Palomares Bajo

King's College London
Published August 23, 2011
John Howard, Entrance, Palomares Bajo, Spain, April 2011.
John Howard, Entrance, Palomares Bajo, Spain, April 2011.
American militarism brought southern Spain and the southern United States into a complex set of relationships, beginning with base-building in the 1950s. After a cataclysmic event in 1966, working people with affective ties to agrarian traditions were cast in similarly disparaging representations, as their economically-deprived regions became sites of nuclear contamination and disposal. With little to no consultation, southerners from Almería (ranked 49th of 50 provinces in per capita income) and the Carolinas (44th and 48th of 50 states) would have little choice but to endure the long-term consequences of Cold War aggression.

"Palomares Bajo" was selected for the 2011 Southern Spaces series "Landscapes and Ecologies of the US South," a collection of innovative, interdisciplinary publications about natural and built environments.

John Howard
King's College London

Palomares Bajo: Photo Essay

John Howard, Field, Palomares, Spain, April 2011. John Howard, Home, Palomares, Spain, April 2011. John Howard, Strata, Palomares, Spain, April 2011.
John Howard, Field (left), Home (center), Strata (right), Palomares, Spain, April 2011.

Twenty years after the American annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the United States Air Force dropped nuclear bombs on Spain. By accident. In early 1966, at the height of the Cold War, a B-52—en route from the Goldsboro, North Carolina, base to the edge of the Iron Curtain and back—collided with its refuelling plane, high above the Andalucían coastline, killing seven. As the aircraft disintegrated, four hydrogen bombs fell from the sky, with conventional explosives in two detonating near the town of Palomares (population: 2000).1

Attempting to allay concerns, American Ambassador Angier Duke, the North Carolina tobacco heir, took a dip in the Mediterranean with Generalissimo Franco's Tourism Minister, cameras rolling. Meanwhile, officials dickered over the extent of the catastrophe. As feared, plutonium had been scattered in the mishap, and a wide arc of farms, homes, hills, and waterways was severely contaminated. Accepting limited liability, the US military led a limited cleanup. Soon, tons of radioactive Almerían topsoil would be comingled with South Carolina subsoil, as barrels of earth were shipped away and buried at the Savannah River Plant.2

This photo essay interrogates the devious discourses and reluctant rhetorics of what Time magazine belatedly called one of the world's twelve "worst nuclear disasters"—what others have called the worst nuclear weapons disaster in history. It is sparked by new reports showing continuing elevated levels of radioactivity in and around Palomares and with Wiki-leaked cables suggesting the US government may renege on future obligations. Combining contemporary images from Spain with a critique of key English-language primary and secondary sources, "Palomares Bajo" examines the southern European/American connections and traumas resulting from the incident. Acknowledging a vibrant Spanish tradition of protest and debate, rekindled through the years around anniversary observances, this essay solicits links to various stakeholders, cultural producers, and local residents, in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary in 2016.3

John Howard, Sheep and goats, Palomares, Spain, March 2011. John Howard, Palomares and Lower Palomares, Spain, March and May 2011. John Howard, Tractored and cultivated, Palomares, Spain, March 2011.
John Howard, Sheep and goats, Palomares (left), Unsold, Lower Palomares (center), Tractored and cultivated, Palomares (right), Spain, March and May 2011.

As with Richard Misrach photographs of secret Navy bombing ranges in Nevada, my project is more than an exercise in outrage at military duplicity. It is, as Eric Sandeen describes Misrach's work, an attempt "to situate American vision, to anchor American memory, in the ruins of modernity." Such "ruins" extend well beyond US borders to homelands and imperial outposts where communities must continue to live with the mistakes, misjudgements, and moral failings of nuclear belligerents—differently perceived depending upon the angle of vision, the varied nationalist agendas and histories.4

Through my own camera lens, with its particular framings and emphases, I view a region offering new resonances to age-old adages. Accidents do happen. (A crooked crosswalk caution sign, its own guard rails bent and broken, suggests worse fates still, the failures of precaution.) People push at limits. (A hole in a fence marks a trespass or a liberation, a shortcut or a grave danger.) Of course, some fenced borders are more ominous than others, some accidents virtually irreparable.

