It is amazing, the things you think about when you are awake at three in the middle of the night.
Fifty-three years ago this morning at dawn, a section of RF-8 Crusaders streaked across the Cuban skies to record the presence of Soviet ballistic missiles deployed in Cuba. Leading the flight of two was the skipper of VFP-62, Commander William B. Ecker; his wingman was Lt. Bruce Wilhelmy.
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The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 16, 1962. It was a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The leaders of the two nations, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev essentially engaged in a game of the ultimate staring contest. As they stared each other down, the world waited to see who would blink first. The stakes were high – not just world peace, but the survival of all humanity.
Following negotiations between Khrushchev and Fidel Castro earlier in the summer, Russia agreed to deploy nuclear missiles to the island nation as a threat to the United States. By the end of the summer, construction began on several facilities designed to house the nuclear weapons.
From September 5 until October 14, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy halted U-2 flights over the island. They restricted the flights because of a protest the Russians made about a U-2 flight that wandered off course over Sakhalin Island of Eastern Russia at the end of August. Rusk and Bundy were concerned further overflights of Cuba might result in a shootdown and subsequent international incident.
As a result, the photo specialists of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had only satellite imagery to work with. In a series of photos, they noticed a similarity between the Cuban missile sites and those in the Soviet Union. This alarmed many in the agency who voiced the opinion the U-2 flights over the island should resume. The first truly damning information of the nuclear threat developing in Cuba came from the photography of an Air Force U-2 reconnaissance aircraft after they started flying again on October 14.
On October 15, the CIA decreed medium range ballistic missiles were on the island. By 8:30 in the evening, the Department of State was aware of the situation and then National Security Adviser Bundy decided to wait until the next day to inform President Kennedy. By the end of that day, Kennedy assembled the National Security Council to lay out a plan of action.
While the military leaders leaned toward a full out military option, Kennedy pondered other ideas. Other than a military assault, these ideas included doing nothing, using diplomacy to force the Russians to extract the missiles, striking the known missile sites with air power, invade and overthrow Castro, or set up a naval blockade. The choice, as history has shown, was the naval blockade.
By the time the world reached this date 53 years ago, the situation was critical. Two leaders of the most powerful nations in the world solemnly “faced each other” over their telephones with their respective fingers poised on their own red buttons. It would not be until decades later that we would come to know just how close the world had come to nuclear annihilation.
As penned by President Kennedy in a letter to Commander Ecker, the efforts of Commander Ecker and Lieutenant Bruce Wilhelmy, along with all the members of Light Photographic Squadron Sixty-two, “enabled us to determine with precision the offensive build-up in Cuba.” Kennedy went on to say the squadron’s work during those weeks “contributed directly to the security of the United States in the most important and significant way.”
I think back to that time, October 1962. I was nine years-old, a kid in third grade. Even at that point in time in my life, I knew… I knew Cuba and the Russians would target MacDill AFB and that our house was 10.7 miles from the center of the base. I also knew there would be no escape from the destruction of a detonation. If the boon of initial survival were granted, there would be no escaping the nuclear fallout. Like the rest of the world, I watched and held my breath. Like everyone, I had no idea of how close the world had come to the end.
Today, I think about what it must have been like, to be one of the single-engine, single-seat jet pilots rocketing across the Cuban countryside faster than 600 mph, just barely above the trees armed only with cameras taking photos. Most would think doing something like that is a little insane, or maybe completely insane.
But there are those of us who would thoroughly enjoy the challenge, as well as the thrill and the excitement.
©2015 J. Clark
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