Operation Chrome Dome
SAC's mission during the Cold War era evolved into ensuring constant airborne readiness.That meant that U.S. bombers would always be in the air, 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week. Long flight routes were strategically planned for different parts of the world to deter a Soviet first strike. Mid-air refueling was a necessity. This was Operation Chrome Dome. One of those routes took B-52s from an air force base in North Carolina around the Mediterranean Sea and back.
On January 17, 1966, a B-52 bomber flying its Chrome Dome route from North Carolina was about to be refueled by a KC-135 tanker some 31,000 feet above the small village of Palomares on Spain's Mediterranean coast. The bomber carrying four 1.5 megaton hydrogen bombs collided with the boom of the refueling tanker. The KC-135 was completely destroyed when its 40,000 gallon fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52 broke apart, killing three of the seven crew members aboard. Four members of the B-52's crew were able to parachute to safety. Of the four unarmed hydrogen bombs carried by the B-52, three crashed on the ground in the vicinity of Palomares, a poor farming community 1 mile off the coastal highway. The fourth sank off the coast of the Mediterranean and was missing for nearly three months. In theory, parachutes attached to the bombs should have borne them gently to the ground, preventing any contamination, but two of the parachutes failed to open. The two that fell to earth unsupported by parachutes blew apart on impact.
At 10:40 a.m. UTC, the accident was reported at the Command Post of the Sixteenth Air Force, and it was confirmed at 11:22. The commander of the U.S. Air Force at Torrejon Air Base, Spain, Major General Delmar E. Wilson, immediately traveled to the scene of the accident with a Disaster Control Team. Further Air Force personnel were dispatched later the same day, including nuclear experts from U.S. government laboratories.
The first weapon to be discovered was found nearly intact. However, the conventional explosives from the other two bombs that fell to earth without parachutes had detonated. No nuclear explosion had occurred but the plutonium ignited, producing a cloud that was dispersed by a 35 mph wind. A radiation survey conducted jointly by the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) and the Junta de Energia Nuclear found that no less than 650 acres (more than 1 square mile) of residential areas, farmland (especially tomato farms) and woods were contaminated. However, during the survey, as winds picked up and scattered the plutonium dust, as the DNA's subsequent report noted: "The total extent of the spread will never be known."
The decision was made to remove the contaminated dirt from the most contaminated areas. With hand tools, workers literally scraped up the first three inches of topsoil, sealed it in barrels, and shipped it to a storage facility back in the US. For three months, hundreds of workers, including U.S. airmen from Morón Air Base, scientists, and Spanish Civil Guards worked to decontaminate the area. An estimated 1,400 tons of radioactive soil and vegetation was excavated and sent to the United States for disposal in the Savannah River Plant, and crops of tomatoes were buried or burned.
It was reported that U.S. personnel wore protective clothing and underwent regular radiation checks, but such measures were not taken for the Spanish workers. However, the Air Force commander in charge later stated, "The U.S. Air Force was unprepared to provide adequate detection and monitoring for its personnel when an aircraft accident occurred involving plutonium weapons in a remote area of a foreign country."
Barrels of contaminated soil
U.S. Ambassador swims and smiles
As the clean-up got under way, the US and Spanish governments set out to convince the world there was no danger. To defuse alarm of contamination, on March 8 the Spanish minister for information and tourism Manuel Fraga Iribarne and the U.S. Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke swam on nearby beaches in front of press. First the ambassador and some companions swam at Mojácar — a resort 9 mi away — and then Duke and Fraga swam at the Quitapellejos beach in Palomares. When asked by a reporter on the scene if he'd detected any radioactivity in the water, Ambassador Duke replied with a laugh: "If this is radioactivity, I love it!"
