B-52 bomber collides with a KC-135 jet tanker over Spain’s Mediterranean coast, dropping three 70-kiloton hydrogen bombs near the town of Palomares and one in the sea. It was not the first or last accident involving American nuclear bombs.
As a means of maintaining first-strike capability during the Cold War, U.S. bombers laden with nuclear weapons circled the earth ceaselessly for decades. In a military operation of this magnitude, it was inevitable that accidents would occur. The Pentagon admits to more than three-dozen accidents in which bombers either crashed or caught fire on the runway, resulting in nuclear contamination from a damaged or destroyed bomb and/or the loss of a nuclear weapon. One of the only “Broken Arrows” to receive widespread publicity occurred on January 17, 1966, when a B-52 bomber crashed into a KC-135 jet tanker over Spain.
The bomber was returning to its North Carolina base following a routine airborne alert mission along the southern route of the Strategic Air Command when it attempted to refuel with a jet tanker. The B-52 collided with the fueling boom of the tanker, ripping the bomber open and igniting the fuel. The KC-135 exploded, killing all four of its crew members, but four members of the seven-man B-52 crew managed to parachute to safety. None of the bombs were armed, but explosive material in two of the bombs that fell to earth exploded upon impact, forming craters and scattering radioactive plutonium over the fields of Palomares. A third bomb landed in a dry riverbed and was recovered relatively intact. The fourth bomb fell into the sea at an unknown location.
Palomares, a remote fishing and farming community, was soon filled with nearly 2,000 U.S. military personnel and Spanish civil guards who rushed to clean up the debris and decontaminate the area. The U.S. personnel took precautions to prevent overexposure to the radiation, but the Spanish workers, who lived in a country that lacked experience with nuclear technology, did not. Eventually some 1,400 tons of radioactive soil and vegetation were shipped to the United States for disposal.
Meanwhile, at sea, 33 U.S. Navy vessels were involved in the search for the lost hydrogen bomb. Using an IBM computer, experts tried to calculate where the bomb might have landed, but the impact area was still too large for an effective search. Finally, an eyewitness account by a Spanish fisherman led the investigators to a one-mile area. On March 15, a submarine spotted the bomb, and on April 7 it was recovered. It was damaged but intact.
Studies on the effects of the nuclear accident on the people of Palomares were limited, but the United States eventually settled some 500 claims by residents whose health was adversely affected. Because the accident happened in a foreign country, it received far more publicity than did the dozen or so similar crashes that occurred within U.S. borders. As a security measure, U.S. authorities do not announce nuclear weapons accidents, and some American citizens may have unknowingly been exposed to radiation that resulted from aircraft crashes and emergency bomb jettisons. Today, two hydrogen bombs and a uranium core lie in yet undetermined locations in the Wassaw Sound off Georgia, in the Puget Sound off Washington, and in swamplands near Goldsboro, North Carolina.
READ MORE: The Secret 'White Trains' That Carried Nuclear Weapons Around the U.S.
On November 1, 1952, the United States successfully detonated “Mike,” the world’s first hydrogen bomb, on the Elugelab Atoll in the Pacific Marshall Islands. The 10.4-megaton thermonuclear device, built upon the Teller-Ulam principles of staged radiation implosion, instantly vaporized an entire island and left behind a crater more than a mile wide. The incredible explosive force of Mike was also apparent from the sheer magnitude of its mushroom cloud–within 90 seconds the mushroom cloud climbed to 57,000 feet and entered the stratosphere. One minute later, it reached 108,000 feet, eventually stabilizing at a ceiling of 120,000 feet. Half an hour after the test, the mushroom stretched 60 miles across, with the base of the head joining the stem at 45,000 feet.
Three years later, on November 22, 1955, the Soviet Union detonated its first hydrogen bomb on the same principle of radiation implosion. Both superpowers were now in possession of the “hell bomb,” as it was known by many Americans, and the world lived under the threat of thermonuclear war for the first time in history.
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Broken Arrow: America’s Lost Nuclear Weapons
“Broken Arrow” is the military’s code word for an accident involving a nuclear weapon. Since 1950, there have been almost three dozen acknowledged “Broken Arrow” incidents. Six times, the US has lost a nuclear weapon in an accident that it was unable to recover, including a Navy plane that crashed into Puget Sound with a nuclear depth charge, and an attack plane that rolled off a carrier near Japan and sank with its B43 nuclear bomb. Several times, nuclear weapons have been dropped or accidentally released near American cities. In many of these, the nuclear weapon’s conventional explosives actually detonated, and only the bomb’s safety precautions prevented a nuclear explosion.
In the early years of the Cold War, the US Air Force Strategic Air Command was on 24-hour duty, prepared to retaliate at any time to a Soviet nuclear attack. As part of their training, US Air Force bombers would make practice flights across the country and around the world, carrying nuclear weapons. For safety, the plutonium cores that triggered the nuclear explosion were removed and either stored separately in the airplane (in a metal rack known as “the birdcage”) or kept on the ground. Later, the Strategic Air Command began putting portions of its bomber force on “airborne alert”, circling in the air with live (but “safed”) nuclear weapons: it was intended to protect the bombers from being caught on the ground in a surprise Russian attack.
In February 1950, a B-36 Peacemaker strategic bomber was scheduled to make a training flight, taking off from Alaska and making a mock bombing run in Texas before returning. The Peacemaker carried one Mark 4 nuclear bomb, with the plutonium core removed. As the bomber crossed over Canada, however, ice began to clog the engine carburetors, and three engines had to be shut down. As the remaining engines began to lose power, the crew realized that the plane could not make it to safety. Steering the bomber out over the Pacific Ocean, the pilot jettisoned the nuclear weapon. The Mark 4’s conventional explosives detonated on impact and the bomb was destroyed. The crew then turned back over land and bailed out. Twelve of the seventeen airmen were rescued. The B-36 flew on autopilot for a short time until it crashed into a remote mountain in British Columbia.
As it turned out, 1950 was a bad year for the Air Force. The Korean War was raging, and the US had made the secret decision to move a number of atomic bombs to staging areas in Asia where they could be readied for possible use. In April, a B-29 Superfortress took off from a base in New Mexico, bound for Guam. It was carrying General Robert Travis and a number of other officers. It was also carrying a Mark 4 bomb. When the plane developed engine trouble, it tried to make an emergency landing, but the landing gear was disabled. The resulting crash set off the 2.5 tons of conventional explosive inside the Mark 4, killing a number of people on the plane and on the ground, including General Travis.
Three months later, a B-50 Superfortress (a modified version of the B-29) in Ohio crashed during a training flight, and in August a B-29 failed to make an emergency landing in California. In both of these cases, the resulting fire set off the conventional explosives in the nuclear bombs they had been carrying. Then in November 1950, a USAF B-50 experienced engine failure while flying over Canada. Before making an emergency landing, the crew set their nuclear weapon to self-destruct and dropped it over the St Lawrence River in Quebec. Although the bomb did not contain a nuclear core, it was destroyed when its explosives detonated.
In May 1957, a B-36 carrying a Mark 17 hydrogen bomb was making a landing approach at a base just outside of Albuquerque NM when the bomb broke loose, tore through the bomb bay doors, and fell onto a cattle ranch. The implosion explosives detonated on impact, killing one of the cows, but although the plane was carrying a plutonium core for the Mark 17, it was separated in the “birdcage” and was not inside the bomb.
Later in 1957, a C-124 cargo plane with engine trouble was forced to jettison two of the three nuclear weapons it was carrying, dropping them off the Jersey shore, and in another incident a B-47 crashed on landing in Florida, with the resulting fire detonating the conventional explosives in the nuclear bomb it carried. In both cases, the plane had also been carrying plutonium cores.
The year 1958 was also not a good one for the USAF. There were five Broken Arrows that year, including one of the most famous.
One of the most potentially serious accidents happened in January at a base in Morocco. A B-47 was taking off on a training mission carrying a nuclear weapon with its plutonium core intact and installed in the bomb, though the weapon’s electrical system had been “safed”. A tire blew on takeoff, the tail hit the ground, and the fuel tank caught on fire. Remarkably, the bomb’s conventional explosives did not detonate.
One of the best-known Broken Arrows in the US happened a month later. While conducting a mock practice bombing run on Savannah GA, a B-47 bomber was intercepted by an F-86 fighter who was also on a training mission. Somehow, the two planes collided in the dark, and the crew of the crippled B-47 jettisoned their weapon, a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb, just off the coast, where it fell somewhere off the mouth of the Savannah River near Tybee Island. Despite several search attempts, the bomb was never recovered.
Just a month later, another B-47 was flying over the town of Florence SC when the shackles in the bomb bay failed, and a nuclear bomb tore through the bomb bay doors and fell out of the airplane. Several people on the ground were injured when the impact detonated the bomb’s explosives.
There were two incidents in November 1958. First a B-47 crashed on takeoff in Texas, with the resulting fire setting off the explosives in the nuclear bomb it was carrying. Then another B-47 burned on the ground in Louisiana. This time the explosives did not detonate, though the nuclear bomb was destroyed in the fire.
Another well-known Broken Arrow happened in January 1961. A B-52 Stratofortress was flying airborne alert over the city of Goldsboro NC, with two intact but “safed” Mark 39 hydrogen bombs, when it developed a fuel leak that led to an explosion, destroying the plane. Both of the Mark 39s fell free, with one of them deploying its parachute and landing undamaged. The second bomb’s parachute failed, and it broke apart on impact, scattering pieces over a wide area. The thermonuclear “second stage” of the bomb was never found, but enough of the wrecked Mark 39 was recovered for the Air Force to determine that five of the bomb’s six electrical switches had been triggered, and only the manual sixth “safe” had prevented the 20-megaton nuclear explosion.
What is probably the most famous Broken Arrow incident happened in January 1966. A B-52 on airborne alert over the Mediterranean was refueling from a tanker plane for its return to the US when the two jets collided. The Stratofortress was carrying four safed B-28 hydrogen bombs, which fell near the town of Palomares, Spain. Two of the B-28s detonated their explosives on impact, scattering radioactive material over a large area. One of the remaining bombs was found in a streambed. The other one fell into the Mediterranean, where it was found by a local fisherman (who negotiated with the Air Force for payment of salvage rights).
The last known Broken Arrow happened in January 1968. A B-52 was flying an airborne alert over Greenland when a fire broke out, forcing the crew to make an emergency landing at the US base in Thule. The bomber crashed short of the runway. One of the four hydrogen bombs aboard detonated its conventional explosives. Two of the bombs melted right through the pack ice and fell into the arctic ocean below. One of these was found on the seafloor 11 years later the other was never found at all.
After 1968 the Air Force ended its practice of “airborne alerts”. Since then, there have been no known Broken Arrow incidents involving nuclear bombs. The last known American nuclear weapons accident happened in 1980, when a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile in Arkansas exploded during maintenance (a mechanic dropped a wrench and punctured a fuel tank), blowing the ICBM’s 9-megaton warhead completely out of the silo.
A Real Life “Thunderball”: The Day the U.S. Lost Hydrogen Bombs in Spain
The March 2009 edition of Time magazine called it one of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters.” On January 17, 1966, a B-52 bomber of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) carrying four hydrogen bombs collided with a tanker during mid-air refueling at 31,000 feet over the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. The tanker was completely destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52 broke apart, killing three of the seven crew members aboard.
Three hydrogen bombs were found on land near the small fishing village of Palomares. However, the non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impact with the ground, resulting in the contamination of 490 acres. The fourth fell into the sea and was eventually recovered intact after a 2½-month-long search.
News stories related to the crash began to appear the following day, and it achieved front page status in both the New York Times and Washington Post on 20 January. Reporters sent to the accident scene covered angry demonstrations by the local residents. The incident had an eerie similarity with the recently released James Bond movie Thunderball, in which SPECTRE steals two NATO H-bombs, which end up submerged on the ocean floor of the Bahamas.
