Barbara Moran: The Day We Lost the H-Bomb

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Barbara Moran The Day We Lost the H-Bomb
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    The Day We Lost the H-Bomb
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In 1966, a mid-air collision off the coast of Spain between a fueling tanker and a B-52 bomber resulted in a loss of life, strained international relations, and a PR nightmare for the US government. Not only had the crash put innocent civilians at risk from raining debris, but it also produced a much larger problem once the dust had cleared: four hydrogen bombs were now unaccounted for. explores an awakening to the realities of a nuclear age. Despite a handful of plutonium-grade foul-ups on our own soil, Americans were seemingly at ease with a burgeoning arsenal of nuclear weaponry. Cold War anxiety over the ever-reaching arm of Communism fueled massive increases in U.S. military spending, yet not enough attention was given to the dangers of an arms race until this fatal accident abroad.

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Barbara Moran


Cold War, Hot Nukes, and the Worst Nuclear Weapons Disaster in History


I think I hear the helicopter.


Francisco Simó Orts stood on the deck of his fishing boat, squinting at the Spanish coastline. It was midmorning and the sky was a brilliant blue, the bright sun blazing as it climbed toward noon. Simó, tall and square-shouldered with a head of thick dark hair, looked more like a movie star than a shrimp fisherman. Like a bronzed Kirk Douglas, said a reporter much later, playing the role of captain. He even had the perfect dimple in his chin.

Despite his marquee looks, Simó was indeed just a fisherman, and at the moment he was deciding whether to lift his shrimp nets from the sea. Having worked the waters off southeastern Spain since he was a boy, he was a seasoned sailor and, at the age of thirty-eight, also a shrewd and prosperous businessman. Simó owned two sturdy fishing boats with the latest sounding gear and was known as a big man around town. And his town, the coastal village of Aguilas, was no backwater. It was a growing seaside resort with a whiff of worldliness, a bit out of character for this part of rural Spain.

Aguilas even had a four-story building — more than other nearby towns could say.

But even in this rising city, Simó’s self-confidence set him apart. His family had originally come from Catalonia, an independent-minded region on the northeastern coast of Spain. Even today, people from there think of themselves as Catalonian first and Spanish second, if at all. They prefer speaking Catalan to Spanish and are widely known for their business sense. Simó, by all accounts, had inherited the enterprising spirit of his ancestors. He had that quality that admiring Americans call “hustle.” The other fishermen in Aguilas, not altogether kindly, called him “El Catalan.” On this particular Monday, January 17, 1966, Simó had left Aguilas at dawn and trundled some forty miles down the Spanish coast to the shrimp banks off the small town of Palomares. Simó’s boat dropped her nets and puttered slowly, scooping shrimp from the sea. The ship, named Manuela Orts Simó after Simó’s mother, sailed parallel to the shore, about five miles off the coast. A bit farther out to sea was Simó’s other boat, the Agustín y Rosa, steered by his older brother Alfonso. Closer to shore chugged the Dorita, captained by another Aguilas fisherman named Bartolomé Roldán Martínez. By 10:22 a.m., the three boats had been trawling for two hours and were preparing to raise their nets. Simó looked at the desert hills on the shoreline to get his bearings. He had learned to find his position by certain landmarks, and he knew the coastline by heart. Lining up a particular mountain with an abandoned chimney, for instance, and a familiar building with a certain hill, allowed him to establish his location precisely. Now he stood on his swaying boat, looking at the scrubby brown hills around Palomares and the bright, cloudless sky above. Then he saw an explosion.

High above the hills, an orange fireball flashed in the blue sky, followed by a deep, thunderous rumble. A rain of debris showered the Spanish countryside, and black smoke rose from the town of Palomares. Moments later, Simó saw five parachutes floating out to sea. They drifted for long minutes, hanging in the sky. Two chutes hit the ocean close to shore, near the Dorita. Another sailed high over Simó’s head and landed far out to sea. And two splashed down near Simó—one about twenty-five yards toward shore, another about seventy-five yards seaward. Before they hit the water, Simó got a good look at them. Each seemed to carry a grisly cargo. The closer parachute seemed to hold a half a man, with his guts trailing from his severed torso. The other seemed to carry a dead man, hanging still and silent. Hoping the dead man might simply be unconscious, he steered his boat to the spot where his chute had hit the sea. But when Simó arrived, the dead man had already disappeared under the waves, parachute and all. Simó glanced at the coast and noted his position.

Then he turned his boat to the Dorita, sailing as fast as his trailing shrimp nets would allow.


1. Mighty SAC

Twenty-four hours earlier, across the ocean, Captain Charles Wendorf sat in Saint Luke’s Methodist Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, teaching his weekly Sunday school class to a group of lanky teenagers. Thirty years old, blue-eyed, and athletic, Wendorf sported a blond buzz cut and a relaxed confidence that belied his years. Wendorf had it all — a wife, three kids, a house, and a great job flying B-52 bombers. He also held a deep, earnest faith in God, America, and the U.S. Air Force, a faith tempered by an easy, self-deprecating manner and a gentle sense of humor. He had the disarming habit of starting sentences with the phrase “Well, I guess…” When asked if the kids in his Sunday school class looked up to him, a hotshot pilot, he chuckled and said in his aw-shucks way, “Well, I guess I suppose they did.”

When the class finished, Wendorf got into his car with his wife, Betty, for the drive back to their home on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. It was early in the afternoon. Wendorf had to be at squadron headquarters for a preflight briefing at 3:30 p.m., and he wanted to get home in time for a quick nap. In the car, Betty spoke up. She had a bad feeling about tonight’s flight and wished Charlie could get out of it. Wendorf reassured his wife; he had flown this mission more than fifty times before, it was perfectly routine, there was nothing to worry about. She dropped the subject. There was no point in arguing; they both knew that the Air Force always won.

Wendorf had been in the Air Force his entire adult life, starting with ROTC when he was a student at Duke. He had entered flight training right after graduation and earned his wings in October 1959.

His Air Force supervisors called him a born pilot. Wendorf had spent the last five and a half years behind the controls of B-52s, logging 2,100 flying hours in that plane alone. Initially disappointed to be assigned to the lumbering B-52, rather than a glamorous fighter plane, he eventually came to believe it far more challenging to manage a seven-man crew than a fighter plane and rose to become the youngest aircraft commander in the Strategic Air Command (SAC), his part of the Air Force. He also came to love his plane. “The airplane is huge, it’s mammoth,” he said. “But if you could fly that airplane like I could, you could thread a needle with it.”

Wendorf got home from church around 2 p.m. and took his nap. When he woke up, he put on his olive green flight suit, grabbed his flight gear and briefcase, and headed to squadron headquarters.

There, he checked his box for messages, found nothing, and met up with the rest of his crew for the preflight briefing. On this mission, Wendorf would be sharing pilot duties with two other men. His copilot was twenty-five-year-old First Lieutenant Michael Rooney. Only four years junior to Wendorf, Rooney had a hard-partying lifestyle that made him seem younger. One writer described the pilot as a jolly bachelor who enjoyed chasing skirts in nearby Raleigh. Rooney said the writer should have included Durham, Charlotte, and Goldsboro as well. His bachelor status made him a fish out of water in SAC, where most of the airmen were married with kids. SAC wives like Betty Wendorf fussed over the young man, inviting him for dinner and stuffing him with home-cooked food. Rooney’s close friendship with the Wendorf family led to a lot of easy banter between the two men. Rooney had graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a longtime rival of Wendorf’s Duke, and for the two pilots, trashing the other’s alma mater was an endless source of amusement.

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