My photographic challenge is to counteract an American cultural amnesia around an event with which nearly all Spaniards are familiar, to contribute to a movement for redress that is perhaps best mobilized through multilateral engagement. Barring electron microscopy, cameras may have limited utility in the search for the elusive truth of nuclear contamination and its "acceptable levels." Indeed, as this essay argues, photography was cynically deployed in 1966 to redirect the public gaze, from land to sea, to avert eyes from the atrocity. Thus, my present-day focus on human, animal, and plant life in Palomares seeks to occasion reflection on physiological and psychological traumas that have waxed and waned over time in a persistent climate of uncertainty. It further seeks to goad. For as Walter Benjamin warns, mere reflection and rumination can turn misery, even the struggle against it, into an object of consumption and comfortable contemplation; they can turn writers and readers, artists and spectators, into collaborators. The challenge for us all, therefore, is to determine the "revolutionary use value" in owning up to historical wrongs and in allying with the people of Palomares to right them.5

John Howard, After school, 17 January 1966 Street, Palomares, Spain, April 2011. John Howard, Andrés, 17 January 1966 Street, Palomares, Spain, April 2011. John Howard, Cat, 17 January 1966 Street, Palomares, Spain, April 2011.
John Howard, After school (left), Andrés (center), Cat (right), 17 January 1966 Street, Palomares, Spain, April 2011.

Many in Palomares saw the jets blow up, many more watched the falling debris, on 17 January 1966. They hurried to help. Bartolomé Roldán, a fishing captain from Águilas, lifted the B-52 commander, a Duke University grad, out of the sea and onto his boat, along with the co-pilot, a UNC alumnus. Fellow fisherman Francisco Simó pulled another Goldsboro-based pilot out of the water. The fourth and final survivor, a navigator from Virginia, was found ashore, after parachuting to safety. Rushed away for treatment, the airmen had scant opportunity to thank their rescuers. Hushed by official secrecy on all matters atomic, they would be given no occasion to apologize to local residents for contaminating their town and fields.6

Diplomatically isolated from Western Europe and NATO, long denied membership in the United Nations and World Bank, Spain and its ruthless right-wing dictator Francisco Franco had found friends among successive US administrations, who from 1953 built and managed "joint" military installations across the country. The Morón base, near Seville, sent air tankers to refuel these planes returning to Goldsboro along the southernmost of four US Air Force routes, designed to keep hydrogen bombers perpetually in the air, to and from the periphery of the Soviet Union. The dangers of such a "defence" strategy already had been well-demonstrated, with crashes disproportionately visited upon the American South, home to senior Congressional hawks and, consequently, home to huge boondoggle bases, an undeniable boon to struggling economies. Accidents in Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas had been mercifully free of thermonuclear explosions—and, it seems, of significant radioactive contamination. In this latter respect, the citizens of Palomares were not so lucky.7

Austin, Texas-based airmen, temporarily stationed at Morón, were among the first of eight hundred US military personnel to arrive on the scene. Townspeople already had found four of their fellow aviators and three more from the B-52, all dead, west of town, not far from the cemetery. Spanish Civil Guard troopers located the first bomb, apparently undamaged. But the second, landing on the other side of the cemetery, was blown apart upon impact, when non-nuclear high-explosive components detonated. Startled, sisters-in-law Esperanza Ponce and María Serrano, working on their farm, now were worrying about their children at school. Through classroom windows, terrified students saw skies filled with smoke and burning wreckage, plummeting to earth.8

John Howard, Plásticos, Near Bomb Site #2, Palomares, Spain, April 2011. John Howard, Fencing, Near Bomb Site #2, Palomares, Spain, April 2011. John Howard, Cemetery, Near Bomb Site #2, Palomares, Spain, April 2011.
John Howard, Plásticos (left), Fencing (center), Cemetery (right), Near Bomb Site #2, Palomares, Spain, April 2011.

