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ISSUE 148 - December 2010
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Be Careful Who You Vote For

By David Rose, Contributing Editor
San Diego, California

You want to be careful who you vote for. Their decisions may be consequential.

I was so happy flying F-86’s straight out of Aviation Cadets that it never occurred to me it wouldn’t last forever; and of course it didn’t. Within a year the Air Force would ground them all.


Worse. The Pentagon decides all ’86 jocks will be available to General Curtis LeMay to do with as he pleases. SAC was in the midst of a huge buildup and, desperate for crews, was grabbing pilots and navigators from whereever they were found. They did give us our choice of B-52’s, ‘47’s or KC’s. I chose ‘52’s at Robins Air Force Base, Warner Robins, Georgia. The new SAC wing there was scheduled to receive the B-52G model which Aviation Week had stated was having problems getting into production. I reasoned the delay might give me time to wrangle a transfer back into fighters. It did eventually, but a year later I was still working on that idea from the right seat of a brand new B-52G.

Robins Air Force Base had been built as an Air Material Command Base and although it had considerable heavy cargo traffic, heavy cargo aircraft of the day were on the order of maybe a couple hundred thousand pounds, not three times that amount.

So when it was decided to move a SAC wing to the base, a new 12,300 foot runway was constructed to accommodate the great weight of the five hundred thousand pound plus bombers and the fully laden KC-135 tankers. The thing was that Robins AFB stands at the edges of the Bond Swamp, Rays Swamp and the Denson Marsh. I suppose they knew they’d have problems sooner or later. It turned out to be sooner.

The runway began to go as soon as the 135’s and 52’s arrived. Not only did the runway suffer the stresses of normal day to day activity, but it was also subject to the pounding of the new wing’s transition training going on day and night.

By summer of that first year the runway was really getting bad and we learned the Wing would be moving to Loring AFB while they built us a new runway. Loring AFB is located just outside beautiful downtown Limestone, Maine, population in the early ‘60’s, just a thousand or two hearty folks.

It was the summer of 1962. The countryside around Loring was beautiful and the people were great. There was an amazing steak house restaurant in nearby Presque Isle and just 40 miles up the road was Edmundston New Brunswick, Canada. Edmundston, it turned out, was a hub for world long distance phone traffic. In those days that phone traffic was all handled manually by an army of young Canadian women. Maybe the women to men ratio in that little town was 8:1 and maybe winter in upstate Maine wouldn’t be so bad after all.

And it wasn’t;

‘Till we went to DEFCON 2.

It’s the way the nuclear threat level is defined – DEFCON 5 and the world is rosy – DEFCON 1 and you’re actively engaged in nuclear warfare. The Nation had never been to DEFCON 2 - or even close.

It was and is, Unthinkable.

I defy anyone to conceive the reality of a megaton explosion. I know – we’ve all seen the films taken during the nuclear testing off Eniwetok Atoll in 1952 – 50 ships sunk – huge mushroom clouds – all that. But the real thing is incomprehensible. You just can’t get your head around it; and were at DEFCON 2.

At least we were part of it all; and not having to sit around the living room waiting for the latest word on the coming destruction of mankind. That sounds melodramatic, but it was melodramatic. Surely, we thought, they can’t have lead us to the point of destroying mankind. And yet there we were. DEFCON 2.

By October 14th, CIA operated U2 overflights that were providing hard evidence that the Russians had placed medium-range ballistic missiles near San Cristobal, Cuba. President Kennedy was notified and immediately selected 14 advisors from the National Security Council, forming a group known as ExComm. The U2 flights identify the missiles as Soviet SS-5’s with a range of 2,500 miles. The threat? SS-5’s could reach Los Angeles and every other major U.S. city!

ExComm, The President of the United States John Kennedy, brother Robert Kennedy and 14 advisors; their life experiences, educations, morel fiber and judgment would determine the survivorship of mankind.

Two days pass and the President, brother Robert and one or two others, favor a blockade of Cuba; but most of ExComm’s members favor immediate military action; a first strike; knock out the missile sites; Nuke ‘em! The Generals warn that 32 medium range missiles would be operational within the week and that military action was needed immediately. The readiness level of all U.S. Forces would go to DEFCON 3 while SAC goes to DEFCON 2. All bomb squadrons and ICBM missile crews go on massive alert. All Polaris nuclear missile submarines presently in port are dispatched to stations at sea.

Flying out of Loring, some of us begin flying CIA and DIA intelligence gathering flights over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Others conduct airborne alert sorties. B-52’s take up stations along every border of the Soviet Union. A hundred Bombers are airborne every hour of the day and night; many carry a pair of massive 25 MegaTon Mark 41 thermonuclear bombs, others are armed with 8 of the 2 MegaTon Mark 28’s.

