Close Calls, Part One: When the United States Dropped Four Nuclear Bombs on Spain. I’m

With all that is going on in the world today it is easy to forget some of the most wild and dangerous parts of our current situation. War, Famine, Disease are all constants and we often tune them out because the noise on the Cable News is more exciting or dramatic.

One thing we ought never forget is the threat of nuclear weapons. This may often be forgotten, as the Cold War is long over. Nevertheless, the presence of nuclear weapons has not gone away. Merely having these doomsday devices insures that one day, by accident, we may lose all life on the planet. It can be considered a definite, as the combination of nuclear weapons and human fallibility insures that one day we will see a nuclear detonation that one on thought possible, because everyone thinks that we have the situation under control.

An example of just how easy it would be for a nuclear detonation is in the Palomares crash of a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber, which occurred in 1966, at the height of the Cold War.

The New York Times did a wonderful report on the lasting effects of this terrible event. Here is some of what they published:

“It was a late winter night in 1966 and a fully loaded B-52 bomber on a Cold War nuclear patrol had collided with a refueling jet high over the Spanish coast, freeing four hydrogen bombs that went tumbling toward a farming village called Palomares, a patchwork of small fields and tile-roofed white houses in an out-of-the-way corner of Spain’s rugged southern coast that had changed little since Roman times.” •

The place was carrying four hydrogen bombs, the newest weapon in the United Stated nuclear arsenal. The difference between a nuclear bomb and a hydrogen bomb is dramatic.

220px-Tsar_photo11A hydrogen bomb uses a nuclear bomb as it’s trigger, scaling the reaction of the plutonium up exponentially. It is thought that the size of a hydrogen bomb can be engineered to be of any size, depending only on the desires of the bomb maker. For example, the Soviets detonated the largest hydrogen bomb ever, the Tsar Bomba, with a capacity of 100 megatons. That’s one hundred million tons of TNT.

The bombs dropped on Palomares were small, but still hydrogen bombs by design. The explosion of the bombs did not happen, thankfully. If they had, much of the Iberian Peninsula would be uninhabitable even today.

Nevertheless, the crash meant that there was a lot of radioactive material needing to be collected and cleaned up. Sadly, the Air Force sent unsuspecting airmen to do the dirty work.

“There was no talk about radiation or plutonium or anything else,” said Frank B. Thompson, a then 22-year-old trombone player who spent days searching contaminated fields without protective equipment or even a change of clothes. “They told us it was safe, and we were dumb enough, I guess, to believe them.”•

One bomb hit a nearby beach, and was unexploded. Another landed in the ocean, and was only recovered months later. Two other bombs landed on houses in the village, exploding, but not in a nuclear detonation.

The explosives surrounding the nuclear core went off, showering the village and surrounding fields with a fine dust of plutonium.

After initially denying anything  had happened beyond a downed plane, the Air Force was forced to admit that there was at least one bomb on the plane and that it had leaked,”“small amount of basically harmless radiation.”

The fields surrounding Palomares were full of tomatoes. In order to assure the Spanish public that they were safe, the Air Force bought the crop and fed the tomatoes to the Airmen doing the cleanup. They ate tomatoes for every meal while cleaning up the site, under orders from the Air Force to do so.

Most of the men who were at Palomares contracted cancers from their time there. Many died terrible deaths because their illnesses were not officially related to their contamination at Palomares. The Air Force continues to deny even now that the men were harmed in any way by their exposure.

If the men could prove they were harmed by radiation, they would have all costs for their associated medical care covered and would get a modest disability pension. But proof from a secret mission to clean up an invisible poison decades ago has proved elusive.

So each time the men apply, the Air Force says they were not harmed and the department hands out denials.

“First they denied I was even there, then they denied there was any radiation,” said Ronald R. Howell, 71, who recently had a brain tumor removed. “I submit a claim, and they deny. I submit appeal, and they deny. Now I’m all out of appeals.”

He sighed, then continued. “Pretty soon, we’ll all be dead and they will have succeeded at covering this whole thing up.”•

The treatment of the men who were sent to clean up Palomares is reflective of the larger blindness to the dangers of nuclear weapons. Palomares could have been a detonation, instead it has become a cover up.

What will be the next Palomares?


Dave Phillips, Decades Later, Sickness Among Airmen After A Hydrogen Bomb Accident, NYTimes, June 19, 2016.

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

2 thoughts on “Close Calls, Part One: When the United States Dropped Four Nuclear Bombs on Spain. I’m

    1. Darlene! I’m grateful for the comment, and I am glad you read the post. I know that you love Spain and the Spanish people. I thought this story was tragic and largely forgotten. Please keep reading and commenting.

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