President Lyndon B. Johnson was first informed of the situation in his morning briefing the same day as the accident. He was told that the 16th Nuclear Disaster Team had been sent to investigate, per the standard procedures for this type of accident. 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 January 20. Reporters sent to the accident scene covered angry demonstrations by the local residents. Days after the accident, the Spanish government stated that "the Palomares incident was evidence of the dangers created by NATO's use of the Gibraltar airstrip," announcing that NATO aircraft would no longer be permitted to fly over Spanish territory, either to or from Gibraltar. On January 25, as a diplomatic concession, the U.S. announced that it would no longer fly over Spain with nuclear weapons, and on January 29 the Spanish government formally banned U.S. flights over its territory that carried such weapons.
Recovery Operations for the Fourth Bomb
The search for the fourth bomb was carried out by means of a novel mathematical method that calculated a probable location range based on the site where a witness reported seeing the bomb fall into the sea. Local fisherman, Francisco Simó Orts was contacted by the U.S. Air Force to assist in the search operation. The recovery operation brought 150 qualified divers who searched to 120 feet with compressed air, to 210 feet with mixed gas, and to 350 feet with hard-hat rigs, but the bomb lay in an uncharted area of the Rio Almanzora canyon on a 70-degree slope at a depth of 2,550 feet. After a search that continued for 80 days following the crash, the bomb was located by the deep-submersible support vessel Alvin on 17 March, but was dropped and temporarily lost when the Navy attempted to bring it to the surface. After the loss of the recovered bomb the ship's positions were fixed by Decca HI-FIX position-locating equipment for subsequent recovery attempts.
Alvin located the bomb again on 2 April, this time at a depth of 2,900 feet. In the attempt to prepare raising the bomb, an unmanned torpedo recovery vehicle, CURV-III, became entangled in the weapon's parachute. A decision was made to raise CURV and the weapon together to a depth of 100 feet where divers attached cables to them. The bomb was brought to the surface by USS Petrel. The USS Cascade was diverted from its Naples destination and stayed on scene until recovery and took the bomb back to America.
An email that Otto Kosa sent in 2013 describing his experience as part of the cleanup crew:
"DEPARTED MORON VIA USAF BUS WITH 28 OFFICERS, NCO'S AND AIRMAN FOR B-52=KC-135 ACCIDENT IN PALOMARES SPAIN AT APX 1;AM IN THE MORNING OF JAN 18TH 1966, AFTER AN EXCITING RIDE OVER THE SPANISH COUNTRY SIDE WE ARRIVED AT THE TAIL SECTION OF THE B-52 IN AN DRIED UP RIVER BED ON THE OUT SKIRTS OF PALOMARES AT SUNRISE AT 6;30 AM IN THE MORNING, SEVERAL OF THE TROOPS WANDERED IN THE VILLAGE AND BROUGHT BACK SEVERAL BOTTLES OF WINE AND SOME MEAT TO MAKE A STEW WITH, A FIRE HAD ALREADY BEEN STARTED AND WAS NECESSARY AS IT WAS DAMP AND CHILLY. LATE IN THE DAY AWAITING ORDERS TO START THE RECOVER PROCESS, WE WERE ASSEMBELIED BY CAPT LUCKHART AND WERE TOLD THAT 3 OF THE NUCLEAR BOMBS WERE FOUND AND THAT WE WOULD BE PROVIDING SECURITY FOR THEM OVER NIGHT. AL VASQUEZ AND MY SELF WERE POSTED ON BOMB NUMBER ONE ON THE BEACH ABOUT 300 FEET FROM THE MED SEA. WHEN WE ARRIVED AT BOMB TWO GUARDIA CIVIL ALSO ARRIVED ARMED WITH THERE SIGNATURE TOMMY GUNS AND 9 MM HAND GUNS, WE ON THE OTHER HAND WERE UNARMED BECAUSE AMERICANS GI'S WERE NOT ALLOWED TO CARRY WEAPONS OFF BASE. WE QUICKLY MADE FRIENDS WITH OUR SPANISH FRIENDS AND PASSED THE TIME SMOKING AND GETTING TO KNOW EACH OTHER, THEN DINNER TIME ARRIVED AND AL AND I EACH HAD A BOX OF K-RATIONS TO EAT. THE GUARDIA TROOPS HAD CAN OF SPANISH SARDINES, LOAF OF PAN, AND A VALENCIA ORANGE THE SIZE OF A LARGE GRAPEFRUIT, THE SPANISH GUYS LOVED OUR SMOKING MATERIAL, AND WE MADE A TRADE WITH THEM OUR RATIONS FOR THERES , IT WAS THE MOST ENJOYABLE AND TASTY DINNER WE HAD UNTIL THE GRAY GOOSE KITCHEN ARRIVED FROM WHEELUS AFB , , AT 6;30AM A HELIOCOPTER ARRIVIED AND REMOVED THE DEVICE FROM THE BEACH.."