On 4 February, an underground Communist organization successfully initiated a protest by 600 people in front of the U.S. Embassy in Spain. Soil with high radiation contamination levels was placed in drums and shipped to the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina for burial. A total of 5.4 acres was decontaminated, producing 6,000 barrels.
In 2006, Reuters reported that higher than normal levels of radiation were detected in the region. In 2009, the Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos told Secretary Hillary Clinton that he feared Spanish public opinion might turn against the U.S. once the results of the study on nuclear contamination were to be revealed. Earl Wilson was Director for the U.S. Information Service (USIS) in Madrid and was interviewed in 1988.
“We have a broken arrow”
WILSON: You know there was the crash of a bomber and a refueling plane when four H-bombs were lost. I was called the afternoon of January 17, 1966 by an officer from the Air Force base at Torrejon, who said they had a “broken arrow,” code for a plane crash with nuclear weapons.
I had a sinking feeling. Right after World War II, when I was still in the Marine Corps, a captain at that time, I flew in the co-pilot seat over Hiroshima. We circled around looking at that devastation. In this particular accident, the planes were lost, and four H-bombs, each had 75 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb.
They told me the Commanding General of the 16th Air Force, whose name was Wilson, was informed of the crash within three minutes. The communications of SAC were phenomenal. I played golf with a deputy out there one day who had a telephone on the golf bag on his cart. The phone rang. He was talking to some general. I thought he was talking back to the control tower. It kept ringing. He would tell the general about our golf game. I learned he was talking to the SAC Headquarters in Omaha.
Anyhow, General Wilson, as soon as he got the flash, got hold of another one of his officers and his public information officer, and they flew off in a small plane to near where the crash was, was Palomares. It was very remote. They had to wind up taking a taxi to get to the site. The senior American military man in Spain was Major General “Moose” Donovan, Chief of the JUSMAAG. He and I were good friends. He had a special rapport with Franco’s deputy, General Munoz.
So “Moose” immediately went off to see General Munoz. General Wilson, with his aides, arrived on the crash scene. His public information officer, incidentally, was Lieutenant Colonel “Skip” Young. He was a fighter pilot, a bomb disposal guy, a very gung-ho guy, but he didn’t know from his backside about information. (Laughs) So there we were.
The first thing I did was to run up to tell the Ambassador [Angier Biddle Duke]. It was lunchtime. The Ambassador told me to go down and get the contingency plan from the military. I went to the military attaché’s office. Nobody was there except a secretary. We rummaged and rummaged around. She finally came up with this so-called contingency plan. I took it up to the Ambassador’s office.
Q: Was this the military attaché’s office?
WILSON: Yes, in the same building as the embassy. So I took it up to the Ambassador’s office. He and I sat together on a couch and looked at this document. We both came rapidly to the conclusion it had absolutely no relevancy whatever to what was happening.
He asked me to call the air base and talk to the man who was in charge there in General Wilson’s absence. We were not getting the telegraphic traffic. I called, and the colonel at the other end said, “Well, I’m sorry, you’re not going to get it. This is going back from the military to the Pentagon in Omaha, to be distributed.”
I said, “Wait a minute. I’m not calling for me I’m calling for the Ambassador. As a matter of fact, I’m sitting at his desk, using his phone.”
He said, “Tough.” Well, that, unfortunately, was the way it was.
It got to be wryly amusing, because Harold Milks, the Associated Press bureau chief, had a stringer down at Palomares, where they had only two
telephones, one in a bar and one in a ratty hotel. General Wilson’s people found one of these phones, this stringer found the other. He was telling Milks, Milks would tell me, and I would tell the ambassador what was happening the first day or two down there.
“The Admiral and the General were hardly speaking to each other”
At the embassy, I was Chairman of something that had a very inelegant name, PAWG, Public Affairs Working Group. We met once a month with representatives from JUSMAAG, the 16th Air Force, the Sixth Fleet, Rota naval base, embassy politico-military officer, and myself, to coordinate….
Because of this difficulty of getting information, the Ambassador got General “Moose” Donovan, who had his own plane, to go with him and me to fly down to the nearby town of Almeria, and from there take a helicopter to go over and talk to General Wilson at the crash site. Of course, lots of troops and military stuff were rapidly building up there.
The Spaniards living in the area were frightened. The military was taking a very hard-nosed line with the foreign correspondents. They were barred from the area. Incidentally, I later was able to get one of my officers who was fluent in Spanish and a political officer to tool around the countryside to find out what the people were really thinking, because I thought this was asinine, not dealing with that local situation.
I found General Wilson was responsible for the land search, and Admiral Guest responsible for the Navy task force that had been assembled. They were hardly speaking to one another.
They found three H-bombs on land, believed the last one was in the water. That was a tough one. We went out to Guest’s flagship. He showed us maps and the charts. They were beginning with the conventional mine-sweeping type of operation. The best technology in the world for an underwater search was beginning to be assembled.
But Admiral Guest wanted nothing to do with the press.
I said, “What on earth? You don’t have anything classified out here other than that bomb down there.” But it didn’t make any difference.
The Real Life “Thunderball”
The Communists, of course, were broadcasting anti-American material to the people of Palomares and to Spain. The matter was beginning to pop up in Parliaments around the world.
I wrote endless cables and memorandum to the Ambassador and joint ones for the State Department and Pentagon, constantly urging a more realistic press policy. It just so happened the James Bond movie, Thunderball, with its underwater search for a nuclear weapon, was a current big hit. A lot of people formed their ideas from watching that movie.
The people were getting worried the bomb somehow, without going off, would poison the waters of the Mediterranean. Our nuclear submarine base at Rota could become an object of extreme interest. I found out that a new tourist hotel was to be inaugurated very close to Palomares. What a lot of people didn’t realize was the U.S. had helped in the buildup of tourism to a major industry in Spain. These hotels were part of our assistance.
I pointed out this was an excellent opportunity for the Ambassador to go down there and get involved, use that as an occasion to help straighten things out. It wasn’t my suggestion, but that of one of the foreign correspondents, an American, who suggested the ambassador swim there. It was a stroke of genius. The photo appeared in the front page of papers all over the world, proving the absence of radiation in the waters.
[Ambassador] Duke always said that no matter what he did, this was the only thing he’d ever be remembered for. It wasn’t just the Ambassador, but Spanish officials, journalists, wives, children, and USIS officers who went swimming.
So then they got tiny submersibles hunting for the bomb. On April 7, 1966, 80 days after the crash, one of the little subs, Alvin, located this thing and pulled it up. I suggested –and I guess there were others — that for credibility, we let the press see this bomb before it was shipped back to the States. For the first time, the Pentagon agreed. It was exposed for photographs before being taken away.
Days of searching
The bombs — each carrying 1.45 megatons of explosive power, about 100 times as much as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — were not armed, meaning there was no chance of a nuclear detonation.
One was recovered intact, but the high explosives in two of them, designed to detonate and trigger a nuclear blast, did explode. The blasts left house-size craters on either side of the village, scattering plutonium and contaminating crops and farmland.
"There was no talk about radiation or plutonium or anything else," Frank B. Thompson, then a 22-year-old trombone player, told The New York Times in 2016.
Thompson and others 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," he said.
The fourth bomb remained missing after days of searching, its absence embarrassing for the US and potentially deadly for people in the area.
The Pentagon called on engineers at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, who crunched the available numbers in order to determine where the missing bomb may have landed. The circumstances of the crash and the multitude of variables made such an estimate difficult.
Clues pointed to a sea landing for the fourth bomb, but there was little hard data to indicate where.
An interview with the fisherman who watched five members of the bomber's crew land at sea yielded a breakthrough.
The "dead man" was in fact the bomb attached to its parachute, and the "half man, with his guts trailing" was the empty parachute bag with its packing lines trailing in the air.
That information led the engineers assisting the search to recommend a new search area, bringing the total area being scoured to 27 square miles — with visibility of only 20 feet in some spots.
On February 11, the Navy called in Alvin, a 22-foot-long, 8-foot-wide submersible weighting 13 tons. It had room for a pilot and two observers, carried several cameras and a grappling arm, and could dive to 6,000 feet.
Alvin's primitive technology made the search a slog. There was no progress until March 1, when they spotted a track on the seabed.
Two more weeks of searching went by before they spotted the bomb — 2,550 feet below the surface, almost exactly in the spot where the fisherman had seen it enter the water. On March 24, divers in Alvin managed to attach a line to the bomb's parachute. Just after 8 p.m., a winch on a Navy ship began to reel in the line. About an hour later, the line broke, sending the bomb back to the ocean floor.
They found it again on April 2, resting about 350 feet deeper in the same area. The Navy rigged up another retrieval plan using an unmanned recovery vehicle, but it got caught in the bomb's parachute. On April 7, the admiral leading the search ordered his crew to lift the whole thing.
The laborious process that followed, assisted by Navy frogmen, lifted the missing nuclear bomb to the surface, bringing the 81-day saga to a close.
Alvin's pilots became international heroes, but little else about the incident ended so well.
For 50 Years, Nuclear Bomb Lost in Watery Grave
Clarification: In the broadcast version of this report, NPR said that there was general agreement that the lost Savannah nuclear bomb contains significant quantities of uranium and plutonium. A 1966 Congressional document indicates that the bomb was a complete weapon containing both uranium and plutonium. But the Air Force and the former pilot of the plane, retired Col. Howard Richardson, deny the bomb contains plutonium.
A Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb, like the one shown above, lies in the Wassaw Sound, just a few miles from downtown Savannah, Ga. Courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections hide caption
A Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb, like the one shown above, lies in the Wassaw Sound, just a few miles from downtown Savannah, Ga.
Courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections
Government officials believe the missing nuclear bomb is somewhere in the Wassaw Sound, just off Tybee Island. Lindsay Magnum, NPR hide caption
Government officials believe the missing nuclear bomb is somewhere in the Wassaw Sound, just off Tybee Island.
A Lost Nuke's Paper Trail
Documents courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections
The pilots of the B-47 bomber were (from left) Howard Richardson, Bob Lagerstrom and Leland Woolard. Richardson's cool thinking in the cockpit helped prevent a possible catastrophic crash of the plane. Courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections hide caption
The pilots of the B-47 bomber were (from left) Howard Richardson, Bob Lagerstrom and Leland Woolard. Richardson's cool thinking in the cockpit helped prevent a possible catastrophic crash of the plane.
Courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections
On Feb. 5, 1958, a B-47 bomber dropped a 7,000-pound nuclear bomb into the waters off Tybee Island, Ga., after it collided with another Air Force jet.
Fifty years later, the bomb -- which has unknown quantities of radioactive material -- has never been found. And while the Air Force says the bomb, if left undisturbed, poses no threat to the area, determined bomb hunters and area residents aren't so sure.
The bomb found its hidden resting place when the B-47 pilot, Air Force Col. Howard Richardson, dropped it into the water after an F-86 fighter jet accidentally collided with him during a training mission. The fighter jet's pilot, Lt. Clarence Stewart, didn't see Richardson's plane on his radar Stewart descended directly onto Richardson's aircraft. The impact ripped the left wing off the F-86 and heavily damaged the fuel tanks of the B-47.
Richardson, carrying a two-man crew, was afraid the bomb would break loose from his damaged plane when he landed, so he ditched the bomb in the water before landing the plane at Hunter Air Force Base outside Savannah. Stewart ejected and eventually landed safely in a swamp.
The Navy searched for the bomb for more than two months, but never found it, and today recommends it should remain in its resting place. In a 2001 report on the search and recovery of the bomb, the Air Force said that if the bomb is still intact, the risk associated with the spread of heavy metals is low. If its left undisturbed, the explosive in the bomb poses no hazard, the report said. It went on to say that an "intact explosive would pose a serious explosion hazard to personnel and the environment if disturbed by a recovery attempt."
