The Day They Lost The H-bomb—and How They Got It Back
AT 5:00 A.M. ON JANUARY 16, 1966, CAPT. CHARLES Wendorf, a 29-year-old U.S. Air Force pilot, sped his B-52 bomber down the dark runway at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. Over the next day or so, Wendorf and the six airmen sharing his plane planned to fly over the Atlantic, cross Europe, brush the Eastern Bloc, then turn around and come home. Presumably they would make it back to the States without releasing their cargo: four hydrogen bombs.
It was the height of the Cold War, and Wendorf’s flight was directed by the Strategic Air Command. SAC kept bombers in the air continuously, ready to attack the Soviets at a moment’s notice. Because the flights were so long, midair refueling was crucial. Every six minutes, somewhere in the sky, SAC bombers were pumped full of jet fuel by a fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers. Critics argued that these delicate refuelings—two mammoth planes roaring through the air only yards apart—were a nuclear disaster waiting to happen. And on the bright, clear morning of January 17, 1966, under a brilliant blue Mediterranean sky, the accident that everyone feared finally took place.
Captain Wendorf and his crew were on their way home and approaching their midair refueling point over eastern Spain. The KC-135 tanker that would fill the bomber’s hungry fuel tanks was already in the air. Wendorf, tired from the long trip, asked his staff pilot, Maj. Larry Messinger, to handle the refueling.
At 10:20 A.M. the two planes began their approach at 31,000 feet. Messinger, at the controls, sensed that something was wrong. “We came in behind the tanker, and we were a little bit fast, and we started to overrun him a little bit,” Messinger later recalled. “There is a procedure they have in refueling where if the boom operator feels that you’re getting too close and it’s a dangerous situation, he will call, ‘Break away, break away, break away.’… There was no call for a breakaway, so we didn’t see anything dangerous about the situation. But all of a sudden all hell seemed to break loose.”
The B-52 got too close to the tanker and rammed it with the top of its fuselage. The tanker’s belly was ripped open, spilling jet fuel through the plane, onto the bomber, and into the air. An explosion shook the sky. Orange flame enveloped the tanker, killing all four men aboard. More explosions ripped both planes into hundreds of flaming fragments, killing the three men in the tail section of the B-52. As debris rained on the tiny village of Palomares far below, the four remaining men in the bomber ejected into the sky.
Capt. Ivens Buchanan was burned by a fireball shortly after ejection and weighted down by his ejection seat, from which he could not separate himself. He crashed into the ground but somehow survived. Charles Wendorf and Lt. Richard Rooney fell to 14,000 feet, opened their parachutes, and drifted several miles out to sea, where they were rescued by fishermen. Larry Messinger had a longer journey to safety. “Something hit my head on the way out,” he said. “I don’t know what it was. But I was not quite with it, I guess … and I opened my parachute. Well, I shouldn’t have done that. I should have freefailed and the parachute would open automatically at 14,000 feet. But I opened mine anyway, because of the fact that I got hit in the head, I imagine.”
Messinger, fighting the strong wind, found himself drifting out to sea. He helplessly watched the coastline dwindle as he floated farther and farther over the Mediterranean. Finally he began to fall. He splashed down about eight miles from land and was plucked from the waves by a passing fisherman.
As he was falling toward the ocean, Messinger spotted something odd. It was a huge, circular ripple on the surface of the sea, “like when you drop something in the water, and it makes a big circle,” he said. But, occupied with more pressing matters, he thought little more about it.
At the time of the collision a fisherman named Francisco Simo Orts was five miles offshore in his boat Manuela Orts , preparing to raise his shrimp nets. He saw the explosion, the rain of debris, and, soon after, five parachutes floating out to sea. Two, he learned later, carried Wendorf and Rooney. Another carried Messinger. But the two that fell near Simo appeared to carry far more grisly cargo. As the fisherman would tell investigators again and again in the coming days, one parachute held what looked like “half a man, with his guts trailing,” while the other seemed to carry a “dead man.” The “dead man” hit the ocean hard and disappeared under the waves. Simo was distressed that he couldn’t reach it in time to recover the body.
By the evening of the crash American soldiers were searching the rugged countryside around Palomares. They weren’t looking for survivors. All the airmen were accounted for, and no one in the village had been hurt. Rather, they were looking for the four hydrogen bombs from the belly of the B-52. Within 24 hours the men found three.
