A Full Retaliatory Response
When President John Kennedy contemplated nuclear war, what went through the minds of the U.S. bomber crews?
- By Thomas Jones
- Air & Space magazine, November 2005
Augustine R. Letto, USAF
(Page 2 of 7)
The U.S. Joint Chiefs began planning air strikes to destroy the missile emplacements and to support the invasion of Cuba that would follow. SAC’s commander, General Thomas S. Power, was a hard-bitten veteran of the B-29 bomber campaign against Japan in World War II; his wartime superior and predecessor at SAC, Curtis E. LeMay, was now Air Force Chief of Staff. Both men saw two roles for the Strategic Air Command: to deter any Soviet offensive action and to meet any Soviet attack from Cuba with a massive retaliatory strike against Russia.
The feverish activity that Gus Letto witnessed from the alert shack on October 22 was a response to a message from the Joint Chiefs sent that afternoon: U.S. forces worldwide were to go to DEFCON 3 at seven that evening. At SAC bases around the world, both air and ground crews raced to get every flyable bomber and tanker “cocked.”
The Strategic Air Command of the 1960s was a highly trained and disciplined organization. Aviation historian Alwyn T. Lloyd says that after LeMay took over as SAC commander in October 1948, he turned the command around. “He was appalled at the lack of readiness,” says Lloyd, so he instituted rigorous training programs and competitions to keep the crewmen sharp. “He created the Spot Promotion program in which an entire crew was promoted one grade for winning the Bomb Comp,” says Lloyd. “If any member of a crew committed a major operational infraction, the entire crew was busted back one grade.”
Since May 1960, the command had been keeping more than 400 B-47, B-52, and B-58 strategic bombers—about a third of the fleet—on 15-minute ground alert. That posture, along with 10-hour-plus training missions and recurring ground instruction, pushed the average crew’s workload to a crushing 60 hours or more a week. At Altus Air Force Base, in the desolate tablelands of western Oklahoma, B-52E tail gunner Clyde Ketcham, an airman second class, was one of the young men spending half of every month on alert. For Ketcham, then 20, the week began as the others had, but “I got up one morning and they had all these guys with carbines around the alert shack,” he says. “They had cooks, civil engineers—they had everybody out there. They just locked down the base.”
At 7 p.m. that evening, President Kennedy gave a 17-minute speech announcing “a quarantine on all offensive military equipment” headed to Cuba. The blockade was to begin at 10 a.m. on October 24. Kennedy warned Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev that the United States would “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.” At Altus, Ketcham and his 26th Bomb Squadron crewmates were briefed by wing staff: “If the buzzer blows, it’ll be the real McCoy.”
Calling All Bomber Crews
Deep in the Canadian forest, 200 miles north of Michigan’s Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Captain Dan Zahhos, a B-52H radar navigator, was wrapping up a successful hunting trip. He and a friend pulled into a small town with their trophies and were relaxing in the bar, watching TV, when, Zahhos remembers, “here comes the president. It just blew us over.” He drove straight back to his parents’ home in Minnesota, where he “laid out a fairly detailed plan for my whole family on how to evacuate. I would get word to them,” says Zahhos, then 28, “to get the hell out of Minneapolis if it got that bad.”
The recall from the Wurtsmith command post came at 4 a.m. Within half an hour, Zahhos hit the road to the base, 400 miles to the northeast. Zahhos’ colleague, Captain Bill Brown, was on leave in Iowa when he heard the president’s speech. Recalled that night, Brown jumped in his 1960 Volvo. “I drove 640 miles in 10 hours,” Brown says, “and didn’t see a single cop.”
As SAC airmen streamed back to bases across the country, the command was readying Atlas and Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles for firing. Bomber crews based at southern airfields were redeployed north, both to get out of Cuban missile range and to free up ramp space for tactical aircraft supporting a Cuban airstrike option. First Lieutenant Harold W. “Bud” Andress, a 524th Bomb Squadron navigator at Wurtsmith, remembers what the base looked like in the week following the president’s address. “The 19th Bomb Wing from Homestead [Florida] joined us. We had airplanes parked all over, on every piece of concrete we had. Their alert crews bunked in the bachelor officers’ quarters, the fire house, wherever….”