Due South of Key West

Flying fast and low over Castro’s Cuba.

Marine Captain John Hudson (right) greets Navy Commander William Ecker, head of VFP-62, known as the “Fightin’ Photo,” at Florida’s Homestead Air Force Base before a press conference in December 1962. Behind them is an RF-8A Crusader, with a stenciled Fidel Castro and dead chickens to denote completed missions over Cuba. (Courtesy Cdr. Peter B. Mersky)

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It doesn’t sound like the Cubans were good shots.

They might have been if we’d given them a good target.

What’s the story behind the dead chickens stenciled on the Crusader’s fuselage to represent completed flights over Cuba?

When [Fidel Castro] went to the U.N. [in September 1960], he was paranoid that someone would poison him if he ate food prepared by anyone outside his circle. So they actually cooked chickens in his hotel suite, and there was a big deal at that time about Fidel having the chickens butchered and cooked in his hotel suite. So that’s where that came from.

Was there any coordination between the Crusader pilots and the Air Force F-101 Voodoo pilots, who also flew low-level reconnaissance over Cuba?

We never saw any Voodoos. They were flying, I think, out of some place like Tyndall [Air Force Base, near Panama City, Florida], but they weren’t down at Key West. I don’t think we flew on the same days, or if we did, we didn’t fly at the same time. The only Air Force that was at Key West were F-104s that arrived about mid-way through our program to be our fighter escorts because the Marines had been doing that with F-8s out of Beaufort, South Carolina. Frankly, we saw the -104s, but we never had them join on us after we came out [from Cuba]. We would be in radio contact with them.

Did your Cuban experience help prepare you for flying the F-4 in Vietnam?

No, it was totally different. The F-4 was a different kind of airplane. There are two people in it. You had a guy in the back that was your radar intercept officer that helped with navigation and some communications. And the mission was totally different. In Vietnam, our missions varied from strategic kind of bombing in weather that was so bad you couldn’t do anything else, and most of our day missions were close air support for either Army or Marine ground forces.

You weren’t flying low and fast in Vietnam?

 No. As low as you would get on a mission would be a glide bomb with a 10-degree slope, and while you’re going fairly fast, you’re dropping ordnance. Mostly these would be heavier bombs, and you’d have to release them at 2,500 to 3,000 feet and be out by around 1,500 feet or you’d get some of your own arrows in your rear. The shrapnel comes up that high.

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