There was another blast, east of town, as Pedro de la Torre was acutely aware. It knocked him to the ground, along with his two grand-nephews. What they and all the townspeople would not be officially told for six weeks was that the two explosions had scattered highly-hazardous amounts of radioactive plutonium powder, a carcinogen, across their homes and crops. Three kilograms or more were dispersed, and "inhaling a milligram"—as seems likely for someone as close as de la Torre—"would certainly lead to lung cancer," according to one expert. Though several families were temporarily evicted from their homes without explanation, no one was evacuated from the area. Meanwhile, as news leaked out, hundreds of protesting students, workers, and middle-class professionals took to the streets of towns as near as Cuevas and cities as far as Madrid, chanting "Yankees, no, Yankees, go!"9

The New York Times Madrid correspondent, Tad Szulc, eventually motored down to Palomares, retreading some tired city clichés along the way. Can't get there from here. Cut off. "Best reached," like the bombs and generals who followed by helicopter, "from the sky." As if to diminish the damage, Szulc declared the disaster "profitable" for the town of Vera, host to invading journalists. But as US enlisted men encamped on the beach and closed fields, leaving tomatoes and beans to rot, the local economy to wither, Szulc gazed on Almería province as if looking away down South in Dixie, with all the usual condescending tropes: the "pathetic," "leprous sight" of mining's collapse, "dusty villages," "barely accessible," "by-passed," "remote and forgotten"—where "nothing meaningful ha[d] happened" for decades.10

The high command's top secrecy and press censorship was matched on the ground by a no-contact policy with townsfolk, a formula for global speculation and local resentment. "Little heed to the outside world"? Little knowledge of Cold War geopolitics? "The whole subject ... an unfathomable mystery"? Palomares schoolteacher Conchita Fernandez and others insisted that "Hiroshima and Nagasaki" were foremost in their thoughts. The "idl[e]" "octogenarian" de la Torre's account of the third bomb was disregarded, the elder himself disrespected, called by his first name. If "tough peasants" Ponce and Serrano "heard" the other explosion "without comprehension"—the familiar urbanist attribution of rural ignorance—the women learned soon enough, via Radio Independent Spain, broadcasting from Prague: what the Air Force dismissed as "propaganda." Hardly "isolated," the people of Palomares watched TV and "circulate[d] all the time." They found out the hard way.11

John Howard, Dog, Bomb Site #3, Palomares, Spain, April 2011. John Howard, Gate, Bomb Site #3, Palomares, Spain, April 2011. John Howard, Farm, Bomb Site #3, Palomares, Spain, April 2011.
John Howard, Dog (left), Gate (center), Farm (right), Bomb Site #3, Palomares, Spain, April 2011.

Two thousand eventually were tested, then those with positive urine samples were retested, under revised procedures: All negative! (Plutonium particles, US scientists claimed, had fallen off clothing directly into samples, skewing results—and inadvertently demonstrating a likelihood of inhalation.) To monitor the life-long enhanced susceptibility to cancer, a subset of 150 citizens was not provided with a local lab and clinic, an unprecedented opportunity for scientific inquiry and healthcare around large-scale plutonium contamination of human populations. Instead their medical records remained sealed to them, even as they were made to travel 250 miles to Madrid every year for examinations. Proving again, as city slicker Szulc surveyed it, that "all roads seem to lead away from [Palomares] rather than to it."12

Szulc got one thing right: "Although the long spectacular search" for the fourth bomb, at the bottom of the Med for eighty days, "was to overshadow the village's radioactivity problem in [US] public opinion, the contamination was in reality the most significant" calamity. Truly, top brass lies ("There is no danger to public health") and dubious military heroics ("The Air Force alone distributed seventy medals and commendations") were now superseded by Navy exploits, a callous diversionary tactic continuing even into the twenty-first century. At the time, Newsweek, Readers' Digest, and Washington Post headlines focused on "The Missing H-Bomb," singular. The latest book, from 2009, probes The Day We Lost the H-Bomb. Explicit in its manipulation of press coverage and visual imagery, the Air Force enlisted the aid of Navy photographers: "In the absence of official comment..., decontamination of crops continues to be an area of [journalists'] concern.... We believe that Navy-furnished photography on their operations could reduce considerable pressure."13

