Cuba During the Missile Crisis

Fifty years later, Cubans remember preparing to fight the Americans.

Militiamen trained in the Escambray mountains while superpowers tested each other’s resolve. The background in this composite image is from a U-2 photo of Cuba. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis)
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Fidel’s anti-American speeches during the crisis were epic, says Suchlicki. “They lasted sometimes six, seven, eight hours and were broadcast on every channel and every radio station. The speeches railed against the United States, and warned of a Yanqui attack at any moment. The Cubans did not realize the danger they were in; it all happened too quickly. People may have seen trucks covered in tarps, or maybe low-flying planes, but they had no idea what was under those tarps or what those planes were looking at. I think most Cubans on the ground at that time knew that they were heading toward a conflict with America.”

The Cuban government ordered all armed forces units to be ready for combat. Del Pino was told to report to a secret command post at armed forces headquarters on the outskirts of Havana, where Castro urgently needed an air force adviser.

“We were to go to one of the various tunnels under construction along the banks of the Almendares River,” he writes in Inside Castro’s Bunker. “This particular tunnel was not yet finished, but offered protection against the air attacks we were anticipating.” The tunnel was about 13 feet wide, 20 feet high, and 500 feet long. Every 100 feet, on either side, were 32- by 98-feet-deep chambers serving as work stations for various government officials. “The tunnel was strong enough to withstand a nuclear attack, but the engineers had failed to provide any ventilation system, and the resultant lack of oxygen and high humidity was almost intolerable. Nevertheless, with the imminent threat of war, the high command felt this was the safest and most reasonable place for the main command post,” del Pino writes.

On October 25, with the United Nations attempting to resolve the crisis, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent a coded message to Kennedy through the Soviet Embassy in Washington proposing to withdraw the missiles in exchange for an end to the naval blockade, and a guarantee that the U.S. would not attack Cuba. That evening, according to del Pino, Castro arrived at the riverside bunker, read the command post reports, and grew livid when he learned the Soviets were negotiating with the Americans behind his back. He called for his Soviet advisers and shouted at them that he was ordering all Cuban military units to fire on any U.S. aircraft in Cuban airspace.

Castro paced back and forth, rolling his cigar between thumb and fingers, del Pino writes. “Then he fixed his gaze on me and, with the cigar still between his fingers, pointed at me asking, ‘What chance do our MiG-15s and MiG-19s have of shooting down the Yanquis’ F-101s and the other planes that make daily reconnaissance flights?’ ”

Del Pino answered that the chances were not very good. He pointed out that the Cuban pilots had no radar and would be able to engage only if they were lucky enough to chance upon a visual sighting of an enemy aircraft. Under the circumstances, he told his president, he was not hopeful of shooting down U.S. aircraft. Castro was undeterred; he wanted both “anti-aircraft artillery and the pilots to open fire on any Yanqui planes they spot!” (The Cubans scrambled only once during the crisis, when a MiG-19 was sent up after an Air Force RF-101 Voodoo, but the MiG didn’t have air-to-air guided missiles.)

At 5:45 a.m. on October 26, del Pino sent a coded message to the air bases at San Antonio de los Baños, Santa Clara, and Holguin: “Fire on the Indians.”

Later that day, Khrushchev sent Kennedy another secret letter, this time delivered by Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. It called for the United States to also withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for removal of the missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy, Dobrynin was told, was anxious to get rid of the already obsolete Jupiters, and had ordered their removal some time ago. But since those missiles were installed under the auspices of NATO, it would be difficult for the United States to unilaterally remove them without damaging the structure of the alliance, the younger Kennedy said.

The next morning, October 27, an unarmed U-2F piloted by 35-year-old Air Force Major Rudolf Anderson Jr. took off from McCoy Air Force Base in central Florida and headed for Cuba. On station at 70,000 feet, he could see the curvature of Earth. On the ground stood batteries of Soviet surface-to-air missiles. At noon, three SA-2 anti-aircraft missiles nestled in the tropical foliage of Banés were launched toward Anderson’s airplane; two hit it, killing him.

“Much speculation has surrounded this U-2 incident,” del Pino says. “It has even been said that the missile unit had been taken over by Cubans and that the Cubans had opened fire on the U-2. This is sheer fantasy. Anyone who is knowledgeable in the complexities of these missile systems can understand that it takes at least two years of learning and training for an officer to be capable of operating them with minimum efficiency. At the time of the missile crisis, we didn’t have the slightest idea of the operating principles of an anti-aircraft missile.”

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