A Brief History
On January 17, 1966, a U.S. Air Force B-52 hit a KC-135 tanker plane in mid-air causing 4 nuclear bombs to fall on Spain!
Digging deeper, we find the U.S. in the middle of the cold war and therefore keeping bombers flying or on the runway with live hydrogen bombs at all times.
The B-52 Stratofortress was the mainstay of the U.S.A.F.’s bomber force and with aerial refueling could hit any target in the world. Spain was not on the list!
Of the 4 Mk28 thermonuclear bombs that fell that day, one fell in the ocean off the coast and the other three fell on Spain itself. The bomb that landed in the water took over 2 months to find and recover, and it was still intact. It had apparently deployed its parachute as it fell and ended up drifting over the ocean, where it was later recovered by the U.S. Navy in deep water.
The three bombs that hit the ground were another story…
Nuclear weapons work by having conventional explosives rapidly crush together a critical mass of enriched uranium or plutonium, but luckily, these conventional explosions did not trigger any nuclear explosions in the two bombs whose explosives detonated, but radioactive contamination was still spread over a wide area.
Incredibly, the U.S. clean-up effort included sending thousands of barrels of contaminated soil back to the U.S. for storage. Unfortunately, the clean up was apparently not that complete and American crews went back to clean up some more in 2006!
This incident not only killed 4 of 4 crew members of the tanker and 3 of 7 crew members of the bomber, but was also a huge embarrassment to the United States. Spain understandably demanded that any flights carrying nuclear weapons not fly over Spanish territory, while the rest of the world lost some confidence in the efficiency of the U.S. military.
And this incident was not the only time the U.S. Air Force dropped nuclear weapons by accident! In fact, it has happened several times that we know of, with some of the weapons lost and never recovered! (Finders keepers?) Other times nuclear weapons detonated due to plane crashes or fires, though each time only the conventional explosives detonated, and there was no nuclear blast. Of course, each incident resulted in radioactive contamination and was not particularly good for the people, plants or wildlife in the area.
The nuking of Spain is remembered in the 2000 film Men of Honor and in a 1967 British/Greek production The Day the Fish Came Home (although this fictionalized account is set on a Greek island).
The final bizarre part of this event is that a street in Palomares, Spain where 3 of the nukes landed is named 17 January 1966.
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For more historical information on this incident in its broader historical context, see…
Lake, Jon and Mark Styling. B-52 Stratofortress Units in Combat 1955–73 (Combat Aircraft). Osprey Publishing, 2004.
Richelson, Jeffrey T. Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.
For a cinematic depiction of the incident, please watch..
Tillman Jr., George. Men of Honor. 20th Century Fox, 2007. Blu-ray.