The Washington Post
Day We Lost the H-Bomb: Cold War, Hot Nukes, and the Worst Nuclear Weapons Disaster in Historyby Barbara Moran
In The Day We Lost the H-Bomb, science writer Barbara Moran marshals a wealth of new information and recently declassified material to give the definitive account of the Cold War’s biggest nuclear weapons disaster. On January 17, 1966, a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber exploded over the sleepy Spanish farming village of Palomares during a routine airborne refueling. The explosion killed seven airmen and scattered the bomber’s payload–four unarmed thermonuclear bombs–across miles of coastline. Three of the rogue H-bombs were recovered quickly. Tracking down the fourth required the largest search-and-salvage operation in U.S. military history.
Moran traces the roots of the Palomares incident, giving a brief yet in-depth history of the Strategic Air Command and its eccentric, larger-than-life commander, General Curtis LeMay, whose massive deterrence strategy kept armed U.S. bombers aloft at all times. Back on the ground, Moran recounts the myriad social and environmental effects of an accident that spread radioactive debris over hundreds of acres of Spanish farmland, alarmed America’s strategic allies, and damaged Spanish-American diplomatic relations.
As the American military floundered in its attempt to keep the story secret, the events in Spain sometimes took on farcical overtones. Constant global media hype was fueled by the hit James Bond movie Thunderball, with its plot about an atomic weapon lost at sea. In addition, there were the unwanted attentions of a rusty- hulled Soviet surveillance ship and even awkward public relations stunts, complete with American diplomats in swim trunks.
The Day We Lost the H-Bomb is a singular work of military history that effortlessly and dramatically captures Cold War hysteria, high-stakes negotiations, and the race to clean up a disaster of unprecedented scope. At once epic and intimate, this book recounts in stunning detail the fragile peace Americans had made with nuclear weapons–and how the specter of imminent doom forced the United States to consider not only what had happened over Palomares but what could have happened. This forgotten chapter of Cold War history will grip readers with the tension of that time and reawaken the fears and hopes of that dangerous era.
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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.
Like many young men, Rooney had joined the Air Force with dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. His grades in flight school had put that dream out of reach, at least temporarily. He respected the B- 52 but didn’t enjoy flying it; it was too much like driving a truck. That morning, while Wendorf was teaching Sunday school, Rooney, a practicing Catholic, went to Mass. (“I may have been doing something wild the night before,” he said, “but I’m not telling.”) Then he changed into uniform and drove his big, white 1963 Chevy Impala convertible to headquarters. The parking lot was nearly empty that Sunday, so he parked illegally in a senior officer’s spot. He figured he’d be back before the officer showed up for work.
The third pilot that day was Major Larry Messinger, at forty- four the oldest and most experienced member of the crew and less inclined to joking around. He was on board as the relief pilot, standard practice for long flights. Messinger had served in the Air Force for more than twenty years, collecting a cluster of medals along the way. When the United States entered World War II, he signed up for the Army Air Forces right away and was soon rumbling over Germany in a B- 17 bomber. On his sixth mission, while bombing an oil refinery, he took fire and lost an engine. Headed for a crash landing in a wheat field, his plane’s left wing caught a wire strung between two telephone poles. The B- 17 cartwheeled end over end, finally crashing on its back. Messinger and the copilot were suspended upside down, hanging from their seat belts. They unfastened their belts and dropped into the wreckage, finding themselves in the no- man’s- land between the German and American lines. Badly injured, the two men struggled to the U.S. side and huddled on the front lines with the Seventh Armored division for a week before they were airlifted out. Messinger spent two months in an English hospital before getting back into the air, flying twenty- nine more missions before the end of the war. He later flew B- 29s over Korea, where he “got shot up a bunch of times but never shot down.” In his two combat tours, he flew seventy missions. Now he worked as an air controller at Seymour Johnson, filling in as a relief pilot when needed. Tall and trim, he had a long face and serious, steady eyes.