While the government has officially stopped searching for the bomb, area residents -- including retired Air Force pilot Derek Duke -- haven't forgotten about the deadly weapon lying quietly off their coast. In 2004, Duke detected high radiation in shallow water off the coast of Savannah. Government officials investigated, but concluded that the radiation readings were normal for the naturally occurring minerals in the area.
Liane Hansen spoke with defense correspondent Guy Raz about the history of the lost bomb, and the people who are still intrigued by the sunken weapon.
POODL versus the Bomb
On March 22, 1966, CBS News aired a thirty-minute special report called &ldquoLost and Found, One H-Bomb.&rdquo The show opened with the anchor, Charles Kuralt, seated before a two-color map of Spain indicating only two cities: Madrid and Palomares. &ldquoWe live in a world in which it is possible to mislay a hydrogen bomb,&rdquo intoned Kuralt. &ldquoThat is the central fact of the drama in Spain.&rdquo He continued:
With thousands of men and millions of dollars and a flotilla of fifteen ships and with luck, we have apparently also found it, lying on the bottom of the sea. With the concurrence of the dark Mediterranean, it now seems likely that it will even be recovered and put in a safe place. But for the sixty days that one of our H-bombs was missing, worried people in the village of Palomares and thoughtful people everywhere asked, &ldquoCould it explode?&rdquo &ldquoCould it leak poisonous radiation?&rdquo &ldquoCould somebody else find it and put it to use?&rdquo Those are awesome questions but, considering the nature of the loss, not unreasonable ones.
Later in the report, CBS showed a long scene from the movie Thunderball, then cut to a shot of Deep Jeep being hoisted from the water. (The Navy had already sent Deep Jeep back to the United States, but the journalists were apparently unable to resist its photo-friendly bright yellow hull.) &ldquoThis is not a search for a fictional missing H-bomb, this is a search for a real one,&rdquo said Kuralt. &ldquoIf it looks a little like Thunder-ball, that is a comment on how fantastic fact has become lately.&rdquo
Kuralt wrapped up the program with a shot of the blue Mediterranean, the hills of Palomares rising in the distance. &ldquoThe bomb has not yet been brought to the surface, but it must be,&rdquo he said solemnly. &ldquoBecause if we don't recover it, there remains the nagging, distant possibility that someone else will.&rdquo
For about a week, Red Moody, now back on the task force, had been working on a plan. The key problem was getting a line down to the bottom, one heavy enough to support the weight of the bomb. Alvin or Aluminaut could carry a very light line. But if a submersible stretched a heavy line from a surface ship to the bomb, the force of the line in the current could overwhelm the sub's engines and sweep it off course.
Working with two consultants to the task force, Ray Pitts and Jon Lindbergh (a diving expert and son of the famed aviator), Moody designed and built a gangly contraption called POODL. The curious name, a contraction of Pitts, Moody, and Lindbergh, had nothing to do with POODL's appearance or duties. POODL looked nothing like a poodle it was a seven-foot-tall steel frame shaped like a giant shuttlecock and mounted with a slew of items: several pingers and transponders so the Mizar could track the device, a strobe light, a bucket containing 190 feet of carefully coiled nylon line with a grapnel on the far end, and another 150 feet of coiled nylon line ending with a hook.
Aboard the Mizar, Moody and his team rigged up a length of 3½-inch nylon line with a breaking strength of 22,000 pounds. At the end they attached an anchor thirty-eight feet above the anchor, they fastened POODL with a wire strap. In addition to the lines carried by POODL, they attached another 300-foot line, with a grapnel on the end, to the anchor itself. The plan was to lower the entire contraption-anchor, POODL, and all&mdashinto the water and, they hoped, land it near the bomb. Then Alvin could swim over, pick up the three lines, and dig the hook and grapnels into the parachute.
That was the plan, anyway. Lieutenant Commander Malcolm MacKinnon, a naval engineer on Guest's staff, took one look at the half-built POODL and winced. &ldquoOh, my God,&rdquo he thought. &ldquoIt was really a kludge.&rdquo
MacKinnon was not being overly critical. Even Moody admitted that they had &ldquogypsy-engineered&rdquo the rig. But POODL was the best and quickest option they had. The weapon's position was precarious, and the Navy worried that the bomb could slip down the slope into deeper water or fall into an underwater crevice and disappear forever. That fear overshadowed everything.
So on March 23, the captain of the Mizar positioned the ship over the bomb. Red Moody and his team dropped the anchor, with POODL attached, off the Mizar. Soon, the anchor and POODL hit bottom, their line stretching to the surface. Sailors grabbed the line, hooked it to a buoy, and floated it on top of the water. Then they waited to see what Alvin could do.
POODL was not the Navy's first recovery plan. Soon after Alvin had found the bomb, it had carried a light line down to the bottom. The end of the line was tied to a fluke, which the Alvin pilots dug into the sediment near the bomb. The Navy planned to slide a heavier line down this messenger line, but when they tried, the fluke pulled out of the bottom. On March 19, the task force members tried another tactic: they coiled some lines on the Mizar's instrument sled and tried to float the sled near the bomb. But the Mizarcrew couldn't hold the sled steady, and they abandoned that plan, too. After this attempt, McCamis and Wilson visited the bomb in Alvin and reported that it had slid twenty feet downslope. That evening, Admiral Guest wrote a pessimistic situation report to his superiors. He faced bad weather, untested equipment, experimental techniques, a precarious target position, and submersibles that needed constant maintenance. He warned that the recovery might take a while.
Other ideas arose. Art Markel thought Aluminaut could lift the bomb and devised a plan. On its hull, Aluminaut carried a camera mount that could pan and tilt, and Markel proposed building a makeshift arm by attaching a wooden or metal pole to the camera mount. The pole would carry a metal hook, which the pilot could loop into the parachute. The hook would be attached, via cable, to Aluminaut's emergency ballast, a 4,400-pound lead weight on its belly. Then, with the bomb securely hooked to the ship, Aluminaut could blow its ballast tanks and rise to the surface, with enough buoyancy to pull the bomb with it.
Markel was excited about the plan, mentioning it in several letters to Reynolds. This was Aluminaut's chance, he wrote, to share some of Alvin's limelight. But Guest rejected the idea. If Aluminaut got into trouble, he reasoned, she might have to drop her emergency ballast, leaving him with a new problem: a two-ton bomb hooked to a 4,400-pound lead weight. Guest never explained his reasoning to the Aluminaut crew, however, and this brush-off&mdashthe latest in a string of them&mdashleft the crew bitterly disappointed. &ldquoIt is quite apparent that CTF 65 does not want Aluminaut in the act if they can help it,&rdquo Markel wrote. &ldquoI am quite disgusted over this whole mess.&rdquo Markel had half a mind to take his lifting rig to the sunken ship of antiquity and hoist a cannon to the surface. That would show the world what Aluminaut could do.
As the recovery plan slogged forward, the press got antsy. On March 22, the Los Angeles Times ran a pessimistic front-page article that was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune. The headline read, &ldquoH-Bomb May Slip into Deep Sea Crevice, Balk Recovery.&rdquo The article reported that the weapon was teetering on the edge of a steep undersea slope, in imminent danger of sliding into the abyss. &ldquoAmerican officials here and at the scene are more pessimistic now about the situation than at any time since the search began,&rdquo said the article. &ldquoThey are depressed at having come so near only to face the possibility that a stray undersea current and the peculiar bottom topography may rob them of success.&rdquo
Duke, disturbed by such gloomy press, asked permission to release regular progress reports without consulting the government of Spain. It is unclear whether he ever received a reply. But it is doubtful that Admiral Guest would have wanted to cooperate with such a plan he had little interest in keeping the world press informed of his every move. In fact, he and his staff had become increasingly alarmed by the detailed information regularly appearing in the papers. There was a leak somewhere, and they didn't like it. The Air Force thought that someone in the Pentagon was talking to Washington reporters or that someone at Camp Wilson was chatting with the press. But Guest suspected the embassy in Madrid, perhaps even the ambassador himself. He didn't know Duke well, but he disliked the ambassador and didn't trust him. There is no evidence, however, that Duke passed illicit information to the press. Indeed, he seemed as mystified by the leaks as anyone.
On the morning of March 23, soon after Red Moody sent POODL to the bottom, McCamis and Wilson flew Alvin over to have a look. Mizar had landed the anchor and POODL about eighty feet from the bomb. When Alvin arrived at the site, the pilots saw that POODL had landed on the bottom and fallen over, spilling its lines into a tangle. Alvin tried to reach through the metal bars to grab the lines but couldn't. It then picked the remaining line off the anchor and tried to attach it to the billowing chute. With the pilots still getting used to the mechanical arm, the job proved difficult. Finally, they hooked the line into the parachute. But by that time, Alvin's battery had run low and the sub had to surface. At the debriefing, the pilots reported that the bomb had moved about six feet and now rested in a small ravine.
The next day, Wilson and McCamis dove again. Again, they couldn't clear the tangled lines from POODL. They returned to the anchor line, which was already attached to the parachute, and tried to connect it more firmly. Alvin grabbed the grapnel and slowly, painstakingly twisted it into at least six parachute risers. Then the parachute billowed, and Alvin backed off. The pilots reported the news to the surface: they had snarled the grapnel in the chute. And, they added, the other two lines remained fouled on the POODL. The pilots couldn't possibly reach them.
Guest's staff met aboard the Mizar. The admiral did not want to lift the bomb with only one line, which seemed way too risky. But his staff pushed him to try. The breaking strength of the attached line, they argued, was ten times the weight of the weapon and rig combined. If they waited, the grapnel might work itself loose, or the line could tangle. Bad weather posed a constant threat. If the wind blew up, it could cancel operations for days. Washington and Madrid were losing patience. The sooner they recovered the bomb, the better.
Guest didn't like the idea. But eventually he was persuaded.
Guest's staff made a plan. Mizar would hover directly above the bomb, then winch it straight up through its center well, or moon pool. Once the bomb was safely off the seafloor, Mizar would pull it slowly toward shallow water, winching it up along the way. When the bomb was about 100 feet below the surface, EOD divers would attach two sturdy wire straps, and the bomb could be hoisted aboard a ship.
McCamis, still underwater in Alvin, heard that Mizar was going to attempt the lift. He asked if Alvin could stay submerged so the pilots could observe the operation. The answer came from the surface: No. It was too dangerous for Alvin to linger during the lift. The pilots were ordered to surface.
Meanwhile, Red Moody was having his own argument with the captain of the Mizar. Moody worried that the Mizar couldn't hold position directly above the weapon. He suggested that the captain place landing craft, known as Mike boats, on either side of the ship to hold the Mizar steady. The captain refused, saying he could maneuver his ship without help. Moody gave up, and the lift got under way.
The Mizar's crew snagged the floating buoy tied to the anchor and the POODL. They jettisoned the buoy and attached the lift line to the ship's winch. Moody and Jon Lindbergh stood by the Mizar's moon pool to watch the operation. Guest and members of his staff waited in the ship's laboratory, watching the instrument panels. At about 7:30 p.m., Mizar's winch began to turn. Guest started to pray.
After about an hour, the instruments noted a slight strain as POODL rose off the seafloor. Fifteen minutes later, the rope took a heavy strain: the anchor had cleared the bottom. Slowly, the winch turned. The line grew steadily more taut, but the instruments showed that the strain was not severe. Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Thirty. The instruments showed another strain. The bomb had lifted off the bottom.
Three minutes later, the instruments jumped. Moody and Lindbergh, watching the line, saw it suddenly go slack. Staring at the loose line, Lindbergh felt a terrible sinking feeling. Moody thought, &ldquoOh, shit.&rdquo
The winch took another long hour to reel in the anchor. The line below the anchor&mdashthe one that had been attached to the bomb&mdashended in a frayed stump. The bomb itself was gone. Looking at the mangled rope, Lindbergh guessed that about three fourths of the strands had been cut cleanly on some sharp object. The rest had just split.
