Cuban Missile Crisis

Sixty Years ago in October, 1962, the U.S. came about as close to World War III as any other time in the following 60-years. It was known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Following President Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Nikita Khrushchev installed cruise missile sites on the Cuban island just 90-miles from United States shores. President Kennedy went toe to toe with Khrushchev demanding their removal or he would remove them by force. Fortunately, Khrushchev backed down, the weapons were taken out and everyone breathed a sigh of relief thinking the crisis was over. Actually, that wasn’t quite true. The Soviets maintained a sizeable fleet of aircraft and ships in Cuban for several months after that. U.S. and its arch Cold War enemy each had nervous fingers on triggers.

I had only been in my squadron a short time when my flight crew, flying P2V Neptunes which had two jet engines and two reciprocating prop engines (Two Turning, Two Burning), received orders to join a detachment in Key West, Florida. Our mission was to fly patrols around Cuba keeping a close eye on Soviet Block shipping. It was a tense time. The Air Force had Jet aircraft, Phantoms, poised on the Key West runways, engines running 24-hours a day, ready to launch to meet any hostile threat.

Memories of those flights are as vivid today as they were 60-years ago. Interestingly, my brother, noting the 60-year anniversary of the missile crisis and knowing of my Cuban experience called me from Ohio to comment. His call was especially coincidental because earlier that same day I had visited a Bloomington coin shop owned by a native Cuban. He was only seven-years old in 1962 but he remembered Fidel Castro had given war surplus rifles to Cuban residents with instructions to shoot at low flying American airplanes.

The Navy had sophisticated radar in Key West focused on Cuba. The joke was if someone scratched his butt in Cuba, it was seen on radar in Key West. Patrolling aircraft received what was called Yellow Blood messages sent in the blind from Key West every five minutes; “Yellow Blood, yellow blood, Alpha Charlie November.” The messages were meaningless except for three code groups changed every day. One group meant the aircraft’s navigation was in error. Get back on track. A second group meant there was unidentified aircraft in the vicinity. Be alert. And the third group meant enemy airplanes were identified and you appear to be under attack.

We were on our third fourteen-hour flight when our Patrol Plane Commander (PPC) decided to take a break and go to the afterstation to get a little shuteye. It was my turn to slip into the left seat as pilot in command. No sooner had the PPC dosed off than we came across three Soviet destroyers and eight Russian PT boats. Wow, that was something we didn’t see every day and I told the crew to get ready to take some close up photographs. I flew across the decks of those ships so low we could see the astonished looks on the faces of the enemy sailors.

Swooping across those ships repeatedly woke the dozing PPC who charged into the cockpit to find out what the hell was going on. I said, “Oh, sir. We came across these Soviet ships and I’ve been taking pictures that will no doubt win us Air Medals.  I expect we’ll be invited to the White House for our discovery.”

The plane commander challenged, “Did you send an intelligence report? What about an incident message to Key West? Did you even think to wake me up?

“No sir. I guess not.”

Just then our radio operator interrupted, “Flight, Radio. We just got a Yellow Blood message, Juliet, Tango, Whiskey! Sir, they say were being attack by enemy aircraft!”

Sure enough, looking out the starboard window, above us in classic formation were three Soviet MiG-21 aircraft, ready to swoop down and erase us from the sky.

Without time to switch seats, I lit the jets and dove for the surface of the water. I decided when those Ruskies pounced they weren’t going to get below us. We were zooming along at 350 knots, kicking up spray with our prop tips.

The measure of time became blurred. It seemed like seconds, but was probably minutes since receiving the Yellow Blood message. Out of the sun came two Air Force Phantoms that screamed by us at twice our airspeed. They did a big circling turn and joined up on our port and starboard wing tips. The Air Force guys looked over and gave us a smart salute.

Those MiGs never left their perch. I like to think it was my quick dive to the water’s surface that discouraged them, but I think those AF Phantoms had something to do with it. The Phantoms escorted us back to Key West for a straight in approach to the first available runway.

The PPC covered for me at the debriefing saying finding the Soviet ships and taking pictures happened so fast we didn’t have time for radio messages.

Dag nabbit, we didn’t go to the White House or receive any Air Medals, but we did have a good story to tell at the O-Club that night.

Here’s an interesting post script to this tale. I was giving a talk to a Military Officers Group (MOAA) in Florida a few years ago. Before I spoke, a lady in the front row was introduced as the widow of an Air Force General. During my talk I could see she was really enjoying my stories. When I told the Cuban Missile Crisis story, she began silently clapping her hands. Afterwards people were buying signed copies of my book and she bought three of them. I said to her, “You seemed to particularly enjoy the Cuban story.”

“Yes,” she said. “My husband was flying Phantoms out of Key West at that time.”

Geeze Louise, how cool is that?!

7 thoughts on “Cuban Missile Crisis

  1. I, too was called to active duty on October 27, 1962 for the Cuban Crisis. I was stationed at the 434th Troop Carrier Wing located at Bakalar AFB in Columbus, Indiana. I was in Wing headquarters reporting to the Base commander, Major John W. Hoff. I served as his statistician. Over the years, I’ve involved myself in research in an attempt to reconstruct the issues that caused the conflict. It wasn’t until 2005-07 that many previously previously top secret documents were declassified. I continue doing research as more and more information becomes available. It’s been interesting obtaining the newly declassified data, which, in several cases, debunked what had been previously published. I’ve been asked to speak at several venues as Paul Harvey once said, “For the Rest of the Story”.

  2. Jim, once again, interesting depiction of your Cuban Missile experience. Fun times?

  3. great story.i’m playing golf in The Villages. haven’t seen you here in the past few years.

  4. What an amazing set of stories and connectioins. Thank you for your service, even if you didn’t get the radio message out.

  5. Jim,
    Super interesting to revisit the crisis. I was in college and the whole dorm was scared stiff. Of course at that time I didn’t know a phantom from a B17. Being married to Van and Pratt & Whitney, I memorized them all. Keep up the good work.

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