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The Palomares Nuclear Disaster and a Class-Action Victory via Veteran.online

BY RICHARD CURREY

As Cold War tensions escalated in the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force initiated long-range patrols by B-52 bombers carrying nuclear payloads. They flew from sites within the U.S. to the border of the Soviet Union, maintaining rapid first strike and retaliatory capabilities. The bomber patrols operated on a 24-7 basis, which necessitated midair refueling. On the morning of January 17, 1966, a B-52 approached a KC-135 tanker at the designated refueling position off the southeastern coast of Spain.

The B-52 maneuvered under the tanker. Then something went wrong. The planes collided. The tanker was instantly swallowed in a fireball that killed all four crewmembers. The B-52’s wings tore away as the fuselage began to break apart. Four of the seven crewmembers were able to eject amid burning aircraft debris. The nuclear payload—four hydrogen bombs—fell from the disintegrating aircraft as their parachutes deployed.

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A BROKEN ARROW

In January 1966 retired Air Force Chief MSG Victor Skaar was a 29-year-old Air Force medic stationed at Moron Air Base, some 200 miles west of Palomares. He was among the first Air Force personnel to be dispatched to the coastal village. “At first we didn’t know where we were going or why,” said Skaar, a VVA Life Member who is now 83. “In due course we learned we had a broken arrow. But for a while that’s all we knew.” (In military jargon, any accident involving the accidental compromise or loss of a nuclear device is a “broken arrow.”)

Skaar was in Palomares for 62 days and worked almost every aspect of the emergency response: the initial search for the bombs, the radiation survey of the village and surrounding areas, the health screenings of Air Force personnel and Spanish citizens, and the decontamination efforts. Skaar kept detailed notes of his time in Palomares, which he still has, along with all his official daily activity reports.

“Command wanted to keep it all quiet,” said Skaar. “They wanted to avoid alarming our troops as well as the locals. Not to mention keeping it out of the press. Which at the time and given the situation was not unreasonable.” Declassified Air Force documents confirm this policy. A memo from February 1966 noted that “it would seem preferable to go back to normality as soon as possible, and thus hasten the departure of this subject from the public mind.”

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CLAIMS DENIED

After a two-year wait he received the decision: denied. It seemed his military medical records were “unavailable.” Any radiation exposure during his time in service “could not be corroborated.” Skaar appealed the decision. After another long wait he received the same decision for the same reason. He then had a full medical evaluation conducted by a civilian physician, who concluded the most likely cause for Skaar’s condition was radiation exposure. Skaar applied for VA benefits using the doctor’s evaluation as support. The VA denied the claim, once again falling back on the “no available records” mantra.

“I knew different, of course,” said Skaar. “I helped create those records. Sealing them was understandable at the time. But I was applying for benefits long past the point where those records needed to remain under seal.” It would turn out that Skaar’s medical file was indeed available, but it took a Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the Secretary of the Air Force to win release of those records.

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