Alarms sounded on U.S. Air Force bases in Spain and officers began packing all the low-ranking troops they could grab onto buses for a secret mission. There were cooks, grocery clerks and even musicians from the Air Force band.
It was a late winter night in 1966, and a fully loaded B-52 bomber on a Cold War nuclear patrol had collided with a refueling jet high over the Spanish coast, freeing four hydrogen bombs that went tumbling toward a farming village called Palomares in an out-of-the-way corner of Spain’s rugged southern coast.
It was one of the biggest nuclear accidents in history, and the U.S. wanted it cleaned up quickly and quietly. But if the men getting onto buses were told anything about the Air Force’s plan for them to clean up spilled radioactive material, it was usually, “Don’t worry.”
“There was no talk about radiation or plutonium or anything else,” said Frank B. Thompson, a then-22-year-old trombone player who spent days searching contaminated fields without protective equipment or even a change of clothes. “They told us it was safe, and we were dumb enough, I guess, to believe them.”
Thompson, 72, now has cancer in his liver, a lung and a kidney. He pays $2,200 a month for treatment that would be free at a Veterans Affairs hospital if the Air Force recognized him as a victim of radiation. But for 50 years, the Air Force has maintained that there was no harmful radiation at the crash site. It says the danger of contamination was minimal, and strict safety measures ensured that all of the 1,600 troops who cleaned it up were protected.
Interviews with dozens of men like Thompson and details from never-before-published declassified documents tell a different story. Radiation near the bombs was so high it sent the military’s monitoring equipment off the scales. Troops spent months shoveling toxic dust, wearing little more protection than cotton fatigues. And when tests taken during the cleanup suggested men had alarmingly high plutonium contamination, the Air Force threw out the results, calling them “clearly unrealistic.”
In the decades since, the Air Force has kept radiation test results out of the men’s medical files and resisted calls to retest them, even when the calls came from one of the Air Force’s own studies.
Many men say they are suffering the crippling effects of plutonium poisoning. Of 40 veterans who helped with the cleanup whom The New York Times identified, 21 had cancer. Nine had died from it.
It is impossible to connect individual cancers to a single exposure to radiation. And no formal mortality study has ever been done to determine whether there is an elevated incidence of disease. The only evidence the men have to rely on are anecdotes of friends they watched wither away.
“John Young, dead of cancer … Dudley Easton, cancer … Furmanksi, cancer,” said Larry L. Slone, 76, in an interview, laboring through tremors caused by a neurological disorder.
At the crash site, Slone, a military police officer at the time, said he was given a plastic bag and told to pick up radioactive fragments with his bare hands. “A couple times they checked me with a Geiger counter and it went clear off the scale,” he said. “But they never took my name, never followed up with me.”
Monitoring of the village in Spain has also been haphazard, declassified documents show. The U.S. promised to pay for a public health program to monitor the long-term effects of radiation there, but for decades provided little funding. Until the 1980s, Spanish scientists often relied on broken and outdated equipment, and they lacked the resources to follow up on potential ramifications, including leukemia deaths in children. Today, several fenced-off areas are still contaminated, and the long-term health effects on villagers are poorly understood.
Many of the Americans who cleaned up after the bombs are trying to get full health care coverage and disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the department relies on Air Force records, and since the Air Force records say no one was harmed in Palomares, the agency rejects claims again and again.
The Air Force also denies any harm was done to 500 other veterans who cleaned up a nearly identical crash in Thule, Greenland, in 1968. Those veterans tried to sue the Defense Department in 1995, but the case was dismissed because federal law shields the military from negligence claims by troops. All of the named plaintiffs have since died of cancer.
In a statement, the Air Force Medical Service said it had recently used modern techniques to reassess the radiation risk to veterans who cleaned up the Palomares accident and “adverse acute health effects were neither expected nor observed, and long-term risks for increased incidence of cancer to the bone, liver and lungs were low.”
The toxic aftermath of war is often vexing to untangle. Damage is hard to quantify or connect to later problems. Recognizing this, Congress has passed laws in the past to give automatic benefits to veterans of a few specific exposures — Agent Orange in Vietnam or the atomic tests in Nevada, among others. But no such law exists for the men who cleaned up Palomares.
If the men could prove they were harmed by radiation, they would have all costs for their associated medical care covered and would get a modest disability pension. But proof from a secret mission to clean up an invisible toxin decades ago has proved elusive. So each time the men apply, the Air Force says they were not harmed, and the department hands out denials.
“First they denied I was even there, then they denied there was any radiation,” said Ronald R. Howell, 71, who recently had a brain tumor removed. “I submit a claim, and they deny. I submit appeal, and they deny. Now I’m all out of appeals.” He sighed, then continued. “Pretty soon, we’ll all be dead and they will have succeeded at covering this whole thing up.”
A 23-year-old military police officer named John H. Garman arrived by helicopter at the crash site on Jan. 17, 1966, a few hours after the accident.
“It was just chaos,” Garman, now 74, said in an interview at his home in Pahrump, Nev.
He was one of the first on the scene and joined a half-dozen others to hunt for the four missing nuclear weapons. One bomb had thudded into a soft sandbank near the beach and crumpled but remained intact. Another had dropped into the ocean, where it was found unbroken two months later.
The other two hit hard and exploded, leaving house-size craters on either side of the village, according to a secret Atomic Energy Commission report that has since been declassified. Built-in safeguards prevented nuclear detonations, but explosives surrounding the radioactive cores blasted a fine dust of plutonium over houses and fields.
Atomic Energy Commission scientists soon arrived and took Garman’s clothes because they were contaminated, he said, but told him he would be fine. Twelve years later, he got bladder cancer.
Plutonium does not emit the type of penetrating radiation often associated with nuclear blasts, which causes immediately obvious health effects, such as burns. It shoots off alpha particles that travel only a few inches and cannot penetrate the skin.
Outside the body, scientists say, it is relatively harmless, but specks absorbed in the body, usually through inhaling dust, shoot off a continuous shower of radioactive particles thousands of times a minute, gradually exacting damage that can cause cancer and other diseases decades later.
A microgram, or a millionth of a gram, in the body is considered potentially harmful. According to declassified Atomic Energy Commission reports, the bombs at Palomares released an estimated 7 pounds — more than 3 billion micrograms.
The day after the crash, busloads of troops started arriving from U.S. bases, bringing radiation-detection equipment. William Jackson, a young Air Force lieutenant, helped with some of the first testing near the craters, using a hand-held alpha particle counter that could measure up to 2 million alpha particles per minute.
“Almost everywhere we pointed the machine, it pegged at the highest reading,” he said. “But we were told that type of radiation would not penetrate the skin. We were told it was safe.”
Troops started to get sick soon after the cleanup ended. Healthy men in their 20s were crippled by joint pain, headaches and weakness. Doctors said it was arthritis.
A grocery supply clerk named Arthur Kindler, who had been so covered in plutonium while searching the tomato fields a few days after the blast that the Air Force made him wash off in the ocean and took his clothes, got testicular cancer and a rare lung infection that nearly killed him four years after the crash. In the years since, he has had cancer of his lymph nodes three times.
“It took me a long time to start to realize this maybe had to do with cleaning up the bombs,” Kindler, 74, said in an interview from his home in Tuscon, Ariz. “You have to understand, they told us everything was safe. We were young. We trusted them. Why would they lie?”
Kindler filed twice for help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. “They always denied me,” he said. “Eventually, I just gave up.”