It was a huge relief. After all, the B28 bombs were precious, deadly cargo. Each one packed 1.45 megatons of power, about 100 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Each had a primary trigger made of plutonium, surrounded by a sphere of high-explosive lenses. If the lenses detonated simultaneously—something extremely unlikely in an accident—they would squeeze the plutonium, causing a chain reaction that would in turn trigger a thermonuclear explosion.
THE BOMBS WERE NOT ARMED, SO THERE WAS NO CHANCE of a nuclear reaction. However, the rough treatment of bombs Nos. 2 and 3 did cause some of their high-explosive lenses to detonate, though not in concert. The explosions scattered plutonium everywhere, contaminating crops and farmland for nearly a mile. Bad news, indeed. But Maj. Gen. Delmar Wilson, the man in charge of responding to the accident, quickly realized that he had a much bigger problem on his hands than radioactive tomatoes. After days of scouring the countryside and picking through debris, bomb No. 4 was still nowhere in sight. The United States was now in an embarrassing position, to say the least. It had lost an H-bomb somewhere in southern Spain and had no idea where it was. Wilson needed some educated guesses, and quick, or there would be hell to pay. He sent out a call for help.
By January 22 the general’s request had wound its way through the Air Force and the Pentagon to land with a handful of men who probably knew bomb No. 4 better than anyone. They were a group of engineers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the bomb had been designed. Since 1945 Sandia had overseen the arming, safing, fusing, and firing systems for America’s nuclear warheads. While scientists at Los Alamos had designed the actual warhead for this particular bomb, Sandia engineers had designed the shape, structure, and aerodynamics of the bomb case, as well as its parachute system. If anybody could calculate where the bomb might have landed, it was someone at Sandia.
Thus on Saturday, January 22, Alan Pope, the director of aero projects at Sandia, received a call from the Pentagon asking for help in locating the bomb. A few minutes later he called Randall Maydew, the cheerful manager of Sandia’s aerodynamics department. The two men quickly assembled a team and began crunching numbers on their IBM 7090 and CDC 3600 computers.
The lack of numbers to crunch, however, was daunting. The engineers knew the altitude, heading, and speed of the planes at the time of collision and of course had their own data on the aerodynamics of the bomb. But they weren’t sure exactly where the accident had taken place and had only sketchy, conflicting meteorological data. Furthermore, they didn’t know whether the bomb was intact or broken to bits or if any of its four parachutes had deployed. “We had very limited information,” said Bill Barton, a member of the Sandia team. “It was just trial and error, putting this stuff together.”
The parachute question was crucial. Stuffed into its back end, the weapon carried a complicated four-parachute system that allowed pilots to drop nuclear bombs from a variety of altitudes. For instance, they could speed into enemy territory under the radar, drop a bomb at an extremely low altitude—below 1,000 feet—and still clear out before it exploded. On a low-altitude drop, when the system worked correctly, three parachutes would open in sequence, an elegant bit of fancy foot- work in the sky. First out was the 4-foot-diameter guide parachute, which deployed a 16-foot-diameter ribbon parachute behind it. This 16-foot chute would slow the bomb for two seconds, then cut itself loose. As it left, it would yank a final pack out of the bomb, with a 64-foot chute. That monstrous canopy would slow the bomb to about 28 feet per second as it hit the ground, giving the pilots time to get away. If a simple free-fall drop from high altitude was called for, a small 30-inch guide parachute would stabilize the bomb during its descent.
But on this mission, things had not gone at all according to plan. Because bomb No. 4 had been torn from its rack in an explosion, any—or none—of the parachutes might have opened. The three bombs found on land emphasized the range of possibilities. The first, which hit the ground at about 135 feet per second, had deployed its 16-footer but nothing else; the second had landed without deploying any chute, smashing into the earth at 390 feet per second and flinging plutonium dust and case fragments all over the place; the third had deployed its 16-foot chute but, because the chute was damaged, had hit at about 194 feet per second, scattering debris.
There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of possible scenarios for bomb No. 4. But despite the shortage of data, the Sandia engineers made some quick calculations over the weekend. On Monday they told the Pentagon that there was a high probability that the bomb had gone into the sea.
Soon after, General Wilson requested that someone from Sandia fly to Spain to join an advisory team that would tell him where to look for the bomb. As the engineers in Albuquerque continued to hog the computers, Randall Maydew prepared to jet off to Spain. While he was packing up his papers, a fellow engineer dropped by his office and gave him a gift—a forked stick, like the ones diviners use to search for water.
