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The Day We Lost the H-Bomb: Cold War, Hot Nukes, and the Worst Nuclear Weapons Disaster in History Hardcover – April 28, 2009

4.8 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Amazon Best of the Month, April 2009: In 1966, a mid-air collision off the coast of Spain between a fueling tanker and a B2 bomber resulted in a loss of life, strained international relations, and a PR nightmare for the US government. Not only had the crash put innocent civilians at risk from raining debris, but it also produced a much larger problem once the dust had cleared: four hydrogen bombs were now unaccounted for. The Day We Lost the H-Bomb explores an awakening to the realities of a nuclear age. Despite a handful of plutonium-grade foul-ups on our own soil, Americans were seemingly at ease with a burgeoning arsenal of nuclear weaponry. Cold War anxiety over the ever-reaching arm of Communism fueled massive increases in U.S. military spending, yet not enough attention was given to the dangers of an arms race until this fatal accident abroad. --Dave Callanan

Amazon Exclusive: An Essay by Barbara Moran

The Swim

Two years ago, on a chilly February morning, I found myself standing on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. I was wearing a bathing suit, shivering in the cold and feeling like a complete idiot.

It was all Ellen’s fault. A few weeks earlier, before leaving for Spain to research The Day We Lost the H-Bomb, I had had lunch with Ellen Ruppel Shell, a former writing teacher. As we chatted about my upcoming trip, I told her the story of Angier Biddle Duke, the American Ambassador to Spain in 1966. After the United States accidentally dropped four hydrogen bombs near a Spanish village, Duke orchestrated a PR stunt, swimming in the chilly Med to prove that the water wasn’t radioactive.

I mentioned that I was planning to visit the beach where Angie swam. Ellen looked at me and said, “Well, of course you have to swim there, too.” I had to admit she was right. It’s always easier to write about something you’ve experienced firsthand.

Now, here I was on the beach. I had been anxious about the swim, searching for any excuse to get out of it. My translator had mentioned something about a jellyfish invasion of the Mediterranean, which gave me hope. But I had scoped out the beach the previous day and there wasn’t a jellyfish in sight. No people in sight, either. In my few days on the coast I had seen no one in the water and hardly anyone on the beach, just a few pasty Brits and backpackers sprawled on the sand. It was, after all, February.

The next morning I got up at dawn. My plan was to sneak down to the beach without anyone seeing me. The Spanish were used to gringos acting strangely, but a dip in the Med in the middle of winter was surely a bit too far.

The beach was deserted, but I noted with alarm that a tour bus was parked beside the road overlooking the ocean. Unlike Angie Duke, my goal was to attract as little attention as possible. I took off my shirt and shorts, and stood on the beach on my bathing suit, cursing Ellen for putting this idea in my head. Where were those jellyfish when I needed them? I wondered if the tour bus was filling with old folks who now had something interesting to look at.

I took my first step in. The water was clear and cold, the bottom soft and pebbled. I took a few more steps, my feet sinking into the sand. There was a steep drop and I was suddenly up to my waist. A quick count of one, two, three and I ducked underwater. I came back up, shook my hair and tasted the salty water on my face. My job was done.

My 30-second dip in the Med, after all my anxiety, was anticlimactic. Angie’s swim was completely the opposite. --Barbara Moran

(Photo © John G. Nikolai)

About the Author

Barbara Moran is an award-winning science journalist who has written for many publications, including New Scientist, Invention & Technology, Technology Review and the Boston Globe. Her television documentary credits include the PBS series Frontline, The American Experience and NOVA, as well as the History and Discovery Channels. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Boston University’s graduate program in science and medical reporting, she received a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT in 2001. She lives in Boston with her husband and son.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Presidio Press; First Edition edition (April 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0891419047
  • ISBN-13: 978-0891419044
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #152,326 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
An interesting story and an entertaining read but who else has noticed that the author has a somewhat casual way of dealing with known (or so you'd think) facts? Take chapter 1 alone: 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). Where did a science writer like Mrs. Moran get this "history" from?

Such seemingly "small" errors always make me wonder what else in the book is incorrect in areas I don't happen to know much or anything about (which is why I'm reading a nonfiction book to begin with!).

I'm not in the book business, but in the course of the editing process don't publishers employ someone like a fact checker to make sure that the authors get at least their dates and numbers right!? If they don't, they should!

