As shock waves radiated outward, the rumble traveled a quarter-mile or so to where 6-year-old Clyde Gregg, Walter's nephew, was sitting in the kitchen with his mom and dad. Suddenly, the house felt as if it had lifted up and come back down. The shock was violent enough to split the house's plaster walls and crack a commode. The family assumed it was a plane breaking the sound barrier, and Clyde Gregg's father, after a few choice words, went back to work on his plow. Only when the sirens went off about half an hour later did the people of Mars Bluff begin to get an inkling of what an extraordinary and terrifying thing had just happened in their little town.
For most folks in Charlotte, Mars Bluff is known, if at all, as one of the rural blips of a town that you pass on the way to Myrtle Beach. I recently drove there to talk to Clyde Gregg, who's now a 53-year old hog farmer. He and his wife live in a quaint brick ranch house, bookended by two cornfields, that's only about a quarter mile from where he grew up.
In his younger days, Gregg was quite the hunter. Mounted on the faux wood paneling of his house is a variety of wildlife, including a bobcat, a pair of otters and an albino raccoon. Set against the wall below the raccoon is a glass display case with dozens of arrowheads Gregg found as a boy. It was during one his boyhood expeditions that he discovered something far more unique than an arrowhead. He found a gray, rock-like object, smooth on one side and pitted on the other, with one jagged edge that buckles outward. It's about the size of an adult hand, and is possibly the only piece of atomic-weapon shrapnel owned by a civilian.
Gregg and other family members found several pieces of the bomb in the months following its explosion, most of which were handed over to government officials, while a few others are on display at the Florence Museum. Gregg recently tried to sell his piece on eBay, but the highest bid he received was $5,000. "I'm holding out for at least $10,000," he said with an easy laugh as he stretched out on his Lazy Boy, fingers resting atop his ample belly.
The Mars Bluff event was one of 32 serious accidents — known as "broken arrows" — involving US nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980, according to the Department of Defense. But the bomb that landed on Mars Bluff is the only nuclear device ever to be dropped on a civilian community in America.
After Gregg showed me his shrapnel, we drove over to the crater. There were no markers to memorialize the site. In fact, it was most unremarkable — just a cluster of small manufactured homes and a few weedy lots. We walked across a field and through some woods to a clearing. Apparently, someone had been training fighting dogs in the area. There were two big, homemade doghouses; the particleboard wall of one had been gnawed on from the inside. A big chain was wrapped around the trunk of a pine tree, and there were several bones strewn about, including a canine skull.
It had been raining relentlessly all day, and the crater was partially filled with black water. Over time, new trees had grown up around the rim of the crater, but nothing grows inside.
"They really should put up some kind of monument to mark this place," Gregg said, as he stood in the crater's shin-deep water. "After all, this is a part of history."
History that the US military would just as soon sweep under the Mars Bluff canopy.
If you have an idea for the Urban Explorer column, contact Sam Boykin at: [email protected] or 704-944-3623.
Mars Bluff is located in Florence County, South Carolina, about 115 miles southeast of Charlotte. For more information, contact the Florence Museum of Art, Science and History, 558 Spruce Street, Florence, SC 29501. 843-662-3351