A Full Retaliatory Response

When President John Kennedy contemplated nuclear war, what went through the minds of the U.S. bomber crews?

View inside the cockpit of a U. S. Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress, en route to Australia in 1982. (NASM/ USAF Photo by Tech. Sgt. Alex R. Taningco)
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STANDING ON A STEPLADDER IN THE GLOOM of the B-52’s cavernous bomb bay, I squeezed between the lower pair of torpedo-shaped nukes—B28FI thermonuclear weapons— and aimed an inspection mirror and flashlight at the circular viewports on each: “safe” indicators visible, yield settings correct. Satisfied that our bomb load was dormant, the navigator and I connected the mechanical bomb door actuators and backed carefully out of the bay. With the pilot and gunner, we shouldered the heavy doors, sticky with hydraulic fluid, and slammed the latches home with a solid thunk.

In the crew compartment, the radar navigator—who on a B-52 serves as the bombardier—and the electronic warfare officer wrapped up their inventory of our code documents and strike folders. Then the six of us hopped into an Air Force-blue, six-passenger pickup and headed to “the vault.” For the next three hours, we sat within a guarded, windowless, single-story, cinder-block bunker to study the inconceivable: the part we’d play in global thermonuclear war.

Our sortie was just one strike mission in the Single Integrated Operational Plan, a Strategic Air Command script for thousands of aircraft and missile attacks against the Russian homeland in response to a Soviet assault. Laid out in meticulous detail in our strike folder were flight routes, refueling tracks, bomb run airspeeds, our positive-control turnaround point—where we would turn back unless we received a radio order to strike—and finally, deep in the Soviet Union, four targets, one for each of our 1.1-megaton weapons.

In the vault, my crewmates, who ordinarily wouldn’t go more than a few minutes without a joke or good-natured ribbing, were deadly serious. As we concentrated on the maps, the nav team explained how they would take us in and out of the target areas; we discussed countermeasures, fuel reserves, how we would link up if forced to bail out. I was on alert from 1979 until 1983, and each time we studied the SIOP, I knew our six-man combat crew was ready—skilled, trained, willing—to execute a mission from which we would likely not return.

I have wondered since then what went through the minds of other Strategic Air Command crews who, 20 years before my crew met in the vault, came much closer to flying those missions than we did. The bomber crews on alert during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis were studying the SIOP at the only time in the history of the cold war when U.S. forces reached Defense Condition 2. At DEFCON 1, those SAC crews would have been dropping bombs.

“I thought it was unlikely that we would complete the entire mission,” says Augustine R. “Gus” Letto, who, when the missile crisis broke, was a captain and EB-47E copilot with the 353rd Bomb Squadron at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio. “My personal hope was that we could complete enough of the mission to support the low-flying strike aircraft.” The EB-47s were high-altitude jammers, exposed to fighters and surface-to-air missiles. “I decided that the world as we knew it would be at an end,” Letto continues, “and that my family, if they were lucky, would not survive the initial nuclear exchange.”

Letto, 30 at the time, was pulling the week-long ground alert tour required of every SAC crew member nearly twice a month. Crews on ground alert were expected to take off, ready for combat, within 15 minutes of the order to launch. For the entire week they were on alert, they lived in a partially buried, concrete-block alert shack. “We had spent the whole afternoon [of October 22, 1962] in the ‘mole hole’ when they announced a meeting for aircraft commanders only,” he says. Outside, Letto saw crew chiefs and technicians at work on the wing’s EB-47s: topping fuel tanks, loading 20-mm ammo for the twin tail cannon, installing JATO (jet-assisted takeoff) bottles—in short, preparing the bombers for combat.

To the Brink
Six days earlier, on October 16, President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Committee had begun to act on intelligence gathered by U.S. Air Force U-2 reconnaissance aircraft: The Soviet Union was preparing to deploy medium-range R-12 missiles in Cuba. The missiles had 2.3-megaton warheads and a 1,100-mile range. They could reach Philadelphia, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and the Panama Canal. (Photo-interpreters discovered that Soviet technicians were also preparing sites for 16 intermediate-range R-14 ballistic missiles, with a range of 2,300 miles.)

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.”

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