The Forgotten Palomares Nuclear Bomber Crash of 1966

Crash of the US Air Force B-52, carrying 4 hydrogen bombs, at Palomares, Spain
Crash of the US Air Force B-52, carrying 4 hydrogen bombs, at Palomares, Spain

There was a time during the Cold War when nuclear warheads were not only sitting in ballistic missile silos, but also flown 24/7 by large bombers. In 1966, a B-52 Stratofortress bomber took off from a North Carolina airbase, headed to Eastern Europe, and would explode over coastal Spain. The bomber was part of Operation Chrome Dome.  During the Cold War, it provided NATO with a rapid-response nuclear strike capability around the world.  For years, the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command flew bombers to the very edge of the Soviet Iron Curtain. At least a dozen B-52s patrolled the skies over the North Atlantic and Western Europe at all times, each with a payload of HYDROGEN BOMBS.

At 10:30am on January 17th, 1966, a B-52 bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker plane during a mid-air refueling attempt at 31,000 feet over the Mediterranean Sea, just off the east coast of Spain. The KC-135 tanker was destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52G broke apart in the explosion, killing three of the seven crew members aboard. The other four, including pilot Major Larry Messinger, managed to parachute to safety.

The B-52 was carrying 4 MK28 hydrogen bombs, each with 1.5 megatons of explosive power, about 100 times as much as Hiroshima’s.

Fortunately, all four bombs were unarmed, so there was never any danger of nuclear detonation. Wreckage from the 2 military airplanes soon rained down on the unfortunate town of Palomares, a small seaside community of about 2,000, known for growing the best tomatoes in Spain. Townspeople looked up and saw a huge ball of fire streaking towards them as the two large planes broke apart.  Miraculously, no one on the ground was killed.  What the villagers didn’t know was that falling debris also included four thermonuclear weapons. Three crashed down near Palomares. None of the bombs caused a nuclear explosion, but the conventional explosives on two of them detonated upon hitting the ground. The third bomb landed intact and unexploded.  The 4 American survivors were soon rescued and taken to a nearby hospital.

With four “broken arrows” (US code for lost nuclear weapons), SAC mobilized a small army of American military to quickly descend on tiny Palomares. Military police arrived by helicopter just a few hours after the crash.  They found huge pieces of smoking airplane wreckage all over the village. A large part of the bomber had crashed in the school yard.  The undetonated bomb had thudded into a soft sandbank near the beach and remained intact. Two bombs had hit hard and exploded, leaving house-sized craters on either side of the village.  While safeguards prevented nuclear detonations, explosives surrounding the plutonium cores exploded and blew radioactive dust over the houses and tomato fields of Palomares.  The two exploded weapons in essence acted like ‘dirty bombs,’ scattering radioactivity across the Spanish coast.

By the next day, truck loads of US troops arrived from nearby bases, bringing hand-held Geiger counters. Almost everywhere they pointed them, the highest readings were measured.  The Pentagon’s top priority was collecting those 4 bombs, and largely ignored the danger of plutonium dust.  Villagers and troops were told by the US Air Force that they were safe, since the radiation would not penetrate their skin. US troops searched for the bombs through highly contaminated tomato fields, with Geiger Counters, but no safety gear.

Within 24 hours, they recovered the 3 bombs, but the 4th was nowhere to be found. 

Reports leaked in the press that a nuclear device had been lost.  Both the US Air Force and Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco made no statement about Palomares. The silence only fed the rumor mill. The Soviet Union’s Radio Moscow reported that the entire area was covered in a ‘death rain‘ of lethal radiation.  Accounts of the crash became front-page news around the world. American and Spanish officials tried to play down the risk. They blocked the press from the village and flatly denied any nuclear weapons were involved in the crash, and there was NO radiation. In order to show this, Spanish officials allowed Palomares’ villagers to remain in the town!