After the briefing, the three pilots walked out onto the tarmac, looked over their B- 52, and then went to the bomb bay to inspect the four hydrogen bombs they’d be carrying that day. Each bomb packed 1.45 megatons of explosive power, about seventy times as much as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Rooney put a hand on each of them and gave a good tug, just to make sure they were locked in tight. Then the pilots climbed inside the plane with the rest of the crew to begin the systems check. They found two small problems: the UHF radio wasn’t working right, and neither was one of the oil pressure gauges. By the time these were fixed, the crew was running eleven minutes late. The plane lumbered down the long runway and crept into the air, just after 6 p.m. Once they were airborne, Wendorf lit up a cigarette and settled in for the ride.
It was a perfectly ordinary Sunday in Cold War America. The big news stories were an army coup in Nigeria that had left two government ministers dead and a proposed $3 billion spending hike for President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. Also, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, facing a failed “peace offensive” in Vietnam, told reporters that the U.S. government would consider “all necessary military measures” against Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. News analysts were trying to figure out exactly what that meant. And 35,000 feet above it all, Wendorf turned his plane east and headed toward Russia.
Over the next twenty- three hours or so, Wendorf and his crew, in tandem with another B- 52, planned to fly across the Atlantic, circle over the Mediterranean, and then–unless they heard otherwise–turn around and come home. Wendorf ’s flight, part of a program called airborne alert, was a key activity of the Strategic Air Command, the nuclear strike component of the U.S. Air Force. In 1966, most Americans still assumed that the United States and the USSR stood, at all times, on the brink of nuclear war. Many believed–with an unshakable, almost religious fervor–that it was SAC, and these highly visible bomber flights, that kept the Soviets in check.
SAC’s growth over the two previous decades had been explosive. In 1945, when America had dropped “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, SAC didn’t exist and the United States owned exactly two atomic bombs. By 1966, SAC was the most powerful force in military history. The primary guardian of America’s nuclear arsenal, it controlled the bulk of the nation’s 32,193 nuclear warheads, as well as 674 bombers, 968 missiles, and 196,887 people. The commander of SAC directed the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, which selected America’s nuclear targets. SAC supplied much of the military intelligence and got the lion’s share of the United States’ defense money. To many inside and outside the military, SAC seemed allpowerful and unstoppable. Their influence was so great that it seemed perfectly reasonable–even necessary–for pilots to fly toward Russia, during peacetime, with four hydrogen bombs in their plane. The story of the Strategic Air Command–its origin, mission, and philosophy–lay at the heart of the Cold War. And the story of SAC, and thus the story of Charles Wendorf ’s ill- fated flight, began during World War II, before humans had invented nuclear bombs, before people dreamed of nuclear war, and before the U.S. Air Force even existed. World War II launched the Air Force into being and spawned the atomic weapons that made it preeminent among the services. The war also shaped the military ideas of a tough young general named Curtis Emerson LeMay, teaching him the lessons he needed to turn SAC into the most powerful fighting force the world had ever seen.
At dusk on March 9, 1945, on an airstrip on the South Pacific island of Guam, an American B- 29 Superfortress sped down a runway and lifted off just as the sun dropped below the horizon. One minute later, another B- 29 followed, its four churning propellers roaring it into the sky. Again and again, American bombers took off from two runways in Guam, one minute after another for almost three hours. At the same time, bombers lifted off from nearby Saipan and Tinian. By 8:10 p.m., 325 American planes were flying toward Tokyo, filling the sky in a massive, roaring herd. That night, the bombers would make history in the deadliest bombing raid of World War II. This mission over Tokyo would cement the future of the Air Force and the legend of Curtis LeMay.
The bombing raid was a gamble. LeMay, a tough, reticent, thirtyeight- year- old general, was well known for his ability to solve problems and whip struggling outfits into shape. He had done it earlier in the war in Europe and China, and now he was in charge of the ailing 21st Bomber Command in Guam. LeMay had been running the show since January, but so far he hadn’t fared much better than his predecessor, who had been fired. LeMay knew that if he didn’t get results soon, he would be sent packing as well.
