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A Real Life “Thunderball”: The Day the U.S. Lost Hydrogen Bombs in Spain

The March 2009 edition of Time magazine called it one of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters.” On January 17, 1966, a B-52 bomber of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) carrying four hydrogen bombs collided with a tanker during mid-air refueling at 31,000 feet over the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. The tanker was completely destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52 broke apart, killing three of the seven crew members aboard.

Three hydrogen bombs were found on land near the small fishing village of Palomares. However, the non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impact with the ground, resulting in the contamination of 490 acres. The fourth fell into the sea and was eventually recovered intact after a 2½-month-long search.

News stories related to the crash began to appear the following day, and it achieved front page status in both the New York Times and Washington Post on 20 January. Reporters sent to the accident scene covered angry demonstrations by the local residents. The incident had an eerie similarity with the recently released James Bond movie Thunderball, in which SPECTRE steals two NATO H-bombs, which end up submerged on the ocean floor of the Bahamas. Read more

Desert Storm “The War Never Really Ended” — Part I

It was the first major foreign policy crisis for the U.S. since the end of the Cold War.  Iraq, which had built up the fourth-largest army in the world with U.S. assistance, was heavily in debt after its costly eight-year war with Iran. It pressured Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to forgive its debts, but they refused. Iraq had claimed, since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1932, that Kuwait was rightfully Iraqi territory, and accused Kuwait of exceeding its OPEC quotas for oil production.

This all came to a head in August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a major supplier of oil to the United States, and also threatened Saudi Arabia.  In the last months of 1990, the United States participated in the defense of Saudi Arabia in a deployment known as Operation Desert Shield. Read more

Hard Rock Hotel Panama: Noriega and the U.S. Invasion, Part II

The U.S. and SOUTHCOM had spent considerable time and effort planning for the invasion and had mapped out several places where Noriega could potentially be hiding, the chief one being the house of a mistress. However, he wasn’t in any of them as he had been tipped off.  Now the U.S. military and the embassy had to react to a very different scenario than previously imagined. In Part II, John Bushnell, who was Chargé d’Affaires in Panama from 1989 until 1992, discusses briefing members of the opposition at a dinner just hours before the invasion and finding a way to swear them in as the new government; the attack on the U.S. embassy and how he was shot; the psychological operations, including rock music, used against Noriega when he was holed up at the Vatican’s Nunicature; and the celebrations in the streets of Panama after he finally turned himself in.

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Hard Rock Hotel Panama — Noriega and the U.S. Invasion, Part I

Beginning in the middle of the 1980s, relations between General Manuel Noriega, Panama’s de facto leader, and the United States started to deteriorate. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan pressured him with several drug-related indictments in U.S. courts; however, Noriega did not give in. As relations continued to spiral downward, Noriega shifted his allegiance towards the Soviet bloc, soliciting and receiving military aid from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya.

In May 1989, an alliance of opposition parties counted results from the Panamanian national elections, which showed their candidate, Guillermo Endara, defeating pro-Noriega Carlos Duque by nearly 3-to-1. Endara was beaten up by Noriega supporters the next day while Noriega declared the election null and void. On December 15, the Panamanian general assembly passed a resolution declaring that U.S. actions had caused a state of war to exist with Panama. Then on December 16, four U.S. military personnel were stopped at a roadblock outside Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) headquarters; the PDF opened fire as they attempted to flee an angry mob. One soldier, Lt. Paz, was fatally wounded. President Bush ordered the invasion of Panama, to commence at 0100 on December 20.  Read more

The Jonestown Massacre

Jonestown, Guyana was the scene of one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history. On November 18, 1978, at the direction of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, 909 members of the People’s Temple died, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in a “revolutionary suicide.” They included over 200 murdered children. The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others, including Congressman Leo Ryan, by Temple members at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. It was the largest mass suicide in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until September 11, 2001. Read more

A Hostage in Communist China, 1948-49

As Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army swept through China during the Civil War against the Nationalists in 1948 and 1949, it took over Mukden (now Shenyang), a major trade center. The Communists demanded that American Consul Angus Ward surrender the consulate’s radio transmitter. Ward refused. In response, PLA troops surrounded the consulate on November 20, 1948, putting Ward and 21 staff members under house arrest. For months, without communication, water, and electricity, Ward and the other Americans were completely isolated.  Read more

CSI: Sao Paulo — The Search for the Angel of Death

Stephen F. Dachi had one of the more unusual — and as it turned out, fateful — backgrounds of anyone in the Foreign Service. Born in Hungary in 1933, he was three years old when his parents died, leaving him in the care of his grandparents in Romania. After emigrating to the U.S., he became a forensic dentist, and later joined the Foreign Service. When serving in Sao Paolo in the mid‐1980s, Dachi used his dental expertise to help with the forensic identification of Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death.”

Mengele came to Auschwitz in 1943 and conducted experiments on prisoners, especially twins, in the name of “science.” He escaped imprisonment after the war and became a citizen of Paraguay in 1959.  Read more

The U.S. Embassy Nairobi Bombings

It was one of the most horrific events in U.S. diplomatic history. On August 7, 1998, between 10:30 and 10:40 a.m. local time, suicide bombers parked trucks loaded with explosives outside the embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi and almost simultaneously detonated them. In Nairobi, approximately 212 people were killed, and an estimated 4,000 wounded; in Dar es Salaam, the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85. The attacks were later traced to Saudi exile Osama bin Laden and took place on the eighth anniversary of the deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia.

On August 20, President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missiles launched against bin Laden’s terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and against a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, where bin Laden allegedly made or distributed chemical weapons. In November 1998, the United States indicted bin Laden and 21 others, charging them with bombing the two U.S. embassies and conspiring to commit other acts of terrorism against Americans abroad. To date, nine of the al Qaeda members named in the indictments have been captured. Prudence Bushnell was Ambassador to Kenya at the time and relates the harrowing events of those days. She was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in July 2005.
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