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When atomic bombs fell on Spain
13 May 2020 @ 18:30

In 1953, when Francisco Franco was still dictator of Spain, the newly-elected President Eisenhower approached him with an offer. The US wanted bases closer to the Soviet block and they were willing to pay top dollar to get them. At this time, Spain’s economy was in tatters and the Generalissimo was only too happy to take the money. However, the deal came with a few caveats. Firstly, within the bases themselves, US laws ruled. No US serviceman or civilian could be arrested and tried by Spanish authorities even for a crime committed off base. The big one was that the US could use the bases to store and train with nuclear weapons and that they could install defensive weapons around the runways and fly armed aircraft in and out of the bases across Spanish land.

Three bases were rented by the US and converted to the high security levels that the Americans required. The first, and most important, was Rota on the north side of the bay of Cadiz. Rota was one of Spain’s most important naval bases and the Americans wanted to use a part of the port facilities there to service their warships. The naval base would be commanded by a Spanish rear-Admiral, but fully funded by the US. The other two bases were airfields at Zaragoza in the northeast of Spain and Morón near Seville.

At first, the US Navy used the naval base at Rota to service their nuclear patrol submarines carrying Polaris missiles. The plan was to have a repair and maintenance facility in the Atlantic, but close to the entrance to the Mediterranean. Things went well, and over the years, the US Navy converted their nuclear subs to carry Poseidon missiles and for a while based them in Rota.

With the death of Franco in 1975 the Spanish government re-negotiated the treaties and wanted the nuclear submarines and their missiles out of Spanish waters. The repair yards for the Subs were moved back to the US at King’s Bay in Georgia.  At its peak in the 80’s, Rota was the home to 16,000 sailors and their families. Now it has been reduced to just 4,000.

The US air bases remained active with the base at Rota used as a staging post for any Middle East or Southern European exercises. It was used as a base for tanker aircraft to refuel Strategic Air Command bombers which still trained with, and regularly carried nuclear weapons. It was in 1966 during exercise Chrome Dome that one of the potentially most dangerous accidents involving nuclear weapons happened.

A B52 being refuelled.

A B52 bomber piloted by Major Larry G. Messinger took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina in the early hours of the 17th January. It was tasked to fly east across the Atlantic and rendezvous with two KC135 tankers over the Mediterranean. Its mission then was to fly toward to the Russian boarder in a simulated attack. Everything was conducted as though the bomber would continue as if to strike targets inside Russia, but at the last minute turn back. To train crews and test procedures, the aircraft had been loaded with four live Mk28 hydrogen bombs.  

The B52 is a huge aircraft, and dwarfs the Boing 707 derivative KC135 tankers based at Morón. Relative speeds between the two aircraft must be equalised exactly before it’s safe to connect the two with the refuelling probe.

At around 10:30 am, the two crews began jockeying their aircraft into position at 31,000ft. Normally, the boom operator in the tail of the KC135 watches the approach of the aircraft to be refuelled and is in constant radio contact with its pilot. If the trailing aircraft is coming in a little too fast he calls “Break away” and the B52 would throttle back and fall away.

Major Messinger and his crew heard no request to break away and continued to hold station. Meanwhile on the tanker, the boom operator had missed the refuelling nozzle with the boom and the B52 crept forward beneath the tanker.  The B52 lifted slightly in the slipstream and the boom punched into the wing root of the bomber severing the port main wing spar. The wing of the bomber folded up and broke off, and the fuel in the boom ignited carrying the fire back to the tanker which exploded, killing all four of the crew instantly. Another B52 flying about a mile away saw the tanker disappear in a ball of flames whilst the crippled B52 cartwheeled down, breaking up as it fell. The four Hydrogen bombs broke free from their mountings and were thrown from the spinning wreckage.

Of the seven crew members on the B52, four parachuted to safety, three of them landing in the sea. The fourth was suffering from burns and could not separate himself from his ejection seat, but he landed safely on land.


Wreckage of the B52 around the village.

Manalo Gonzales was in the street near to his house when he heard the explosion and saw the burning wreckage of the two aircraft falling towards his village. His wife was teaching at the local primary school and he watched in horror a part of the B52 fell close to the school. He jumped on his scooter and raced across town, but the wreckage had missed the school. By a miracle, nobody on the ground had been injured by the accident.   

Other residents had seen the explosion and watched the aircraft fall. Several spotted the lone parachute slowly descending and drove to where it landed. They cut the injured airman from his ejection seat and carried him to their village clinic. Two of the other three airmen who landed in the sea were picked up by local fishermen on their boat the Dorita. The last to be picked up spent 45 minutes in the water before being spotted by Paco Simó Orts, on his boat, the Agustin y Rosa.

