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Forgotten U-2 pilots helped end the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago

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Gerald McIlmoyle had an incredible view of the world and no time to take advantage of it. Some 21 kilometers below him, the green island of Cuba stands out against the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, but he remains focused on his perilous mission.

It was October 25, 1962, and the US Air Force captain was flying a U-2 spy plane to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, snapping high-resolution images of nuclear missile sites on the island nation about 100 miles from Florida. The world was tilting towards total destruction as tensions escalated between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago this week.

As McIlmoyle was taking pictures, a flash of light caught his eye. The Soviet and Cuban military had launched a pair of surface-to-air missiles. Fortunately, a course correction he had made moments earlier had caused his missile plane to miss.

The Cold War had suddenly heated up, and American U-2 pilots were on the front lines of a dangerous tightrope game between two heavily armed superpowers. Their bravery gave US President John F. Kennedy the proof he needed to take on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and find a way to avert a nuclear nightmare.

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“These men risked their lives in an effort to save humanity, and I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that,” said Casey Sherman, co-author of the 2018 book Above & Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous”. Cold war spy mission. “During those 13 days in October 1962, we came closest to the history of thermonuclear warfare.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 14, when Major Steve Heyser took the first snapshots of the missile sites, triggering a series of missions by 11 U-2 pilots to find out exactly what was happening on the ground in Cuba. . Largely forgotten today, their actions likely prevented a nuclear war. One of these spy plane pilots would make the ultimate sacrifice for his country, while another narrowly escaped being shot down by Soviet planes.

“These pilots were completely unarmed,” Sherman said. “They were flying in defenseless planes. Even though they were 13 miles high, they were still susceptible to airstrikes from the ground, which ultimately resulted in the death of one of the pilots. Nobody remembers there was a KIA [killed in action] during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The only victim of enemy fire during this tumultuous two-week period was Major Rudy Anderson. The Air Force pilot, who jumped at every opportunity to fly U-2 missions over Cuba, was not scheduled to be airborne on October 27, 1962. In fact, no one ‘was. However, military planners changed their minds at the last minute and Anderson volunteered.

The veteran pilot was used to dangerous missions. Anderson had earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses for reconnaissance flights over North Korea in 1953. He joined the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing in 1957 and quickly became the top U-2 pilot, with over 1,000 hours flight.

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On that fateful day, Anderson boarded his spy plane and took off for Cuba. The Lockheed U-2, still in use today, first entered service in 1955. Although equipped with sophisticated technology, the aircraft itself is simply built – primarily an airframe and engine. Its main purpose is to take pictures of objects on Earth from the far reaches of space. It has no armor or weapon.

“You can’t even fire back in a U-2,” said Mike Tougias, who co-wrote “Above & Beyond” with Sherman. “You’re basically a sitting duck.”

Flying the U-2 at such high altitudes required a pressure suit and helmet similar to those worn by astronauts in the Mercury space program. They protected the pilots from the thin air and cold temperatures 72,000 feet above the ground, but not from the weapons fired at them.

As Anderson ascended into the stratosphere, Soviet and Cuban troops launched two surface-to-air missiles. Both exploded too far to cause serious damage to the aircraft. However, a tiny shrapnel pierced the jet’s fuselage and penetrated Anderson’s suit, causing it to depressurize. He probably lost consciousness almost immediately and died within seconds. His unmanned aircraft then spun out of control and fell 13 miles to Earth, crashing near the Cuban village of Veguitas.

“It didn’t take long to bring down a U-2,” Tougias said. “There are photos of the fuselage on the ground with the cockpit intact. I remember McIlmoyle telling me, “All it takes is a little shrapnel and the U-2 will spiral down like a leaf from a tree.” ”

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated further during another U-2 mission which occurred around the time Anderson was shot down. Thousands of miles away, Captain Chuck Maultsby was flying a spy plane over Alaska toward the North Pole to take radiation measurements from Soviet nuclear tests on an island off Siberia.

Unknowingly, the Air Force pilot had of course drifted, his compass rendered useless by the magnetic north pole and interference from an active display of aurora borealis. By the time he discovered his mistake, he was being pursued by six Soviet MiG interceptor aircraft.

He flew as high as he could – higher than the Soviet jets could reach – but he was low on fuel, so he attempted to return safely. Meanwhile, the US Strategic Air Command has launched F-102 fighter jets armed with tactical nuclear missiles. If these American pilots fire on enemy planes, it could trigger the war the two superpowers were trying to avoid in the Caribbean.

Fortunately, Maultsby was able to avoid the Soviets and land safely at an isolated airstrip in Alaska.

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Shortly after these events, the world moved away from the precipice of nuclear war. Kennedy and Khrushchev – fearing that an event like the downing of a spy plane could escalate into a fire – brokered a deal to end the crisis. The Soviets agreed to remove the nuclear missiles from Cuba; the Americans then dismantled similar sites in Turkey.

About a week after the crisis cooled, McIlmoyle shook Kennedy’s hand when the president met with the U-2 pilots to recognize their heroic efforts. “I can’t thank you men enough for bringing back these photos that allowed me to peacefully end this crisis,” he told McIlmoyle, who died last year.

Anderson was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross – the first airman to receive this award for heroism in military operations against an armed enemy.

Today, Anderson is remembered with a small plaque at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. There are no other memorials or statues honoring the men who flew U-2 missions with the future of mankind on their wings.

“The heroism of U-2 pilots has been lost to history,” Sherman said. “They should be recognized and honored for what they have done. These men were heroes. Rudy Anderson’s name should be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but people don’t remember him.