Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dropping Bombs On Spain: The Palomares incident

Last year when I was researching old copies of the "Majorca Daily Bulletin" in order to write a history of the paper's news over its 50 years, I came across a news item for 18 January, 1966. It was news that I hadn't gone looking for. It was not news that had registered with me. I'll excuse myself on the basis of having been too young at the time to have noticed

Under the heading "US Jets Collide Over Spain", the news item read thus: "Two giant US Air Force jets collided over Spain today and seven crewmen were feared dead. The planes, a B-52 and a KC-135 tanker, had been due to rendezvous so that the bomber could be refuelled in the air - a delicate operation with the planes flying only yards apart. The burned wreckage of both planes was found about 65 miles north-east of the Mediterranean port of Almeria. Three bodies were found. Four men are missing."

The news report goes on to say that "fishermen raced to their boats when they saw parachutes dropping into the sea". It says that the bomber was en route to an "eastern country" (unspecified) and that the tanker had taken off from an air base near Seville. Other than this, there is nothing of real note in the report.

It is what the report didn't say which is important. The B-52 was carrying four hydrogen bombs. One of them ended up at the bottom of the sea. Two of them exploded. The explosion was a conventional one in that it quite obviously didn't amount to what the bombs were capable of; they were carrying 75 times the force that had been dropped on Japan. But the explosion did, nevertheless, scatter radioactive material.

Palomares is a small town of 1700 people in the Almeria province. This is a part of Spain which is heavily dependent upon tourism. Palomares enjoys some of the rewards of this industry but not as many as it might do. Palomares was the town that was most affected by the radioactive plutonium that was scattered. Parts of it remain sealed off to this day because of the contaminated land.

The incident sparked off an emergency operation that was initially dealt with by Spanish services. Unused to the technology and not prepared for taking the necessary precautions, many members of the emergency services, primarily from the Guardia Civil, suffered from exposure to radiation. Over 500 compensation claims were eventually settled by the US Government. The Americans have paid, so it is believed, at least two billion dollars for compensation to individuals, for land that was affected and for the clean-up operation. Yet the matter has still not been definitively resolved.

At the meeting in Washington between Barack Obama and Mariano Rajoy this week, Palomares was not on the agenda. The fact that, certainly for the news media in Almeria, it wasn't on the agenda shows how much the 1966 incident is still very much alive. Though Obama didn't discuss the matter, Hillary Clinton has suggested that she wants it sorted out once and for all, and this means the removal of the remaining contaminated land.

Extraordinary though it is that it has taken nearly 50 years to bring some closure to the incident, it is also extraordinary how it came to be known about. One imagines of course that it would have become known about eventually, but the Spanish and the Americans, for differing reasons, sought to keep the lid on the bombs. The reports of the collision were as in "The Bulletin", though even this went further than had been originally intended by the media manipulators. The admission that a B-52 had been involved had originally been excluded from news feeds.

The Spanish had very good reasons not to let the world know what had happened. Tourism was one and another was public opinion in Spain. Franco and his government may not typically have cared what the public thought, but it didn't want the people knowing that the Americans were flying in Spanish airspace with nuclear weapons and that they were dropping them on Spanish soil, if only by accident and if only because safety devices had prevented a thermo-nuclear explosion.

The two governments might have got away with it had it not been for a chance meeting between a US military policeman and an American journalist with Spanish roots by the name of André del Amo. The full story of André, his brother, how they came to be in Mojácar and how André came to talk to this policeman has been told in "El País". But just to explain the chance meeting, André was asked by the policeman to translate. He wanted to tell local people to leave the area because of "radioactivity". The policeman used the word and then went on to tell André more or less the whole story. The official line had of course been to deny that the B-52 was carrying H-bombs. Del Amo's information ended up with "The New York Times". It published, the attempt to cover up was blown apart, and Franco went ballistic.

So this is some of the story that couldn't be reported in 1966. And something else that couldn't be reported was where the B-52 was going. The "eastern country" was apparently the Soviet Union, or its European borders at any rate. Those were the days.

* Read about André del Amo and the Palomares incident here:

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