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Article posted Jan 18 2006, 9:07 AM Category: History Source: Historychannel Print

H-BOMB LOST IN SPAIN: January 17, 1966

On this day, a B-52 bomber collides with 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 was 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.

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Comments 1 - 20 of 52 Add Comment Page of 3 >

Posted: Jul 13 2008, 9:48 AM

7589 I was on the aircraft that the radioactive waste from the bomb was recovered from the water off the coast of Spain. How can I get more imfo about the recovery?
Dennis , Massachusetts

Posted: Feb 24 2009, 12:13 PM

98110 I wass aboard the ship that recovered the bomb . It was the USS Spiegel Grove LSD 32 . (Landing Ship Dock) The crew was never told what we were doing there . All we herd was " skuttle-butt "
"The Grove " is now an artifical reef off the coast of Key Largo , Fla.
It was sunk in 2004. The military History Channel made a documentuary of this called "AMERICA'S LOST BOMBS,BROKEN ARROW, THE REAL STORY." In you can clearly see the " Grove "
brifly, in the background .
M. Sanchez

Posted: May 20 2009, 11:09 PM

75163 I was in the first group that arrived at the crash site from Torrejon AB by Air Force bus. We were part of a search group. We did not have any sort of facilities to stay or use and we ate c-rations for about 10 days. We were told to look for a large silver cylinder. We ate lots of tomatoes as we searched through the fields. We were never told anything about radiation and never seen by medical personnel for radiation exposure. I was there about 35 days.
pedro saenz

Posted: Jul 21 2009, 1:28 PM

8021 I was there! We were called the "Wilson Warriors", and we had black spanish caps. I went to the site in a spanish truck, spanish driver, with supplies. When I got there the supplies were un-loaded. then I was assigned to the clean crew. We cut plants, tomatoes plants ( some were 6-7 feet high) lemon trees, and any thing else that was green. We cut everything in site. After, when more people came, and tested us for radiation, we were given white coveralls. After the long days, we were tested and told to go back and clean some more until the test equipment gave a clear reading. This went on for days. We ate tomatoes, and lemons because we were never informed of the danger of radiation. While at the camp, we were informed not to go into the water! One day we were informed we could go swimming. We did and it was great after long hours of work. A few days later the US and Spanish VIP,s came with all type of newmen and the VIP,s went into the water. But we were used before the big VIP's show. I have seen film of us loading tomates plants with the bambo sticks onto dump trucks. I wish I could get the film. I made friends with some spanish gruardia civil, because they sometimes come to the walk in theater, where movies were shown. There was so much heavy equipment to removed the dirt that had radiation. They re-move alot. The radiation reading were so high, more dirt had to be re-move, haul away. All this time we were never given special equipment to protected ourself. The people with the test equipment had all type of protected clothes on them. Anyway, I am going to the VA hopital to be checked after all this years. Just like the personnel that were used during the atomic tests out at sea, etc.
Paul R. Scott

Posted: Oct 23 2010, 4:02 PM

76180 I was on the USS Cascade AD 16, is there anyone out there who remembers being in Palomares Bay, Spain, while aboard the USS Cascade. I'm from Niagara Falls, NY
Paul R. Scott

Posted: Oct 23 2010, 5:55 PM

I was on the USS Cascade AD-16
Anyone out there who was on the ship I'd like to hear from you
Ron "Soupy " Sayles

Posted: Dec 01 2010, 2:40 PM

74220 I was aboard the Ability MSO-519 out of Charleston S.C., on a Med cruise , when we were diverted to Palomares.We would go to the LSD Fort Snelling and tow Alvin , the mini sub, out to a grid area.There, Alvin would submerge and go looking for the "device", as it was refered to. Alvin could only go 2 knots on the surface, but could go faster submerged. After tthat area was searched, we'd tow her back to the Fort Snelling. We did this on a daily basis until the "device"was located. We were always observed by Russing "trawlers", which had no signs of fishing gear,but plenty of antennas. Was a very interesting adventure, to say the least.

Posted: Dec 22 2010, 3:13 PM

7061 Paul I also was aboard the Cascade at the time I think that we lay in anchor for about 61 days if my memory serves me right. The mini sub Alvin was the one that found the device.
Robert Stinnette(Hawaii)

Posted: Dec 25 2010, 1:10 PM

659 I was on the USS Cascade AD-16 for two years during this mission I was a Boatswains mate.I always tell people the story.I remember it even more after seeing the movie Men of Honor ws were there.

