The Day We Lost the H-Bomb

LostHBombby Brad Nelson   7/14/14
Every once in a while you stumble upon a book that tells a tale inside a larger tale that brings to life a piece of history in such a way that is interesting and memorable. Barbara Moran has crafted such a book.

The Day We Lost the H-Bomb is the story of an accident in 1966 off the southeast coast of Spain that involved a SAC B-52 bomber and a refueling tanker. The result was a catastrophic explosion that hurled the B-52’s payload of four hydrogen bombs all over the Palomares countryside.

This is the story of that crash, the clean-up, the dicey diplomacy involved, the search for the four bombs, and the background story of the Strategic Air Command, the brainchild of the hard-driving (and refreshingly anti-Communist) Curtis LeMay. By all rights, this should have been a somewhat dry and dull history. But Moran does an expert job of weaving in just enough facts about the people and place counterbalanced with a larger context. Her slow-motion description of the actual crash is as gripping as any fictional novel.

And what especially makes this work is her neutral point of view. This isn’t a finger-wagging “Oh, those awful nukes” story. For the most part, Moran does
ThunderballSubsomething almost unheard of in this day and age: She simply tells the story, and not from a revisionist (and usually feigned omniscient) perspective of the present but in the context of the realities of the time. This is almost a lost art.

This book is so fair and balanced, and enlivens a subject that 9 out of 10 writers would have made dull, I will search out other books by this fine writer. If you like a good story, and couldn’t give a hoot about nukes, B-52’s, the early age of mini-submersibles, the Strategic Air Command, or Curtis LeMay, you could be drawn in by the sheer drama of the intense search for these nukes combined with a sort of travelogue picture of this sleepy and somewhat backward Palomares countryside that has a literal collision with the 20th century, and in a big way.

I won’t spoil the story for you. I think I was vaguely aware of this incident beforehand, but had no idea how it would all turn out. And the story is another case of art imitating life, for it was exactly at this time that the James Bond movie, Thunderball, came out. This was a movie about stolen nukes, cool underwater submersibles, and a race to get those nukes back. Read the book then see the movie. I think you’ll be inspired to do both.


Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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8 Responses to The Day We Lost the H-Bomb

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I’ve heard of this, but haven’t read it. One thing I will mention is that Shelby Foote mentioned once in discussing his history of the War of the Rebellion that he thought his skills as a novelist were helpful, both in terms of researching events and writing entertainingly. I will add that the results, for whatever reason, were quite good. (He also had to face his own sectional bias, and in one of the earlier volumes thanked the governors of Arkansas [Orval Faubus], Mississippi [Ross Barnett, probably], and Alabama [George Wallace] for reducing it.)

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      One reader at Amazon pointed out that Moran had a lot of key facts wrong:

      first Mrs. Moran says that each of the 1.45 MT hydrogen bombs in Captain Wendorf’s B-52 has 70 times the destructive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (not quite correct seeing that the explosive energy of the Hiroshima bomb is generally accepted as 15 KT, at the most 18 KT, which doesn’t quite add up), then she seems to confuse which bomb was dropped on which city, quote “dropped Fat Man and Little Boy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki, not Hiroshima, which would explain why her 70 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb doesn’t add up: Fat Man was a 21 KT device, times 70 is almost exactly 1.45 MT).

      A few pages later she drops the bomb on Hiroshima on the 7th of August (it was the 6th), then the second bomb on Nagasaki 9 days later (it was 3 days later) with Japan surrendering in the evening of the same day (Japan surrendered on the 15th of August, 6 days after Nagasaki).

      Those kinds of errors don’t fill one with a lot of confidence about the rest of the book. But I think the overall thread of the story seems sound.

      I found of particular interest the story of SAC and Curtis LeMay. It was especially interesting to find out how much he was actually needed. Our strategic defense before his influence was apparently a joke.

      It’s all the rage these days to tsk-tsk about those cowboy Americans who saw a Communist underneath every rock. But people such as LeMay kept the world safe. The problem is that we can’t say for sure what would have happened without a strong nuclear deterrence. And the fag-boys in Europe who regularly protest America, America’s presence in Europe, and America’s willingness to defend itself against enemies whip up their pansy flames of self-righteousness by living in the fantasy land where there are no enemies because — gosh — didn’t those Communists turn out to be just nothing?

      Well, it is almost certain that without America’s presence in Europe, and with its vast stockpile of nukes that acted as a deterrent, that Europe would have been invaded by the Soviets. Why wouldn’t they have if they figured they only receive token resistance? They already had eastern Europe and were trying to expand all over the world . And consider just how successful the Left had been at propagandizing these silly European fag-boys against America and against the idea the Communists really were a (and the) real enemy. I can see them rolling over in nothing flat without America’s nuclear umbrella.

      To some extent, we can sit back and laugh as much of Europe becomes Eurabia. France and England will almost certainly disappear as recognizable Western entities. And we can pine for those days when there were men ready to face down evil instead of friggin’ voting it into office at the highest level…twice.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        There are always errors (I’ve encountered many in books where I had the sort of knowledge that critic had). If there are too many, especially on the material at the heart of the book rather than ancillary matters, then one doubts its credibility. In the end, if I decide that it’s status as “non-fiction” isn’t quite justified, I’ll give up on it (or not read it at all; that happened with Morgan’s Reds, which I got from a book club, scanned through a bit, and then never got around to because I was too skeptical about its accuracy or even honesty). I read plenty of fiction, but not when it seriously pretends to be non-fiction (as distinct from a book like Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, which purports to be non-fiction as a literary trope).

        • David Ray says:

          Isn’t “Reds” that crap movie that liberals voted their No. 1 favorite once? (Naturally starring idiot Warren Beatty.)

          As for novels, a seriously good one based on solid perspective is called “The Spike” by Arnaud De Borchgrave & Robert Moss. (involves a Berkley reporter getting duped by KGB and “spiking” unfavorable stories. Good guy wins so liberals hate it.)

          • Timothy Lane says:

            No, this was a history of “red scares”. (Titles can’t be copyrighted, which is why I have 3 different mysteries titled Ashes to Ashes.) My skepticism was mildly activated when the author mistakenly said that McCarthy’s intelligence flights over the Solomons in 1943 were over territory where there wasn’t any fighting after January 1943 (confusing the end of the Guadalcanal campaign with the end of the campaign for the Solomons as a whole). But then I noticed his blatantly dishonest coverage of the foreign policy disputes over Iraq. In particular, he claimed that a Republican (Trent Lott, I think, but it’s been several years since I looked at it) had accused Bush’s opponents of being unpatriotic. I noticed that this was a paraphrase, not a quote — though he had a large number of direct quotes in the section.

  2. David Ray says:

    Damn you Nelson! Quit hastening me off to the Amazon website! (At least this time they only required a donation of $10.40)
    This Moran lady sounds as if she’s been influenced by Barbara Tuchman. Her book “Guns of August” has you hanging as if you don’t know if WWI will start or not.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      You’re welcome, David. I hope the book doesn’t disappoint. Let me know what you think. And I might check out “Guns of August.”

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