An American Naval aviator, a fighter plane, and a nuclear bomb, are lost at sea.
On 5 December 1965, Naval Aviator Daniel Webster, his fighter plane, an A-4E Skyhawk, and a B43 thermonuclear device were all lost at sea. Below is a retelling of those events.
In 1965 the United States was not only involved in the Vietnam War, but the Cold War with Russia as well. A US naval aircraft carrier, the USS Ticonderoga, had just finished a combat mission in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam.
Once the Ticonderoga had rotated off, the ship turned seaward and headed for Japan while another aircraft carrier took its place. And that’s where things went terribly wrong.
As the vessel cruised toward port at Yokosuka, Japan, the ship’s captain called for battle stations. During such times, pilots and flight crews scrambled to the ready. Amongst them, a young fighter pilot named Daniel Webster ran to his plane, an A-4E Skyhawk fighter-bomber. It was armed with a nuclear weapon.
You might first ask yourself the question, “Why does a fighter plane need a nuclear weapon strapped to its wing? Was the United States flying combat missions into Vietnam with the intent of dropping a nuclear weapon on the country?”
To answer this question, you’ve got to think in a broader context. This wasn’t a carrier whose duties just included the Vietnam War. This was the Cold War, a time when tensions between the United States and Russia were extremely high.
So to be clear, the United States did not fly combat missions into Vietnam with nuclear weapons.
But where the Cold War was concerned, the answer was different. At any given time, both the US and Russia remained at the ready for a retaliatory nuclear strike. To prepare for such contingencies, the US armed some aircraft with tactical nuclear weapons. The A-4E Skyhawk was one such plane.
But then the unthinkable happened…
Before I tell you the events of that day, you need to know a little bit about the operations of an aircraft carrier. On board an aircraft carrier, there is an area known as the “hanger deck.” The hanger deck is located one level below the flight deck, where planes are launched into the air.
On the hangar deck, planes are stored, worked on, and prepared for flight. Once a plane is readied for action and called up to the flight deck, it is pushed by hand onto a massive elevator by a crew of well trained sailors.
The elevator on the USS Ticonderoga sits on the outer edge of the ship. Once a plane is on the elevator platform, the elevator raises it to the flight deck for launch.
The act of pushing a plane onto an elevator platform sounds simple, and in theory, it is. A group of well trained sailors take hold and push it backward, onto the platform. There are numerous safety crewmen present including a pair who place large wooden chocks behind the wheels to prevent the plane from rolling further.
But it only takes one problem to cause the whole thing to go wrong, doesn’t it?
Lieutenant Daniel Webster boarded his plane in a hurry that morning. The fact that there was a nuclear weapon strapped to its wing would not have gone unnoticed by him.
Once he was strapped into the cockpit, the crew began pushing his plane, tail first, onto the elevator. What typically happens is that, as the plane is backed onto the elevator, at the appropriate position, the pilot, taking signal from a safety officer, depresses the brake pedal which stops the rearward motion of the plane. Chocks are then placed behind the wheels to further ensure its safety.
But on this fateful morning, something went wrong. The plane was pushed onto the elevator but did not stop. It kept rolling backward until it pitched over the edge.
Some witnesses say LT. Webster appeared to be frantically depressing the brake pedal, though the plane would not slow down. Others say he appeared to be distracted in some other way, not realizing the danger he was in until it was too late.
We will never know the truth of exactly what happened in the cockpit that day, but the plane did, in fact, roll off the back edge of the elevator. On its way it tore through a metal safety bar, knocking into one of the crewmen, and then plummeted 39 feet to the ocean below.
It landed canopy-down, trapping the young pilot inside.
Planes are not designed to float, and within seconds, it disappeared below the surface of the water. LT. Daniel Webster, his Skyhawk fighter aircraft, and a B43 nuclear weapon disappeared forever.
In the days immediately following the tragic accident, extensive inquiries were held to investigate how this could have possibly happened. Dozens of witnesses were interviewed, and the United States Naval JAG Corps did its best to find the truth. Some sailors believe a mechanical failure occurred with the braking system. Others disagree, stating the brakes had been checked that morning and worked fine.
And yet, a still more bizarre twist emerged. Some crew members actually alleged sabotage. That’s right, sabotage aboard a US Naval vessel. They claim other planes had been sabotaged on the ship, and this was just one of them.
In researching these events, I read hours of JAG Corps court testimony, dissected newspaper articles, and spoke directly to researchers and even eye witnesses who were there that morning. In fact, one witness was standing on the elevator platform itself, just feet from the plane as it rolled overboard.
One thing is certain, controversy surrounds the subject to this day.
And the human toll was large as well. Young Daniel Webster was about to be greeted by his new bride once at port in Japan. She had flown from the United States to meet him there. Yet, after his death, no one on board the ship knew how to contact her. They simply knew that she would be there to meet him when they docked.
When the ship finally arrived at port, officers from the Ticonderoga had to wait it out as they gazed at the crowd of loved ones gathered at the dock. No one knew exactly what she looked like. All they could do was let the crowds die down as other sailors disembarked.
In the end, when there was one lone female nervously waiting, they knew. The officers walked down to break the tragic news to her.
One can only imagine how horrible it must have been for her to hear that her new husband was dead.
And Webster’s own mother found out only after a cab driver dropped off a telegram from the Navy for her.
The type of accident he’d been involved in was kept secret. One reason for the extreme level of secrecy was that the United States did not want the country of Japan to find out that they were in violation of a treaty. The treaty required that no nuclear weapons could be aboard US naval warships while at port in Japan.
It wasn’t until fifteen years later, in the 1980s, when the story of the lost nuclear weapon finally surfaced. When the Japanese heard the news, they were furious.
So what happened to the nuclear bomb itself? It sank to the bottom of the ocean, nearly 3 1/2 miles down. Some say it rests there, intact, to this very day. Others disagree. They state an object at such depths would be crushed beyond recognition.
Whatever the truth, the loss of this weapon represents just one example of out of over one hundred, in which nuclear weapons have been lost in the world.
A lost nuclear device? Well, that’s where the novel, Flight of the Skyhawk, begins its story.
I’ve also assembled other information about the loss of LT. Webster and a B43 thermonuclear bomb for you. Much of the information was previously classified, including transcripts of the Navy JAG Corps investigation. I think you’ll find these resources fascinating. If you’d like me to send it to you, just let me know by clicking here.
Thank you for reading,
Nathan Goodman, author of the thriller novel Flight of the Skyhawk
An assassin on their trail, a buried secret, and time is running out…
Former Delta Force operator John Stone had no idea a nuclear device was out in the open. But when he accepts an assignment to protect a beautiful Israeli Mossad agent, she reveals the terrifying plot, and the chase is on.
The weapon, secretly stolen and hidden for fifty years, was known to exist by only one man. Now, that man is dead and the weapon disappears without a trace.
Together, Stone and the female agent are compelled to follow a bizarre trail of clues to track it down. But they find themselves in the assassin’s crosshairs, and the bomb is on its final countdown…