LINCOLN – Local hero Earl Smith was recently recognized and presented an American flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol in honor of his brave service to the country.
“Please allow me to express my immense appreciation for your service to our nation,” Sen. Richard Shelby said in his Feb. 2 letter to Smith. “Your bravery and willingness to put yourself in harm’s way is a testament to your character as well as the ideals of our nation.”
Smith has been called a true hero who saved America by helping disarm a hydrogen bomb recovered after a plane crash in North Carolina.
The Mark 39 hydrogen bomb was 250 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan, marking the end of World War II.
“Upon learning of the near-catastrophe in Goldsboro, (North Carolina), in 1961, I was struck by the incredible danger of the situation and the selflessness and nerve required of you to see to the job at hand,” Shelby wrote. “The American dream would not be possible without the courageous men and women of our armed forces, and we owe heroes like you a great debt of gratitude.”
The 80-year-old veteran has only recently begun talking about the harrowing event known as the “Goldsboro Broken Arrow” incident, a story that unfolded a few minutes past midnight Jan. 24, 1961.
The information surrounding the near catastrophic event remained highly classified until 2013. Smith never spoke about the incident until after it became public.
“The bomb was fully intact,” Smith said last year in an interview with The Daily Home. That meant it could detonate and cause destruction yet unknown to mankind.
A U.S. Air Force B-52 broke up in mid-air, separating from its payload, two nuclear bombs that threatened millions. One bomb buried itself deep into the muddy swamp, while the other bomb remained intact and was visible above the ground.
The rear portion of the bomb was sticking out of the ground. A large parachute was deployed and hanging from a tree above the device.
Smith explained that when the parachute was deployed, it started a sequence of events to arm the bomb.
The bomb had a thin coat of ice surrounding it and its access door when Smith got his first look at it.
“I was scared to death to open that bomb access door,” he said. “I had to chip away the ice on the access door and was finally able to open it.”
He was then able to look inside.
“The arm safety switch was on, armed and functioning,” he said.
Smith was a member of the Air Force who had graduated from the U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal School nine months before the incident.
He was the on-call EOD technician at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, and he lived off the base. He recalled the phone call he received from the base, shortly after midnight.
“When they called me, the plane hadn’t yet crashed,” he said. “I knew it was severe. It was a few minutes past midnight. I didn’t even take the time to tie my shoes. The control tower called me. By the time I got to the base, they determined the plane had crashed about 15 miles away.”
Three men died in the crash, but before the B-52 Bomber crashed, its payload, two nuclear bombs, broke loose from the aircraft at about 10,000 feet.
The base had a helicopter waiting, ready to take Smith and the base commander to the site where the bombs lay strewn from the wreckage.
Once at the location, the officer told Smith nothing could be done until the Atomic Energy Commission was notified.
“I said, ‘No sir,’” Smith said.
He knew time was critical.
Smith said it took more than one person to disarm the bomb, so he was forced to wait for three more EOD technicians to arrive at the scene.
“These bombs are preset for a pretty long duration for safety,” Smith said.
He said the bomb was booby trapped, so there were exact procedures in place for disarmament.
Smith said the bomb was rendered safe by the EOD team from Seymour Johnson eight hours before another EOD team from another base arrived on the scene.
The second bomb had disintegrated on impact, but parts of it were buried deep underground from the force of hitting land, Smith said.
Smith found the nuclear core of the second bomb deep inside the pit that was formed from the bomb’s impact.
Shelby submitted a statement for the Congressional Record on Jan. 29, detailing Smith’s heroism.
“Such incidents prove that the security we enjoy every day as Americans is because of courageous individuals like Earl Smith,” Shelby stated on the Congressional Record. “Smith’s willingness to risk his life, along with his ability to maintain the secrecy of this formerly classified event for half a century, serves as distinct and sobering reminders that there are American men and women serving tirelessly throughout the world to maintain the way of life we hold dear.”
Smith said he received the letter, the American flag and copies of the Congressional Record in the mail.
“When the box showed up, I said to myself, ‘It’s not Christmas, and it’s not my birthday,’” Smith said.
“Then I saw, ‘Washington, D.C.,’ on the box. I opened it up and found all of this,” Smith said, pointing to all the items spread out on the table.
Smith thanked Pell City attorney Billy Church.
He said Church made Shelby aware of his actions on that cold January night in 1961, sending the senator stories written by the media.