Forgotten U-2 Airmen Helped Resolve The Cuban Missile Crisis 60 Years Ago

Incredibly, Gerald McIlmoyle was too busy to take advantage of his amazing vantage point. Below him, the lush island of Cuba showed out against the turquoise seas of the Caribbean Sea, but he paid little attention to it as he continued on his dangerous quest.

On the morning of October 25, 1962, a U.S. Air Force captain was flying a U-2 spy aircraft on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, photographing nuclear missile positions on a country approximately 100 miles off the coast of Florida. Sixty years ago this week, the world was on the brink of devastation as tensions rose between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis.

Forgotten U-2 Airmen Helped Resolve The Cuban Missile Crisis 60 Years Ago
Forgotten U-2 Airmen Helped Resolve The Cuban Missile Crisis 60 Years Ago

McIlmoyle was taking pictures when he saw a bright light. Multiple surface-to-air missiles were fired by the Soviet and Cuban armed forces. Fortunately, he had just made a little adjustment to his flight path, so the missiles didn’t hit his jet.

U.S. U-2 pilots were thrust into the middle of a perilous game of brinksmanship between two nuclear-armed superpowers as the Cold War rapidly escalated. The evidence provided by their courage allowed President Kennedy to directly address Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and work out a solution to avert a nuclear catastrophe.

The co-author of “Above & Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Spy Mission” (2018’s “Above & Beyond”), Casey Sherman, remarked, “These guys sacrificed their lives in an attempt to preserve humanity, and I’m not being dramatic when I say that.” We came closer to nuclear war over those 13 days in October 1962 than at any other time in human history.

On October 14, when Maj. Steve Heyser took the initial photos of the missile sites, the Cuban missile crisis started, and 11 U-2 pilots flew flights to find out what was going on. Although they are mostly forgotten now, their efforts likely averted a nuclear war. One of the pilots of the spy planes would give his life for his nation, while another would narrowly avoid being killed by Soviet fighter airplanes.

Sherman said that the pilots had no weapons at their disposal. They were in airplanes that had no means of defense. One of the pilots was killed because even at 13 miles above, they were vulnerable to bombings from the ground. During the Cuban missile crisis, no one seems to recall that anybody was killed in combat.

During those chaotic two weeks, Major Rudy Anderson was the only person killed by enemy fire. In spite of his eagerness to take advantage of any opportunity to fly U-2 flights over Cuba, the Air Force pilot was not supposed to be in the air on October 27th, 1962. Actually, nobody was. Anderson was originally not going to be a part of the plan, but military officials made a last-minute decision to accept his services.

As a seasoned pilot, he was no stranger to perilous missions. For his surveillance missions over North Korea in 1953, Anderson was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses. When he enlisted in the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing in 1957, he quickly accumulated more than 1,000 hours of flight experience in the U-2 and became the top pilot.

Black pilots are recognized 73 years after they won the inaugural “Top Gun” contest.

That ill-fated day, Anderson boarded his spy aircraft and headed for Cuba. The Lockheed U-2 initially saw service in 1955 and is still flying today. Despite its high-tech features, the aircraft itself is very simple, consisting largely of an airframe and engine. As its name suggests, its primary function is to take pictures of Earth from a distance. It has no defenses or weaponry of any kind.

Mike Tougias, who penned “Above & Beyond” with Sherman, stated, “You can’t even fight back in a U-2.” You’re in a vulnerable position, to use a hunting term.

Piloting the U-2 at such heights required a pressurized suit and helmet, much like the ones used by Mercury astronauts. Aircraft pilots were shielded from the thin air and freezing temperatures at an altitude of 72,000 feet, but not from incoming fire.

A pair of surface-to-air missiles were fired by Soviet and Cuban forces while Anderson was cruising in the stratosphere. They both went off too far away from the plane to do any real harm. However, a piece of shrapnel made its way through the jet’s fuselage and into Anderson’s suit, causing the latter to lose its pressurization. It’s likely he passed out instantly and was dead within a few minutes. His unmanned aircraft lost control, plunged 13,000 feet, and crashed near the Cuban town of Veguitas.

A U-2 could be shot down easily, Tougias said. Some pictures show the cockpit still in tact while the fuselage is lying on the ground. All it takes is a little bit of shrapnel, McIlmoyle warned me; the U-2 would fall like a leaf off a tree.

 

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