When Maydew arrived in Spain, American soldiers were still combing the countryside. Maydew and the rest of the team set to work gathering clues. They soon had several. Someone had found a piece of bomb No. 4 on the beach. It turned out to be the tail plate, which holds the parachutes in place. This meant that at least one of the parachutes had probably opened.
This made knowing the wind speed and direction at the time all the more critical, but solid data was hard to come by. The tanker’s navigator had estimated the wind at 110 knots, but data from nearby weather stations had put it at only 60 to 75. Information on when the surviving airmen opened their parachutes, and where they landed, was helpful, and the condition of the three recovered bombs added a few more clues. Still, there seemed to be more questions than answers.
Maydew sent all the information back to Sandia, where Bill Barton and the rest of the team kept crunching. The number of variables was still immense. Maydew’s team, discouraged, ended up recommending a search area far larger than they had hoped for—about 8 square nautical miles. Code-named Bravo, it was a huge rectangle stretching out into the Mediterranean. Another search area, a half-circle that simply extended the debris pattern into the ocean, had already been identified and named Alpha. The two search areas covered a lot of water. The missing bomb seemed no closer than before.
A few days later an Air Force captain stopped by Maydew’s tent. He had been speaking to Francisco Simo Orts, the fisherman, and thought he might have some information that could help. So on February 3 Maydew and his team drove to the nearby town of Aguilas and interviewed Simo in the mayor’s office. Simo told the men about the small parachute carrying the half man with his insides trailing. And he told them about the dead man, floating from a bigger chute, who sank before he could reach him. Maydew was astonished. As he recalled in his 1997 book, America’s Lost H-Bomb! , “I asked Simo to sketch the position of his boat and the objects he saw. I drew sketches of the 64foot solid-canopy parachute and the 16-foot ribbon parachute. He immediately improved upon my sketch of the larger chute. He indicated the big chute was a solid-cloth canopy and was swinging considerably as it descended.”
The facts fitted. Maydew knew that the 64-foot chute would oscillate across about 30 degrees as it fell, while the 16-foot chute would hardly sway at all. He was sure that Simo had seen the bomb—the “dead man”—fall into the sea with the 64-foot parachute deployed. And the “half man”? That must be the empty parachute bag, hanging from the 16-foot ribbon chute and trailing its “entrails”—the packing lines—behind. Maydew was now completely confident that the bomb had landed in the water.
However, Simo’s sighting didn’t match up with the Sandia calculations. But in Maydew’s mind, the fisherman, with his sharp eye and confident reckoning, trumped the computer. With this new data in hand, Maydew’s team briefed General Wilson on the morning of February 5 and recommended that a third area be added to the sea search on the basis of Simo’s sighting. Wilson was impressed by the findings, but he was not in charge of the sea hunt. On January 23 the U.S. Navy had formed a task force to search for the bomb, and it was under the command of Rear Adm. William Guest.
WILSON ARRANGED FOR MAYDEW TO BRIEF Admiral Guest on the new findings. On board the flagship Boston , Maydew and his team presented their data. They urged Guest to add a third area to the sea search. Guest was unimpressed. “It was obvious that the Admiral didn’t place much faith in the sighting or navigation skills of Simo the fisherman,” Maydew wrote. “He mentioned several times that he might start his search based on the sophisticated ballistic computer calculations of Sandia and the Air Force.” Maydew told Guest that it was his own team that had made those earlier calculations and they were not particularly accurate. The admiral wasn’t interested.
“Once he had made a decision, he was hard-nosed,” said Bill Barton, who eventually replaced Maydew as Sandia’s representative in Spain. “He set out a plan on how to do his search, and he didn’t want to change his plans.” Soon, however, there was enough supporting data to make Guest think better of his decision. Bill Barton found a pharmacist and his assistant who had witnessed the crash from a nearby town and had seen a parachute splash down in about the same spot Simo had. In addition, the Navy had scored a few promising hits in the area with its ocean-bottom-scanning sonar.
Guest, persuaded now, not only added the third search area, a circle about two miles in diameter centered on Simo’s sighting, but gave it a high priority. This circle, called Alpha I (the original Alpha was now designated Alpha II), overlapped slightly with Sandia’s Bravo search area. At some point, yet another area, Charlie, was added, based on additional Air Force calculations. That made four search areas altogether, covering about 27 square miles of the Mediterranean. It was an immense field, much of it in water with a visibility of only 20 feet. “If someone had sat down to figure out the hardest way to lose a hydrogen bomb,” said one colonel, “he could not have come up with anything more devilish.”