By the third day the press is already publishing reports of missiles in Cuba. The reports are denied by the Defense Department. President Kennedy prepares two speeches; one about air-strikes, the other about a blockade. The President remains unconvinced by the Generals that only immediate military action can avert all out war. Eventually ExComm is swayed in favor of the blockade. President Kennedy abandons the air-strike speech.

On October 22nd, my crew, consisting of Aircraft Commander Glenn Mitchell, Radar Bomb Navigator Bill Hinterthan, Navigator Fred Eubanks, EWO (Electronics Warfare Operator) Hardy Gregory, our Air Force Sergeant Gunner and I as co-pilot, are given an intelligence briefing to surveil the progress of two Soviet ships nearing Cuba. The Gagarin and the Komiles were suspected of carrying missiles and would be the first ships to test the blockade line.

We found them without difficulty and were monitoring their track and speed when Bill Hinterthan, a really excellent Bomb Nav Radar operator, noted something odd; a really strong radar return in the close vicinity of the two ships. A hard, bright spot appearing on the screen and proceeding with the ships. It could only be a Soviet Nuclear Class Submarine. The sighting went out to CIA and DIA while we recover to Loring. The club that night was jammed with air and ground crews assembled to hear the Presidents speech at 7 PM.
President Kennedy informed the nation of the presence of the Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and stated that a "strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment" is in effect for Cuba. The President warns the Soviet government that the United States will "regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response against the Soviet Union." The world stood at the brink of nuclear war. It was now down to the simplest things. If the Soviet Government chooses to act militarily, life for us all could end.
During the president's speech, twenty-two interceptor aircraft are airborne off the South coast of Florida to counter any Cuban government military action.

"I would not be candid and I would not be fair with you if I did not say that we are in as grave a crisis as mankind has been in." states Secretary of State Dean Rusk at an assemblage all foreign ambassadors in Washington.

Over the next two days Chairman Khrushchev, in an urgent message to President Kennedy states "I hope that the United States Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace."

Fidel Castro places Cuba’s 270,000-man military on its highest state of alert and warns that anyone from the U.S. had, "better come ready for combat."

ExComm deliberates the moral acceptability of nuclear strikes against the Cuban bases.

Then, on the 24th we receive the Naval intelligence report that the Gagarin and the Komiles, with the Soviet submarine lying in position between the two ships, just a few miles short of the blockade line, are stopped dead in the water.

Dean Rusk is reported to have commented to McGeorge Bundy that "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked."

No Soviet ships crossed the blockade but the 23 Cuban missile sites remained fully operational and Rudolf Anderson Jr. was killed when his U2 was shot down over Banes Cuba by two SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles. The Pentagon continued to refine plans for an invasion of Cuba and Fidel Castro himself was reported to have climbed into a MIG and waited for the next overflight, avowing to shoot down an American spy plane himself. When a U2 out of Elmendorf AFB, Alaska accidentally flies over Russia and is attacked by Soviet MIGs, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara exclaims,"... this means war with the Soviet Union!" President Kennedy was heard to comment that "There's always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn't get the message."

Surrounded by America’s overwhelming Nuclear air and sea forces, sensing the resolve of our strong government, but over Castro’s strong opposition, the Soviet Union dismantled and removed all missiles from Cuba.

The Soviet attempt to gain strategic parity with the U.S. had failed. Khrushchev's later fall from power was linked directly to his having created the crisis in the first place. Soviet military commanders were angered at having to back down from the confrontation. American military commanders were not happy with the result either. Curtis LeMay told President Kennedy that they should have invaded Cuba and that it was "the greatest defeat in our history".

For my part, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the Soviet leaders to live with a hundred nuclear armed B-52’s surrounding their country. They faced the certain knowledge that their decisions of the next few days would determine the futures of all the peoples of the world.

And for my part, I’m comfortable with the satisfaction that the airborne alert sorties we flew in October and November of 1962 were the significant factor in preventing a U.S.-Soviet confrontation.

Interestingly, now, nearly fifty years later, we know what would have been the result of the proposed “military response”.

General Anatoly Gribkov, part of the Soviet staff responsible for their missile operations in Cube states that there were indeed operational tactical nuclear missiles in place there, but that the local Soviet commander, General Issa Pliyev, had strict orders prohibiting him from using them, even if the U.S. had mounted a full-scale invasion of Cuba.

The recently available documentation of the decision-making processes on both sides of “The Cuban Missile Crisis” can be found at

Read an hour-by-hour account of the entire Cuban Missile Crisis, including recently declassified transcripts and audio of crisis meetings, photographic evidence, and people and events at The National Security Archive at the University of Chicago.
By David Rose

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