LeMay’s assignment in Japan was the same one he had had in Europe: bomb the enemy’s factories, gas depots, and ports and destroy its ability to wage war. But Japan had thrown him a few curveballs. First, the weather over the country was terrible for bombing–clouds covered the major cities almost every day, making accurate visual targeting nearly impossible. And at 35,000 feet, the powerful jet stream blew bombers (and bombs) off course and forced planes to use an inordinate amount of fuel. Each four- engine B- 29 needed twenty- three tons of fuel just to get from Guam to Tokyo and back, leaving room for only three tons of bombs. In his first two months in the Pacific, LeMay had learned these facts the hard way, through a series of embarrassing missions where his bombers hit only a few targets by chance.
Sensing impatience from Washington, LeMay devised a daring plan for the March 9 mission. He would send the bombers in at night at a low altitude–under 10,000 feet–to avoid the jet stream and surprise the Japanese. If a bomber didn’t have to fight the jet stream, LeMay calculated, it would use about two and a half tons less fuel. And he could save an additional two tons by stripping the planes of most of their guns, gunners, and ammunition. These two changes–flying at low altitudes and basically unarmed–would allow each plane to double its payload and drop bombs more accurately. It would also put the pilots at greater risk from Japanese antiaircraft fire, but LeMay concluded that it was a fair gamble. The Japanese air defenses were weaker than those he had seen in Europe. He thought his pilots could pull it off.
LeMay was used to tough decisions, but this was one of the toughest. If this strategy worked, it could shorten the war and maybe prevent an invasion of Japan. But if he had miscalculated, he would be sending hundreds of young men on a suicide run. On the night of March 9, after seeing the planes off, the mission weighed heavy on his mind. At about 2 a.m., an Air Force PR officer named St. Clair McKelway found LeMay sitting on a wooden bench beneath the mission control boards. “I’m sweating this one out,” LeMay told McKelway. “A lot could go wrong. I can’t sleep. I usually can, but not tonight.”
LeMay knew that there was much at stake: his reputation, the lives of all those men, possibly the outcome of the war. But something else hung in the balance, too–the future of an independent Air Force. When World War II began, there was no such thing as the U.S. Air Force. Planes and pilots served under the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), which provided firepower, transport, and supplies–what’s called tactical support–to Army troops on the ground, where the real fighting was going on. The airplane was just another tool for ground warfare, and it had no mission or role beyond what the Army assigned it. To airmen, however, the airplane wasn’t just a glorified school bus or food truck, it was a machine that could change the face of warfare. But they knew airpower could never reach its full potential under Army generals. They wanted their own service, with their own money, their own rules, and airmen in charge. To make a legitimate claim for independence, they had to prove that they were indeed different and offered a valuable skill that the Army and Navy lacked. That skill, most agreed, was long- range strategic bombing.
Strategic bombing can be a bit hard to distinguish from tactical bombing, because the two often overlap. But in general it means dropping bombs on key bits of enemy infrastructure–oil refineries, engine plants, important bridges–that aren’t directly involved in a current battle but greatly affect the enemy’s ability to fight. In 1921, an Italian general named Giulio Douhet first defined strategic bombing in his book The Command of the Air. Douhet’s idea gained popularity between World War I and World War II but faced some resistance. For Douhet, strategic bombing meant that an entire country was fair game; planes could target hospitals and food depots as legitimately as airstrips and factories. There were few safe havens, no noncombatants. Bombing city centers could crush the will of the civilian population, argued Douhet, forcing enemy leaders to surrender quickly and leading to less bloodshed in the end. American airmen, wary of civilian casualties, advocated bombing specific targets to disable the enemy’s economy. Even so, critics called such tactics uncivilized, immoral, and un- American. Outside airpower circles, the idea fizzled.
Then came World War II, and the Army Air Forces saw their chance. They argued for the opportunity to bomb German train yards and oil refineries, and they got it. And it was true that the airplanes offered something that Navy ships and Army tanks couldn’t: only airborne bombers could fly deep into Germany, destroy German factories, and break the German war machine. That is, if the bombers could actually get to Germany and manage to hit anything.
