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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Of course the bomber crews had also drilled for that eventuality. A Soviet missile attack would give them only minutes to save as many bombers as possible for the counterpunch. The crews practiced MITO, or minimum interval takeoff, designed to get the maximum number of aircraft launched in the minimum amount of time (see “Gone in 144 Seconds” at www.airspacemag.com).

One Step Back
The Soviet freighters bound for Cuba altered course at the last minute, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk whispered his now-famous observation to Kennedy advisor McGeorge Bundy: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

But U.S. forces couldn’t be sure: In Cuba, Soviet technicians continued to rush the completion of launch sites for R-12 medium-range ballistic missiles. On October 25, the U.N. Security Council convened an emergency session at its headquarters in New York. There U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson displayed the U-2 reconnaissance photographs showing the placement of Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba. Then, on October 27, SAC U-2 pilot Major Rudolph Anderson Jr. died when his aircraft was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet SA-2 “Guideline” missile. The White House mulled an air strike to destroy the responsible SAM battery, and the Kremlin braced for Kennedy’s response.

Mike Jones, today a retired master sergeant who was a B-52E assistant crew chief at New Mexico’s Walker Air Force Base in 1962, worked an endless string of 12-hour shifts during those late October days. “In that hair-trigger atmosphere, I thought we were very likely to have a war,” he says. “We slept at the airplanes, ate box lunches brought out to the flightline. We were working at a fever pitch.”

Other SAC personnel found themselves suddenly reassigned. James D. Rusher was an 18-year-old “two-striper” (airman second class), fresh out of basic and attending the B-47 crew chief school at Amarillo Air Force Base in the Texas panhandle. The Saturday that Anderson’s U-2 went down, Rusher and hundreds of other SAC trainees assembled in front of a flatbed truck rigged as a speaker’s platform. “We watched an Army staff car roll out of a cargo plane and drive across the ramp,” he says. The group snapped to attention; the base commander announced a ban on “all letter-writing, all phone calls, all passes, and all leaves.” Next a brigadier from Ft. Benning (home of the Army’s Rangers) addressed the airmen. “He told us that as of right then, we were on two hours’ notice for deployment to Benning,” says Rusher. “There we’d get two days of rifle and infantry training, then join the invasion force headed for Cuba.”

Gus Letto imagines that in the last days of October 1962, Krushchev was like a man looking down the barrel of a loaded gun. “In the final determination he knew that if he made a wrong move, three hours later he’d have B-47s and B-52s appearing on his radar.”

On Sunday morning, October 28, the CIA reported to the White House that all 24 R-12 missile sites were now operational. But later that morning, in return for Kennedy’s promise to lift the quarantine and the invasion threat, Krushchev drew back from the brink. In a Radio Moscow broadcast, he announced that the “so-called offensive weapons” in Cuba would be dismantled, crated, and returned to the Soviet Union. U.S. forces remained on high alert, but in Washington, there was a sense of relief and exultation.

SAC remained at DEFCON 2 as Kennedy pressed for the removal of Soviet Ilyushin Il-28 “Beagle” bombers from Cuba. When Krushchev finally agreed to withdraw them, the president reciprocated by ending the naval quarantine. Shortly before noon on November 20, after 27 days at DEFCON 2, SAC stepped back from the nuclear threshold.

During the Cuban crisis, over 90 percent of SAC’s bomber force had been poised to launch within 15 minutes of the klaxon sounding. According to Alywn Lloyd’s A Cold War Legacy, the command flew 2,088 sorties during the affair. Eight airmen died. The same day Major Anderson’s U-2 was downed, an RB-47 crashed on takeoff from Bermuda; all four crew members were killed. Another Stratojet crashed at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa on November 11, killing three more.

During those weeks of enormous strain, SAC crewmen found comfort in the commonplace: a rare family meal, the welcome routine of household chores. At the height of the crisis, Letto rotated off alert duty to go home and get some rest. He remembers going out to his front yard to mow the lawn—“just to do something useful,” he says. “One of our neighbors saw me, came straight across the street, and gave me a big hug. I asked her, ‘What was that for?’ ” Letto still laughs at her answer. “If the Air Force can afford to let you guys come home and cut the grass,” she said, “maybe we’re going to live through this.”

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