In January, soon after Sandia had started its number crunching, the Navy made a few phone calls of its own. One of them went to Earl Hays, a scientist at the Woods Hole Océanographie Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Hays was a lead scientist on the Alvin , an experimental submersible being built for the Office of Naval Research. When Hays picked up the phone on that January day, it was his project manager from the ONR on the line.
“Earl, the Air Force and the Navy have a problem, and we need Alvin ,” he said. “I can’t discuss it over the phone.”
The plane crash had already made the papers. “Is this about a trip to Spain?” asked Hays.
“You know, we’re just finishing up the overhaul, and we haven’t even had a test dive.”
“We’ll just have to pray that Alvin works.”
Alvin had been conceived for just this sort of task. As early as 1945 Navy and civilian engineers had seen the need for a highly maneuverable deep-diving sub that could be used in search and salvage operations. The 1963 loss of the U.S. nuclear submarine Thresher had only heightened the need for a search vehicle, and soon several of these tiny submersibles were being designed and constructed. When it was finished, the 13-ton Alvin was only 22 feet long and 8 feet wide, a “midget sub,” as newspapers called it. It had room for a pilot and two observers, could dive down to 6,000 feet, and carried several cameras and a grappling arm. It was sturdy and, with three propellers, as maneuverable as a helicopter.
Yet it is easy to see why Hays had reservations. Alvin had made only one manned 6,000-foot dive, which hadn’t gone altogether smoothly. Furthermore, the sub had never completed an actual mission. Finally, they were in the middle of a “teardown,” the annual overhaul and inspection of the craft. But the Alvin team had something to prove. There were plenty of people who thought the little boat was a waste of money and would never amount to anything. So when Hays gathered his team and told them about the impending mission, every last man volunteered to go. “We knew the country had a big problem and had to clean it up,” said Marvin McCamis, one of three Alvin pilots who would travel to Spain. “We had no idea what we were getting into, but we were willing to try.”
The Alvin team finished the annual overhaul, stopped for a quick test dive off the coast of Spain, and arrived at the search area on February 11, almost four weeks after the crash. The sub came with three pilots, William Rainnie, Valentine Wilson, and McCamis, who would trade jobs as pilot, observer, and surface controller. They joined a crowd of men and ships, including a couple of rival submersibles, that were already searching the sea.
Guest had chopped the massive search area into 1,000-square-yard patches, and Alvin was assigned some of the deepest, roughest terrain in Alpha 1. The men were game, but it was grueling work. For weeks Alvin moved back and forth over the gray, featureless bottom, looking for the bomb. All anyone saw was a tin can and an occasional fish. The work was incredibly tedious. They had to cruise close to the bottom in order to see it, but the smallest brush released clouds of silt, reducing visibility to zero. Two or three men were crammed into the tiny ship for eight-hour shifts, and they were cold, cranky, and uncomfortable.
THE JOB WAS MADE TOUGHER BY ALVIN ’S PRIMITIVE NAVI gation system. Today Alvin navigates by bouncing sonar off strategically placed underwater transponders. In 1966 the sub had to make do with a crude and unreliable method to find out where it was. At an appointed time the surface controller in the mother ship would pick up the radio and say, “Mark.” When the pilots heard his voice, they replied, “Mark,” or sent back a Morse-code blip. The controller clocked the total time for the signal to travel from surface to sub and back. By dividing that time in half and knowing how fast sound travels in salt water, he would approximate the distance from the ship to the sub. Then he got Alvin ’s depth from the sub’s pilots. He then knew the submersible’s depth and distance. But in what direction?
That’s where another piece of technology came in, the hydrophone. This was a piece of metal that looked like an upsidedown crucifix. At the end of each arm of the cross was a microphone. The whole contraption hung off the mother ship into the water. Alvin sent acoustic pings to the ship, and they were picked up by the hydrophone. A controller slowly rotated the device until Alvin ’s signal hit both microphones at the same time. At that instant Alvin was perpendicular to the hydrophone, either directly in front of or behind it. And that was as close as anyone got to knowing Alvin ’s position.
“The system was terrible,” said Barrie Waiden, Alvin ’s principal engineer since 1969. “It might be useful, let’s say, for emergency purposes, if the sub is stuck on the bottom, not moving, and you have time to find it. But if you’re trying to do what McCamis was trying to do—run a search pattern—it was terrible.” Even on a smaller scale, navigation was no picnic. In order to steer a straight line, McCamis recalled, he had to look at his compass, then peer out the tiny porthole, get a glance at the bottom, and look back at the compass. It was, he said, like “trying to walk a straight line in a snowstorm.”
