Blast from the past

After 50 years, the question finally can be asked: Do you want ketchup on your “atomic fries”?

Before you answer, go back to 1958, and imagine watching the black lump falling through the sky above rural Florence County. Bird? Plane? Superman? UFO? Atomic bomb?

Lucky guess.

Oh, it was all an accident — nobody intended for a B-47 out of Savannah on a training mission to lose a 7,000-pound, 10-foot-long atomic warhead above Walter Gregg Sr.’s house in the Pee Dee’s Mars Bluff community on March 11, 1958.

Nobody intended for the unarmed warhead, its atomic payload still safely aboard the plane, to tumble 15,000 feet to the ground. Or for the bomb’s high-explosive trigger — just a firecracker compared to what a nuclear blast would have been — to detonate on impact, tearing a crater 50 feet wide and 35 feet deep in some woods behind Gregg’s house, shredding Gregg’s home like a hurricane.

But that’s what happened. The U.S. Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on South Carolina — the first, perhaps only time such a weapon has accidentally fallen on a civilian community. It was an unforgettable event ... that’s been nearly forgotten outside the Pee Dee.

But not in Mars Bluff, a community of about 1,500 near what now is Francis Marion University, a short ride from Florence. Just ask Marshall Yarborough, chairwoman of the Florence City-County Historical Commission and the Mars Bluff Historical Commission.

She’s been coordinating plans for a ceremony today to mark the bombing’s anniversary. At least 100 guests are expected. There may be fireworks, if the budget allows. Some locally owned restaurants are planning “atomic specials,” Yarborough says. (Such as “atomic fries” — you need the ketchup to cool ’em off!) A historical marker is in the works, too.

Being A-bombed by accident is not something you can casually embrace. How are you supposed to feel about it? Proud to pay a price for America’s nuclear defense? Angry that the military endangered its own? Afraid that it could happen again? Amazed that it happened even once?

It’s taken time, but Mars Bluff has made peace with its explosive history, Yarborough says.

“Nobody glows around here,” Yarborough says. “Nothing is radioactive. Most people ... regard it as, ‘Hey, this happened, and we ought to remember it. We survived it; here we are; it’s not as bad as it could have been; the Air Force is not our enemy.’”

Some even look back with fondness about the day South Carolina flirted with apocalypse.

“It could have been a great disaster, if that thing had been armed. But as it was, it was just a bright little moment in my life,” says Thom Anderson of Florence, who, as a 25-year-old sports reporter for the Florence Morning News, took the first phone calls about a big blast at Mars Bluff.

Here’s some of the fallout from our atomic afternoon:

• WHATWENT WRONG? Initial reports blamed a vague electrical problem aboard the B-47. More than 40 years later, American Heritage magazine, working from Air Force documents, determined that it happened like this:

The plane takes off OK. The crew realizes there’s a problem with a pin locking the bomb into its cradle. The plane’s navigator/bombardier, Capt. Bruce Kulka, squeezes into the bomb bay to fix the thing.

He’s trying to find a handhold. He’s barely able to see what he’s doing. He yanks the “emergency bomb-release” handle by mistake. He nearly rides the falling bomb to the ground, “Dr. Strangelove” style. He goes forward to tell his crewmates they’re in a world of trouble.

• THE HOLE IN THE GROUND. There was no atomic detonation, of course; the bomb had never been armed. The crucial nuclear trigger was still aboard the plane. The Air Force’s safety system worked; no mushroom clouds bloomed.

But the concussion cracked plaster at houses for miles around (including the home of Yarborough’s husband’s family, 3½ miles from Ground Zero). And the ragged, muddy crater drew crowds to the Gregg house, recalls Anderson, who rode to the scene with another reporter.

Nobody tried to preserve the crater. (Anderson says he would have put up a road sign and charged tourists 25 cents to see the hole.) Over the decades, rain and erosion filled in most of the crater; sometimes when it was dry, dog fights were held in the hole, Yarborough says. For most of its history, the crater has resembled a small drainage pond you wouldn’t want to wade in.

• WALTER GREGG SR., ATOMIC SURVIVOR. Owner of the home closest to Ground Zero, plaintiff in some bitter and mostly unsuccessful suits against the government over damage to his house and trauma to his family, the 80-something Gregg still lives in the Florence area.

For 50 years, the curious have questioned him about the bombing; sometimes he’s been garrulous, sometimes reticent. Most of the time, “He doesn’t like to talk about it anymore,” says Yarborough. Still, she says, Gregg plans to make a few remarks at today’s ceremony.

In an interview for director Peter Kuran’s 2001 documentary film “Nuclear 911,” Gregg recalled: “It just came like a bolt of lightning. Boom! And it was all over. The concussion ... caved the roof in. Messed the floors up, walls up. ... Hallway was full of dirt, mud. Automobile windows were blown out. ... You couldn’t hardly have run into (the house) with a bulldozer and done very much worse.”

• IAN FLEMING’S TYPO. The plotline of Ian Fleming’s 1961 James Bond novel “Thunderball” concerns two hijacked nuclear weapons. “They’re absolutely safe until they’re armed,” Fleming’s spymaster “M” tells Bond. “Apparently even a direct drop, like that one from the B-47 over North Carolina in 1958, would only explode the TNT trigger to the thing.” North Carolina? Fleming’s error was never corrected, and Bond would forever miss out on his chance for an S.C. connection.

• CLYDE GREGG’S ATOMIC ‘PORK CHOP.’ In 2005, Esquire magazine discovered that Mars Bluff pig farmer Clyde Gregg, a relative of the Greggs whose home was bombed, had saved a fragment of the atomic weapon — a fragment the size of a man’s hand and the weight of a “pork chop.” For a long time, Gregg kept it stashed away underneath a stuffed beaver.

Even though the bomb had not been loaded with its nuclear trigger, Gregg’s fragment somehow contained enough radioactivity to make a Geiger counter react. Tests at Francis Marion University indicated the radiation came from traces of uranium.

After Esquire put him in the spotlight, Gregg toyed with the idea of selling the bomb fragment, and in 2005 he put the “pork chop” on eBay.

“It got a lot of interest,” says Gregg, 56, but the bids never got much past $6,000 or so. Gregg decided to just keep the thing as a family heirloom: “(The bomb) put Mars Bluff on the map, for good or bad.”

• JAGGED CHUNKS OF HISTORY. At least two other fragments of the bomb have spent the past few decades hanging on a wall, not hiding under a beaver. The Florence Museum, 558 Spruce St., Florence, offers a small display about the Mars Bluff incident, including a couple of gray and jagged pieces of the bomb’s casing.

Neither is radioactive: The museum had them tested, says director Andrew Stout. “That was one of the first questions I had before I touched them to move them,” he says.

• THE HISTORICAL MARKER. For 50 years, there hasn’t been one. That’s about to change, says Yarborough. Florence County is footing the bill for a 42-inch-by-32-inch, $1,725 marker that should be in place by June, Yarborough says. Organizers had hoped to have it ready this month, but the Ohio company that makes the markers has a backlog, she says.

• IF THE ATOMIC WARHEAD HAD SOMEHOW DETONATED BACK IN 1958: Hiroshima times two. The bomb that fell on Mars Bluff was a 30-kiloton weapon. That means it had the destructive power of 30,000 tons of TNT, roughly twice the estimated power of the first bomb dropped on Japan in 1945.

“It really was good,” Anderson says drily, “that it was not armed.”

Among other things, there’d be no “atomic fries” today in Mars Bluff. With or without ketchup.