In the early days of World War II, an assignment to a bomber crew was nearly a death sentence. The lumbering B- 17 Stratofortresses flew in large, rigid formations, easy targets for enemy fighters and flak. Bombers flying from England to Germany sometimes had fighter escorts, but the fighters had such a short range that they usually turned back at the border of Germany, leaving the bombers to face the most risky portion of the journey alone. Bomber groups sometimes lost half–or more–of their planes on raids over Germany. In one infamous circumstance, the 100th Bomber Group lost seven planes over Bremen on October 8, 1943. Two days later, it lost twelve of its remaining thirteen planes over Munster. Bomber crews were more likely than foot soldiers to be killed, wounded, or captured. Twice as many air officers died in combat as those on the ground, despite their smaller numbers. An airman in a World War II bomber had a shorter life expectancy than an infantryman in the trenches of World War I.
After reading accounts of air battles, such statistics seem less surprising. On August 17, 1943, German fighters attacked a division of American B- 17 bombers over Belgium. An observer in one of the rear planes later described the battle:
A stricken B- 17 fell gradually out of formation to the right, then moments later disintegrated in one giant explosion. As the fighters kept pressing their attacks, one plane after another felt their fury. Engine parts, wing tips, even tail assemblies were blasted free. Rearward planes had to fly through showers of exit doors, emergency hatches, sheets of metal, partially opened parachutes, and other debris, in addition to human bodies, some German, some American, some dead, some still alive and writhing. As more German fighters arrived and the battle intensified, there were so many disintegrating airplanes that “sixty ’chutes in the air at one time was hardly worth a second look.” A man crawled out of the copilot’s window of a Fortress engulfed in flames. He was the only person to emerge. Standing precariously on the wing, he reached back inside for his parachute–he could hardly have gotten through the window with his chute on–used one hand to get into the harness while he clung to the plane with the other, then dove off the wing for an apparently safe descent, only to be hit by the plane’s onrushing horizontal stabilizer. His chute did not open.
The passage comes from Iron Eagle, Thomas Coffey’s biography of Curtis LeMay. LeMay, head of the 4th Bombardment Wing in England at the time, flew in the lead bomber. Until his superiors forbade it, LeMay often accompanied his men on bombing missions, a habit that inspired deep trust and loyalty among his flyers. LeMay also inspired fear, or at least trepidation. Stocky, square- jawed, and perpetually chewing a cigar, he was a tough guy who looked the part. He scowled often and spoke little. Decades after the war, LeMay’s gruff demeanor and blunt, often tactless public statements would make him the object of widespread derision and caricature. But here, in World War II, he was in his element. He got things done.
LeMay hated the thought of being unprepared, of losing men and bombers because of poor training or sloppy mistakes. When he arrived in England, he was alarmed by the rabble the Army gave him–rookie airmen who could barely fly a plane or bomb a target. These kids would die unless he whipped them into shape. And whip them he did. His men called him “Iron Ass” for his relentless training regimen– exhausted pilots would return from a bombing run ready for bed, only to be ordered back in the plane to practice bad- weather takeoffs. Bombardiers had to memorize stacks of photographs in preparation for future missions. LeMay worked as hard as his troops, becoming a brilliant strategist. During his time in Europe, he devised new flying formations and bombing techniques that saved bombers and helped pick off German factories. On August 17, 1943, the day of the mission described in the passage above, the surviving B- 17s flew to Regensburg and dropped 303 tons of bombs on a Messerschmitt aircraft plant, one of the most accurate strategic bombing runs of the war.
By the time LeMay arrived in Guam, the AAF bombing campaign against Japan seemed a pretty dismal failure. The Navy, not the AAF, deserved the credit for gains in the Pacific, having crushed the Japanese fleet, mined the Japanese harbors, and captured valuable islands. The Navy brass, riding high, were even eyeing the powerful new B- 29 bombers, plotting to steal them from the Army and incorporate them into the Navy. If LeMay didn’t get some results soon, Washington might scrap the strategic bombing campaign altogether. Failure in Japan would seriously jeopardize the case for an independent Air Force.
Luckily, LeMay had a new weapon at his disposal, one that would alter the fate of strategic bombing in Japan: napalm, a jellied gasoline that stuck to almost anything and burned slow and steady. In a city like Tokyo, where about 98 percent of the buildings were made of wood, incendiary bombs promised massive destruction. When his 325 planes left Guam, Saipan, and Tinian on March 9, most carried six to eight tons of napalm “bomblets,” designed to scatter when dropped and ignite buildings at a number of points.