By March 1, Alvin had been searching for two frustrating, fruitless weeks. On that day the sub stayed down for seven hours, prowling the bottom, snapping intermittent photos, and looking for any sign of the bomb. As on every other day, the crew saw nothing. Hours later the pilots pored over the photographs from the dive. Frame after frame showed the same bland moonscape, relieved only by an occasional puff of sediment or a small fish. Then, as McCamis peered at one of the photos, something caught his eye. It was a mark on the sea floor, “a track in the mud that looked as if it could have been made by a skidding object,” he later recalled.
Excited, the Alvin team persuaded the Navy to let them revisit the spot. They returned the following day, and the day after that, and the day after that. No luck. Once, they caught a brief glimpse of the ghostly track but had to surface because of a dying battery. They couldn’t find it again. Finally, after two weeks, the Navy was ready to give up and shift Alvin to another area. On March 15 Alvin made one last dive in search of the track. McCamis was at the helm. It was his son’s birthday, and he felt lucky.
Soon after reaching the bottom, McCamis spied the track again; it disappeared down a steep 70-degree slope. Slowly, to avoid stirring up the silt, he started backing the Alvin down the slope, following the track. Wilson looked out the side window, guiding McCamis up or down, left or right. Slowly they descended, until suddenly Wilson shouted, “I see it! I see it! There it is!” They were almost exactly under the point where Simo had seen his “dead man” entering the sea.
More than 30 years later I traveled to Woods Hole to see firsthand what the Alvin crew saw that day. I opened a small metal canister marked “Alvin Dive #128, March 15, 1966” and removed a roll of black-and-white film. Scrolling through it, I peered at frame after frame of ghostly nothing. Then, suddenly, a handful of pictures showed a rumpled piece of cloth on the ocean floor, with a number of strings snaking off to one side—clearly a parachute. Looking very closely, I could just make out a long hump underneath the cloth. Maybe. To be honest, I was half wondering if it was my imagination at work. All I could really see, after all, was a parachute. But a few frames later my doubts vanished. Here was a shroud of cloth stretched tightly over one end of a long, torpedo-shaped object. What else could it be?
Trying to contain his excitement, McCamis backed over what he thought was the bomb and set the Alvin to rest in a small crevice. Overcome with elation, Wilson disregarded the prearranged code for a discovery (“bent nail”) and started shouting that they had found the bomb. McCamis told his colleague to cool it. “I ordered Wilson to calm down,” he recalled, “because we couldn’t really be sure we had the bomb.”
The surface controller told Alvin to stay put. Another submersible, the Aluminaut , would come down and stand guard over the object so that Alvin , running low on electricity, could surface. Alvin ’s crew snapped dozens of photographs and then, to save power, shut off the lights to wait. The crew sat in the dark, on the bottom of the cold sea, for eight hours, and to celebrate, they shared one very illicit cigarette.
Their satisfaction was short-lived. Back on the surface, the photographs were quickly developed and presented to Admiral Guest. The admiral was skeptical. “How do you know it’s not just a sack of mud?” he asked. McCamis could barely control his temper. “In all my life,” he later wrote, “I’d never had my intelligence so insulted.” The crew went to bed that night discouraged and disgusted.
Guest can be excused for some of his grouchiness. The bomb had been missing for nearly two months, and international indignation was growing by the day. Moscow claimed that the crash was a willful violation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Protesters were marching through the streets of Madrid, shouting, “Yankee assassins!” At sea the weather was mostly wet and miserable. And a Russian fishing trawler, suspiciously full of sophisticated electronics, appeared and hovered outside the search area for 12 days. The chain-smoking admiral was cold, cranky, worn out, and anxious. The last thing he wanted to do was claim he had the bomb when he didn’t.
While the Alvin crew grumbled about its admiral, the underwater photographs were sent immediately to the Atomic Energy Commission, to see what they could make of them. The AEC in turn called a man in Albuquerque who knew the bomb and its parachute intimately—Randall Maydew. Maydew scanned the photos and concluded that bomb No. 4 had been found.