Sympathetic Spanish-speaking Southerners—an ag agent from south Texas, a claims adjuster from New Orleans, a reporter from L.A.—brought a measure of humanity. But they were the exceptions who proved the rule. Commanding thirty-four ships and 2,200 sailors, "snapp[ing] at his aides and curs[ing] the foul weather," Rear Admiral William Guest discounted Francisco Simó's crucial role in recovering the fourth bomb—and thereby discounted his salvage entitlement. "Exactly one month after the loss of the bomb," Georgia-native Guest had "finally succeeded [sic] in narrowing his high-probability search area from the initial 120 square miles to 27.33 square miles." Still, once the wayward bomb was surfaced intact, another two months later, the "Little Bulldog" derided the soul-saving skipper from Águilas. After all, the bomb was "a good mile" from Simó's sighting. No surprise, given "powerful bottom currents." More concerned with activities topside, desperate fishermen and women protested against the three-month closure of the shoreline and their loss of livelihood.14

John Howard, Mother and daughter, Life in Palomares, Spain, April 2011. John Howard, Looking, Life in Palomares, Spain, April 2011. John Howard, A walk, Life in Palomares, Spain, March 2011.
John Howard, Mother and daughter (left), Looking (center), A walk (right), Life in Palomares, Spain, March and April 2011.

In addition to class antagonisms and rural denigrations, race figured prominently. "Dark-faced Andalusian peasants" were seldom valued for their local knowledge. Farmers and fishers from neighboring Villaricos were thoroughly othered, marked as "racially different." Their "miserable and abandoned hamlet" was contradictorily said to be "inhabited by dark-skinned gypsies and by descendants of the Moor[s]," a coded reference to contested Judeo-Christian-Islamic histories. Among film stills from US military footage, displayed in a groundbreaking 2003 exhibition in Spain, non-naval images capture Civil Guards and locals mostly without protective clothing. African American airmen with gloves are shown measuring a house's radioactivity, laundering contaminated uniforms, and shifting barrels full of "hot soil."15

Whether through inhalation or ingestion, direct contact or introduction into ecosystems, the myriad deleterious effects of plutonium exposure were subject to hot debate. Spanish nuclear experts—"first-rate scientists, many of whom were trained in US universities"—disagreed with US military-contracted scientists over the amount of earth to scrape away and subsurface to plow afresh, with Spanish levels initially fourteen and ten times higher, respectively. In the end, negotiated figures were much closer to US dictates, establishing a dangerous bilateral precedent with international ramifications. Made in the US, plutonium-239 was scarcely twenty-five years old in 1966, the decontamination guidelines underdeveloped and the available detection equipment inadequate to the task. With transparency and full disclosure cast along the wayside of totalitarianism and flawed democracy, there was no independent scrutiny of the cleanup. UN inspectors were not called in.16

What a noxious homecoming. In the early 1950s, South Carolina farms and towns with significant black populations had been taken under eminent domain, residents forced out, as the US government contracted with DuPont for the production of weapons-grade plutonium and tritium. In 1966, an "atomic monument" in Spain—in the form of a new nuclear waste site—was deemed too politically explosive. So nearly 5,000 drums with 1,750 tons of tainted soil and vegetation were sent for burial back at the Savannah River Plant. But not before eight more airmen, normally attached to a Georgia base, were killed in a Palomares supply plane crash in the Sierra Nevada. It would take yet another USAF nuclear crash in Greenland in 1968—another accident waiting to happen—before authorities finally ended these ill-advised, round-the-clock, H-bomb flights, so costly to the American and European South. And North. For the contaminated Danish ice and water were also shipped across the Atlantic to Charleston, then sent up the tracks to their ultimate destination.17

John Howard, Development, Mojácar Playa, Spain, September 2010. John Howard, Overgrown, Vera Playa, Spain, September 2010. John Howard, Precaution, Mojácar Playa, Spain, September 2010.
John Howard, Development, Mojácar Playa (left), Overgrown, Vera Playa (center), Precaution, Mojácar Playa (right), Spain, September 2010.

