SIOP serves as an extended footnote to explain why an aircraft carrier supporting the Vietnam War needed nuclear weapons. I worked under the Strategic Air Command Emergency War Order and the SIOP from 1957-63 as a B-47 and B-52 radar-navigator and I can vouch for Winchester’s insight into a virtually forgotten strategy. At that time, the Air Force controlled 92 percent of the Free World’s striking power; inter-service rivalries and jealousy overwhelmed the have-nots.

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DoD  “Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1980”

A cover-up ensued because the United States—or perhaps the Navy—acted in its own interest and violated a nuclear-free-area treaty with Japan. In 1989, two American researchers uncovered everything about the Tico incident. There were protests in Japan for several weeks, but they came far too late.

“In December 1989, Japan closed the book on the submerged bomb,” Winchester says.

Jim Winchester summarizes the dilemma of nuclear weapon disasters across the years—at least to the degree that the services have made them public. Overall, he illuminates virtually every lesson available about the incident.

—Henry Zeybel