KC-135 and B52 debris
Paul in wreckage area
Otto Kosa in wreckage area
Sleeping quarters, Al Vasquez
Back row: Jackson, Al Vasquez, Paul
Front row: First 2 unknown, Larry Slone, Larry Jachelski
Jachelski, Slone, Chersonsky, Paul
Thanks to Al Vasquez who provided many of these pics
This "Broken Arrow" patch was authorized by Gen. Wilson to be affixed to black berets supplied to the AF personnel assigned to the crash site. He came up with the name "Warner's Warriors" for Camp Wilson's occupants, but the namesake remains a mystery.
WARNER'S WARRIORS TASK FORCE
The 007 Connection
Author Barbara Moran is well-acquainted with the Palomares incident. She wrote an entire book based on the accident. She called it "The Day We Lost the H-Bomb." Moran pointed out the almost eerie similarities between the James Bond movie "Thunderball," released in December 1965, and the B-52 crash a month later that resulted in "lost" hydrogen bombs. "The film's plot had strong similarities to what subsequently happened in real life", says author Barbara Moran. "Bond's mission was to find atomic bombs that had been lost at sea." All the news stories at the time were making the connection. "Much of the movie was shot underwater with Sean Connery battling baddies in weird submersibles trying to get the bombs...In the movie, they had all this really awesome underwater technology that got the bomb. But in real life, it was much harder to first locate, and then recover the bomb from the sea bed."
Airmen Exposed to Radiation During Cleanup
From a Military Times AP article dated December 11, 2017:
Veterans seek class action lawsuit over 1966 H-bombs accident
Veterans who say they responded to a 1966 accident involving U.S. hydrogen bombs in Spain and then became ill from radiation exposure asked a federal appeals court on Monday to allow a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The motion names Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin as the defendant.
Yale Law School students in Connecticut filed the request with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims on behalf of veterans who sought disability benefits from the VA but were denied. The students represent Air Force veteran Victor Skaar, of Nixa, Missouri, and want to include other veterans who believe they deserve VA benefits.
The 1,600 servicemen who were sent to the crash site area to recover the weapons and clean up the contamination were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation daily for weeks or months at a time, according to the court motion filed Monday. Many of the servicemen later developed various forms of cancer, blood disorders, heart and lung dysfunction and other sicknesses but were denied disability benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“This class action seeks to compel the VA to acknowledge that veterans at Palomares participated in a radiation-risk activity that would make any radiogenic conditions they developed presumptively service-connected,” said Derek Mraz, one of the Yale students working on the case. “The VA acknowledges this service connection for many other atomic veterans.”
Skaar, 81, said he and other military members responded quickly to the Palomares accident and did not wear protective clothing or masks as they determined the scope of the contamination and “cleaned” it up. The cleanup involved removing topsoil in some areas and hosing down buildings with water. Skaar said he and his fellow servicemen did what they were ordered to do without complaint at Palomares and now feel betrayed by their government.
The Yale students said original testing showed that many Palomares veterans were exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation, but a 2001 report commissioned by the VA concluded those results were “unreasonably high.” And in 2013, VA officials used the 2001 report to conclude the veterans’ exposure to radiation wasn’t high enough to qualify them for free VA medical care and other benefits.
The students said the report and the 2013 conclusion are flawed.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said the VA needs to take another look at the veterans’ claims.
