Broken Arrow: How the U.S. Navy Lost a Nuclear Bomb. By Jim Winchester. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2019. Maps. Illustrations. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. viii, 271. $32.95 ISBN: 978-1-61200-691-8
This book chronicles the loss, in a very simple and seemingly preventable accident, of an aircraft, pilot, and nuclear weapon off an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately aircraft losses during carrier ops, particularly during that time, were not unusual, whether in combat, flying accidents, or the stressful and dangerous business of getting high-performance aircraft off of and on to a moving runway in the middle of the ocean. What makes this accident unique is that the aircraft was loaded with a complete (not armed) nuclear weapon and fell overboard during a routine training exercise onboard ship. There were other Cold War incidents involving the loss of nuclear weapons from aircraft and loss of entire nuclear powered ships (submarines USS Thresher and USS Scorpion), but Winchester points out that this is the only example of the US Navy losing a nuclear weapon in this fashion.
The book purports to tell the story of what happened and the aftermath. The Navy did in fact have a Broken Arrow (an accident involving nuclear weapons or components). Winchester attempts to make sense of how the accident occurred and what happened afterward, both the immediate repercussions including the Navy inquiry and the subsequent treatment of the accident by the US military and US and Japanese governments. As investigative journalism goes this is not bad. As history it is flawed.
The book implies there was some sort of criminal conspiracy to prevent knowledge of this very embarrassing and preventable mishap from being made public. The facts Winchester presents simply do not support his implied thesis. They do, however, support his conclusions about poor shipboard safety practices, hurried and perhaps incomplete efforts at gathering and assessing evidence, and a lackluster and not very transparent attempt by the US and Japanese governments to minimize public impact. So what we have in the end is a regrettable and completely preventable accident involving pushing an airplane loaded with a nuclear weapon into the ocean. Incredible--yes. In hindsight, stupid--yes. But a criminal cover-up--no.
So why passable investigative journalism and not good history? Because historians should be held to a higher standard of fact, method, and research...