Friday, April 10, 2009

My "Role" in a Cold War Incident - The Lost Nuclear Bombs of Palomares, Spain

My "role" in a Cold War incident - Palomares, Spain

January, 1966. A US Air Force B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs collides with a KC-135 refueling plane over the Mediterranean Sea near Palomares, Spain. Three bombs land on Spanish soil and are soon found. The fourth is lost. For two and a half months, US sailors, soldiers, and airmen "search" for the lost bomb, until it is found in the sea, exactly where a Spanish shepherd had said it had fallen. Due to the threat of radiation, acres and acres of fine topsoil used to grow tomatoes was bulldozed, loaded into sealed barrels, and shipped to South Carolina for disposal.

I was one of those airmen selected to partake in the "search" as were several other members of my AF Band. We were usually sent to more mountainous regions inland from Palomares. Even at that, several of us discovered pieces of aircraft, I found a piece of seat belt with what appeared to be skin melted into it. I have heard that several members of the US forces were exposed to radiation, including a Colonel Frazier who was highly admired and respected by all of us under his command. Forty years later, in 2006, Reuters reported that higher levels of radiation than normal were still be measured in snails and other wildlife.

I have made special emphasis of the word "search," believing that most of what we were doing was a public relations ploy to show the world how much the US cared and how diligently it was attempting to find the bomb. It may possibly have been an effort to throw off the Soviets from knowing the bomb was in the sea where they might beat our Navy to it. From our camp on the Mediterranean beach, we saw ships patrolling the area which we were told were Russian. Much of the time, our efforts were low-key, but when word got around that the media was headed out, we put on a great show of organization and military efficiency.

Camping on a Mediterranean beach sounds a little like paradise, but this experience was just a "tad short" of that. In the early weeks it was still winter, and although the daytime temperatures could be comfortable, at night it was a freezing cold wind that blew in from the sea. There was little heat available for the tents, but no shortage of blankets, which we continued to pile on. Finally, some smart guy figured out it was more beneficial to put the blankets UNDER you on the cot than over you. He should have received a medal for that. Another bunch of guys who should have received special commendation were the cooks, who fed us well, and managed to eliminate sand from our diet.

The sand was really deep on the beach where we were located, making it difficult for us to securely pitch and guy down the tent. An real army unit (you know - real soldiers) from Germany had already arrived and set up their little village. It was a real treat for these guys to watch a bunch of Air Force office workers and musicians try to get that tent set up in the wind, and we heard the hoots of derision and laughter. That first night, a major wind storm blew in off of the ocean, with sand and equipment and tents flying everywhere. But whose tent stayed secure through the night? Easy call - ours did. God's sense of humor (and justice) at work. That, plus the fact that we had piled about a foot of sand all around the bottom flap of the tent.

The days weren't too unpleasant. We had to layer clothing to ward off the early morning chill, but in later weeks we spent the warm afternoons in t-shirts. Each squad was given an area (grid) to inspect. I liked the times best when we were further away from the coast in more rugged terrain. The sheepherders stoically accepted our 20th century incursion into their timeless lives, but could not understand why we were trampling their fields looking for a bomb that had gone into the ocean. Nor could I.

Occasionally an enterprising local lad would show up with his donkey loaded with wine and some of that indescribably delicious Spanish bread - still warm from the ovens. As mentioned earlier, our officers were lenient, understanding men in this special situation, and allowed us a little wine on duty, with no limits on the bread! And it could never hurt to invest a few pesetas back into the devastated local economy.

The Air Force Band with which I was performing returned to the area before the cleanup operations were ended to do a little bit of musical public relations for the farmers whose lands had been destroyed by contamination. There were still a number of banded barrels left on the beach, ready to be loaded on board the ships at sea for shipment to the US.

Looking for yours truly in the group photo at top? Front row, kneeling, second from right.


John C Casebeer, MD said...

Great article. I was one of the medical officers from Torrejon AB with the mobile medical unit. I was then John C Casebeer, Captain USAF MC. Thanks for the memories.

Anonymous said...

Hi, very interesting post, greetings from Greece!

kelly said...

I was very excited when I saw the pictures of your group and read your comments. I also have a picture of our group which is very similar to your group picture. I was on the search party for the lost bomb also. My name is Arthur Kindler and my rank at that time was A1C. I worked in the commissary at Torrejon, AB Spain. I was among the first groups to go on the long ride south to the Palomares area of Spain. When we arrived we had to pitch tents, which we didn't do very well. As you know that was not a part of Air Force training. We also ate sea rashings dated from the 1940's for several days. Amazingly the sea rashings were still edible and also tasty when one is hungry. The days were warm and nights were cold and most of us were miserable when trying to sleep until we learned to tuck the blankets to keep the body heat in. I give many thanks to the army troops. When they arrived they pitched a mess tent, latrine (bathroom for those of you that don't know what a latrine is) and many other tents with perfection. The army troops also helped redo our already sagging tents. I'm one of the airmen that was exposed to radiation. Our search party (which was called Hopper's Stompers, named after one of our group members) was told to cover a certain area in search of the lost bomb. Part of that area was through an agriculture field. When we exited the field men were waiting with a geiger counter to check us for radiation. I had been exposed. Our camp or "Tent City" as some call it was located along the beach. We were told to jump into the salt water to remove the radiation. I did so with a yell. It was January and the water was not inviting. I was rechecked with a geiger counter and it didn't register the second time which meant my clothes were free of radiation.

John Jarvis said...

I was stationed at Moron AB at the time of the Broken Arrow, I had been there since October 65; The base is about 250 miles west of Palomares. I worked in Bioenvironmental Engineering (Preventive Medicine, Military Public Health)...I was awakened at 0200, 17 January, and ordered to report to the base commander's office. He informed me of the accident and said to pack my field gear and gather my PAC-1S (alpha monitor) and head to Palomares. He said I would be gone for "several days"...With 3 months knowledge of Spanish and a COMPSA gasoline ration card, I headed out in one of our "cracker box" ambulances. When I arrived, there was one tent set up in the dry river bed near the B-52 tail section; General Wilson and his staff; shortly following, around 2-3 hundred personnel arrived... spending "several days", with others, I monitoring and mapped the sites where the 2 bombs detonated and spread the plutonium in preperation for the clean up...After that began, I collected air samples down wind of the bomb craters while the soil was being collected...I was then assigned to several search teams looking for bomb #4 (or, the tritium capsule)...I then monitored the barrel operation checking for contamination once the barrels were filled, sealed and washed...Following the clean up, I worked out of the Detection and Decontamination Tent, conducting out processing...My "several day" assingment amounted to 84...I was one of the final dozen to exit Palomares

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