The Cuban Missile Crisis Lesson

An aerial view of FROG missile launchers (surrounding a big tree) in Cuba 50 years ago | Photo from Jerry Coffee

In their jointly written Wall Street Journal opinion column (Feb. 26, 2013), Sens. Corker (R-Tenn.) and Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, respectively, noted that “President Obama has repeatedly identified nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism as key dangers to the United States and its allies.” They continued, “The president not only wants to cut missiles, he also is neglecting a promised modernization program.”

Naturally, this caught my attention, especially since I have personal experience in how a diplomatic and military nuclear standoff so easily can get so out of hand through error, omission or misunderstanding.

Oct. 23, 2012, marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, of which I was an active participant.

In early October, high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance flights over Cuba revealed several Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) sites under construction. Needing more detailed evidence, President John F. Kennedy and his National Security staff ordered Light Photographic Squadron (VFP-62), to which I was assigned, to preposition 10 aircraft from our base in Jacksonville, Fla., to Naval Air Station Key West, Fla. We preplanned several flight paths over the missile sites, to be flown by formations of two RF-8 Crusader photo aircraft each.

On the night of Oct. 22, 1962, Kennedy announced to the nation on TV the presence of the Soviet missiles and the establishment of a naval blockade around Cuba. The next morning, six of our photo recon aircraft were called upon to photograph the three sites that appeared closest to being operational. My leader and I, as a wingman, flew southward across the Straights of Florida at an altitude of 50 feet to avoid Cuban radar. At landfall, we accelerated to 450 mph and popped up to 500 feet, enabling us to navigate by marking visual terrain features: rivers, bridges, hills and villages.

The missile sites were identified easily by fresh excavations, military vehicles and equipment. We crossed each site with all cameras operating – verticals, obliques and forward-looking. After crossing two or three missile sites, we headed northward, flying nonstop back to Jacksonville, where the film was processed and interpreted. The squadron commander flew the film to Washington and carried it directly to the White House.

The next day my flight leader and I flew another route, but as I crossed this missile site I noticed more equipment and a vehicle pool off to the side. Impulsively, I pulled the aircraft into a hard left turn, crossed that area – still with all cameras running – then another hard turn back on course to catch up with my leader.

I flew four more missions that October, one requiring a refueling at Guantanamo Bay, to photograph crated missiles aboard Russian ships departing Cuban ports.

A few weeks later back at the squadron, I received an unexpected official Letter of Commendation from the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David Shoup, commending me for my “alertness in a rapidly changing situation” and providing “the most important and timely information for the amphibious forces which has ever been acquired in the history of this famous

Navy-Marine fighting team.”

“Wow!” I thought. “What in the world had my cameras picked up on that ‘target of opportunity’?” As it turned out, the general was referring to the discovery, for the first time in Cuba, of the existence of the Russian “FROG” mobile, surface-to-surface tactical missile with nuclear warheads. When Kennedy had made his earlier speech about the naval blockade of Cuba, he had an alternate speech written announcing the amphibious invasion of Cuba by several thousand U.S. Marines. If he had chosen that contingency option, our ships and our Marines would have been sitting ducks for the FROG’ nuclear warheads. Knowing these were Soviet missiles launched by Russians, we would have most likely retaliated against the Soviet Union with nuclear ICBMs – and nuclear war would have ensued.

But, even though Shoup cancelled the contingency plan for an amphibious invasion, the existence of the FROGs remained unannounced until their removal in December of 1962.

The point is, the “Fog of War” can overwhelm even the best intelligence and the best of intentions. We must never yield our nuclear advantage in an increasingly dangerous nuclear world.