After a week of searching, the 4th bomb still remained lost. Then a random tip came in and they interviewed a fisherman who witnessed a crash at sea.  Now the search became far more tedious.  The US military became engaged in a massive underwater search and recovery operation. The US Navy arrived and began trawling the Mediterranean waters off the coast of Palomares with an armada of ships and 2 submersibles, the Alvin and the Aluminaut.

By March, with still no sign of the missing bomb, the US military finally admitted it was hunting for a lost H bomb off the coast of Spain, and that another had ‘cracked,’ and released a small amount of harmless radiation on the coast.  Spanish officials described a rigorous cleanup and vehemently denied Soviet claims that the Mediterranean was contaminated. Worries the news would destroy Spanish tourism, the Spanish Minister of Tourism, Manuel Fraga, and US Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke took a much-publicized swim at a nearby beach on March 8th to ‘prove’ the waters were safe.

After 2 months of the largest undersea search in history, the missing bomb was finally located by the submersible Alvin, 5 miles off the coast, 2,550 feet deep. Then while the bomb was being winched to the surface, the cable suddenly snapped, causing the bomb to fall again, another 350 feet deeper! An unmanned recovery vehicle then became tangled in the bomb’s parachute.  Both were finally lifted to the surface by a US Navy ship on April 7th—nearly 3 months after the crash.  Reporters were allowed to photograph it the next day.

But that was not the end for poor Palomares.

Spanish and American authorities assured villagers that they had nothing to fear. The villagers, accustomed to living under General Franco’s dictatorship, dared not question a thing.  Spain insisted the mess be cleaned up by the US before the summer tourist season.  The US Air Force bought tons of contaminated tomatoes the Spanish public refused to eat. Troops hacked down contaminated vines with machetes.  The Air Force scooped up 5,300 barrels of dirt from the radioactive craters and loaded them onto US Navy ships.  American troops hauled away some 1,400 tons of contaminated topsoil and vegetation, to be buried in a secure nuclear waste storage site in South Carolina.  

After all this, the incident was largely forgotten!  But there was still the matter of the people, both US troops and Palomores citizens, who’d been exposed to plutonium dust. Radiation near the bombs had been so high it sent the military’s monitoring equipment off the scales. Troops spent months shoveling toxic dust, wearing little more protection than military fatigues.  And the villagers were allowed to stay in their homes during the clean-up.

Palomares' B-52 4th lost hydrogen bomb, recovered at sea.
Palomares’ B-52 4th lost hydrogen bomb, recovered at sea.

For 50 years, the US Air Force has maintained there was no harmful radiation at the crash site. It says the danger of contamination was minimal and strict safety measures ensured that all personnel were protected. US Troops started to get sick soon after the cleanup ended. Healthy young men experienced joint pain, headaches, weakness, and skin rashes.  Decades later, some developed testicular cancer, and rare lung and lymph nodes cancers. Of 40 veterans who helped with the cleanup, 21 had cancer and 9 have died from it. Of course, it’s impossible to determine whether or not these men developed cancer as a direct result of Palomares, or through natural causes.

What about the people of Palomares?

A medical monitoring system was established, and for the last several decades, the US and Spain have funded annual health checkups. Monitoring of Palomoras however has been random. While at least 5% show traces of plutonium in their bodies, officials maintain that the amount is well below the danger levels.  The US promised to pay for a public health program, but has provided little funding.  Spanish scientists lacked the resources to follow up on potential risks, including reported leukemia deaths in local children. Today, the long-term health effect on villagers is poorly understood.

In the late 1990s, new surveys of the village found some contamination that had gone undetected. About a fifth of the plutonium from 1966 was estimated to still contaminate the Palomares area. The Spanish government appropriated the land in 2003 and fenced it off to prevent further use.  In 2015, after several years of negotiations, the US government signed a Statement of Intent to assist Spain in finally finishing the 50-year-old cleanup process in Palomares. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and the Spanish Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, signed an agreement in Madrid to finish cleaning up the site and remove the remaining contaminated materials at a suitable location in the United States.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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