It was an accident that was kept secret in order to avoid unnecessary anxiety, according to officials.
Except for the king of Morocco, no one else in Morocco knew at the time that their lives would be lost in a 1958 accident that could have detonated a hydrogen bomb right in the heart of the city, Sidi Slimane.
During the Cold War, the United States deployed nuclear weapons on land and sea all over the world.
These weapons were intended for battlefield use, but the United States placed others on aircraft carriers and other strategic locations to ensure nuclear weapons were close to their targets in the former Soviet Union.
In 1951, the French government granted the United States access to territory in Morocco, one of its colonies, for the purpose of constructing an airbase.
According to records from the Institute for Defense Analyses, the US Strategic Air Command deployed B-36, then B-47 bombers at four Moroccan bases and by 1954 was storing entire nuclear weapons without the knowledge of the French government.
When Morocco gained independence in 1956, however, pressure mounted within the North African country to have the US removed from their air bases.
By the fall of 1963, the United States had closed its bases, but not without nearly destroying a major city in the country.
On January 31, 1958, a nuclear-armed B-47 bomber on ground alert caught fire on the runway of the US air base at Sidi Slimane.
The B-47 bomber was carrying a single Mark 36 bomb, a second-generation hydrogen bomb that was extremely powerful at the time of the accident. One of the rear tires blew out when the B-47 reached about 20 miles per hour.
According to reports, a fire broke out in the wheel well and quickly spread to the fuselage.
The crewmen escaped unharmed before the fire spread and split the plane in half.
Firefighters on the scene sprayed the burning wreckage for ten minutes before leaving. When the flames reached the bomb, local authorities ordered that the base be evacuated immediately.
It is said that cars packed with airmen and their families were forced to flee into the Moroccan desert due to fears of a nuclear disaster.
The fire burned for about two and a half hours. The high explosives in the Mark 36 burned but did not explode.
According to an accident report cited by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the hydrogen bomb and parts of the B-47 bomber melted into “a slab of slag material weighing approximately 8,000 pounds, approximately 6 to 8 feet wide and 12 to 15 feet in length with a thickness of 10 to 12 inches.”
The minor meltdown contaminated the area as well as one of the firefighters’ clothing.
The fire destroyed the bomber and left a hole in the runway, but no one was hurt.
The New York Times learned about the incident two days later, despite officials advising the Air Force not to issue an official statement.
Their argument was that making a public statement could be distorted by Soviet propaganda, causing unnecessary anxiety in Europe.
As a result, even though the Moroccan king was informed, it was agreed that the incident should be kept private.
According to records, the accident was classified as a “Broken Arrow,” a nuclear incident short of an accidental nuclear explosion.
The United States has had over 30 broken arrow incidents, with the Sidi Slimane incident being one of the most serious.
However, it was not the only nuclear incident in North Africa; on May 1, 1962, a French underground test in Algeria was recorded.