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.