There was a parade! In March 1966, an Air Force band marched through the streets of Palomares, heralding the conclusion of the cleanup. (Forty-five years later, Spain's socialist government, through Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez, would remind Secretary of State Hillary Clinton there was much left to be done.) There was speechifying in the Palomares square. After the morning's two seaside photo ops, at Mojácar Playa then closer to the town proper, Franco's Information and Tourism Minister Manuel Fraga offered conciliatory words to locals. (Fraga's career would extend far beyond the fascist heyday to the founding of the far-right Popular Alliance, progenitor of today's Popular Party, akin to the white South's beloved Republican Party.)18

Fraga's promise "to turn this part of Almería into a major tourist center" was met with "a very tangible scepticism." And a sophisticated rural sarcasm. One of many such placards held aloft read: "We have blind faith in the justice of your decisions." Palomares proved an enduring source of satire. A recent YouTube clip splices footage of the Duke-Fraga swim—infamous across Spain, unknown in America—with a kitschy black-and-white horror film, in which an irradiated-humanoid, an atomic-age amphibian, emerges from the sea, menacing sailors and overturning cars.19

Never-ending—the half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,000 years—the story grows more farcical. Palomares today is not awash with tourists, of course. Fortunately, despite six consecutive crop failures in the late sixties, the agricultural sector has survived. But as no-go zones have expanded in Palomares and in the Almagrera foothills downwind, less is known about the site where, in 2008, two trenches of contaminants were discovered, left behind and buried by the Air Force—a literal cover-up. Still less is known (or said) about the beach where servicemen loaded the toxic barrels for transport. "Lower Palomares" remains a sparsely-populated stretch of an otherwise overdeveloped seashore, between Villaricos, now a popular scuba-diving destination, and Vera Playa, rechristened as Europe's longest nudist beach. In between, dog walkers cross paths with motocross enthusiasts, long-pole fishermen brush up against determined gay cruisers—with yards of plastic warning tape ripped down and balled up. What many fail to see or prefer to forget is what lies beneath the eerie surface beauty of Palomares Bajo.20

John Howard, Mountains and fields, Palomares Bajo, Spain, May 2011. John Howard, Warning, Palomares Bajo, Spain, May 2011. John Howard, Pallets, Palomares Bajo, Spain, May 2011.
John Howard, Mountains and fields (left), Warning (center), Pallets (right), Palomares Bajo, Spain, May 2011.

In conclusion, from some vantage points, American Ambassador Angier Duke's "whimsical idea" to stage a swim in the Mediterranean, before the fourth bomb was salvaged, represented "a great success." It suggested a more "open and relaxed information policy," as opposed to the news bans and outright deception that characterized the days immediately following the crash and during the cleanup—indeed, that characterized top-secret nuclear arms policies generally. Duke's diplomacy, his "talent and experience," thus were credited with overturning the military's state-of-emergency authoritarianism.21

Actually, it's unclear when if ever American authorities would have publicly revealed the extent of the catastrophe, had it not been for Dr. José María Otero Navascués, president of the Spanish Nuclear Energy Board, who "took matters into his own hands" at the end of February 1966. Apparently acting unilaterally, without the approval of superiors, he gave an extended interview to Spanish news agency Cifra, conceding a serious "radioactivity problem" in and around Palomares. All subsequent US activities, therefore, appeared reactive. An early March press release finally confessed "the scattering of some plutonium," six weeks after the fact. The Duke-Fraga swim took place several days later, followed by a hasty termination of the decontamination exercise, and the last shipment of barrels on 24 March. "Opening" press access to the sophisticated naval operation, with its mesmerizing high-tech submersibles, effectively meant confining reporters to the sea, distracting them from the sullied landscapes. When the fourth bomb ultimately surfaced in April, officials orchestrated a splashy news conference far from Águilas, Villaricos, and Palomares, at the port of Garrucha. Locals were uninvited. Duke arrived by yacht.22

Across the global south, in the poorest regions of Europe and the United States, American Cold War aggression exacted its tolls upon those least able to pay them. Two decades would pass before documentarians were allowed inside the Savannah River Plant, exposing the deadly hazards for generations of South Carolinians. Photos of the Duke-Fraga swim circulated in some American newspapers, but swiftly faded from memory, supplanted by images of submarines and the solitary "missing H-bomb," in turn replaced at the turn of the millennium by the warped Hollywood heroism of Men of Honor, in which Cuba (Gooding, Jr.) finds the bomb. The United States paid little more than $700,000 on 500-plus compensation claims by farmers and residents, scarcely $1,000 per person. But at least one functionary declared it "overgenerous," "considering how these people live"—a good indication of the official indifference to "these people." Whereas Ambassador Duke had impossibly pledged to leave the region as it was before, the secret dump and countless shortcuts guaranteed an everlasting predicament. As Spanish reporter Rafael Méndez acerbically put it in 2008, "They took all the contaminated soil. Or so they said."23

About the Photographer

John Howard is Professor of American Studies at King's College London. He is the author of Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow (2008) and Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (1999), both from the University of Chicago Press. An exhibition of his documentary photographs will be mounted in November 2011 at the University of Reading, UK, co-curated by Olena Slyesarenko and Mark W. Turner.


