by 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
something 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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