U-2 reconnaissance flights and B-52 nuclear deterrence missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis

On Oct. 14 1962, a U-2 spyplane took a reconnaissance flight over Western Cuba which set the world on a road that took it close to nuclear Armageddon.

The whole saga began some two years earlier, when Cuba establishes diplomatic relations with the USSR after the latter recognized Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government, which had seized power from President Batista the previous year.

During October 1960 the United States ended all exports to Cuba after Castro nationalized all American property in Cuba. Two months later Cuba openly aligned with the Soviet Union, whom established trade relations and provided Havana with economic incentives. As a response to the alignment with the Soviets, the U.S. closed its embassy in Havana and rescinded its recognition of the Castro government.

In January 1961 President Kennedy won the Presidential election and in June deployed intermediate range Jupiter nuclear missiles in Turkey, in a deal that had been struck in 1959 with the NATO member. The missiles joined those stationed in Western Europe in targeting the Soviet Union and in essence surrounded the Soviet Union with a ring of ballistic nuclear armed missiles.

At a meeting at the White House on Nov. 4 1961 with a CIA committee which had been set up by the previous presidential administration, a program of terrorist, sabotage and subversion against Cuba was decided. Dubbed Operation Mongoose and ran by the CIA station in Miami the operation had the objective was to help Cuba overthrow the Communist regime, including its leader Fidel Castro.

It was during May 1962 and after Krushchev had deliberated as what he could do to help Castro and neutralise the threat of the Jupiter missiles that a delegation was sent to Cuba to discuss placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. A day after meeting the Soviet delegation Castro agreed and accepted the missile deployment in Cuba.

Image credit: CIA

The Soviet forces based on Cuba then started to build the infrastructure to operate the missiles; it was during September 15 that a ship named Poltava brought the first of the missiles to Cuba. The Cuban population soon noticed the arrival of the missiles and it wasn’t long before news reached Miami. Among the various intelligence reports, one described large trucks carrying long canvas covered cylindrical objects that were so long that they couldn’t navigate turns through towns without difficulty. This report alone discounted defensive weapons and indicated something with a lot longer range.

The CIA wanted to get evidence of what was going on in Cuba but it had a problem: during 1960 a U-2 spyplane had been shot down by Soviet air defences and its pilot Gary Powers had been captured. To add insult to injury a second U-2 was lost over Western China during 1962 possibly to a SAM although this has never been confirmed.

Therefore the US couldn’t risk flying a U-2 over Cuba and potentially falling victim to its new air defences, thus Kennedy decided to try the new Corona satellite system. An emergency launch proceeded and the Corona satellite was launched; by the end of September the US Navy reconnaissance aircraft (P-2H Neptune) took photos of the Soviet ship Kasimov which had large crates on its deck the size and shape of IL-28 bombers.

The U.S now had evidence of a military build up in Cuba with the images of the ship and images taken by the Corona satellite to warrant the risk of a U-2 flight over Cuba.

It was then decided to hand the U-2 flights over Cuba to the Air Force as this would be easier to explain than CIA overflights. The order was received by the Air Force on October 8 to start reconnaissance missions. Due to bad weather over the target area it took until Oct. 14 that the first mission took place. Major Richard Heyser took 928 pictures from his U-2, of what turned out to be SS-4 sites at San Cristobal, Pinar del Rio Province, in Western Cuba.

It was on Oct. 15 when the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Centre (NPIC) got hold of the photos to analyse them, they made the startling discovery that photos depicted medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs) sites under construction. During the evening of Oct. 15 the CIA notified the Department of State of their findings, at 8.30pm (EDT) National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy decided to wait until the morning to inform the President.

Image credit: CIA

The following morning Bundy met with Kennedy and presented the photos and CIA’s findings to the President. Kennedy immediately convened a meeting of the National Security Council plus five further key advisors whom collectively became known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM).

EXCOMM had to decide on a response and it had several options on the table, do nothing, try to diplomatically negotiate the missiles removal, Blockade Cuba and use the US Navy to stop further shipments to Cuba, Air Strike to attack all of the known missile sites, full on invasion.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff favoured the attack and full on invasion option, but this wasn’t Kennedy’s first option and indeed members of EXCOMM preferred the Naval Blockade option.

Oct. 19 saw Kennedy meet with Congressional leaders who thought the blockade couldn’t work; there after all non-eastern block governments were informed of what Kennedy was going to say in his nation wide speech. Then at 7.00pm (EDT) President Kennedy made his speech to the nation announcing the discovery of the missiles, and the government’s response. Whilst the speech was being made a directive went out to all US forces worldwide placing them at DEFCON3.

The United States then requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council for Oct. 25. It was at this meeting that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson confronted the Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin regards to the existence of the missiles.

The next day at 10.00pm the United States raised the readiness level of SAC forces to DEFCON2, the first time in history this had happened.

SAC’s bombers were dispersed to various airfields and were fully loaded and put at a 15 minute readiness level. Also twenty three B-52’s were launched and flew orbits within striking distance of the Soviet Union, in what was hoped to be the sign of the U.S’s seriousness.

Commonly known as Chrome Dome missions, such 24-hour missions ensured that a certain amount of Strategic Air Command bombers were on nuclear laden airborne alerts any time and could survive an enemy surprise attack, bringing U.S. ability to retaliate against the USSR alive.

SAC produced as much as 75 B-52 Stratofortress sorties a day at the peak of the crisis.

B-52 flights were supported by KC-135 tankers, 133 of those a day were launched at the height of Chrome Dome.

According to the SAC, not only tankers and B-52s were put on a heightened readiness status in that period: 183 B-47 bombers were also disperced to both military and non-military airfields, so in the event of an enemy attack, the Soviets would be unable to destroy the total B-47 force.

The Blockade was now in place but during the day of Oct. 25 the Soviets ordered 14 ships to turn back from the blockade. October 26 saw a letter start to arrive from Khrushchev which had appeared to have been written personally from the Soviet leader. It was long and rambling and at times emotional, and offered that if the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba then there would not be any need for the missiles to be in Cuba.

The letter was to be studied for authenticity which continued into the night. However, the next day a U-2 piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson took off from its forward operating base McCoy Air Force Base, Florida, and headed towards Cuba for another photo sortie.

At 12.00pm EDT the U-2 was hit by a SA-2 Guideline SAM and Major Anderson was killed.

Later that day US Navy RF-8A Crusaders flew over the island on a low level photo reconaisance mission; one of the jets was hit by 37mm Anti-Aircraft fire but managed to return to base.

Whilst this was happening, a second letter arrived from Khrushchev which had a completely different tone from the first and demanded the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey. In short EXCOMM decided to accept the term of the first letter and unofficially remove the Jupiter missiles at a later date. The deal was put on the table and the Soviets eventually agreed and the crisis was over.

The nuclear missiles were dismantled and were taken off the island by eight ships by early November and the IL-28s followed suite a few weeks later. The Jupiter missiles were removed during April 1963.

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com