In 2010, Fundación Valparaiso generously granted a one-month artist's residency in Mojácar, where this project was conceived. I'm also grateful to editors Franky Abbott, Sarah Melton, Ellen Spears, and, as always, Allen Tullos for invaluable assistance in refining it.

  • 1. Of multiple secondary sources in English and Spanish, my account relies foremost upon John Megara, "Dropping Nuclear Bombs on Spain: The Palomares Accident of 1966 and the U.S. Airborne Alert," M.A. thesis (Tallahassee: Florida State University, 2006), at (accessed 16 January 2011) and Rafael Méndez, "Palomares contamination detected outside the expropriated and fenced areas," El País, 1 July 2007 (my translation), at (accessed 16 January 2011). Since 2010, the El País website has offered daily English translations of selected articles, which are retained for a week or more, but are not archived online.
  • 2. Palomares Scrapbook, Angier Biddle Duke Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, NC.
  • 3. Recently updated to incorporate Fukushima, Japan, the online Time photo essay originated on 25 March 2009. See "The Worst Nuclear Disasters," at,29307,1887705_1862260,00.html (accessed 13 May 2011). Reprinted by El País, 11 December 2010, the two Wiki-leaked diplomatic cables are "Spain and U.S. Cooperating to Remediate Radiation Contamination from 1966 Nuclear Accident," 7 November 2006, at (accessed 12 February 2011) and "Interagency Decision Needed on Palomares Response to GOS [Government of Spain]," 30 April 2009, at (accessed 12 February 2011). Activist and historian Luisa Isabel Álvarez de Toledo, 21st Duchess of Medina Sidonia, helped lead early demonstrations, including a first anniversary protest. The erroneously dubbed "Red Duchess"—she identified as socialist, not communist—was jailed by the Franco regime for her efforts. Her memoir and the edited volume in which much of it is published should be considered an indispensable source, though as yet available only in Spanish. Eduardo Subirats, ed., La Era de Palomares (Barcelona: El Viejo Topo, 2010).
  • 4. Eric J. Sandeen, "Souvenirs from the Landscapes of Modernity: Richard Misrach, Camilo Vergara, and the Visual Politics of Ruin," in Pictorial Cultures and Political Iconographies: Approaches, Perspectives, Case Studies from Europe and America, edited by Udo J. Hebel and Christoph Wagner (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2011), 316.
  • 5. Walter Benjamin, "The Author as Producer," in Thinking Photographically, edited by Victor Burgin (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982), 24-27. Captured in several images here, so-called plásticos—translucent synthetic coverings of tilled rows or entire fields—are commonplace throughout Almería province and are unrelated to contamination.
  • 6. The survivors were Ivens Buchanan, Larry Messinger, Michael Rooney, and Charles Wendorf. Megara, 32-33.
  • 7. Nuclear bombs dropped off the coast of Georgia in 1958 and into a swamp near Goldsboro in 1961 were never recovered. H. L. Reese, AFRRI Special Report: DoD Nuclear Mishaps (Bethesda, MD: Defense Nuclear Agency, 1986), at (accessed 12 May 2011). See also, Stephen I. Schwartz, ed., Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998). On further rationales for base locations, see Frederick J. Shaw, ed., Locating Air Force Base Sites: History's Legacy (Washington, DC: United States Air Force, 2004), at (accessed 13 May 2011).
  • 8. The deceased were Emil Chapla, George Glessner, Paul Lane, Stephen Montanus, Lloyd Potolicchio, Leo Simmons, and Ronald Snyder. Megara, 27-8.
  • 9. Megara, 31. Jeremy Bernstein, Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), 158. Szulc, 102, 124. David Stiles, "A Fusion Bomb over Andalucía: U.S. Information Policy and the 1966 Palomares Incident," Journal of Cold War Studies 8 (Winter 2006): 56. Christopher Morris, The Big Catch (Maidstone, Kent: Angley, 1966), 99.
  • 10. Tad Szulc, The Bombs of Palomares (London: Victor Gollancz, 1967), 11-13.
  • 11. Szulc, 14, 19, 21, 43, 101, 116-7, 119-23, 145. About press censorship, Szulc notes that beyond the constant US no-comment, "on certain days newspapermen were kept out of the village of Palomares altogether. On other days Spanish plain-clothes men prevented them from talking with the villagers," 202.
