Earl Smith, the Hatton native who went public in 2016 after 55 years of sworn silence about his role in resolving an atomic bomb mishap near a U.S. Air Force base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, spoke to the Rotary Club on Thursday, Jan. 16.
Smith recounted the events of Jan. 24, 1961, disregarding his actions as that of heroism, and stating that he was merely doing the job he had been trained to do. In fact, Smith’s actions prevented a nuclear disaster that would have instantly killed around 250,000 people and saw fallout reaching as far as New York City, eliminating most of the eastern coast.
Smith began his story by describing his training as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Tech. He recalled words that struck a chord with him from early into his training. “In this business, you’re allowed one mistake,” he quoted before clarifying, “That one mistake could get you blown to pieces.”
While stationed in Goldsboro, Smith said he was one of four other EODs living at the base. On the night of Jan. 23, the 24-year-old Airman First Class Smith was on call when a B-52G bomber sent out a distress signal just after midnight. The plane was carrying two 3.8-megaton Mark 39 hydrogen bombs, which were 250 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Smith said.
By the time Smith reached the field, the plane had crashed, killing three of the plane’s occupants, though five others survived. Those who perished included Sgt. Francis Roger Barnish, Maj. Eugene Holcombe Richards, and Maj. Eugene Shelton.
Once Smith was on site, his first task was to locate the bombs, one of which had deployed its parachute and was found fairly quickly. Smith said his training took over the moment he reached it, and he first opened the fuse access door to check the Arm/Safe switch.
A strict two-person bomb diffusion policy required Smith to wait for assistance after determining the switch was in the “safe” position. With aid from A-First Class Joe Fincher, the two were able to diffuse the bomb quickly with no major complications.
“It was actually Fincher’s hand which disconnected the last wires,” Smith told The Moulton Advertiser in September of 2016, two years after the incident had become declassified. “There were four wires. We had to disconnect two, then wait for three minutes before disconnecting the next part. That is what Fincher did. Another EOD tech, Tolbert Evers, was also with us.”
Higher-ranking officers made it to the scene just before daylight, and it took Smith, fellow members of air force personnel, and their superiors more than eight hours to locate the second bomb, he recalled.
“We (EOD officers) learned to take apart these bomb with our eyes closed,” Smith said. “We spent hours in the dark, picking up parts and identifying them.”
He said 92 detonators were scattered across the North Carolina field. Although statements had been released indicating that everything had been accounted for, Smith said he knew for a fact other parts of the bomb have never been found.
Following the events of the night, Smith was told the incident was top-secret, and he was reminded several times that a 25-year prison sentence would be the penalty for mentioning anything about it to anyone not involved.
Smith said he put the event out of his mind, knowing he could never tell another soul. To his shock, in 2014, after the story was declassified under the Freedom of Information Act, Smith learned a senior officer claimed to have been the man who diffused the bomb.
The book titled The Goldsboro Broken Arrow recounts the story from the perspective of Lt. Jack ReVelle, who took credit for much of the work performed by Smith and his fellow, lower-ranking officers. Smith told Rotarians he didn’t blame the book’s author for publishing misinformation that was given to him by someone assumed to be the only living person left who was directly involved in the incident.
He had a copy to show the Rotary Club and flipped to a page with a black and white picture of a row of officers on the site where the first bomb was disarmed. Smith pointed to himself in the photo, one of the only men pictured in wet, dirty clothes after crawling out of the pit where the first warhead had come to rest.
After years of secrecy, Smith was able to surface the real events of what could have been the worst man-made disaster to occur on U.S. soil. Since his broken silence, others have come to him asking him to retell his story, including French documentary producer Thierry Piantanida.
Piantanida’s documentary featuring an interview with Smith is being shown overseas in France this year, but should hit screens in the U.S. eventually, Smith said. He said he’s most thankful accurate representations are now being circulated, especially for the “three men in their graves who can’t answer” for their role in averting the disaster.