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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After the president’s television address, SAC dispersed many of its B-47 squadrons to civilian airfields. The move complicated Soviet targeting and made room at crowded SAC bases for bombers displaced northward by U.S. invasion preparations.

Gus Letto came off alert in Ohio and joined other crews on a C-47 transport bound for Philadelphia International Airport. There they found three EB-47 jamming aircraft, which would penetrate the Soviet Union ahead of the bomber force, cocked and ready on the Air National Guard ramp. “SAC had taken over the [Guard] command post and quartered us in an airport motel,” Letto recalls. “They handed us credit cards and arranged for the B-47 crews to run a tab at the main terminal’s dining room. We ate in flightsuits, loaded .38s in our shoulder holsters.”

A portable radio monitored emergency message traffic. Letto says crews listened for a coded signal to be broadcast over the airport PA system: “Dr. Mordecai, please call your office” would signify “Start engines.”

Letto is still amazed at the war footing SAC went to in 1962. His friend Jim Griggs, a B-47 navigator for the 310th Bomb Wing at Schilling Air Force Base in Kansas, spent almost the whole crisis period at Port Columbus Airport in Ohio with nuclear-armed aircraft ready to launch on the retaliatory mission. “I can’t imagine Americans’ reaction today,” says Letto, “if we scattered nuclear-armed bombers to dozens of airports around the country.”

One Step Closer
On the morning of the 24th, a pair of Soviet freighters approached the 56 U.S. warships that had set up a quarantine line 500 miles from Cuba. The Navy reported that a submerged Soviet sub was escorting the two cargo ships headed toward the line. A confrontation appeared inevitable, and, at the direction of the Joint Chiefs, SAC went to DEFCON 2.

Generals LeMay and Power believed that SAC’s deterrent value lay largely in convincing Soviet leaders that the United States had an unstoppable nuclear striking force and would not hesitate, if threatened, to employ it. When the alert level reached DEFCON 2, Power decided to make sure that Krushchev understood its significance. He broadcast, on his own authority, an “in the clear” radio message to SAC commanders worldwide—a message certain to be heard by the Soviets: “We are in an advanced state of readiness…and I feel that we are well prepared. I expect each of you to maintain strict security and use calm judgment during this tense period…. Review your plans for further action to insure that there will be no mistakes or confusion….”

It was a controversial action; some historians of the crisis believe the broadcast was a dangerous provocation instead of an attempt to demonstrate to the Soviets the terrible consequences of a wrong move. But the rank and file were also making their presence known. As Alwyn Lloyd writes in his SAC history A Cold War Legacy, to impress the Soviets, Chrome Dome bombers transmitted twice the normal number of position reports. To Dan Zahhos, an experienced bombardier, “the radio traffic sounded like Grand Central Station—there were so many aircraft up there! Once in a while we’d get interference from a poorly disguised Russian [voice] trying to disrupt our operations.” Zahhos had minored in Russian in college; “I got on the radio and started speaking Russian to him.” The imposter laughed, answering, “Over here, we’re ready for whatever you’re trying to do.”

On October 24, the United States had 2,952 nuclear weapons on alert, with a total explosive yield of well above 5,000 megatons. A single megaton is roughly 77 times the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Lee McCoy recently reflected on what it was like to be carrying part of that load: “This realization really came home to me on an airborne alert mission out over the Mediterranean. I was in a huge airplane carrying several nuclear weapons, and within an hour of killing maybe several millions of people very much like my own mom and dad.”

In Texas, Buck Shuler had told his wife and visiting mother-in-law that if war came, the Carswell base would be targeted. “I kind of drilled her on it, and we kept a kit together,” he says. “When we went to DEFCON 2, Annette had the car packed with blankets, extra baby formula ….”

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