Moody later discovered that Mizar had, in fact, drifted off course while raising the bomb. The captain had cut power while the winch turned, sending the ship drifting toward shore and likely dragging the bomb upslope before lifting it. But it's not clear if Mizar'sdrift snapped the line. The line could have fouled on the anchor flukes, rubbed on a sharp rock, or even cut itself on the POODL. Perhaps the nylon line was too prone to splitting or this particular line was defective. Nobody ever figured it out for sure.
McCamis and Wilson were eating dinner when they heard the bad news. &ldquoOh, boy,&rdquo said Mac. &ldquoNow we got to go find it again.&rdquo
Alvin needed a battery charge and repairs to her ballast system and couldn't dive again for almost a full day. The admiral ordered Aluminaut to head down and look for the bomb. Several times, Mizar reported that the sub passed within 100 feet of the weapon's former position, but the Aluminaut crew saw no sign of it. After five hours of searching, they were ordered to surface to avoid disturbing the bottom further. When Alvin returned to the weapon site on the evening of March 25, the bottom was scored with deep gouges. &ldquoThe slope looked [as] if it had been torn up by bulldozers,&rdquo said Mac. The pilots found chunks of stone, clay, and mud, but no bomb.
The broken line seemed like a small mishap&mdashan unlucky break rather than a tragedy. The recovery team hadn't moved the weapon far from its original resting place, and they knew where they had dropped it. How far could it have gone? Surely, the subs would soon find it again. So, as Task Force 65 combed the ocean floor, the embassy staffers didn't panic. Instead, they continued to argue about how to display the bomb when Guest finally brought it up. Ever since word had leaked out that the bomb had been found, an international chorus had been offering suggestions and making demands. The Soviet newspaper Izvestia called for an international commission to verify the discovery, witness the bomb raising, and judge if the bomb had leaked any radiation. U.N. Secretary General U Thant privately suggested inviting the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) to verify the recovery. American officials balked at both suggestions. The Soviet Union was a member of the IAEC, and the military certainly didn't want a mob of Communist scientists poking around its top secret weapon.
There was still the question of logistics, as well. The embassy wanted Duke, Spanish Vice President Muñoz Grandes, and other VIPs to witness the actual bomb raising. Wilson opposed this idea: the bomb might be dangerous and should be rendered safe before VIPs showed up. Should he keep Muñoz Grandes, the number two man in Spain, waiting in a tent, maybe for days? Guest agreed. Military officials hated the idea of displaying the bomb in public. If they had their way, they would raise the bomb in secret, pack it into a box, and ship it back to the United States under cover of darkness.
Duke knew this was impossible. Finding this slender bomb in the depths of the Mediterranean had been a nearly impossible task. If the Americans didn't show the bomb to the world, nobody would believe they had really found it. Rumors would linger for years the story of the accident would never die. So when Duke reached an impasse with Wilson and Guest, he broke protocol and called Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. A serious breach of diplomatic decorum, the call was the only time, Duke claims, that he directly crossed the divide between State and Defense. McNamara was a friend, and the ambassador was desperate. On the phone, Duke argued his position, and McNamara agreed that the find had to be verified. Together, the Departments of Defense and State ordered Wilson and Guest to come up with a plan that would satisfy everyone.
Developing a plan for public display soon seemed less urgent, however. As one day stretched into another with no sign of the bomb, Guest's hope faded. Days passed. Then a week. The bomb seemed to be hiding.
Among the members of Guest's staff, the tension ramped up a notch. Red Moody felt personally responsible. The dropped bomb had been an accident, but Moody had played a large part in the recovery operation and shouldered his share of the blame. The mood on the USS Albany was bleak. &ldquoHere we were in the ninth inning, and the score is zero to zero,&rdquo said George Martin, a Trieste pilot who had been sent to Palomares to augment the task force. &ldquoAnd the fans&mdashwe'll call that the world opinion&mdash was also at zero.&rdquo
The crew of the USS Albany, already operating at a higher state of readiness than usual, responded to the heightened tension. The flagship carried long-range TALOS missiles, which could deliver either conventional or nuclear warheads. Usually, the crew armed the missiles with conventional warheads. But on March 29, the gun crews aboard the Albany made the switch. The flagship now bristled with nukes of her own. The task force was ready for anything.
At the end of March, Duke received a secret cable from the Departments of State and Defense regarding nuclear overflights of Spain. The tone was urgent:
Because arrangements for overflights of Austria, Switzerland, France or Morocco with nuclear weapons for various reasons not feasible, resumption such overflights of Spain extremely important not only in maintaining our tactical alert and dispersal plans but also in providing nuclear logistics support to forces in Mediterranean area. Restoration US overflights could have favorable in fluence elsewhere in world where such flights involved. Early approach Spanish authorities is desirable to seek resumption such flights through Spain&hellip. Would like views on timing such approach in light current request on three squadrons and in relation recovery B-52 weapon.
Duke responded in a secret cable to the secretary of state. His tone was patient but annoyed, like a father explaining, once again, why his son could not play baseball in the living room. He reminded Washington that the Department of Defense had just asked the Spanish government to station three fighter plane squadrons at Torrejón and had considered transferring France-based Air Force engine facilities to Spain. He pointed out that the United States soon faced the problem of extending, and probably renegotiating, its valuable base agreement with the Spanish government. And, in case anyone had forgotten, there was still a hydrogen bomb lost somewhere in the Mediterranean. &ldquoTiming of our demands, with an eye to international context, is important,&rdquo he wrote. &ldquoIt would be patently inopportune to raise subject of resuming overflights carrying nuclear weapons before lost weapon safely recovered and entire incident well behind us.&rdquo
Guest assumed that the weapon now rested upslope from its former position. Mizar, he guessed, had probably been dragging the bomb uphill before it lifted off the bottom. Bolstering this theory, when Alvin went down to look, the crew found a track leading up the slope. Everyone hoped that this track, like the one before, would lead them to the bomb.
But it didn't. And after a few days of fruitless searching, the Alvin pilots began to imagine a different scenario. They suspected that the uphill track had been dredged by the dragging anchor, not the bomb. Maybe the bomb had dropped into its old track and skidded down the slippery slope. The Alvin pilots wanted permission to search downhill.
At a meeting with Guest, a member of the admiral's staff raised the idea of letting Alvin look downhill. They even sweetened the pot by encouraging Guest to ride along as an observer. Admiral Guest turned down the offer: there was no way he was diving in a submersible, especially one built by civilians. But just to get the Alvin pilots off his back, he agreed to let them search downslope. And he suggested that George Martin, who was standing nearby, take his place as observer.
On the morning of April 2, Alvin dove again, with Rainnie, McCamis, and George Martin inside. The sub had cruised down to about 2,800 feet when Mac spotted an anomaly&mdasha clod of dirt that seemed out of place. Nearby, they saw some more dirt that looked oddly displaced. Then, suddenly, they saw a parachute, still tightly wrapped around an object that they knew was the bomb. They had been searching for just over a half hour.
The elated crew announced their find to the surface and settled in to wait for another rendezvous with Aluminaut. As they had suspected, the bomb and chute had slid downslope, landing about 120 yards south of its previous position. It was deeper now&mdashresting at about 2,800 feet&mdashbut lying on a gently sloping plain that seemed far less precarious. George Martin marveled at the sight this long-sought object, so far under the sea. To commemorate the occasion, he pulled a 100-peseta note out of his pocket and asked his companions to sign it. Then he sat back, ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwich he had packed for lunch, and wrote a letter to his wife.
Red Moody heard a buzz on ship and asked what was going on. He was told that Alvin had found the weapon but it was wrapped tightly in the parachute and nobody knew if it was the same bomb or not. Moody laughed. &ldquoHow many bombs do we have down there?&rdquo he asked. &ldquoLet's just go get her, but do a better job this time.&rdquo
On the morning of the accident, the one person most concerned with Spanish-American relations sat at lunch in Madrid, stoically fulfilling one of his more mundane job requirements. Being an American ambassador had its moments. Sometimes the nights were filled with glitz and glamour: dining at elegant tables, sipping champagne, conversing with kings. Other days swelled with political intrigue: wheeling and dealing, carving treaties, molding history alongside statesmen. But much of the time, the job sagged under the weight of duty. Today the ambassador was spending the afternoon at a luncheon for the American Management Association in Madrid: sitting in a banquet hall, steeling himself for a dismal lunch, and discussing President Johnson's recent efforts to reduce the United States' dollar outflow. That was where Angier Biddle Duke, the U.S. ambassador to Spain, was trapped on January 17, 1966. Then something caught his eye.
Duke sat with five other men at the head table, on a dais at the front of the banquet hall. As he listened to a speech by the Spanish industry minister, he saw someone familiar standing in the wings. Duke glanced over, then looked back to the speaker. Then he did a double take. Joseph Smith, a young Foreign Service officer from the embassy, stood on the side of the stage, trying desperately to get his boss's attention. Duke quickly excused himself and joined Smith in the wings. The two men went somewhere quiet to talk. Smith, the manager of the embassy's political-military affairs, said he had received a call at 11:05 a.m. informing him that two American military planes had crashed there were several survivors and one plane had carried unarmed nuclear weapons.
The ambassador listened to the news. He asked Smith a couple of questions, then decided to head back to the embassy. The two men slipped out of the hall and climbed into the ambassador's limousine. After a block or two, Duke changed his mind, redirecting the driver to the Spanish Foreign Ministry.
Ten minutes later Duke and Smith went inside the ministry and spoke to an usher. Duke asked to speak with Ángel Sagáz, the director of North American affairs, but Sagáz was out of the office. So was his deputy, the foreign minister himself, and almost everyone else, as far as they could tell. Many were attending a funeral for a colleague's mother the rest were eating lunch.
The two Americans finally made contact with an undersecretary for foreign affairs, a man Smith regarded as &ldquonot particularly friendly&rdquo and &ldquonot terribly fond of Americans.&rdquo It was not ideal, but Duke had to make some diplomatic contact with the Spanish government. So the ambassador, doing his best to be charming, told the dour undersecretary everything he knew about the crash. The undersecretary seemed very serious and quite concerned. He asked the Americans a lot of questions, most of which they couldn't answer. After a short discussion, the ambassador said he needed to return to the embassy to gather more information. He promised to keep the Spanish government informed.
If America had to choose someone to deliver bad news to a grumpy foreign official, Angier Biddle Duke was the perfect man for the job. &ldquoAngie,&rdquo as everyone called the ambassador, was charming and urbane, with flawless manners, a voice smooth as velvet, and a way of easing uncomfortable situations. He never lost his temper. &ldquoEven,&rdquo said his wife, &ldquowhen people were behaving badly.&rdquo
Duke had been born and bred into gentility, with a family tree reaching and branching through a century of American aristocracy. His grandfather Benjamin Duke helped found the American Tobacco Company, a Duke family business that dominated the cigarette industry until it was trust-busted in 1911. Grandfather Duke also helped found Duke University. On the other side of the family, Angie could list ancestors such as Nicholas Biddle, the first editor of Lewis and Clark's journals, and Brigadier General Anthony Drexel Biddle, Jr., deputy chief of staff to Eisenhower during World War II.
As ambassador to Spain in 1966, Angie was in his early fifties but still tall and trim from regular exercise. He had a long, aristocratic face and combed his thinning hair straight back from his high forehead. He dressed elegantly, in finely tailored clothes. Angie evoked an earlier age, a time when people dressed up to fly on planes, wore hats and gloves in public, and wrote notes on personalized stationery. He was, above all, civilized.
Yet for all his connections, Angie's upbringing had left him insecure. His mother, Cornelia Drexel Biddle, had married his father, Angier Buchanan Duke, when she was only sixteen. The marriage had failed, and the two had divorced when Angie was six years old. Angie's father had died two years later but had disinherited his two sons, cutting them off from his share of the Duke tobacco fortune. Angie's mother was so furious that she changed her sons' names to incorporate her own: Angie, christened Angier Buchanan Duke, Jr., became Angier Biddle Duke. Despite the disinheritance, Angie inherited enough from his grandfather that he never actually had to work for a living. But as an adult he invested poorly and was never quite as rich as everyone thought. Joseph Smith recalled that Duke never had any cash on hand to pay for restaurants and lodging. Smith would also receive letters from luxury hotels around Spain, saying that the ambassador's checks had bounced.
