By D. Allan Kerr
In January 1966, an American B-52 bomber collided mid-air with a refueling tanker off the coast of Spain. The resulting fiery crash claimed the lives of seven crew members.
While the loss of life was devastating, there was potential for even greater catastrophe – the B-52 was carrying four fully-loaded hydrogen bombs.
Three of the bombs were located within 24 hours, in the vicinity of a Spanish fishing village called Palomares.
The fourth was nowhere to be found.
With the Cold War still mired in a deep chill, the United States dispatched an entire Navy armada to try to locate the missing bomb, which was believed to have gone into the Atlantic Ocean. Among those involved in the search was a 23-year-old Navy officer named Donald Craig.
Craig was an ensign at the time, having graduated the previous year from Officer Candidate School at Newport, Rhode Island. He was serving aboard his first vessel, the minesweeper USS Sagacity (MSO 469).
As it happened, the Sagacity was near Barcelona, Spain, on a Mediterranean cruise when the tragedy occurred. The minesweeper was dispatched to the scene and over the next several weeks took part in the massive search for the missing nuke.
Craig is now 76 years old, retired, and a longtime resident of Kittery Point, Maine. He still recalls the hunt for the missing nuclear bomb, and the race to get to it before the Soviet Union.
He also remains frustrated on behalf of fellow veterans who say they are dealing with adverse health effects from radiation exposure during the incident – with no assistance from the government who sent them there.
“We knew nothing,” Craig said recently of the possible aftereffects. “We were just out there doing our job.”
It should have been a routine operation.
The B-52G Stratofortress Air Force bomber was flying a patrol as part of America’s Strategic Air Command, keeping the Atlantic skies safe during our Cold War with the Soviet Union. At about 10:30 on the morning of 17 January 1966, the bomber met up with a KC-135A Stratotanker for a midair refueling at more than 30,000 feet.
The tanker was similar to the type of KC-135 flown for years now by the 157th Air Refueling Wing of the New Hampshire Air National Guard at Pease. And Pease was itself a SAC Air Force base at the time, maintaining B-52 bombers like the one flying off the coast of Spain that morning.
During this particular exercise, however, the bomber had departed from North Carolina, while the tanker was from the Moron Air Base in southern Spain. The tanker was refueling the bomber in mid-flight when the two aircraft collided, causing an explosion other aircraft could see from a mile away.
All four crewmen aboard the tanker – Major Emil Chapla, Captain Paul Lane, Captain Leo Simmons and Master Sergeant Lloyd Potolicchio – were killed in the tragedy. Among the bomber crewmen, First Lieutenant Steven Montanus, First Lieutenant George Glessner and Technical Sergeant Ronald Snyder all perished, while four other aviators managed to parachute to safety.
Two of the four bombs carried by the B-52 actually exploded upon striking land, causing plutonium to be exposed over the Spanish countryside, but safety features prevented a nuclear detonation. A third bomb was found intact in a sandbank near the beach.
But the fourth was nowhere to be found.
The Air Force immediately dispatched personnel to the scene to locate the missing bomb, and tried to keep the operation as low-key as possible. Servicemen later told the New York Times they picked up fragments of the exploded bombs without even being issued gloves.
Eventually, realizing the missing bomb might have gone into the sea, the Air Force called in the Navy for assistance.
Donald Craig was born and raised in Portsmouth. He was still an infant when his father served in the Pacific as a Seabee during World War II.
The younger Craig went on to attend the University of New Hampshire in nearby Durham and was part of the Reserve Officer Training Corps there. Having drawn a high lottery number for the draft, with the Vietnam War in full swing, he followed his father into the Navy and earned his commission in April 1965.
He was then assigned to the Sagacity and attended minesweeping school in Charleston, South Carolina, the ship’s home port. He was betrothed to his wife Merry in July and then departed aboard the Sagacity for a Med cruise in September. Craig served as an engineering, electrical, and damage control officer aboard the ship, as well as officer-of-the-deck.
The minesweeper was in port at Barcelona when Craig learned of the collision, and once it became clear the missing bomb had plunged into the ocean the Sagacity was called in to help find it.
The United States feared Russia’s navy might locate the bomb first, Craig noted, which at that point of the Cold War would have been considered disastrous.
“We were the first ship to appear on scene after the bomb dropped,” he recalled. “Here we were with a little 40 mm gun, waiting for the Russians to show up.”
They weren’t alone for long – eventually about 30 American vessels took part in the search to some degree, including the privately-owned submersibles Alvin, from the Woods Hole Institute, and Aluminaut, of the Reynolds Metal Company. Roughly 150 divers were brought in for the underwater hunt. But as time passed, President Lyndon Johnson grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of success.
Craig still has the February 1966 issue of LIFE magazine which reported on the ongoing search and observed that the previously pastoral countryside “looks like a World War II invasion beachhead.”
