Mars Bluff crater: a personal perspective on the site

Christopher McKagen, Guest Writer

When you live in Florence, S.C., it seems like every weekend you often overhear young people telling their associates, “There is absolutely nothing to do in this town!” Admittedly, I have pretty much thought the same thing since I officially moved here several months ago. But with a bit of boredom and some luck, I discovered that there are in fact adventures to be had in this city of just under 35,000 people.

While out on a walk near the apartment complex where I live, just a few hundred yards from Francis Marion’s campus, I noticed what looked like a fairly fresh path into the woods. Being quite the outdoorsman and a courageous fellow, I entered the beaten path.

After following the trail for only a short distance I was flabbergasted when I came across a green sign reading “Foundation of Walter Gregg’s Home.”

I would be telling a tale if I told you I had any clue why such a sign would be so far away from the rest of society or how it got there.

I took a couple of snapshots and continued following the trail across a bridge and eventually to a large hole in the ground, a gigantic wooden cutout of an old Fatboy and a Parks and Recreational Services board absolutely packed with newspaper clippings from the 1950s.

As it turns out, on March 11, 1958, a military jet that just recently departed from Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Ga. accidentally dropped a Mark 6 nuclear bomb that contained nearly 8,000 pounds of explosives at this very site. That’s not so boring, now is it?

The jet was headed to the United Kingdom on a training mission, and at the time, it was normal for military jets to carry nuclear weapons because of the sensitive situation the U.S. was in with the Soviet Union.

The 10-and-a-half foot bomb was released by a bombardier, accidentally, in the bomb bay of the jet and forced open the bomb bay doors with its weight. The most important thing, I would think, though, is that the nuclear fission core, which would have actually caused a nuclear explosion, was not in the bomb at the time of detonation.

The Parks and Recreation board contains some really interesting photos and stories from the time. My favorite headline from the board: “Covered in mud, reporter gets story.”There is a layout of the property, which was owned, until recently, by former World War II paratrooper veteran Bill Gregg, that shows a nearly flattened home and the 40 foot wide, 25 foot deep crater that had taken the place of Gregg’s garden.

Gregg, his wife, three kids and niece were all injured in the explosion, though no one was killed.

After stumbling upon a site of historic significance I soon learned that I was not the only student at Francis Marion who was unaware of the inadvertent bombing of Florence.

Samantha Jones, a junior studying biology at the FMU, cracked an “I’m-not-sure-if-I-believe-you” smile when I questioned her.

“A crater?” she replied. “I haven’t ever heard of it.”

When I told her how near it was to campus she continued to act as if I was fabricating the whole story.

With a little research, however, it isn’t very difficult to learn that anyone who knows anything about the history of Florence should be aware of the incident. Just two years ago, a 50th anniversary of the military mishap was held at the crater site. People from all over the state and especially Florence attended the event.

Time magazine ran a story about the bombing of Gregg’s home in late March of 1958. It was covered in news reports and newspapers throughout the world, making the quaint city of Florence a little more widely known.

The Time magazine reporter who covered the story quoted Gregg as saying in 1958, “I always wanted a swimming pool, and now I’ve got the hole for one at no cost. I may open it to the public – charge them for swimming in uranium-enriched waters.”

So, the next time you are sitting around suffering from extreme Florence-bred boredom, take a little hike down the street to a place of historical significance. The area is almost totally grown up with trees and small bushes now, but the path is still easily discernible from the woods.

And though Geiger counters were used to check radiation levels at the site and returned with reports of no harmful implications and citizens of the surrounding area were monitored by the government for several months following the fluke bombing, if you grow an extra arm, you didn’t hear about the crater from me.