Project Nutmeg: Almost A Nuclear Outer Banks
Nuclear weapons testing off the Carolina coast? “This dang near happened.”
Today’s checklist for a day trip to Hatteras Island or Ocracoke includes all the stereotypical beach supplies: chairs, coolers, fishing gear, ferry schedule, sunscreen.
Had Project Nutmeg gone a little differently, the trip might instead consist of off-road vehicles to navigate an alien landscape, lead-lined clothing and perhaps a Geiger counter, just to be on the safe side. And leave the fishing gear at home – those two-headed drum are tough on the digestive tract.
It might sound like something out of the science fiction genre – think Charlton Heston in “The Planet of the Apes” when he discovers the Statue of Liberty – but the truth, in this case, is far more sobering than any Hollywood script. In the aftermath of World War II, the government wanted to shift nuclear weapons testing from the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean to the continental U.S. Research undertaken in 1948 determined that the Carolina coast – from Hatteras to Cape Fear – held great potential.
“The fact that people lived here was just a minor inconvenience – we can get past that,” Danny Couch says with an ironic laugh. “People don’t realize this dang near happened and what a wasteland … it’s almost beyond comprehension of what nearly happened here.”
Couch is a lifelong Hatteras Island resident. He wrote a history column every month for The Island Free Press for 20 years and currently serves as a Dare County Commissioner. He first heard about Project Nutmeg while working on the Cape Hatteras School’s Sea Chest newspaper under the tutelage of Mildred Jeranko in the 1970s.
That’s when parts of Project Nutmeg were declassified for the first time. Copies of those former Top Secret documents can be found at the Outer Banks History Center, where archivist Stuart Parks laid eyes on them for the first time in 2009.
The detachment in the words of military officials deciding where best to test nuclear weapons is chilling:
“There appears to be a need for adequate education of the people of our country concerning the radiological hazards resulting from atomic explosions. This should be realistic in nature with the view to giving the public a correct understanding of this matter in order that the hysterical or alarmist complex now so prevalent may be corrected. …
“Alleviation of their fears would be a matter of reeducation over a long period of time, and, until the public will accept the possibility of an atomic explosion within a matter of a hundred or so miles of their homes, establishment of a continental proving ground will be beset by substantial public relations and political difficulties.”
That’s a memo from Lieutenant General J.E. Hull to the Chief of Staff of the Army in 1948 explaining how those silly Americans at the time thought nuclear fallout was something best avoided at all costs.
As the documents and Parks explain, though, testing in the Marshall Islands was expensive. Plus, by conducting “safe” tests on the homefront, the government could assuage all those fears about the fallout.
“The military was at an impasse because they had this new devastating weapon and they wanted to play with it, get the most out of it,” Parks says. “But it was terrifying, and public sentiment was absolutely shocked with the implications, so they felt that the best way that they could show the citizens that there was nothing to fear from an atomic explosion was to set one-off in the continental U.S. By their estimates, within 48 hours, most of the radiation would be gone.”
By 1948, there had been eight nuclear explosions “engineered by man,” as the report states – the first test from the Manhattan Project at Alamogordo, New Mexico, the two bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then five more tests in the Pacific Ocean.
Transporting bombs to the Marshall Islands and keeping personnel there proved expensive and time-consuming. Weather was unpredictable and sometimes severe. With military officials unconcerned about fallout – just the bad PR that might come with stateside testing – Project Nutmeg was launched to find the perfect spot.
Navy Captain Howard B. Hutchinson provided these details in his Top Secret progress report memo on Oct. 7, 1948:
“Aerial photography of the Atlantic Coast between Cape Hatteras and Cape Fear has been requested.”
“Papers and reports in (1) population density distribution in North America, (2) behavior of ocean currents in the Atlantic, (3) physics of the atmosphere have been studied.”
“Meteorological conditions in the coastal strip between Cape Hatteras and Cape Fear are entirely satisfactory for removing the radioactive products, the winds aloft prevail from the west.”
