First they fought the wars, and then they fought the system … and lost

Where were you in 1966?

Personally, I was still a year away from enlisting in the Air Force, using a student deferment to avoid the draft while figuring out the Army draftees got shot at, but in the Air Force it was the officers who got shot at.

But fodder is fodder.

Today The New York Times recounts the tales of some of the 1,600 untrained airmen who were dispatched in January 1966 to pick up the debris that was left when a B-52 collided with its refueling tanker and dropped its cargo of four nuclear bombs on the Spanish Mediterranean coastal farming village of Palomares.

One landed in soft dirt and another in the sea, but two had their high-explosives surrounding their plutonium cores blast a hole in the earth, scattering radiative material over many acres.

Here are a few telling excerpts from the very lengthy piece relating the 50-year battle those men have gone through:

“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.”

Mr. 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. …

Of 40 veterans who helped with the cleanup who The New York Times identified, 21 had cancer. Nine had died from it. …

At the crash site, Mr. 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.” …

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. …

“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.” …

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. …

The day after the crash, busloads of troops started arriving from United States 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 two 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.” …

The Air Force bought tons of contaminated tomatoes from local fields that the Spanish public refused to eat. To assure the public there was no danger, commanders fed the tomatoes to the troops. Though the risk from eating plutonium is much lower than the risk from inhaling it, it is still not safe. …

To assure villagers their homes were safe, the Air Force sent young airmen into local houses with hand-held radiation detectors. Peter M. Ricard, then a 20-year-old cook with no training on the equipment, remembers being told to perform scans of anything locals wanted, but to keep his detector turned off.

“We were just supposed to feign our readings so we didn’t cause turmoil with the natives,” he said in an interview. “I often think about that now. I wasn’t too smart back then. They say do it and you just say, ‘Yes, sir.’” …

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 young military policeman was plagued by sinus swelling so acute that he would bang his head on the floor to distract himself from the pain. Doctors said it was allergies.

Several men got rashes or growths. An airman named Noris N. Paul had cysts severe enough that he spent six months in the hospital in 1967 getting skin grafts. He also became infertile.

“No one knew what was wrong with me,” Mr. Paul said.

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,” Mr. Kindler, 74, said in an interview from his home in Tuscon. “You have to understand, they told us everything was safe. We were young. We trusted them. Why would they lie?”

Mr. Kindler filed twice for help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. “They always denied me,” he said. “Eventually, I just gave up.” …

On a recent rainy morning, Nona A. Watson, a retired science teacher in Buckhead, Ga., held open the door of a veterans medical center in Atlanta for her husband, Nolan F. Watson, who hobbled in, his shuddering hand unable to steady his cane.

As a 22-year-old dog handler, Mr. Watson slept in the dirt just feet from one of the bomb craters the day after the blast. A year later, he was racked by blinding headaches and hips so stiff he could barely walk. At the time, he asked the Department of Veterans Affairs for help. He said he was turned away. For years he had problems with painful joints, kidney stones and localized skin cancer. In 2002, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and one of his kidneys was removed. In 2010, more cancer showed up in his remaining kidney. Recent abnormal blood tests suggested leukemia.

“I think it ruined my life,” he said. “I was young, in good shape. But since that day, I’ve had problems all the time.”

Mr. Watson, now 73, had filed a claim with the veterans agency that was denied and he was in the process of appealing. Other veterans of Palomares had warned him that it was a waste of time. Only one Palomares veteran they knew of had succeeded in claiming harm from radiation, and it took 10 years, at which point he was bedridden with stomach cancer. But Mr. Watson wanted to come to the medical center to give personal testimony about his plutonium exposure.

In the center’s waiting room, his nose began to bleed.

“I’m going to speak my piece, dang it.” Mr. Watson said. “They know this whole thing is a lie.”

According to, in October 2015 the U.S. agreed to finish the 50-year-old cleanup of the site in Palomares. The nuclear-contaminated soil is to be disposed of at a site in the United States. Yucca Mountain perhaps?

NY Times: Some men doing the dustiest work were given coveralls and paper surgical masks for safety, but a later report by the Defense Nuclear Agency said, “It is doubtful that the use of the surgical mask served more than a psychological barrier.” (Air Force photo)


17 comments on “First they fought the wars, and then they fought the system … and lost

  1. Patrick says:


    It’s sad that when it comes to nuclear anything the answer is always the same; “The public was never in any danger at any time”

    Harry Reid deserves a statute for doing what he has done to keep this mistake out of Yucca mountain.

