October 23, 1962. It was one of those inky nights. The stars were brilliant, but there was no moon and the lights of mainland Cuba had long since disappeared over the horizon to the southwest. We were flying our Lockheed Neptune SP-2H patrol aircraft “dark”; wartime procedures dictated that external running and strobe lights be extinguished. The afternoon had been the mixture of boredom and exhilaration that defines air reconnaissance patrol at sea. For about a week, flying out of U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay on Cuba, our detachment of Neptunes had been making low-altitude flights three miles off the coast of Cuba to find, photograph, and report all aircraft, ship, and submarine traffic. We had already detected several submerged Soviet submarines.
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Yesterday, all hands had gathered in the officers club mess hall to watch President John Kennedy announce on TV that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had ordered the deployment of short- and medium-range intercontinental ballistic missiles to Cuba, a mere 90 miles south of Key West, Florida. Some missiles were already in Cuba, along with surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles and the technicians to launch them (see “Cuba During the Missile Crisis,” p. 32). Kennedy was quarantining the island: The United States would deny any Soviet ship carrying missiles, missile equipment, or military personnel from continuing to Cuba.
In Pollysboy 11, our radio call sign, Bruce McCormick was commander and primary pilot; I was copilot. Our flight plan would take us around the eastern tip of the island, then northwest toward Havana harbor. About 40 miles east of Havana, George Fabik, the radar operator, spotted a large target in the harbor, heading north toward the open ocean. “Encrypt a message to Caveman,” McCormick said.
I pulled the KAC-1 Red Book, a huge, metal-bound codebook, into my lap, and composed a report to the commander, Fleet Air Wing Five (radio name Caveman) at fleet headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. “Break, break, Caveman, Caveman, this is Pollysboy 11. Prepare to copy, break, break.” Everyone in the Western hemisphere listening to the tactical frequency would be scribbling down our message.
Caveman’s reply: “Wait for the ship.”
McCormick throttled back the engines to conserve fuel. We spent the next three hours flying lazy circles at 1,500 feet. “Ordnance, fire up the galley and let’s see what they gave us for lunch.” It was the duty of the ordnance man to cook the food. When he wasn’t dropping bombs, Dennis McEachran was a pretty darn good cook.
“It’s steak and fried potatoes, boss. Anybody need fresh coffee?” If we had been in Norfolk, we would also have had the two dozen cupcakes my wife usually made for our patrol flights.
Puffy cumulus dotted the sky, with an occasional rain shower. Often, toward the end of a flight, we would fly under one of these showers to rinse salt from the airplane. We flew so close to the water that we would pick up spray from the waves. After a flight, when I swiped the airplane’s skin and held my fingers to my lips, I could taste salt.
“The ship’s at the three-mile limit.”
“Give me a heading.”