Frogmen Were Deployed to Search for a Nuclear Device in Palomares Following a Broken Arrow Incident

Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

In the annals of aviation history, few broken arrow incidents have had the potential for catastrophic consequences quite like the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash. This incident occurred over Spain, and centered around a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress departed from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, as part of Operation Chrome Dome.

Wreckage of a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
Boeing B-52 Stratofortress wreckage in Palomares, Spain, 1966. (Photo Credit: Keystone-France
/ Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images)

The Cold War-era mission saw American bombers, armed with nuclear weapons, repeatedly fly to points along the Soviet border. This was a lot of airtime, requiring the aircraft to be refueled in the air.

During this specific flight, two refuelings were conducted, and it was during one that a B-52 Stratofortress collided with a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, causing both aircraft to crash. The former broke apart in the air, while the fuel carrier ignited. There were 11 men aboard both, seven of whom died, and the wreckage was scattered across Palomares, Spain.

Even worse was the B-52 had been carrying four B28FI Mod 2 Y1 thermonuclear bombs. Three were located near Palomares. Two had their non-nuclear components detonate on impact, causing a large area to become contaminated with plutonium. The fourth device went missing, prompting a two-and-a-half-month search of the Mediterranean before it was found.

Shown in the Featured Image of this article is a group of US Navy frogmen near Palomares following the broken arrow incident. They were tasked with helping find the missing bomb. In the photo, they can be seen assessing the area with their equipment, either before or after their search. Among the various naval vessels deployed to help with recovery operations were around 150 highly-qualified divers.

US military personnel standing around a B28FI Mod 2 Y1 thermonuclear bomb
Recovered B28FI Mod 2 Y1 thermonuclear bomb, 1966. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / United States Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

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With the nuclear bomb found and brought to the surface on April 7, 1966, clean-up efforts truly got underway. The plutonium-contaminated soil had to be removed from the area, and the US government decided to use US servicemen to do it. Horrifically, they sent roughly 1,600 men to Palomares to do this, with little-to-no equipment to protect them from the radiation. What’s more, the area remains contaminated to this day.

In the years after, many developed health issues, and, today, they’re struggling to receive compensation from the US government.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.