Lost Nuclear Bombs and Malaysia MH370

By L. Douglas Keeney

A gust of wind whirled up some dirt which blossomed up into the dry air before blowing off the road and into the yard of the local school. Further down the coastal road was the sea were a half dozen fishermen were preparing their boats. It was the morning of January 16, 1966, the start of another quiet day in the village of Palomares, Spain, perhaps a little warm for this time of the year but a glorious Mediterranean day nonetheless with the pleasing smell of salt water suffusing the air and thin contrails stitching white lines across the brilliantly blue sky.

Major Larry Messinger didn’t know much about the geography below him or what a fisherman’s day was like; he was in the cockpit of a B-52 intercontinental nuclear bomber which at that moment was at 30,000 feet and was armed and able to strike Moscow at a moment’s notice. His job was to deter a war with the threat of unquenchable nuclear fire, unstoppable retaliation—but he was tired and his crew was tired and their day was already a long one, nearly twenty hours in the air on an airborne alert mission in defense of the United States of America. And now he had his hands full. They needed gas before they crossed the Atlantic Ocean and a refueling tanker was flying directly in front of his windshield. He inched his bomber forward.

B-52 Bomber
A B-52 nuclear bomber. One like this broke apart above Palomares, Spain spilling four nuclear bombs, one of which descended into an undersea trench offshore and was not found for three month. The white paint on its fuselage was designed to reflect the heat of a thermonuclear bomb’s fireball. Credit: 15 Minutes/The Department of Defense

The events of the next several minutes would be studied in minute detail but in the end it hardly mattered how they collided. There was a muted boom and a brilliant flash in the sky as the giant airplanes suddenly rammed each other in a violent, terribly fatal midair collision. Messinger’s B-52 hit the underbelly of the KC-135 tanker igniting its payload of aviation gas which turned it into a blowtorch and incinerated everyone inside. His own plane split apart down the middle of its fuselage and filled the sky with wings and engines and pieces and parts blown apart in an explosion including four thermonuclear bombs that were now falling through the sky towards that schoolhouse and the village below.

Thermonuclear bombs are tricky things to control. They’re programmed to work with terrifying precision but also wired with failsafe gates which are designed to prevent accidents. Unfortunately, the extreme forces of a B-52 breaking apart in this case tricked the bombs and convinced their circuitry that they had been correctly dropped. One by one they partially armed themselves as they plummeted towards the ground and one by one they hit and exploded with furious blasts. One blew up near the schoolhouse. One fell into a river bed and was a dud. The third exploded near the coastline. Fortunately, the plutonium balls didn’t go nuclear –the arming hadn’t progressed that far — so it was only the high explosives that went off, but radioactive dust was now scattered over acres of the arid countryside of Southern Spain. That, and corpses.

Teams rushed in from the United States and the wreckage was gathered up but there were four bombs, not three. Where was the fourth? The hills above Palomares were laced with mines so a team of mine inspectors came in from Colorado, but the evidence increasingly turned to the sea. Yes, one fisherman said, he had seen something hit the waters just offshore, but the twenty five ships had no luck, either. Nothing at sea, nothing on land— nothing except blistering criticism in the world’s newspapers and the hue and cry of protests outside of U.S. Embassies. It was a very bad day in Washington, D.C.

For months it dragged on. Hopes were renewed with the dawning of each morning but by days end nerves were frayed yet again. Over and over it repeated with no luck until at the end of the third month a manned deep sea submersible inching through the dangerously deep undersea trench just offshore caught in the glare of its powerful searchlight the glint of steel. There it was, balancing on the edge of an undersea canyon 2,850 feet below the surface. A mechanical arm tried to snag it but bumped it causing the bomb to slide down further down into the bottomless trench. It was like “filling the Grand Canyon with coffee, tossing in a golf ball, and retrieving it,” said one of the search team members when it was finally brought up, but it was found.

Malaysia MH370 is not the first time the international community has anxiously awaited the results of a highly publicized search. A lost nuclear bomb off the coast of Spain near the fishing village of Palomares held the world in suspense for three months. The sole reason for the participation by the world’s navies in this nerve wracking search for MH370 is to again find a lost object which now stands on the stages of international attention as certainly as a missing bomb did sixty years ago. There have been lost bombs. There is a lost airliner. We will find it. It is our way and has been since Palomares, Spain, decades ago.

L. DOUGLAS KEENEY is a military historian and researcher. He is the co-founder of The Military Channel on which he hosted a series called On Target. He has since appeared on The Discovery Channel, CBS, and The Learning Channel and is the author of numerous books of military history, including 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation.

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Posted in Military History, Modern History

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