Broken Arrow is the call sign for a downed aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon and the signal flashed throughout all US forces in the area. There was already a contingency plan in place and Moron and Rota were rapidly mobilised. Helicopters were despatched carrying emergency teams while specially trained and equipped troops were loaded onto transport aircraft and flown to the crash site. Within 24 hours, the area was sealed off and the little town of Palomares was crawling with soldiers searching for the bombs and assessing the radioactivity. It did not take long to find the bombs, but the news was not good. Two of the warheads had detonated their conventional explosive triggering charges upon impact, scattering highly toxic radioactive Plutonium 239 over the area. When the bomb experts gave their first estimate the military were horrified to realize that around 3 Kilos of weapon grade Plutonium had been scattered around the village.

The third bomb was found intact in a riverbed and was returned to Morón with the remains of the other warheads sealed in lead cases. Of the forth bomb there was no trace, but the missing bomb’s parachute tail plate was found, leading the searchers to the conclusion that the retarding parachute had opened as it fell, and it had been carried out to sea.

By now, Palomares looked like a scene from the D-day invasions with hundreds of men clad in fatigues measuring the radiation levels around the town. Even though there had been a contingency plan for this kind of disaster, it had not allowed for a dozen or so farmers and hundreds of goats to be walking all over the danger zone. The two damaged bombs had created plumes of radioactive particles which drifted to the east on the wind. Requests were sent out for heavy earth moving equipment and special containers were brought in to be filled with contaminated soil. The Air Force had given the operation the code name of Moist Mop and a huge airlift began to remove the top three inches of soil from the worst affected areas and transport it all the way to America. In all, 1,700 tons of contaminated earth was shipped to South Carolina.

Meanwhile, the world’s press had been shut out. The Air Force denied that there had been an accident and even General Franco would not comment. With three of the nukes accounted for, everybody focused on the missing one. The Air Force put in a request for the US Navy to assist in the search. The Navy began searching through its personnel for people with the right training and experience for to recover the bomb and they were flown out to Rota to assist. US navy ships steamed to the area most likely to be where the bomb had fallen.  

The Alvin submersible. Photo Jholman, Wikipedia.

Two submersibles, the Alvin and the Aluminaut were shipped to the scene. Both could operate at great depths and had remotely operated arms to handle objects with. For a while the area was searched by without results. A mathematician was brought in to help with the search and he drew a grid and assigned probabilities to individual map grid squares and updating them as the search progressed. For about three miles offshore the sea is around 600m deep, but the depth quickly falls away to 1,000m and enters the Palomares trench which is over 2,000m deep. It was a very difficult underwater terrain to search for a small bomb.

The Bayesian search theory, as it was called, produced no results and after weeks of futile searching, Francisco Simó Orts, the fisherman who had picked up the last crewmember from the B52, contacted the Air Force. He had actually seen the bomb fall into the sea. By this time he was known in his village as "Paco el de la bomba" a name that stuck with him until his death. At last, the Navy now had a good idea where to look.

Meanwhile, on the surface, the Russians had got wind of the accident and Radio Moscow broadcasted that the entire area was drenched in “lethal radioactivity.” An Australian newspaper wrote of a “death rain” falling from a broken H bomb. By March 2nd, with still no sign of the missing weapon, the United States finally admitted to the world that it was hunting for a lost hydrogen bomb. The press were given updates on the search and the clean-up operation, and to silence the wild stories of radioactivity U.S. Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke along with the Spanish minister of tourism Manuel Fraga, held a much-publicized “swimming party” on the beach at Palomares on March 8th.

Angier Biddle Duke along with the Spanish minister of tourism Manuel Fraga.

A week later, the Alvin found the bomb. It was five miles off the coast in only 870m of water. Bringing it to the surface turned out to be no easy operation. The bomb was on its way to the surface when the cable lifting it snapped and it was another week before the Alvin could find it again. Finally, on April 7, 1966—nearly three months after the B-52 crash, the bomb was hoisted aboard the USS Petrel. Reporters were allowed to photograph it the following day. According to the New York Times, it was the first time the U.S. military had displayed a nuclear weapon to the public.

With the end of the Cold War, all the Spanish bases were downgraded and their manning levels reduced dramatically. Moron became inactive as a military base for a while, though in the 80’s, because of its long runway, the base at Morón became an alternative emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. Special navigation and landing aids were installed, and Spanish personnel were trained to recover the Shuttle after an emergency landing.  In addition, during Shuttle launching periods, the Air Force deployed airmen to Morón to help provide onsite weather reporting.

In May 2015 the Spanish government approved an agreement granting the U.S. military a permanent presence on the base. Under the agreement, up to 3,000 American troops and civilians of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Africa can be stationed there, while the number of aircraft can be increased to 40, up from the previous limit of 14.

