When the Missiles Left Cuba

A Navy aircrew got it on film.

The Pollysboy 11 crew: Author Paul F. Stiller, standing, third from left; Bruce McCormick to his left; George Fabik, far right; Eric Neptune, front row, far right. (Courtesy Paul F. Stiller)
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“Roger, sir. Come to 193 degrees, contact five miles.” At 6:03 p.m., the ship had arrived at the three-mile limit. We could legally take a look. Flying at 50 feet above the water, we readied our two bulky KB-10A 70-mm black-and-white cameras to photograph the details of the ship as we raced past it.

As we swept up the ship’s starboard side, we saw eight canvas-covered, cigar-shaped objects lashed on the deck. Was this a Soviet ship carrying the first load of missiles coming out of Cuba? Were the Soviets relenting?

The photo guys confirmed they each had taken the first of 70 photos. As we zoomed down the ship’s port side, the maintenance captain—appropriately named Eric Neptune—threw the Red Book into my lap. This time the message would be highest priority. “Break, break, Caveman, Caveman, this is Pollysboy 11. I have FLASH traffic. Stand by to copy.”

Caveman commanded us to stay over the ship and report every half-hour until released, then fly to Naval Air Station Key West and get the photos developed.

Twilight settled in around 9 p.m., the azure waters slowly turning black. Without our external lights, we were invisible. The only thing an observer could see was the blue fire from the exhausts of our engines. The ship also showed no lights. The captain knew we were up there, but he wasn’t going to make finding his ship easy.

At night, the only way to see the ship was with the 70-million-candlepower searchlight 50 feet out on our starboard wingtip. If the searchlight was on longer than 30 seconds, heat from the burning carbon arc tips would melt the searchlight frame and possibly start a fire in the wing. Two aircraft in our detachment of five had experienced such melting, requiring new searchlight units to be flown in. The destroyed units had to be chopped out with a hammer and chisel.

The extreme brightness of the searchlight would ruin my night vision for at least 15 minutes, making me useless as a pilot. McCormick would protect his eyes by lowering his seat, flipping down his helmet-mounted sunglasses, and using duffel bags crammed into the dashboard windscreen to block the brilliant light. He would not look out of the cockpit, flying on instruments until I switched off the light.

At 11:45 came the message: “Make searchlight pass at midnight. Divert to Key West immediately thereafter.”

At 11:59, we lined up to make a 30-second run up the ship’s stern. We set our altitude at 1,500 feet. Radar operator Fabik was counting down. I adjusted the pistol grip, tipping the searchlight down and slewing it left.

Five…four…three… A blue-white blaze exploded in my eyes. Excruciating pain. I couldn’t see anything.

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