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A plane loaded with an atomic bomb once crashed in the Bay Area

Travis Air Force Base (United States Air Force/WikiCommons)
July 31, 2023

It was late on Aug. 5, 1950, when a B-29 Superfortress rolled down the runway of Travis Air Force Base.

On board, 20 men, among them a brigadier general, felt the plane lift into the night sky. Decades later, 1st Lt. William Braz would recall realizing the No. 2 engine’s propellers weren’t spinning — and the plane had stopped climbing.

In the disorienting dark, the ground suddenly rose up to meet the B-29, which was still going 120 miles an hour when it crashed in a field. Firefighters and enlisted men came running from across the base. As they dug through the wreckage, searching for injured men, an officer arrived on the scene. To the shock of the people desperate to help, he ordered everyone to get back.

That man knew something the others did not: There was a nuclear weapon buried somewhere in the burning plane. — Thanks to decades of government secrecy, few people know about the day the Bay Area narrowly avoided a nuclear disaster.

The Air Force was not in the business of transparency when it came to what they were up to that August night. A little over a month prior, the United States officially entered the Korean War. Then known as the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base, the Bay Area airfield was key to the conflict. Its proximity to the Pacific made it a launching point for troop transport, supply flights and, as it turned out, secret cargo.

Perhaps the first sign that something was different about that late-night mission was the presence of Brig. Gen. Robert F. Travis on the flight deck. Travis was the commander of the 9th Bombardment Wing and a decorated World War II veteran; he’d led almost three dozen missions into Nazi-occupied Europe and came home with the Distinguished Service Cross.

Unbeknownst to most of the base, Travis was there to escort a Mark 4 nuclear weapon to Guam. Mark 4 bombs were a similar style to the one used at the Trinity test and dropped on Nagasaki. The core was composed of uranium and plutonium.

For obvious safety reasons, the core was not placed into the bomb during transport. The B-29 departing from Fairfield was loaded with the bomb itself but not the radioactive core — nonetheless, it was still a deadly weapon filled with explosives.

When the plane’s propellers failed, the B-29 was just 100 feet north of a suburban neighborhood. Two hundred feet to the south were the enlisted men’s barracks. The pilot had to bank hard to avoid striking the cluster of military families who lived in small trailers. One of those family members, 11-year-old Jerry Sherrill, was listening to the radio when he heard the crash. “It was like a movie set,” he told a Travis AFB historian in 2020. “I look up and here’s this B-29 … down in the ground with the tail sticking up like you would see in a movie.”

Braz, the lieutenant who had been sitting behind the pilots, felt the plane barrel roll over and over until it finally came to a stop. Remarkably, he didn’t lose consciousness, and he was able to crawl through a busted-out window to safety.

“I stood up and saw people looking around,” he remembered. “Someone shouted, ‘That’s the general.’ They went over and dragged him away from the plane.”

It was carnage. Of the 20 men aboard, only eight would survive. Military police and firefighters rushed to the scene, as did civilians like Jerry and his mother Frances Mae Sherrill. Frances decided it would be safer to evacuate, so she went back to their trailer to retrieve her purse while Jerry searched for the family pets.

Meanwhile, a high-ranking commander on the base arrived at the crash site. Aware that an atomic bomb was hidden in the wreckage, he ordered firefighters to stop dousing the blaze and attempted to get the crowd to flee. According to “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” the growing crowd “ignored him,” so he opted to “run away as fast as he could.”

Then, the blaze reached the bomb.

The explosion was so bright and so loud that a warden stationed atop the fire lookout tower on Mount Tamalpais felt the windows rattle. When he looked outside, the Sacramento Bee reported, he saw a “huge column of smoke rising into the sky above a glow.” People from Sacramento to Berkeley called the police, asking if there had been an earthquake.

Frances and Jerry Sherrill were thrown in the air by the blast. A piece of shrapnel pierced Frances’ leg, and the pair made a harrowing car ride to the hospital; there, she learned her leg had to be amputated. Along with the 12 men who were aboard the plane and died in the initial crash, among them Gen. Travis, seven more died on the ground. Forty-nine people needed hospitalization and another 124 suffered minor injuries. The trailer park was a hole in the ground. When the Sherrills returned home, they found all of their possessions had turned to ash. The blast was so hot, a neighbor’s coin collection had fused together into a single lump.

“Sometimes, I can’t remember what I ate for dinner last night, but I have a crystal clear memory of the night of the crash,” Jerry recalled in 2020. “I think that’s because it was such a traumatic event that I can remember every detail.”

While FBI and Air Force investigators combed the wreck, frightened Bay Area residents were told the plane crashed during a “training” exercise. Military officials claimed the explosion came from multiple bombs detonating at the same time. No one, at least publicly, challenged the official story. — In 1958, the U.S. government admitted that a plane carrying a nuclear weapon had crashed within the last decade on American soil. When pressed by reporters for more information, Pentagon officials refused to elaborate. For the first time, though, some of the surviving crew from the B-29 crash went public with their story: Both the pilot and co-pilot told reporters their plane was loaded with an atomic bomb on the night it crashed in Fairfield.

The news made headlines briefly before disappearing again from the public consciousness. There were, after all, more pressing atomic concerns as the hottest years of the Cold War spread across the globe. In the decades since, the story has only become more obscure. Few remember the near-miss that could have destroyed an entire region in an instant.

The longest-lasting memorial is in the name of the base itself. In 1951, Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base was renamed Travis Air Force Base in honor of the deceased general. California Gov. Earl Warren attended the ceremony and gave a less-than-comforting speech.

“If World War III comes to America, we will have to receive the brunt of the attack of the most powerful enemy of the world,” he said.

“The danger confronting us now is not temporary nor is it fleeting,” Warren added. “It always is present. Never again will America be able to joyride to victory in a world war.”


(c) 2023 SFGate

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