As a sweetener for the deal, the US government agreed to further clean up the residual radioactivity at Paomares. Radiation in the area has been monitored since the accident and tests revealed high levels of Americium, a decay product of plutonium. The discovery meant that 50,000 cubic metres of earth were still contaminated and needed removing. The Spanish government bought the land in the land in 2003 and fenced it off to prevent it being used. In a joint press conference in Madrid with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the process would begin soon, but gave no details.

Parts of Palomares are still fenced off as a danger to the public.

Rota today is home to more than 12,000 US and NATO personnel, but the Ayuntamiento de Rota are not happy. Because the base is virtually a piece of the US grafted into Spain complete with its own laws and shops, the Roteña population feels that it is missing out on a lot of taxes that it could normally claim from its inhabitants. They believe that they are owed “historic payment” for the land it occupies. Local household taxes or vehicle taxes cannot be collected from the base, and worst of all the military personnel would rather spend their dollars on the base than in the town.

The Spanish government have no such complaint. In 2015 they received 3.5 million Euros annual rental from the US for the Rota base. Morón and Torrejón would donate something similar, bringing something like 10,000 Million Euros a year into the Spanish economy. On a lighter note, one part of Rota frequently enjoys the patronage of Americans from the base. On the seafront opposite the entrance to the harbour is an US Air Force themed bar called “Honey don’t cry.” which has signed beer mats stuck on the walls from just about every US airman ever posted to Rota.

The Honey Don't Cry Bar in Rota.

One unlikley spinoff from the disaster was a film released in 1966 starring Cliff Richards and the Shadows, called Finders Keepers. It was supposed to be a light hearted parody of the disaster. The script was written by Michael Pertwee, brother of Jon Pertwee, AKA Dr Who. The film bombed in the cinemas. (No pun intended.) Michael did much better with writing scripts for Danger Man, The Saint and others.

Fifty years on and there is still a cost to be accounted for. Victor Skaar was one of the servicemen sent from Rota to deal with the aftermath of the accident. “We had all been well trained; we had experience, but we were praying that we’d never have to face a real-life situation,” recalls Skaar, who is now 81. He and 60 other uniformed servicemen arrived in this poor rural spot in the middle of the night. There was an ambulance with them. The Cold War was in full swing, this was a highly sensitive situation, and Washington’s priority was to quickly eliminate all evidence of one of the biggest nuclear accidents in history. Health took a backseat.

For 62 tough days when food was scarce and US servicemen slept in tents, Skaar took measurements in Palomares and helped collect contaminated soil in barrels. He insists that he was following orders, and recalls an analogy that used to go around in his head: “It’s like getting shot: you worry about it, but if it happens, someone will take care of you.”

The problems began in 1982. Skaar was diagnosed with leukopenia, a condition that reduces white blood cells. His doctor attributed it to his exposure to plutonium in Palomares. Later Skaar suffered from prostate cancer and skin cancer, which are under control. Doctors again pointed at radioactivity as the most likely cause.

Following the first diagnosis, Skaar applied for disability benefits from the Department of Veteran Affairs, a standard move for retired servicemen who suffer from an ailment in connection with their years of service. But the request was denied. According to the US Armed Forces, neither he nor the nearly 1,600 soldiers who were in Palomares were exposed to radioactive risks. “They ignored us,” he says. Their medical records had disappeared. He suspects they were eliminated by some “high-ranking authority.” Skaar has a list of 40 veterans who were with him at the time and whom he hopes to include in a class action suit. Two of his acquaintances died of cancer five years after returning to the United States.

His accusation holds that the US administration made a “fundamentally flawed” analysis of the health risks posed by the incident in Almería, and that the claimants did not receive adequate protection, nor was their exposure to radiation measured in many cases.

Yet there are still 50,000 cubic meters of plutonium-contaminated soil in Palomares. In 2015 the US government pledged to remove it, but the promise has yet to materialise.

For a more comprehensive account of Spanish history go to




Like 2


knowledgeseeker said:
16 May 2020 @ 08:32

Very interesting read, made better by being well-written. Thank you

Jo said:
16 May 2020 @ 12:38

Wow, great article, typical of USA who should be doing something about this.

David Burgess said:
16 May 2020 @ 14:22

Well,I remember this incident,the United States always tries to assure everyone that they are a really caring country,and their number 1 priority is to protect the public! But this is unbelievable!
After all these years,and even after PROMISING in 2015,that they would finish the job,still nothing has been done!

animate said:
16 May 2020 @ 20:40

Thank you, knowledgeseeker for your kind words.

animate said:
16 May 2020 @ 20:52

Thank you for your comment, Jo. The world moves on, and other priorities take precedence. Promises are soon forgotten, to the shame of all concerned.

animate said:
16 May 2020 @ 20:56

Well said, David! Let's all hope that Victor Skarr wins his case.

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