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The Pollysboy 11 crew: Author Paul F. Stiller, standing, third from left; Bruce McCormick to his left; George Fabik, far right; Eric Neptune, front row, far right. (Courtesy Paul F. Stiller)

When the Missiles Left Cuba

A Navy aircrew got it on film.

I hadn’t pressed the trigger. I had not turned our searchlight on.

It had to be another patrol aircraft, at our altitude, flying directly at us. Perhaps it had just started a searchlight run. Its crew had no idea we were there. We were closing at 300 mph. In 30 seconds we would collide.

McCormick yanked the airplane into a 90-degree right bank. We both pulled hard on our yokes, trying to swerve out of the way. I tried blind-calling the other airplane, going from frequency to frequency. “Break off! Turn right! Turn right!” There was no answer.

Seconds later, we heard propellers thrash under the belly of our airplane. We later learned that another squadron’s airplane had wandered into our area to check out the ship, not realizing we were there. We had missed each other by feet.

We landed at Boca Chica air base, Naval Air Station Key West, around 1 a.m. on October 24. The airfield was darkened by the national emergency: a war that might begin at any minute. The crew tied down the airplane while I was driven across town to the photo lab. We passed the silhouettes of countless Marines in foxholes, rifle bayonets protruding, dug into boulevard medians.

After technicians made a print of each shot of the Soviet ship with missiles on its decks, I annotated the back of every one. Around 3 a.m. a courier appeared. “Give me your six best pictures for the president,” he said. I made my selection and he scooped the photos into a briefcase, handcuffed the case to his wrist, and left to fly back to Washington. The photos would be at the Pentagon by dawn on the 24th.

We flew back to Guantanamo Bay, by then having logged 20 flight hours on two hours of sleep in the last 38 hours, with one inflight dinner the evening before. Thank God for coffee.

The official announcement and photos of Soviet ships with missile cargo first appeared on October 28. As far as I can tell, our images never became part of the official documentation of the Soviet pullout. But we knew that on October 23, we photographed the first Soviet missiles coming out of Cuba.

A 1958 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Paul Stiller received his Navy wings in 1959, and flew with Patrol Squadron 56 until 1963. Since then he has designed medical instruments, zoo and museum exhibits, and theater scenery.

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