For a role model, Angie turned to his uncle Tony Biddle, a globetrotting diplomat. As a teenager, he regularly visited Uncle Tony in Oslo, once attending a hunting party in Austria that his uncle hosted for the king of Spain. The visit with the royal family made a strong impression on him, especially the evening conversations about Central Europe and the rise of Hitler. Angie, dazzled by the dignitaries, the serious talk, and the importance of it all, began to contemplate a career in diplomacy. He attended Yale, studying Spanish and history on a &ldquoprediplomatic&rdquo track. But after two and a half years, he dropped out, married the first of his four wives, and never went back to school. He regretted the decision for the rest of his life. Throughout his career, he remained painfully embarrassed that he had never earned a college degree.
After Yale, Angie floundered. He spent his twenties traveling the world, working briefly at a sports magazine, and toying with business. He divorced his first wife and married his second. Eventually, World War II gave him some direction. He enlisted in the Army before Pearl Harbor, then attended Officer Candidate School, becoming a second lieutenant in January 1942. It was a proud moment for the flighty young man with no college degree: for the first time in his life, he had actually accomplished something. He served much of his tour in the Washington war room of Secretary of War Henry Stimson. There, as the lowest-ranking officer, Angie read incoming cables and updated battle maps with colored pushpins. Sometimes he stood at the maps with a pointer as generals discussed battle plans. He remained in the Army for five years, retiring with the rank of major.
After the war Angie drifted again until fate pushed him back toward foreign affairs. In 1948, he was conducting an auction at a golf tournament. In the audience that day was an investment banker named Stanton Griffis. Griffis was impressed by the young man's poise and, speaking with him afterward, discovered Angie's interest in diplomacy. Griffis had served as ambassador to Poland and was expecting another appointment if Harry Truman got elected. Griffis knew that any embassy posting would involve a heavy load of socializing, and, as a widower in his sixties, he wasn't up to the task. Angie and his young wife, however, would be perfect. Angie lit up at the proposition, but with no college degree, he wasn't qualified to take the Foreign Service exam. Griffis pulled some strings, Angie took the exam, and in 1949, Angier Biddle Duke began his diplomatic career as special assistant to Stanton Griffis, the new ambassador to Argentina. When Griffis was appointed to Spain in 1951, after the United States had resumed diplomatic relations with the country, he took Angie with him. The following year, President Truman named Angier Biddle Duke ambassador to El Salvador. Only thirty-six years old, he was the youngest U.S. ambassador in history.
Ambassador Duke poured his abundant energy into the new job. He desperately wanted to make his mark on foreign policy and worked hard to understand key issues and participate in important decisions. But, to his continued dismay, most of his colleagues considered him more adept at parties than policy. The American press called Angie a &ldquotobacco-rich playboy,&rdquo and one colleague described him as an &ldquoamiable lightweight.&rdquo Yet he was much loved in the countries he served. One Salvadoran reporter wrote, &ldquoHe has dedicated more sewers, slaughterhouses, and clinics than half a dozen politicians.&rdquo When Eisenhower, a Republican, won the 1952 election, Angie hoped to remain at his post in El Salvador, but the political winds blew him out of his beloved government job. He plugged away on international refugee issues for the next eight years, then worked on the John F. Kennedy campaign. When Kennedy won the 1960 election, Duke expected another posting, hopefully as ambassador to Spain. Instead, the new president called him in late December and asked him to serve as his director of protocol.
Angie balked at the offer. He wanted to shape foreign policy, not arrange table settings like some glorified Emily Post. But Kennedy, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, convinced him that the job was critical to the administration's foreign policy goals, and Angie finally accepted. Soon he and his third wife&mdasha Spanish aristocrat he had met while stationed in Spain&mdashwere up to their ears in diplomatic minutiae. Duke ensured that the rooms of one foreign dignitary were stocked with his favorite brand of soda crackers that another had an informative visit to the Tennessee Valley Authority. He sent birthday greetings from the president and answered queries on the correct way to display the American flag. He introduced new ambassadors to Kennedy and arranged the seatings and menus for state dinners. He attended about a dozen cocktail parties a week, a half-dozen dinners, and two or three luncheons. With his elegance and boundless energy, Duke excelled at the job. In 1964, The New Yorker ran a long, flattering profile of Duke. At one point, it caught him in a moment of despondency. &ldquoI'm lost,&rdquo he told the magazine. &ldquoI'm lost and of no importance.&rdquo Then, after a moment, he brightened. &ldquoBut there are compensations,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's satisfying to be as close as I've been to the sources of world power.&rdquo
After President Kennedy was killed, President Johnson kept Angie on as director of protocol. But Duke craved something more substantive. In early 1965, Johnson gave Angie his dream job: ambassador to Spain. Duke's third wife, the Spanish aristocrat, had died in a plane crash in 1961, and he had remarried for a fourth and final time the following year. So in 1965, he, his wife, Robin, and their children from previous marriages packed up and moved to Madrid.
Ironically, once he got to Spain, Angie felt marooned. For years, he had stood at the side of the president. Maybe he had just been an observer, but he had been at the center of the Washington whirl, meeting kings, chatting with Jackie Kennedy, watching history being made. Now he was stuck in the backwaters of Europe. &ldquoWhen I got there, I found that I was moving from the center of the action into the countryside,&rdquo he said years later. &ldquoFankly, to move to a dictatorship after the hurly burly of the White House years, in many ways was disappointing.&rdquo
Nonetheless, Duke, patriotic and dedicated, threw himself into his new job with characteristic vigor. Spain had changed enormously since Duke's last posting in the early 1950s. But the embassy's main policy goals had changed very little. As ambassador, Duke had to maintain the solid working relationship between the U.S. and Spanish governments. There was only one reason the United States cared at all about its relationship with Spain: the military bases. In 1966, the U.S. and Spanish governments jointly held four major military bases in Spain. The Air Force operated three bases: Torrejón, near Madrid Morón, outside Seville and Zaragosa in northeastern Spain. The Navy ran a Polaris submarine base on the southern coast at Rota, near Cádiz. Connecting these four bases, cutting across the center of Spain, stretched a 485-mile-long pipeline that supplied the bases with petroleum. The American military presence also peppered the rest of Spain. The Air Force ran a small air base at San Pablo and a fighter base at Reus, about ninety miles southwest of Barcelona. The Navy stored oil at a supply center in northwestern Spain and kept oil and ammunition in a depot at Cartagena. The U.S. military also operated seven radar sites across the country.
George Landau, who worked at the embassy with Duke and became the State Department's director for Spanish and Portuguese affairs in 1966, called the Spanish bases the &ldquocrown jewels&rdquo of America's foreign military bases. Strategically located at the entrance to the Mediterranean, they were a key component of the military's nuclear deterrent strategy. The Sixteenth Air Force, headquartered at Torrejón, oversaw the bases in Spain (and Morocco until 1963) and was the largest SAC force overseas. SAC stocked the Spanish bases with tanker planes and medium-range bombers, critical for both its strip alert and airborne alert programs. The bases also offered numerous amenities: servicemen could live there on the cheap, the sky beamed blue and clear almost every day, and the Spanish government&mdashat least in the early days&mdashrarely hassled the Americans about anything. &ldquoThe Pentagon was absolutely enamored with Spain,&rdquo said Landau. &ldquoThey thought it was the wherewithal for everything.&rdquo
The base agreement that existed in 1966 would expire in just two years, and American officials were starting to negotiate terms for a new agreement. The American military had a good thing going in Spain and wanted the situation to remain as it was. But the Spanish government had grander goals. &ldquoSpain wanted to be a part of Europe, a world power,&rdquo said the embassy staffer Joseph Smith. &ldquoThe original base agreement made it clear that Spain was a junior partner. They wanted the United States to acknowledge Spain as something bigger&hellip. They wanted to change from a purely military relationship to one that involved politics on the highest level.&rdquo The U.S. Embassy in Spain had a finite number of diplomatic chits diplomats had to spend and save them wisely, always with an eye toward the upcoming base renegotiations. The bases, according to Landau, were not the embassy's top concern, they were the only concern. If not for the bases, the United States would have never reached out to Spain's military dictator, General Francisco Franco, at a time when Western Europe still regarded him with scorn.
Generalissimo Francisco Franco, chief of state, president of the Council of Ministers, and caudillo of Spain by the grace of God, didn't look the part of an iron-fisted terror. He was short and tubby, his soft face dominated by wide brown eyes with long eyelashes that gave him a decidedly feminine appearance. When he spoke, words tumbled out in a high-pitched squeak. Angie Duke described him as &ldquothe most uncharismatic dictator you ever saw in your life.&rdquo Franco had &ldquoa white face, mottled, jowled, fishy eyes, a very limp handshake, a big pot belly. Yet at the same time, he had quite an impressive personality. He had enormous reserves of power inside of him.&rdquo
Franco had led the right wing Nationalists to victory during the Spanish Civil War of 1936&ndash1939. Both sides had committed horrendous atrocities against civilians, and Franco emerged from that bloody conflict with a reputation for coldhearted brutality. During the war, Franco ordered the slaughter of anyone who opposed him or posed a threat: schoolteachers, trade unionists, prisoners, wounded troops. He refused to hear any appeals for clemency.
Franco idolized Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and his side received massive military assistance from them during the war. But when World War II began just six months after the end of the Spanish Civil War, he had little to offer his friends. The civil war had devastated Spain. Most of the country's industry lay in ruins. About half a million Spaniards had been killed or had died of disease and malnutrition. Another half million had fled the country, and those who remained faced widespread poverty and hunger. Spain was a broken country, and Franco was in no position to support the Axis powers when World War II broke out. Throughout the war, Spain remained officially neutral.
The Allies worked hard to maintain Spain's neutrality. Britain knew of Franco's infatuation with Hitler and Mussolini&mdashthe British ambassador reported that Franco kept signed photos of the two dictators on his desk. But the British also knew that they couldn't afford to lose Gibraltar, the tiny British stronghold jutting off southern Spain that served as their gateway to the Mediterranean. They, along with the United States and other allies, sent Spain petroleum, cotton, food, and other materials under the condition that the country remain neutral. Franco eagerly accepted the goods while keeping his eye on the changing winds of the war. Once the United States entered the fray and the tide began to turn against the Axis powers, Franco started to hedge his bets. &ldquoHenceforth,&rdquo said one historian, &ldquohis energies were to be devoted almost impartially to working both sides of the street while keeping Spain untouched by war.&rdquo
Meanwhile, Franco continued his brutal behavior within Spain. Between 1939 and 1945, the Franco government executed thousands of political opponents one study says the death toll may have reached 28,000. The government imprisoned hundreds of thousands more and sentenced them to hard labor. Franco, threatened by ethnic groups like the Basques and Catalans, banned the Basque and Catalan languages, folk music, and traditional dance. The government muzzled the press and stifled all political opposition. Only Catholics were allowed to build churches and practice their religion openly.
Franco's internal policies, and his waffling during the war, disgusted the Allies. After the war, the victors paid him back. The fledgling United Nations excluded Spain from membership. Then, at its second meeting, the UN. General Assembly adopted a resolution recommending that all members recall their ambassadors from Madrid. On March 4, 1946, the United States, France, and Great Britain signed a Tripartite Declaration to the Spanish people, warning that they would not gain full relations with the three countries as long as Franco remained in power. In 1949, when NATO was formed, Spain was kept out. Finally, and perhaps most devastating, the Allies excluded Spain from the Marshall Plan, the massive aid program that helped rebuild Europe after the war.