Granted, North Carolina wasn’t perfect. While Hatteras and Ocracoke were sparsely populated at the time, they still had thousands of people whose lives would be uprooted. The government would have to purchase their property and pay relocation expenses. Controlling the coastal shipping lanes, flight paths and even recreational boat traffic on these barrier islands was viewed as a challenging task in establishing a test site here.
Every factor, pro, and con, for choosing the Outer Banks would be outlined in Hutchinson’s 57-page report, which included 31 pages of scientific details and charts about fallout risks from past tests and another dozen pages about wind patterns and the Gulf Stream and advanced weather forecasting abilities in North Carolina.
It was clear, however, that Hutchinson had Carolina on his mind.
“The writer maintains, after study of the fallout figures for the tropics, that such fallout will not harm the population, the economy nor the industry of the nation. However, if this negligible possibility cannot be accepted for sites chosen in the arid southwest, the coastal region of the United States, between Cape Hatteras and Cape Fear, is offered as a suitable area from which to choose sites.”
On page 52, Cape Hatteras is described as having about 50 buildings, including Coast Guard installations and “the lighthouse.” The next page highlights the fact Ocracoke Island is unpopulated except for the village. Hutchinson’s favorite spot along the coast, though, is Portsmouth Bank, just south of Ocracoke. He calls it “exceptionally favorable” and says it should be investigated first among the coastal options.
After the report, things were looking grim for the Outer Banks, but a little-known hero finally emerges in the Project Nutmeg files. If you love where you live, offer up a prayer of thanksgiving for one Sumner T. Pike.
In response to Hutchinson’s report, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, led by Pike as acting chairman, issued a reply on March 8, 1949. The agency appreciated the work but seemed annoyed that Nutmeg failed to address any of the issues of the domestic or international relation involved with continental nuclear weapons testing.
“Officers of the Division of Military Application have recently flown over the Carolina coast. These flights reveal that almost all land which would be useful as a test site is inhabited and improved. … Other serious disadvantages to the Carolina coast are that a considerable number of people would require relocation; some permanently, others for the duration of tests. The considerable oceangoing shipping as well as the inland waterways traffic would have to be controlled during test periods. Air traffic both overland and overwater would also have to be restricted.
“The commission has considered these factors and concludes that, except for test activities during a national emergency, a continental site is not desirable. The information developed by ‘Project Nutmeg’ is, however, considered of value for emergency planning and will be so used. It is requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff be advised of the Commission’s views.”
And that’s where the story ends – mostly. Military brass fired off another letter in June of 1950 stating that escalating tensions in Korea and Soviet weapon testing might just constitute a national emergency. But now speed was a factor, and so the testing sites already under government control in the Southwest were chosen instead of North Carolina.
Couch says it’s remarkable how few people know of this “dirty little secret.” Parks was lucky enough to stumble upon Nutmeg because, a year after he began working at the Outer Banks History Center, he was told to “find three things in the back” that interested him to present at a special exhibit.
David Stick had donated all the declassified documents, but the files basically got put on a shelf and forgotten about until Parks came along. He did an exhibit on Nutmeg in 2009 and also has presented a lecture on the subject at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.
“I found it fascinating. I sat there and read the whole thing,” Parks says. “I thought people should know about it, how much disregard the government had for the area at the time. I have not met a whole lot of people who have known about it. It’s a very obscure piece of Outer Banks history.”
What would nuclear testing have meant for today’s Outer Banks? Ocracoke or Hatteras likely would be “a big dead zone,” Parks says, full of contaminated sand and radioactive grass. Currents likely would have transported radioactive material all along the coast, killing the fishing industry. We’d be safe in Manteo or Kill Devil Hills or Kitty Hawk, but…
“People typically don’t flock to tour radioactive bomb sites,” Parks says. “It would have effectively killed tourism on the Outer Banks.”
There is irony, of course, in the fact that one government agency looked into destroying the coastline while another – the National Park Service – created the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in 1953.
“You went from a potential lunar landscape to a national park,” Couch says. “The Outer Banks as we know it today probably wouldn’t exist, but by the grace of God…”
A sobering thought, indeed, for every local who calls this place home and every tourist who cherishes that yearly visit.
“The only thing we want glowing around here,” Couch says, “are nice lighthouses.”
Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.