“Officially, the military and diplomatic authorities in Spain will not even admit that a bomb is missing,” the article noted.
Craig and his shipmates manned port and starboard watches for six hours at a time during this effort – on duty from midnight to 6 a.m., off till noon and then back on again. They stood guard over the submersibles and watched out for the Russians.
“Finally, some bright person thought of asking the fishermen in the area,” about the missing bomb’s location, Craig recalled.
A local named Francisco Simo-Orts brought searchers to the spot where he said he had seen the bomb enter the water. According to the book Blind Man’s Bluff, by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, searchers employed a mathematical theorem to help narrow the site as well.
As a minesweeper, the Sagacity had special sonar equipment which could be used to pinpoint the bomb’s location. But her sister ship, the USS Pinnacle, first discovered the missing bomb, in a ravine below more than 2,500 feet of water. The Sagacity was then called in to verify the find.
“Back then they didn’t have GPS,” Craig noted.
Retrieving it was another matter. At one point the Navy lost the bomb again in the process of bringing it to the surface, and it sank even deeper into the ravine. Eventually, the bomb and an unmanned vehicle which had become entangled in its parachute lines were hauled onto the deck of the submarine rescue ship USS Petrel nearly three months after the initial tragedy.
But then the United States government had to deal with a whole separate controversy – the environmental repercussions of an unleashed hydrogen bomb.
Members of the U.S. Air Force and residents of Palomares were all exposed to radioactivity from the two bombs, which had broken apart on land. Craig recalls winds of about 30 knots at the time.
“Plutonium was blowing in the wind, it was all over the place there,” he said. “They (Air Force personnel) were sitting on the edge of the crater eating their lunches.”
An area of about one square mile was contaminated, including the village’s tomato crop. American servicemen removed this soil and brought it back to South Carolina for disposal.
But in a rather bizarre attempt to show there was no danger, the U.S. government fed the contaminated tomatoes to our troops for “breakfast, lunch and dinner,” according to a June 2016 New York Times article.
The U.S. ambassador to Spain and the Spanish minister of tourism swam at a nearby beach in front of a crowd of reporters to prove the waters were safe.
“If this is radioactivity, I love it!” Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke told the media.
Somehow, no civilians on the ground were seriously harmed by falling debris from the aircraft collision. America pledged to the Spanish government the site would be cleared of contamination.
“The main objective here is to leave Spain as we found it,” Duke told LIFE magazine back in 1966.
But as recently as 2015, then-Secretary of State John Kerry and Spain’s foreign minister agreed to negotiate a binding agreement to resume cleanup efforts and further removal of contaminated soil from the site. While no substantive findings have verified serious health issues among the villagers, studies of wildlife such as snails have turned up high radioactive levels.
Craig, however, is particularly outraged by the treatment of Air Force veterans who took part in cleanup efforts at Palomares and now say they are suffering ill health effects as a result. The 2016 Times article featured several former servicemen now suffering from cancer and other ailments.
The Air Force has long insisted there were no serious adverse effects from the incident, so these conditions are not covered under Veterans Administration benefits. An estimated 1,600 veterans took part in the cleanup.
“That shouldn’t happen. They should absolutely be taken care of,” Craig said. “[The government] did not look after their safety, and there are a lot of people suffering for it now.”
Last year, a number of veterans filed a lawsuit in Connecticut over disability benefits they were denied because the Pentagon refused to release records and reports related to the incident.
As for Craig, he was discharged as a lieutenant junior grade three years after his brush with history. The Navy offered him an assignment to Vietnam, or destroyer school, or grad school, but he was ready to return home.
He wound up getting into the computer field in the early days of the industry and got to see it grow into what it’s become today. “It was really fun,” he said.
Craig and his wife Merry moved permanently to Kittery Point in 1996, settling on the waterfront property his grandfather used to own. In fact, his family on the Gerrish side goes back many generations in Kittery.
His father Robert lived next door for several years but died this past May, just weeks after celebrating his milestone 100th birthday. Robert was part of a group dubbed “Kittery’s Magnificent Seven” by this writer in a 2016 piece, featuring a group of spry local World War II veterans ranging in age from 90 to 100 years old.
Although retired now from Olympia Sports, Craig keeps busy. He and his wife are co-treasurers for the Friends of Rice Public Library. And he’s really not that far removed from his Navy days, as his home overlooks Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
He isn’t aware of any health effects he might suffer from his experience off the coast of Spain, and to the best of his knowledge neither do his shipmates. But he believes the Air Force veterans who followed orders should not be ignored in their search for answers now.
“You’re in the service and that’s what you do,” he said. “But the deniability of it, that’s what doesn’t make sense to me.”
D. Allan Kerr is the author of Silent Strength, a book about the 1963 loss of the nuclear Navy submarine USS Thresher.
(Nov. 11, 2018)
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