Spain crawled forward in virtual isolation for several years, its only foreign relations with the dictatorships of Portugal and Argentina. The country lagged behind the rest of Europe, its economy and industry struggling, its people&mdashfor the most part&mdashdesperately poor. But Franco, dictator for life, knew he could wait out any storm. Historians tell a famous anecdote about the dictator's legendary patience. As the story goes, Franco kept two boxes on his desk. One was labeled &ldquoProblems That Time Will Solve&rdquo the other, &ldquoProblems That Time Has Solved.&rdquo Franco's career involved shifting papers from the first box to the second.
And indeed, time&mdashand the advent of the Cold War&mdashdid solve the problem of Spain's isolation. In the late 1940s, as the situation between the United States and the USSR grew increasingly tense, &ldquomore weight was given to the help Spain might furnish in the next war than to any hindrance she had offered in the last,&rdquo according to the historian Arthur Whitaker. Franco had long been a virulent anti-Communist, and in the new world of nuclear deterrence, Spain's strategic location looked increasingly useful. Furthermore, the idea of giving aid to Spain now seemed more acceptable: American Catholics were lobbying their congressmen to give economic aid to the starving country. Franco encouraged the warming Spanish-American relations. In July 1947, he told a reporter that the United States could obtain the use of Spanish bases if it tried hard enough. The Pentagon pushed for bases, and President Truman didn't put up much resistance. &ldquoI don't like Franco and I never will,&rdquo he said. &ldquoBut I won't let my personal feelings override the convictions of you military men.&rdquo In late 1950, Congress appropriated $62.5 million in aid for Spain. In 1951, Stanton Griffis&mdashwith Angie Duke in tow&mdasharrived in Spain to fill the long-vacant post of ambassador. That summer, American military officials started talking to Franco about military bases in Spain as Great Britain watched in annoyance. &ldquoThe strategic advantages which might accrue from associating Spain with western defense,&rdquo said the British foreign secretary in the summer of 1951, &ldquowould be outweighed by the political damage which such an association might inflict.&rdquo American military officials waved such protests aside. They wanted those bases.
On September 26, 1953, the United States signed three agreements with Spain that together became known as the Pact of Madrid. The United States would give Spain military aid&mdash$226 million in the first year alone&mdashin exchange for the use of three existing air bases at Morón, Torrejón, and Zaragosa. The United States would expand and update the bases, as well as build a new Navy base at Rota and other facilities. The United States and Spain would operate the bases jointly, but the Americans would run the show. The pact would remain in effect for ten years&mdashuntil 1963&mdashand then could be extended in five-year increments. Because the pact was an executive agreement, not a treaty, it did not require congressional approval. Military necessity had trumped the ideals of freedom and democracy. A New York Times editorial called the deal &ldquoa bitter pill.&rdquo &ldquoLet us hope,&rdquo it said, &ldquothat the medicine will not do more harm than good.&rdquo
By 1959, the base renovations were virtually complete and 20,000 American troops had moved in. In December of that year, as a symbol of the two countries' new partnership, President Eisenhower visited Madrid. It was the first visit to Franco by any Western head of state since he took power. Eager to advertise his new alliance with the United States, Franco ordered Spain to welcome the president with open arms.
When Eisenhower's plane landed at Torrejón, the president smiled, walked down the steps, and greeted Franco with a firm handshake. Traditionally, greeting a Latin leader requires an abrazo, or formal embrace. But the U.S. government had decided that Franco, a dictator, would receive only a handshake, and Eisenhower hewed to the policy. But the visit went exceptionally well. A crowd of 500,000 Spaniards crammed the president's motorcade route into Madrid, lining the sidewalks fifteen and twenty deep, waving flags and cheering &ldquoIke! Ike!&rdquo as church bells pealed a welcome. (Of course, they cheered the president's nickname in Spanish&mdash&ldquoEekay! Eekay!&rdquo&mdashmuch to Eisenhower's amusement.) In deference to the president's grueling travel schedule, Franco arranged for dinner to be served at 8:45 p.m., unusually early for Spain. At dinner, the two generals offered warm toasts to each other's countries, commenting on the shared history and goals of the United States and Spain. When they parted the next day, the president and the generalissimo exchanged not one but two abrazos. Franco, rejected by most of the world, had been embraced by the world's greatest power.
Buoyed by American money and the stamp of American approval that encouraged foreign investors to move in, Spain slowly began to climb out of poverty. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Franco, now in his late sixties, allowed a handful of forward-thinking ministers in his cabinet to modernize the economy. They slashed the budget, devalued the peseta, and opened the country to foreign goods. At the same time, the standard of living in Western Europe surged. Europeans had money to burn, and suddenly foreign money and tourists began flowing into Spain. Construction gear and cranes popped up all over the country, and modern dams and skyscrapers stretched into the sky. Between 1960 and 1965, the gross national product of Spain climbed by an astonishing 65 percent. During that same time, 36 million tourists spent $3.5 billion in Spain, $1.1 billion in 1965 alone. That same year Spain hit another milestone: the per capita income reached $500 a year, meaning that the United Nations no longer classified Spain as a &ldquodeveloping country.&rdquo
The Spain that Ambassador Duke saw in 1966 was a far cry from the broken, impoverished country he had seen in 1951 with Stanton Griffis. But the country remained a land of deep contrasts, at once utterly modern and shockingly primitive. The Spanish magazine ¡Hola!, somewhat akin to Life magazine in the United States, provides an insightful glance into Spanish society at the time. The issues in early 1966 offered endless fluff and photos covering the comings and goings of the rich and famous: royal weddings, debutante balls, and Jackie Kennedy's ski trips with John-John and Caroline. Photos showed women wearing the latest fashions and hairstyles, sandwiched between full-color ads for TVs, dishwashers, and Johnnie Walker Red Label.
This modern, high-fashion Spain was a world away from the hard-scrabble desert of Palomares, where indoor plumbing was still a luxury. The modern beach resort of Marbella, with its high-rise hotels, manicured golf courses, and glassy apartment buildings, was just a couple hundred miles down the coast from Palomares. Yet it seemed like another planet. It was hard to imagine the tomato farmers of Palomares lounging by the pool, sipping iced cocktails, and flipping through ¡Hola! for news of Mia Farrow's daring new haircut.
So great was the divide between these two Spains that ¡Hola! never mentioned the Palomares incident. Angier Biddle Duke, however, fit perfectly into its pages, appearing in two articles in early 1966. One showed him and Robin gazing at a painting as they inaugurated a new American cultural center in Madrid. The other included a two-page photo spread of a hunting trip with the ambassador, various government ministers, and Generalissimo Franco himself. Duke posed with a shotgun, sharing a drink with Franco around the bonfire. He looked perfectly at home amid wealth and power. And that was a good thing for him. The ambassador would need every bit of his charm and connections in early 1966 the accident in Palomares would ruffle a lot of feathers, and Angie would have to smooth them.
In the days immediately following the accident, the main concern of the Spanish government&mdashand of Duke&mdashwas keeping a lid on the press. The Spanish government wanted the word &ldquonuclear&rdquo kept out of the news entirely, lest the public learn about nuclear overflights, radioactivity, or possible contamination. The accident was an unfortunate plane crash, no more. But the international press had quickly gotten wind of the accident, and reporters were already sniffing around. Both the U.S. and Spanish governments agreed to tell them as little as possible in the hope they would go away. On the day of the accident, at 9:45 p.m. in Madrid, the U.S. Information Service, the Department of Defense, and the State Department released a joint statement about the accident to UPI, the Associated Press, Reuters, ABC, and Stars and Stripes. It read, in its entirety:
A B-52 bomber from the 68th Bomb Wing, Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C. and a KC-135 tanker from the 910th air refueling squadron, Bergstrom AFB, Texas, crashed today southwest of Cartagena, Spain, during scheduled air operations. There are reports of some survivors. An Air Force accident investigation team has been dispatched to the scene. Additional details will be made available as the investigation progresses.
Over the next couple of days, Duke kept an eye on the papers as the story bubbled through the international press. The embassy sent a steady stream of reports back to Washington. On the days following the accident, short, straightforward stories ran in British and American newspapers. A few papers speculated that the planes might have been carrying nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Spanish press ran newspaper, television, and radio stories without any critical comment, treating the accident as simply an unusual news event.
By Wednesday, January 19, two days after the accident, the story seemed to be fizzling out, much to the relief of Spanish and American officials. On that day and the next, Duke sat down to discuss the situation with his key contact in the Spanish Foreign Ministry, Ángel Sagáz, who ran the North American section. At the meetings, Sagáz seemed calm but concerned about repercussions if the Spanish public discovered that nuclear-armed American bombers regularly flew over Spain. &ldquoSagáz also mentioned, without great stress, that sensational stories about missing bombs and radiation could excite Spanish public,&rdquo Duke reported in a cable to the secretary of state.
At one point during the meetings, the Americans asked to issue a statement of gratitude for Spain's help in the search-and-rescue effort. Sagáz and other Spanish officials shot the idea down. The story was already dying in the press, they said, and they certainly didn't want it resurrected. Duke pushed the point: if, by some chance, the story rekindled, it would be good to have a statement ready. Sagáz agreed, and Duke drafted a seven-paragraph statement providing some basic details of the crash and thanking Spanish officials for their help.
Although the meeting went well, hints of trouble emerged. Some lower-level Foreign Office officials expressed surprise that these risky refueling operations were taking place over land. Around the same time, Spanish Vice President Agustín Muñoz Grandes met with U.S. Air Force General Stanley Donovan, head of the Joint U.S. Military Group and Ambassador's Duke's chief military contact, to suggest that the refuelings take place over water, rather than Spanish territory. Muñoz Grandes also posed an uncomfortable question: Did the United States have any nuclear devices stored on Spanish territory? Although the U.S. military had stored nuclear weapons in Spain since 1958, its policy was strict and unyielding: never tell anyone exactly where the weapons were. &ldquoThe subject was still very touchy,&rdquo said the former embassy staffer Joseph Smith. &ldquoIt doesn't surprise me that Muñoz Grandes didn't know&mdashor didn't know for certain.&rdquo General Donovan was a blunt, plainspoken man who emulated Curtis LeMay, in both his cigar-chomping demeanor and his direct speech. &ldquoHe was not dumb,&rdquo said Smith. &ldquoI can't believe that Donovan would have told him anything.&rdquo
Despite these diplomatic bumps, Duke told Washington that tension remained low and both sides were cooperating. Military and government officials in Madrid felt good about the situation. On January 19, a secret cable to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington rang with optimism: &ldquoAmerican Embassy officials report Spanish Foreign Office is of the opinion that coverage has reached its peak and will now decline,&rdquo it read. &ldquoQueries from American news bureaus in Madrid have diminished appreciably.&rdquo
The optimism would not last. A young reporter named Andró del Amo was about to upset Ambassador Duke's delicately balanced diplomacy. The previous evening, del Amo, a twenty-five-year-old UPI reporter, had left for Palomares with Leo White, a London Daily Mirror reporter, to investigate the scene firsthand.
They drove all night, arriving at the dirt road into Palomares about 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, January 19. As they headed into town, they saw some wreckage&mdashwhat looked like airplane engines&mdashlying on a hillside. They stopped the car, took some photos, and continued on. In the center of town, they saw some guardias civiles on patrol, but nobody gave the two reporters a second glance. Del Amo asked a villager where he could find the Americans and was directed toward the camp in the dry riverbed. The most complete account of what happened next is recorded in Tad Szulc's book The Bombs of Palomares:
Driving up the road, del Amo suddenly slammed on his brakes. As he said later, he became &ldquovery excited&rdquo by what he saw. Long lines of American airmen in fatigues or bright yellow coveralls were moving through the fields, beating the bushes, tomato vines, and clumps of vegetation with long sticks and canes. They were doing it with extreme thoroughness, del Amo thought, as they slowly advanced almost shoulder to shoulder. Other airmen, closer to the road, were checking the ground with portable instruments del Amo and White assumed to be Geiger counters.