Robert Stinnette SSG USA RET
Rich Ed,

Posted: Dec 31 2010, 4:00 PM

69171 I was out there on the USS Albany CG10, We were the flag ship And all the press.

Posted: Feb 22 2011, 8:32 PM

17449 The USS Fort Snelling LSD 30 was coming to the end of her 6 month Med cruise with her amphibious task force when ordered to the crash site in Spain it was Jan. 1966 the Fort had a Navy Seal Team and a UDT Team aboard a few days later the Fort became the mother ship for the two subs Alvin and Aluminaut transferred from the Plymouth Rock LSD 29 the H bomb was found by the Alvin for the 2nd time on April 6 the bomb was recovered on April 7 1966. the Fort Snelling was released from her duty as mother ship for the Alvin and Aluminaut on April 12 1966 to return to Little Creek VA. i was aboard the Fort Snelling from 1965 to 1967 i have no memory of the Spiegel Grove LSD 32 being there. sorry.
Barry Lampel

Posted: Mar 23 2011, 12:57 PM

19836 The bomb that landed in the Ocean off the coast of Palomares, Spain in January of 1966 was recovered my a the mini-sub Alvin. The USS Cascade AD16 (Destroyer Tender redirected to this site while on a Med Cruise) manufactured the mechanical arm mechanism that was attached to the mini-sub arm that recovered the bomb. In March 1966, the USS Cascade then loaded the bomb onto its starboard side and delivered it back to Newport, Rhode island, its home port. A rather uneventful mission for those on the Cascade, but duly named "Operation Broken Arrow".
william baker

Posted: Sep 16 2011, 12:13 AM

william baker

Posted: May 28 2012, 3:58 PM

75121 I PUT THE WRONG PHONE NUMBER. IT IS 417-336-4805
ollie edge

Posted: Aug 17 2012, 10:32 PM

74182 I was an Em2 & worked in the rewind shop in the repair division of the USS Cascade. I worked alongside charles linberg's son (an electrical engineer) as we worked on a motor-generator set & resistor banks on the minesweeper tied up outside our shop. The shipfitters had built an A-frame & a big grappling hook that they secured to a steel cable with crosby clamps. The M-G set powered the winch as the grappling hook was lowered into the water. The 2man submarine, Alvin, controlled the hook with its remote-controlled arms & secured it to the fins of the elusive h-bomb!! Lotsa memories from this operation !!
ollie edge

Posted: Aug 19 2012, 11:05 AM

74182 My next to last sentence was incorrectly copied from my notes ( my apologies to the courageous divers involved)! Alvin had raised the device & the remote controlled CURV (which had become entangled in the bomb's parachute lines) to a depth attainable by the divers. They secured the cable & hook properly to ensure this elaborate recovery!

Posted: Sep 03 2012, 2:05 AM

74128 I was an EM-3 on the USS Cascade during the Palomares incident.I actually took pictures as they were loading the bomb on our chopper deck with my Instamatic camera. It was in a large blue container. I gave the pictures yo my son. He still has them. It was a great experiance. We took the bomb to Newport RI. From there it was flown to Los Alamos NM, if I am not mistaken.
Jim Tribble

Posted: Nov 11 2012, 10:28 AM

72218 Just to keep the records correct, the Alvin was loaded aboard the USS San Marcos (LSD-25) in Boston and transported across the Atlantic to Palomares, Spain. We remained at anchorage until the last bomb was loaded for transport. We were informed exactly of the purpose of the Alvin. I was an RD-3 at the time aboard the San Marcos during the operation.
Paul R. Scott

Posted: Dec 20 2012, 9:28 PM

5075 Wm Baker & Jim Gardner,
I hope this email finds you in health and happiness.
Jim, you should go and talk to a Vet Rep and explain your sickness to thes. Tell them what you handled in PR, you will get some comp. for Sugar.

Soup Sayles, were you on the Cascade at any time?
Paul R. Scott

Posted: Dec 20 2012, 9:31 PM

5075 The H Bomb is @ Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquesque, New Mexico. I saw it when I was teaching in Albuquerque,NM
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