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, a patchwork of small fields and tile-roofed white houses in an out-of-the-way corner of Spain’s rugged southern coast that had changed little since Roman times.
It was one of the biggest nuclear accidents in history, and the United States 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.”
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. 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 Mr. 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 purposefully 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.
Monitoring of the village in Spain has also been haphazard, declassified documents show. The United States 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 Until the 1980s, Spanish scientists often relied on broken and outdated equipment, and lacked the resources to follow up on potential ramifications, including leukemia deaths in children.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 effect on villagers is poorly understood.
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.
“Breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had them until we were sick of them,” said Wayne Hugart, 74, who was a military police officer at the site. “They kept saying there was nothing wrong with them.”
In all, the Air Force cut down 600 acres of crops and plowed under the contaminated dirt. Troops scooped up 5,300 barrels of soil from the most radioactive areas near the craters and loaded the barrels on ships to be buried in a secure nuclear waste storage site in South Carolina.
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.’”
Convinced that the urine samples were inadequate, Dr. Odland persuaded the Air Force in 1966 to set up a permanent “Plutonium Deposition Registry Board” to monitor the men for life.
Experts from the Air Force, Army, Navy, Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) and Atomic Energy Commission met to establish the program shortly after the cleanup. In welcoming remarks, the Air Force general in charge said the program was “essential” and following the men to their graves would provide “urgently needed data.”
The organizers proposed not notifying troops of their radiation exposure and keeping details of testing out of medical records, according to minutes of the meeting, out of concern notifying them could “set a stage for legal action.”
If successful with the appeal, Mr. Watson would have all of his medical costs covered and get modest monthly disability payments.
“But that’s not why I’m doing it,” he said as he dabbed at his nose. “I’m not about the money.”
He doubted he would live long enough to collect much. More than anything, he wanted the record straight. He wanted to tell the Air Force that he and the men he served with mattered enough to be told the truth.
“I’m going to speak my piece, dang it.” Mr. Watson said. “They know this whole thing is a lie.”
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