The two men continued on to the camp and saw a frenzy of activity. The tail section of the B-52 still sat in the riverbed, with the blue Air Force buses that had carried the airmen from Morón and Torrejón scattered around it. American officers, airmen, and guardias civiles buzzed around the camp. In the center of activity stood General Wilson in his blue greatcoat, issuing orders and receiving reports. The two reporters asked some questions but received little information. But del Amo had enough for an initial report. He drove to Vera to call in his first story to Madrid. After lunch, the two reporters returned to the riverbed camp to track down the Sixteenth Air Force's information director, Colonel Barnett Young, who told them that the airmen in the fields were simply looking for wreckage. When the reporters asked if the planes had carried nuclear weapons, Young &ldquoexploded with anger,&rdquo according to del Amo, shouting, &ldquoThis is not a place for scandal stories or outrageous hypotheses!&rdquo Young warned the reporters to stop nosing around.
As the two reporters headed back toward the village, a young Air Police trooper flagged down their car. Readying themselves for another confrontation, the reporters were struck instead by a bolt of luck. Looking desperate, the airman asked if either of the men spoke Spanish. Del Amo replied that he did. &ldquoGreat,&rdquo the air policeman said. &ldquoThere's a fellow in that bean field, and I've got to get him out of there.&rdquo Del Amo said he would be happy to translate.
The two reporters trudged into the bean field, and Del Amo translated the airman's message, telling the farmer that he had to leave the field because of dangerous radioactivity. On the way back to the car, del Amo asked the airman if the Air Force was worried about the bombs. Their conversation, recorded in The Bombs of Palomares, would break the Palomares story wide open:
&ldquoHow do you know about the bombs?&rdquo the airman asked, suddenly suspicious.
&ldquoHell,&rdquo del Amo told him, &ldquoI've just come back from the camp.&rdquo
The air policeman was reassured. &ldquoWell, they found three of them very shortly after the crash, but they're worried because they haven't found the other one,&rdquo he said. They reached the car, and he pointed to the sites where the three bombs had been found. &ldquoOne was in the river bed where the camp now is,&rdquo he explained. &ldquoThe second bomb was near that white house over there, you see? And the third one way over in those hills in front of you. Now they're all worried about the fourth bomb.&rdquo
Del Amo sped back to Vera. He called the Madrid bureau and told it about the four bombs, radioactivity, and a missing nuclear weapon&mdasheverything the governments wanted to keep covered up.
That evening, in Madrid, Duke got wind of del Amo's dispatch. At 9:46 p.m., he sent a terse cable to Washington: &ldquoHave just learned local UPI correspondent filed story today on B-52/KC-135 accident to effect three atom bombs recovered from wreckage but one still missing and that hundreds of US troops combing countryside with Geiger counters.&rdquo He added, &ldquoForegoing may lead to escalation of media treatment and rapid change in present circumstances.&rdquo
The following morning, January 20, 1966, The New York Times ran the UPI story on page one. The headline read, &ldquoU.S. Said to Hunt Lost Atom Device.&rdquo The article began:
United States Air Force men today were reported searching the Spanish countryside for an atomic device that was understood to be missing after the collision of a B-52 nuclear bomber and a jet tanker Monday during a refueling mission.
United States officials in Madrid and here in Southeastern Spain refused to confirm or deny that a nuclear bomb was carried by the B-52, which crashed into the KC-135 jet tanker near here.
But they gave every sign they were looking for one. Hundreds of American servicemen were searching the crash scene, some of them armed with Geiger counters. Palomares is a village a little more than a mile inland on Spain's southeastern coast, about 95 miles east of Granada.
When asked what the Geiger counters were being used for, Col. Barnett Young, chief information officer for the 16th Air Force at Torrejón Air Force base, near Madrid, asked in return, &ldquowhat do you normally use Geiger counters for?&rdquo
The article, which went on to describe the massive search under way near Palomares, made no splash in Spain on January 20. Exercising its iron grip on the press, the Spanish government allowed no major foreign newspapers into the country that day. When Foreign Minister Fernando Castiella summoned Duke to a meeting that evening, they spent most of the time discussing the long-contested territory of Gibraltar and barely mentioned Palomares.
But the storm had only been delayed. The following day, the UPI article landed on Franco's desk, sent by the Spanish Embassy in Washington. The generalissimo was not pleased.
Shortly after noon on January 21, the Spanish foreign minister called Duke to report that Franco had read the UPI article and was extremely concerned. Ángel Sagáz, the director of North American affairs, was on his way to the U.S. Embassy to discuss the situation.
Sagáz arrived at the embassy agitated and upset. Franco fired people at will, and Sagáz undoubtedly felt the gun sights turning in his direction. This was a crisis. He gave Duke an earful: Who were these &ldquoUnited States officials&rdquo mentioned in the article? And what were these other reports, citing &ldquoSpanish inhabitants of the accident area&rdquo who had complained about nuclear overflights? If this turned into a radiation scare, it could wreck the tourism industry. He thought that the United States and Spain had been working together to contain the press, but since that obviously wasn't the case, the Spanish government might take matters into its own hands. Maybe it would convene its own press conference, to at least spin the story in Spain's favor.
Duke, the man who could calm kings, responded. He understood why Sagáz was upset. This was a delicate situation of great concern to both governments. Both needed to remain calm and work together. He had no idea who the &ldquoUnited States officials&rdquo were&mdashcertainly, neither he nor anyone under his control had spoken to the UPI reporter, but he would get to the bottom of it. In the meantime, U.S. Air Force General Stanley Donovan, Duke's chief military contact, was visiting Palomares and expected to return at any moment. When Donovan got back, they would get an up-to-date situation report and then decide what to do next. Everything would be fine if they stuck together. Sagáz calmed down and agreed to wait for further reports from the scene.
After the meeting, Duke got to work. Donovan gave him the rundown on Palomares: the fourth bomb was still missing, but the Air Force was following every lead experts had identified several small radioactive areas, which were now closed off and awaiting remediation the Air Force was buying affected plants and livestock medical teams were examining people in the area who might have been exposed. The residents of the area seemed a bit fearful, but there was no mass panic. Spanish medical teams, nuclear experts, and civil authorities were on the scene and cooperating. The situation seemed under control. However, a growing crowd of international press was swarming the area, including UPI, Paris Match, CBS-TV, and some British media.
Duke next called the UPI bureau chief, Harry Stathos, to give him a piece of his mind. He refuted the &ldquoUnited States officials&rdquo quoted in the article and asked where he had found that information. The shaken Stathos started to backpedal. He said he had gotten the information thirdhand and apologized for filing the story without double-checking with the embassy.
It was about 7:30 in the evening on January 21, the Friday after the accident. Duke called Sagáz with a summary and offered to send an embassy officer with a full report, which Sagáz quickly accepted. The officer who briefed Sagáz reported that he listened intently, especially to the story of the UPI bureau chief. It seemed that Sagáz wanted that part of the story particularly clear to report to his superiors. The embassy assured Sagáz that it was open to any Spanish suggestions on how to handle the situation but believed they should continue working together closely. Sagáz agreed. The crisis of the day was over.
But the larger crisis was not. The Spanish government would not be soothed as easily as Sagáz. The next morning, General Donovan met with Spanish Vice President Muñoz Grandes to give him the latest news from Palomares. Muñoz Grandes did not appear upset, but he responded with a demand: nuclear flights over Spanish territory must be stopped until further notice.
The demand did not appear to originate from Muñoz Grandes. A military man, he had always been cooperative and friendly toward the Americans, &ldquothe only friend we really had,&rdquo according to George Landau. Most likely the ban had come from the civilian side of the Spanish government, or maybe Franco himself. And it probably had little to do with Spain's concern for its people the government might simply have been arming itself with a bargaining chip for the 1968 base renegotiations.
Muñoz Grandes's decree meant little for the Chrome Dome route over Spain. Though some reports claimed that SAC dropped the route, U.S. Embassy staffers say the flights continued but started refueling over water. But the decree also had another implication: no more nuclear logistics flights either. The United States couldn't fly nuclear bombs over Spain just to get them somewhere else, such as to storage depots in Germany, for instance. Most viewed these curbs as simply an inconvenience: planes could be rerouted over oceans or other countries. But others saw clouds gathering on the horizon. What if other European countries&mdashBritain, France, Germany&mdashfearing a Palomares accident of their own, started asking questions? What if they demanded that the United States remove nuclear bombs from their bases, nuclear subs from their waters, nuclear-armed planes from their skies? If Spain's decision caused a domino effect, the United States' nuclear strategy could be curtailed. Everything in Spain had to be patched up as quickly as possible. Over the next few months, Ambassador Duke constantly received a question from Defense: When can we get the overflights reinstated?
Duke foresaw other troubles ahead, and not just from the Spanish government. The story had broken open, and hordes of international journalists were massing on Spain's southern shore. Despite Duke's best efforts, Palomares was swelling into an international news event. He braced himself for a long struggle, concluding his January 22 dispatch to Washington with a warning and a plea:
Believe we must be prepared for continued and possibly increased media treatment of accident until fourth bomb located and removed. If much more time elapses without success in search, we may be faced with practical necessity admitting officially one bomb still missing. This in turn carries obvious dangers including potentially triggering off further GOS [government of Spain] official statements possibly including public reference to Spanish demand that refueling and/or overflights nuclear-armed aircraft be stopped. It therefore clearly of utmost urgency that no effort be spared locate fourth bomb with minimum delay. Urge all necessary US resources be provided for search.
Nuclear Lost and Found: The Time the U.S. Misplaced Hydrogen Bombs
During Operation Chrome Dome, the U.S. lost four hydrogen bombs off the coast of Spain.
Here's What You Need to Remember: The Soviets would surely hunt for the weapon, and the White House poured on the pressure. Pres. Lyndon Johnson rejected the Navy’s assurances that the bomb was lost at sea forever. But finding an object the size of a kayak in hundreds of square miles of poorly-mapped sea bottom seemed close to impossible.
When a routine Cold War operation went terribly wrong, two planes went down, seven men died, a village got contaminated, and a hydrogen bomb disappeared.
The search and cleanup required 1,400 American and Spanish personnel, a dozen aircraft, 27 U.S. Navy ships and five submarines. It cost more than $120 million and a lot of diplomatic capital.
And it made an obscure eighteenth-century mathematical theorem a practical solution to finding veritable needles in haystacks.
Around 10 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1966, two B-52Gs of the 31st Bomb Squadron based out of North Carolina approached two KC-135 tankers over the Spanish coast southwest of Cartagena.
The bombers each carried four 1.5-megaton B-28 hydrogen bombs as part of Operation Chrome Dome, a U.S. deterrence mission that placed nuclear-armed bombers on the Soviet Union’s doorsteps.
The resulting breakup destroyed the tanker in a fireball of blazing jet fuel. All four crew on board the tanker died. One hundred tons of flaming wreckage fell upon the arid hamlet of Palomares, near the Mediterranean Sea.
Three of the four H-bombs aboard the bomber fell there, too.
Within 24 hours, a U.S. Air Force disaster team arrived from Torrejon Air Base near Madrid. Specialists from the Los Alamos and Sandia weapons labs — and Air Force logistics units — descended on the tiny rural town.
The search teams found the three H-bombs within a day. One landed on a soft slope, its casing relatively intact. The high explosives within the other two bombs detonated on impact, blowing 100-foot-wide craters in the dry soil and scattering plutonium, uranium and tritium across the landscape.
The region’s long history of human habitation complicated the land search. Almeria, the province where Palomares sits, hosted a mining industry for more than 5,000 years. Countless mine shafts, diggings and depressions pepper its dry landscape made famous by the spaghetti westerns filmed there.
For several weeks, American troops and Spanish police searched the area with radiation detectors, but failed to find the fourth bomb. Eyewitness accounts claimed something on a parachute fell into the sea.