“These veterans were exposed to dangerous radiation while they faithfully served our nation in the cleanup of the hydrogen bomb accident,” he said in a statement. “They deserve a fair and consistent process for determining veterans benefits related to such exposure.”
From a Yale Law School (law.yale.edu) article dated November 1, 2021
New Federal Suit Filed Against VA on Behalf of Veterans Exposed to Radiation at Palomares Nuclear Cleanup
Edward P. Feeley, a U.S. Air Force veteran who was exposed to radiation at the 1966 nuclear disaster cleanup in Palomares, Spain, filed suit on November 1, 2021 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The lawsuit asks the court to order the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) to expedite Feeley’s administrative appeal and to allow it to proceed as the first-ever agency class action before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School represents Feeley in the lawsuit.
“The Board can, and must, resolve the claims of this class of veterans. Feeley and other Palomares veterans are in their 70s and 80s, and many have life-threatening illnesses,” said Sarah Purtill ’22, a law student intern in the clinic. “They do not have years to wait while the VA individually delays, denies, and appeals their claims.”
Update on Radiation Cleanup
In 2006, CIEMAT, a public research institution attached to the Ministry for Science and Technology in Spain, reported it had found snails with elevated levels of radiation around Palomares. In April 2008, CIEMAT announced they had found two trenches, totalling 71,000 cu ft, where the U.S. Army had stored contaminated earth during the 1966 operations. The American government had agreed in 2004 to pay for the decontamination of the grounds, and the cost of the removal and transportation of the contaminated earth has been estimated at $2 million. But the trenches were found near the cemetery, where one of the nuclear devices was retrieved in 1966, and are thought to have been dug at the last moment by American troops before leaving Palomares. CIEMAT expects to find remains of plutonium and americium once an exhaustive analysis of the earth is carried out. In a conversation in December 2009, the Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos told the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that he feared Spanish public opinion might turn against the US once the results of the study on nuclear contamination are revealed.
In August 2010, a Spanish government source revealed that the U.S. had stopped the annual payments it had made to Spain per bilateral agreement made shortly after the accident occurred. The agreement had expired. An article published in "The Guardian" revealed that in 2011 Spain demanded the U.S. clear the ground at the site of the nuclear mishap. It reported that the Obama administration was told to remove Palomares soil contaminated with half a ton of plutonium 'without delay.'
During a visit to Madrid on October 19, 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed a new document pledging further assistance in the decades-long cleanup, including the likely disposal of contaminated soil in America since Spain has no place to dispose of nuclear waste. Kerry announced that he had signed a memorandum setting out "a new path to achieve additional remediation." Speaking alongside Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, Kerry stated, "We have to build on today's signing to take further action to resolve, once and for all, this very important issue." It is thought the radioactive material will most likely be shipped to an area of Nevada already contaminated from nuclear bomb tests carried out in the 1950s.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo signed agreements Monday, October 19, 2015 relating to the cleanup of the Palomares disaster of 1966. It has been called "one of the worst nuclear disasters of the Cold War."
2023 Update on Radiation Cleanup
Reported by AP News on March 23, 2023 -
"Madrid (AP) — Spain said Monday it has asked the United States to begin procedures to remove soil contaminated with radioactivity after a mid-air collision dumped four U.S. hydrogen bombs near a southern Spanish village nearly 60 years ago.
None of the bombs had exploded, but the plutonium-filled detonators on two went off, spreading several kilograms (pounds) of highly radioactive plutonium 239 across the landscape around Palomares.
The Foreign Ministry said there would be no more details given on the petition until there is an official reply from the U.S.
Spain and the U.S. signed a statement of intent in 2015 to negotiate a binding agreement to further restore and clear up the Palomares site and arrange for the disposal of the contaminated soil at an appropriate site in the U.S. But for several reasons no agreement was ever signed.
The Spanish state news agency EFE said some 50,000 cubic meter (1,76 million cubic feet) of land over 44 plots were affected. The government has since been renting the land from its owners to keep it protected and now hopes to expropriate it."