LeMay put a trusted brigadier general named Thomas Power in charge of the raid. Power was to lead the planes to Tokyo, drop his bombs, and then circle at 10,000 feet to observe the rest of the operation. At around 2:30 a.m., Power, circling Tokyo, sent his first message to LeMay: “Bombing the primary target visually. Large fires observed, flak moderate. Fighter opposition nil.” Soon, messages arrived from other bombers reporting “conflagration.”
The raid devastated Tokyo. The flaming napalm stuck to the flimsy wooden houses, starting small fires that quickly spread into giant firestorms. The flames burned so brightly that the bomber pilots could read their watch dials by the glow. The blaze burned nearly seventeen square miles of the city to cinders, destroying 18 percent of its industry. Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 people died, burned to death when their hair, clothes, and houses caught fire or suffocated when the firestorm sucked away oxygen. The smell of burning flesh hung in the air for days.
The carnage sparked little sympathy in America. “When you kill 100,000 people, civilians, you cross some sort of moral divide,” said the historian Edward Drea. “Yet at the time, it was generally accepted that this was fair treatment, that the Japanese deserved this, that they had brought this on themselves.” If LeMay had any moral qualms about the slaughter, he never acknowledged them. For him, it was an obvious trade: Japanese lives for American. “No matter how you slice it, you’re going to kill an awful lot of civilians. Thousands and thousands. But if you don’t destroy the Japanese industry, we’re going to have to invade Japan,” he wrote in his autobiography, Mission with LeMay. “We’re at war with Japan. We were attacked by Japan. Do you want to kill Japanese, or would you rather have Americans killed?” When the B- 29s returned from Tokyo on the morning of March 10, LeMay ordered them to get back into the air that evening and bomb Nagoya, Japan’s second largest city. But after a look at the exhausted crews, he postponed the Nagoya raid for twenty- four hours. Over ten days, LeMay’s B- 29s firebombed aircraft plants in Nagoya, steel mills in Osaka, and the port of Kobe, destroying thirty- three square miles of those cities. He bombed Japan until he ran out of bombs and started again when the Navy brought him more. Throughout April, May, and June 1945, LeMay’s bombers pounded the cities of Japan. By summer, LeMay announced that strategic bombing could probably force Japan’s surrender by October.
The end came even sooner. On August 7, 1945, U.S. forces dropped an atomic bomb named “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima. Nine days later, they dropped a second, “Fat Man,” on Nagasaki. That evening, Japan surrendered. The war was over.
The Japanese surrender confirmed one of LeMay’s long- standing beliefs: the value of massive, overwhelming force. In his eyes, the widespread bombing had shortened the war and saved lives. “I think it’s more immoral to use less force than necessary than it is to use more,” he wrote. “If you use less force, you kill off more of humanity in the long run, because you are merely protracting the struggle.” It was far more humane, he argued, to cut off a dog’s tail with one quick flick of the knife than to saw it off one inch at a time.
On September 2, LeMay attended the Japanese surrender ceremonies on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. As he stood on the ship’s crowded deck, thinking of the Americans who had died and “where I’d gone wrong in losing as many as we did,” a roar filled the air. Four hundred sixty- two B- 29s flew overhead in a massive, deafening salute. To LeMay, the atomic bombs had been impressive but anticlimactic. In his opinion, those B- 29s had won the war
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Barbara Moran is an award-winning science journalist who has written for many publications, including New Scientist, Invention & Technology, Technology Review and the Boston Globe. Her television documentary credits include the PBS series Frontline, The American Experience and NOVA, as well as the History and Discovery Channels. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Boston University’s graduate program in science and medical reporting, she received a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT in 2001. She lives in Boston with her husband and son.
From the Hardcover edition.
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This book did a good job of balancing slight humor and being brief but informative. I had never even heard of this event before picking up this book. It was a good look at how the cold war was for generations born after it.
When Ifirst saw this book Ithought about nuke bombs. So as I Was saying this book is awesome!!