The U.S. Navy moved a fleet tug to the Spanish coast within eight hours of the accident. Five days after the crash, the Air Force officially asked the Navy for help finding the missing bomb. The Navy tapped one of its resident wizards for the task.
Wizard at work
John Piña Craven looked the part and delivered the goods. Handsome, brilliant, and accomplished, he studied engineering and hydraulics at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Iowa after his decorated service in World War II.
Upon his return to Navy service as a civilian scientist, he fixed a structural problem with the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus and oversaw the Polaris sub-launched ballistic missile program.
After the loss of submarine USS Thresher in 1963, the Navy put Craven — now head of its Special Projects Office — in charge of deep-sea rescue and salvage research. Three years later he had to find the missing H-bomb … and quickly.
The Soviets would surely hunt for the weapon, and the White House poured on the pressure. Pres. Lyndon Johnson rejected the Navy’s assurances that the bomb was lost at sea forever. But finding an object the size of a kayak in hundreds of square miles of poorly-mapped sea bottom seemed close to impossible.
After weeks of fruitless undersea search by divers and sonar, Craven turned to the wizardly world of mathematics. An obscure 250-year-old probability theory might work.
In an unpublished manuscript dating to the 1760s, the English minister and statistician Thomas Bayes first proposed the idea that bears his name. Bayes’ Theorem mathematically describes how “by updating our initial beliefs with objective new information, we can get a new and improved belief,” according to science writer Sharon Bertsch McGrayne.
Craven realized Bayes’ Theorem could improve the search team’s beliefs about where the missing bomb was. He first ordered up a detailed map of the sea bottom off Palomares, then asked his salvage and search experts to place bets on every possible event that could have occurred during the bomb’s fall.
The bomb had two parachutes — what were the odds that one opened? That both opened? That neither did? What were the odds it fell straight into the water? What if it fell at such-and-such an angle? Craven’s team explored hundreds of possibilities and calculated the probabilities of each one.
The calculated probabilities put the bomb’s location in many different places off shore. Craven’s mathematicians then calculated the likelihood of each proposed location based on the initial round of bets and assigned probabilities to each location.
Essentially, the mathematicians quantified their beliefs about where they thought the bomb went, based on the scenarios they worked out. They finally mapped their beliefs onto the ocean floor.
This “probability map” indicated the most promising places to search for the lost bomb — but those places lay far from where conventional search techniques said it was. The scientists’ bets indicated the bomb was nowhere near the planes’ wreckage.
The Navy sent down the research subs Alvin and Aluminaut to check the locations, but their searches turned up empty. Craven’s wizards recalculated their odds based on the new search information. More time passed.
After the White House received Craven’s latest report, Johnson demanded a group of “real experts” work the problem. But after reviewing Craven’s report, an expert panel from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University agreed that Craven’s weird method was the best available.
Meanwhile, Orts’ testimony received a fresh look. Invited aboard the minesweeper USS Pinnacle, the fisherman directed the ship to a spot where sonar picked up a promising signal.
It lay right on top of a high-probability patch on Craven’s latest recalculated map.
Descending to the seafloor 2,550 feet below, the Alvin found a parachute covering a cylindrical metal object. The submarine attempted to grab it, but the attempt failed and the bomb slid away into the deep.
Three weeks later, an early-model remotely-operated submersible relocated the bomb but entangled itself on the parachute. Risking everything on one operation, controllers brought the submarine and its entangled bomb up to the surface together.
Two years after the Palomares incident, Craven’s team applied Bayesian search techniques to once again hunt for a lost object — the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion. The sub sank with all hands off the Azores on or around May 21, 1968.
Once again the mathematical wizardry confirmed a kind of “ear-witness” information — this time in the form of underwater hydrophone recordings of the sub’s breakup as it fell below crush depth.
Craven’s unorthodox technique proved itself again and again during the following decades.
In 2009, Air France Flight 447 traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the mid-Atlantic and sank more than two miles under the surface. French investigators searched for two years without finding the wreckage.
Finally, the investigators turned to the American consulting firm Metron. The firm applied Craven’s method to the entire search effort to date and assigned probabilities to events, scenarios, and locations.
Metron analysts took data about flight dynamics, aircraft performance, local winds and currents … and assigned odds to them. Then they repeated the procedure with data from previous searches for AF447 and used Bayes’ Theorem to update their beliefs about where the crash occurred.
Sure enough, the new odds pointed to a location the investigators had previously overlooked.
A week later, search teams recovered the plane’s black boxes from two and a half miles down.
But Bayesian search techniques require at least some good data to work with.
For the ongoing hunt for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, there’s little to work with. Almost anything is believable. That is, almost anything — you can’t really place bets on alien abductions or black holes.
With no witnesses, no debris and a search area in the least understood part of the world’s ocean, there’s little even mathematical wizards can do. But even then, few thought 50 years ago that the lost bomb of Palomares would ever turn up.
The Day We Lost The H-Bomb
On January 17, 1966, a B-52 exploded over Spain while being refueled by a KC-135 tanker, raining debris and a quartet of unarmed Mark 28 nuclear bombs on the coastal farming village of Palomares. Up until the moment the planes broke up, it was a routine U.S. Air Force mission, part of a program that kept nuclear-armed bombers within striking distance of Russia at all times, an effort to deter the Soviet Union from launching a preemptive strike.
Unable to keep the accident a secret, the military scrambled to locate the missing nukes. As it turns out, three of the four bombs came down on land, and two detonated their high explosives, making them&mdashin effect&mdashdirty bombs. The fourth landed in the Mediterranean Sea, where it remained for 80 days before it was located and retrieved.
In the new book “The Day We Lost the H-Bomb” (Ballantine), author Barbara Moran delivers the definitive account of this Cold War-era disaster, which took the lives of seven airmen. Earlier this month, Moran spoke with Failure about the accident, its aftermath, and the latest news from Palomares, where plutonium contamination remains a controversial issue.
Why don’t Americans remember the Palomares incident?
There are two answers, neither of which is totally satisfactory. First, it occurred in Spain and was over with relatively quickly. While it was happening it was front page news. But Americans have short attention spans, especially for things that happen overseas, and people soon moved on to the next thing.
The other issue is that in early 1966 the Vietnam War was heating up. It was a point in time when Americans were worrying less about war with Russia and more about Vietnam.
Why was the U.S. Air Force flying nuclear weapons over Spain?
Strategic Air Command (SAC) had a policy called airborne alert where they kept nuclear-armed B-52’s in the air at all times. The idea was if there was always a bomber in the air that would guard against a surprise attack. The U.S. had an agreement with Spain that allowed us to fly over Spanish territory, where we had air bases and refueling tankers.
How did the accident occur?
In order to make these long distance flights the Air Force had to keep B-52’s in the air for about 24 hours, which necessitated refueling them while airborne. A tanker would take off and get close to the B-52 and send out a tube that would pump fuel into the bomber.
On this particular day, they were refueling over Spain and either the planes collided or there was an explosion aboard the B-52. Some of the airmen in the bomber ejected and survived, but everyone in the tanker died and the bombs and debris fell over Spain and into the Mediterranean.
When the hydrogen bombs came down, why weren’t there nuclear explosions?
There were a number of safety devices in the bombs. But two of the bombs hit the ground at high speed [because their parachutes didn’t open] and so the high explosive detonated and spread plutonium dust over the Spanish countryside.
I understand that two of airmen who survived the plane crash endured another accident when the boat that rescued them crashed.
They were rescued by Spanish fishermen and the fisherman who was steering the boat was so nervous and agitated that he plowed into the dock. Then, after getting off the boat, survivor Mike Rooney got a ride to the infirmary. He recalls that the driver kept looking back at him to see if he was okay, which prompted him to implore the driver to keep his eyes on the road. He had already been in a plane crash and a boating accident and didn’t want to get into a car wreck too.
How did the locals react to the incident?
Miraculously, nobody was hurt. At first the villagers were mostly concerned about the airmen. Then it got a little weird because a lot of Americans came in wearing Hazmat suits and wouldn’t let the locals harvest their tomatoes.
Ultimately, the Americans compensated everyone for their crop loss and promised to put the town back the way it was. Most of the men I talked to when I was in Palomares reported that they had very good relations with the Americans. They were also happy to have work. A lot of townspeople were hired to clean up debris.
But in the ensuing years the Spanish government has been very secretive about how much radioactivity is in the village, and recently began buying tracts of land outside town and fencing it off. So the people are not angry at the Americans but they are upset at their own government for covering things up and not being open about the extent of the contamination.
How long did it take to locate the three bombs that came down on land?
They were found in about 24 hours.
How did they find #4, the bomb that landed in the water?
That was the hard part. They assumed that the fourth had fallen on land, but after a week or two they began to think that it might have come down in the Mediterranean, especially since they were finding a lot of debris in the water. The way they located it was through a fisherman named Simó Orts, who had seen a number of parachutes fall into the Mediterranean on the day of the accident. One of the parachutes was carrying what Orts thought was a dead man. But when he spoke with one of the engineers who designed the bomb parachutes, the engineer realized that what Orts had seen was the bomb.
After that they spent weeks looking for #4 in the water using two submersibles, Alvin and Aluminaut. After Alvin located it, getting it to the surface was another ordeal because the bomb weighed two tons. They hooked some lines to the parachute and tried to drag it up using a winch, but the line broke. Eighty days after it was lost they pulled it up using a torpedo recovery device.
What’s your best guess about the level of plutonium contamination at Palomares?
At the time of the accident that part of Spain was very rural and undeveloped but now it’s really built up. Most of the plutonium dust was blown into the nearby hills, and in the ensuing years they have constructed condos and a golf resort and the area has become a destination for European tourists. Meanwhile, the plutonium is not going anywhere. The U.S. packed up something like eight-thousand barrels of contaminated dirt and vegetation and took it to Savannah River [a nuclear processing center in Aiken, South Carolina], but a lot was left behind.
As far as I can tell, there has only been one epidemiological study done on the health of the people of Palomares versus a similar village, and it found no difference in cancer rates. But by putting a golf course and an amusement park in the vicinity of the most contaminated area they are treading on dangerous ground.
What impact did the accident have on the design of America’s nuclear weapons?
The explosive used in the Mark 28 detonated on impact. To prevent this type of accident from happening again they designed an insensitive explosive that would not detonate on impact.
What effect did Palomares have on America’s nuclear program?
The airborne alert program was cancelled two years later, not just because of Palomares but because of another accident near Thule Air Base in Greenland, where a bomber crashed and spread contamination. [Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara had been trying to cancel the program for years. Then they had these two accidents and it was shut down soon afterwards.
How do the people of Palomares feel about the incident today?
Most of the townspeople don’t want any talk about it because the town is quite prosperous now. But it doesn’t go away, in part because development is encroaching on the most contaminated land. Some of the local politicians believe they may as well make lemonade out of lemons, and they are looking to build a theme park. There is also a Hollywood movie in the works&mdasha romantic comedy [by Walt Disney Co.’s Miramax Films, tentatively titled Muchas Gracias, Bob Oppenheimer]&mdashabout an American serviceman who falls in love with a Spanish woman. Hopefully things will work out for the villagers, because they didn’t ask to have H-bombs dropped on their town.
Most people probably aren’t aware, but this wasn’t the only time the U.S. lost a nuclear bomb during the Cold War. There is one still missing off the coast of Georgia, for instance.
There are a bunch of them missing. And I’m sure there are some that aren’t public knowledge. The American military would have loved to keep Palomares a secret but there were just too many witnesses. And who knows how many the Soviets lost during the Cold War. There’s a lot of unexploded ordinance out there.
In spite of what happened at Palomares and Thule, one could argue that SAC had a pretty good safety record.
SAC was the safest command in the Air Force. They were like a safety cult and known for being very uptight. But in spite of everything they did, accidents still happened. And some say that Palomares proved how safe SAC was because two planes collided and four H-bombs fell yet only a handful of people were killed. In that regard it was a success for the Air Force.
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