  • 12. Méndez, "Palomares contamination." Szulc, 14, 153. Secrecy around Palomares medical records is confirmed in Arjun Makhijani and Stephen I. Schwartz, "Victims of the Bomb," in Schwartz, Atomic Audit, 409.
  • 13. Szulc, 88, 115, 196, 252. "An H-Bomb is Missing and the Hunt Goes On," Newsweek, 7 March 1966; John G. Hubbell, "The Case of the Missing H-Bomb," Readers' Digest, September 1966; Howard Simmons, "The Missing H-Bomb" (series of articles), Washington Post, September 1966, all cited in Szulc, 255-6. Barbara Moran, The Day We Lost the H-Bomb: Cold War, Hot Nukes, and the Worst Nuclear Weapons Accident in History (New York: Presidio, 2009). W. M. Place, F.C. Cobb, and C.G. Defferding, "Palomares Summary Report," Field Command, Technology and Analysis Directorate (Kirtland Air Force Base, NM: Defense Nuclear Agency, 1975), 189, at (accessed 2 August 2011). Szulc clearly gleaned the fourth bomb's problematic diversionary appeal from the Atomic Energy Commission's world-leading plutonium specialist, Dr. Wright Langham, overseeing decontamination efforts at Palomares. "Set against the efficient but cold professionalism of most ... experts on the scene," the orphan from east Texas, trained in Oklahoma, brought a needed "humaneness and understanding of farm land and its people," 145. Ill-focused American accounts from the period, the cold disregard for the plight of the people of Palomares, resulted in part from the limitations of interviewing. Official voices predominated. For example, in a book with chapters devoted largely to "The Sea," "The Search," "The Find," and "The Recovery" of the fourth bomb, the second chapter on "The Village" tracks the experiences of seven individuals, in a recurrent trope, "at 10:22 a.m. on the Monday of the accident." They are all male (priest, military officers, large landowner, etc.), except one, a nine-year-old girl, whose brief account is clearly relayed by her father. Flora Lewis, One of Our H-Bombs is Missing... (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967). The skewed visual iconography of the Palomares disaster is perhaps best evidenced by the 33-illustration inset in Moran. Only two images depict local residents, whereas over half focus on aspects of the sea search, the majority of which are "US Naval Historical Center photograph[s]."
  • 14. Szulc, 137, 170, 184-5, 220. Megara, 63.
  • 15. Szulc, 17, 169, 246. Emphasis added. Antonio Sánchez Picón, ed., Operation "Broken Arrow": The Nuclear Accident at Palomares (Almería: Andalucían Center of Photography, 2003), 83, 115, 117 (my translation). The National Archives online database lists twenty-nine entries for "Palomares (Castilla-León [sic], Spain, Europe) inhabited place," all unedited film footage of salvage operations and related activities. In every case, use restrictions are "undetermined." Record Group 428, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1941-2004, NWDNM(m)-428-NPC-36224 - 9, 36231 - 3, 36253, 36259, 36554 - 7, 36563 - 6, 36570 - 3, 36679, 36746 - 7, 36760 - 1. Shot lists from these twenty-nine entries evidence the great attention paid to the underwater search, reflected in subsequent news coverage. The best of the limited sources on ground operations seem to be 36554 - 5. Large amounts of Air Force footage were destroyed in 1991 and 1993, as is demonstrated in Sánchez Picón, 15. On the exhibition, see Daniel Wools, "1966 Hydrogen-Bomb Mishap in Spain Detailed," Los Angeles Times, 24 August 2003, at (accessed 2 March 2011). Perhaps the only American review, it recycles the clichés about this "sleepy" "corner of the world where nothing much ever happened," inhabitants "oblivious" to radioactive dangers, a notion parroted even in latter-day Palomares: "This is a rural area. What did people know about bombs?"