  2. John Smith says:

    The nation should be mortified.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. I had heard about the accident, along with the one in Greenland, for years, but never suspected the level of coverup suggested here. But I was in Air Force intelligence, so I should not be surprised.

  4. Steve says:

    Our enemy (at the time) later tried to cover up Chernobyl.
    Amazing how much like the system we tried so hard to eliminate, we have become.
    And we continue to travel this road to this day.
    My brother in law was Navy in Gulf Of Tonkin. The VA procrastinated and procrastinated until he died. A week later his disability benefits were approved and the check arrived only to be taken back because he died.
    At least they (we) did cover his medical needs up to the day he died from Tuberculosis contracted during the “incident”.

  5. dee21701 says:

    I know several Vietnam Veterans suffering from the after effects of being sprayed or in contact with Agent Orange, my brother included. At least the government have admitted to it and they are getting medical treatment & disability, but many had already died, my friends husband testified in front of congress to get the widows compensation, almost his whole squad is gone.

  6. Rincon says:

    “Harry Reid deserves a statute for doing what he has done to keep this mistake out of Yucca mountain.” Just wondering what your suggestion is for disposing (or storing) our nuclear waste.

  7. Steve says:

    I bet Shammy says “let the Republicans eat the (yellow) cake”!

  8. Rincon says:

    From the NY Times article: “The toxic aftermath of war is often vexing to untangle. Damage is hard to quantify and all but impossible to connect to later problems.” I think you may have glossed over this. Although I do not dispute this version of the event, I’m amazed how the same people who demand absolute proof regarding global warming are ready to buy this story hook, line and sinker based entirely on anecdotes from an event that occurred 50 years ago.

    There are lots of unanswered questions. One example: “But we were told that type of radiation would not penetrate the skin. We were told it was safe.” If they were detecting alpha radiation, then it was the truth. Did anyone at the Times check to see if alpha radiation was likely?

    Although I believe a thorough investigation is called for, this sounds an awful lot like the claims of people living near fracking operations and you guys generally choose not to believe them. Why is this so different, except that it’s from 50 years ago, and the evidence trail is very cold?

  9. Patrick says:


    The current solution is no solution. I’m not smart enough to know what the best solution is but one thing I do know is shoving the waste, down the throats, of the smallest (and at least formerly least able to defend itself against the heavyweight political forces aligned against it) state without regard to the science, is wrong. Scientifically and morally.

  10. Steve says:

    You doubt the EPA on the safety of fracking?

    What is this world coming to? A distrust of government organizations and scientists?


  11. Rincon says:

    My best solution would be to force the states to bid on it. I do mean force. Every state would be required to submit a price. Whichever state is the lowest would be paid by the rest in proportion to the amount of waste from each state. If every state submits an exorbitant bid, then the rest have no complaint against the perceived unreasonableness of the winner. The winner would probably receive a windfall. Great. They deserve generous payment for a dirty job.

  12. Patrick says:

    But what about the science? I mean just because a state bids higher than everyone else doesn’t mean the poison is any safer. And, this sort of stuff is going to contaminate land far beyond any states borders so, it’s irrelevant as to who “volunteers” to accept it (and thereby reap the “benefits” cause other states will be impacted.

    I don’t see that as a reasonable solution, at least to the first issue, and probably the second.

  13. Rincon says:

    I can certainly see your point; however, I can also understand the resentment of a state’s people having it rammed down their throat. Either answer is better than what we’ve been clowning around with for the past 60 years or so. My hope is that those states with conditions not suitable would make their bids high enough that they would take themselves out of consideration. If the results turned out to be unacceptable, another state could volunteer to take it on for the same amount of payment.

  14. Winston Smith says:

    Meanwhile, speaking of government bullshit, I am reminded again of the U.S.S. Liberty.

  15. nyp says:

    Ah yes, here it comes. The zionist cover-up of the attack on the U.S.S. Liberty.

  16. Rincon says:

    Whose government, Winston? israel’s for making the mistake or ours for agreeing that it really was a mistake?

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