Anyway, it is an informative and entertaining read with lots of information you don't read in the papers about, so if you're interested in the Cold War, the Air Force or the nuclear defense program, by all means read it, just don't quote it in a million dollar game show!

(This review relates to the Kindle edition.)
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Format: Hardcover
Barbara Moran's story of the H-bomb search in Palomares, Spain in 1966 is an outstanding account of a serious crisis during the cold war. She brings the events and participants to life while at the same time sticking close to the facts. As someone who was there, I can vouch for the accuracy of her description. This book should be enjoyable to anyone that has an interest in military matters or, more generally, in recent U.S. history.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Barbara Moran has crafted a rip-roaring tale of Cold War intrigue, military mishaps, underwater adventures and H-Bomb Science. When the Air Force loses a nuclear bomb in a 1966 mid-air jet collision (described in mesmerizing detail), the search is on. Who will find the bomb? The Air Force? The Navy? The Soviets? Oh my!

The book is very readable, fast paced, and filled with fascinating tidbits and engaging characters-especially a surprisingly lovable US diplomat with the wonderful name of Angier Biddle Duke (known to all as Angie). It opens a window on a forgotten piece of Cold War history, and helps us appreciate the vast and sometimes bewildering array of resources the US military can bring to bear in a crisis.

The paranoia that fueled in SAC's Airborne Alert program (we had airborne nukes at all times in case the Commies got the drop on us) has obvious parallels today. But this book isn't about that--it's about diving into a great story and following every twist to see how it turns out. Moran is a wonderful storyteller who can't resist regaling us with humorous anecdotes (a suitcase full of gin, an ambassador's swim) while never losing site of the main story. A highly enjoyable read.
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Format: Hardcover
Moran is clearly a serious scholar and impeccable researcher. However, unlike many historians, she is also a dynamic writer who can take a potentially inaccessible topic (in this case, a military incident during the cold war) and make it entertaining for a broad spectrum of readers. This is rare gift.

In this book, Moran does not disappoint. The book focuses on an incident during the cold war where the US military accidentally dropped four H-bombs on Spain. What sets this book apart are Moran's rich diction and delicious sidebars. In describing the incident, Moran introduces us to flamboyant Ambassadors, arrogant Military officers, cold war paranoia, in-flight refueling techniques, deep sea research, Spanish politics and media frenzy. At no point, however does Moran let the book become frivolous or unprofessional.

A great suggestion for that military or history buff in your life, or for anyone who wants an interesting read.
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Format: Hardcover
Moran is a fantastic storyteller -- I started reading this book on my Kindle on the train, and I didn't put it down until I was finished. As noted in the Washington Post review, there are other accounts of this incident that describe its historical significance in more detail, but I would venture that none of them are this fun to read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It's the spring of 1966. In movie theatres around the world, audiences thrill to the exploits of debonair British spy James Bond (played, with a perfection no other actor has ever matched, by Sean Connery) as he tries to recover two stolen H-bombs from a nefarious villain. The movie is "Thunderball," and there's no question that Agent 007 will prevail in the end. But at the same time, in real-life, another missing nuclear weapon drama is also in progress--and its outcome is not nearly so certain.

On January 17, 1966, a U.S. Strategic Air Command B-52 "Stratofortress" bomber prepared for a routine aerial refueling from a KC-135 "Stratotanker" over the coast of Spain. Something went horribly wrong; the exact cause is still disputed. The two aircraft collided in mid-air, raining debris down onto the tiny Mediterranean fishing and farming village of Palomares. Among the items that fell to earth that day were four Mark 28 thermonuclear weapons. Each hydrogen bomb was designed to explode with a yield of up to 1.45 megatons--almost 100 times more powerful than the bombs that had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought an end to World War II. Three of the Mark 28s fell on land near the village. These were quickly recovered. Two of them had experienced low-order detonations of some of their high-explosive "lenses" on impact, scattering poisonous, radioactive plutonium over many acres of farmland. The intensive hunt for the fourth weapon proved fruitless until the U.S. recovery team listened to a local Spanish fisherman, who had seen it descend into the Mediterranean under its parachute. The ultimately successful search for this fourth weapon in 2,500 feet of murky water was an extraordinary scientific and technological detective story.
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