  • 16. Szulc, 118, 150. Megara, 41-43. Randall C. Maydew, America's Lost H-Bomb! Palomares, Spain, 1966 (Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 1997), 70-80. The 1975 US military summary report on the incident is unusually frank about radiation detection equipment failures and the resulting windborne proliferation of plutonium contamination: "The total extent of the spread will never be known." Moreover, "the politics of the situation negated ... the placing of 'contaminated area' signs," confirming the official secrecy, the deliberate withholding of vital information from townspeople. In negotiations with Spanish scientists, a seemingly "natural concern of US authorities" was to establish acceptable contamination thresholds that would not prove too onerous or costly as a precedent for "future incidents." Plutonium was spread far beyond the 100-yard debris scattering at bomb site #2 and the 500-yard dispersal range at bomb site #3, even beyond sites downwind. Some US military "personnel arrived in Germany with some contamination on various articles." Place, 20, 38-42, 49-56, 64.
  • 17. Szulc, 169, 197-8. The deceased were John Arceheaux, James Cisco, William Cornwell, Donald Gallitzin, Charles Henderson, Ronald Hickman, James Thompson, and Kenneth Young. The towns and communities demolished in the DuPont deal were Dunbarton, Ellenton, Hawthorne, Leigh, Meyers Mill, and Robbins, South Carolina. An acclaimed 1991 documentary elaborates: "To make way for the world's first hydrogen bomb manufacturing complex, the Atomic Energy Commission swallowed up 300 square miles of land in three counties, an area four times the size of Washington, DC. Whole towns were wiped off the map forever. Six thousand people from 1500 different families had to move." The film further exposes federal and corporate cover-ups of the radioactive contamination of employees, the area environment, and downriver: "A number of accidents [and leaks] due to faulty design and human error ... allowed high level radiation to escape." As with the collusion between US and Franco authorities in Spain, top secrecy insured that, to that time, "no outside studies of contamination [had] been undertaken" at the Savannah River Plant. Mark Mori and Susan J. Robinson, dirs., Building Bombs (Santa Monica, CA: Single Spark Pictures, 1991). For a review of this film, see Helen Shortal, "The Inner Life of the Deadly Machine," Southern Changes 12.5 (1990): 7-10, at (accessed 2 August 2011). See also, Louise Cassels, The Unexpected Exodus: How the Cold War Displaced One Southern Town (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007 [1971]), with an insightful new introduction by Kari Frederickson, including a critique of notions of "rural isolation" and "empty" space, xx-xxi. Frederickson calculates the displaced South Carolinians as "approximately eight thousand living persons [and] nearly six thousand departed souls from the region's many graveyards and cemeteries," xxviii. See also, Andre Carrothers, "Plutonium Politics: The Poisoning of South Carolina," Southern Changes 10.4 (1988), 4-5, 8-10, at (accessed 2 August 2011).
  • 18. Szulc, 199. "US 'very committed' to find a way to clean Palomares," El Mundo,26 January 2011 (my translation) at (accessed 23 May 2011).
  • 19. Szulc, 209. The 47-second clip, uploaded by pichuneke, 21 October 2008, is "Palomares: Nuevos documentos inéditos, New never seen before documents," at (accessed 22 May 2011).
  • 20. Breezy Time articles from 1966 were eclipsed by John Blashill's somber piece, "Spain: After the Fall," Time, 24 January 1969, at,9171,900563-1,00.html (accessed 13 May 2011). Insensitive to ironies of causality, Blashill wrote that the six tomato crop failures "may well be due to other causes [since] the plowing three years ago" – that is, the cleanup's scraping of topsoil and turning of subsoil – "apparently brought old salt deposits to the surface." Rafael Méndez, "Spain finds US radioactive ditches hidden in Palomares," El País, 10 April 2008 (my translation), at (accessed 12 May 2011).
  • 21. Stiles, 62, 65, 66.
  • 22. Szulc, 202-3, 246-7. Maydew, 63. The Spanish press suggested a causal relationship between the Otero Navascués interview and subsequent US actions. See, for example, "State and Defense Departments officially admit fallen debris in Almería is nuclear," ABC, 3 March 1966 (my translation).
  • 23. Place, 181. Blashill. Méndez, "Spain finds."

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