Back in Spain, more dives and more photos proved that both Maydew and the Alvin pilots were right. Now all they had to do was get the bomb out of the ocean. But, like everything else in the mission, it wouldn’t be easy. The bomb sat on a steep slope 2,550 feet below the surface. And Alvin , though multitalented, could lift only 50 pounds. The decision was made that Alvin would hook a rope to the parachute and the Navy would pull it up.
Over several dives, with frequent interruptions for bad weather, Alvin struggled to attach a line to the parachute. Maneuvering underwater was difficult, and the tangled, billowing parachute didn’t make it any easier. (One reporter likened the task to “trying to tie a bow tie with the ends of bamboo poles.”) Finally they managed to hook a one-inch nylon line to the parachute. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. On March 24, when the weather broke for a day, Guest decided to raise the bomb.
Sailors hooked the line to a huge winch, and shortly after 8:00 P.M. the winch began to turn. For a full hour it reeled in yard after yard of nylon rope. Tad Szulc, in his 1967 book The Bombs of Palomares , describes what happened next: “At 9:15 P.M. , the line took a sudden heavy strain and went awesomely slack. It had snapped, and the bomb with its parachute had dropped somewhere into the black depths of the Mediterranean.” The bomb, once again, was lost. The Alvin crew was eating dinner when someone broke the news. “Oh boy,” said McCamis with a groan. “Now we’ve got to go find it again.”
Luckily, round two went quicker. On April 2 Alvin was able to relocate the bomb. It had slipped about 350 feet and was resting in a crevice at the bottom of a slope. This time the Navy hatched another plan for bringing it up. It would use an unmanned device called the Cable-controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle, developed to retrieve torpedoes. A little smaller than a compact car, CURV consisted of a rectangular steel frame holding four ballast tanks, three motors, two mercury-vapor lamps, and a large claw, directed electronically through a tether fixed to the surface ship.
Over several days, while Alvin kept watch from an underwater perch, CURV visited the bomb and attached grapnels to the chute. Then, on April 6, CURV was working near the billowing chute when it somehow managed to get itself tangled inside. It was soon clear that CURV was stuck for good. The bomb, the parachute, and CURV were now one snarled mass. On April 7 Admiral Guest gave the order to raise the whole mess. Slowly, they pulled everything up by the two lines CURV had attached to the parachute, simultaneously reeling in CURVs tether, and stopping at 100 feet so frogmen could attach more lines. By the end of the day bomb No. 4 was out of the ocean. After 81 days the saga was over.
ON APRIL 8 THE BOMB, A BIT DENTED BUT OTHERWISE IN tact, was put on display for the media. According to The New York Times , which ran a front-page story, it was the first time a nuclear weapon had ever been shown in public. The Alvin pilots became international heroes, and their little sub was suddenly famous. “It was a big moment,” said Barrie WaIden. “… Having Alvin be successful was a wonderful thing.”
The people of Palomares watched while American soldiers plowed up 600 acres of their tomato, bean, and alfalfa fields and shipped more than 4,600 barrels of contaminated soil to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina for disposal. The U.S. government settled 536 Spanish claims for a total of $710,914 and pitched in for a new desalination plant in Palomares to keep the peace. As for Francisco Simo Orts, because he saw the bomb enter the ocean, ancient sea laws held that it was his to claim. He didn’t necessarily want the bomb, but he filed a suit for $5,000,000. He was awarded $14,566.
Following a “request” by the Spanish government, SAC flights over Spain were stopped immediately. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had opposed the whole SAC airborne-alert program for some time, used the Palomares incident to push for its elimination. President Johnson approved a curtailed program in June 1966, permitting SAC to keep only four nuclear-armed bombers on airborne alert each day. The last vestiges of the program ended for good in 1992.
As for the H-bomb itself, it went back where it had come from, Albuquerque. It was shipped to Sandia for examination and then sat in storage for a couple of decades. In the early 1990s it was put on display (sans nuclear warhead) at the National Atomic Museum. If you want to see it today, it’s still at the museum, just outside Old Town Albuquerque. It’s stuck in a back corner, past replicas of the more famous Fat Man and Little Boy. Sitting under the fluorescent lights, it seems harmless enough and looks as if it’s been through hell. Its tail is shredded, and its nose bears a huge dent, like a rising loaf of bread punched by a giant fist. Its dull silver paint is scratched and scraped.
When I visited it, I paused for a moment, feeling a bit bad for the bomb. Then I leaned in to look closely at some small words stenciled in black on the side. I smiled when I read them. CAUTION , it said. DO NOT BUMP .