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Fifty years and counting

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Happy anniversary to all you survivors of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

From Oct. 15 through the 28th the odds were high that World War III was about to start. America and the USSR for two weeks teetered on the brink of what promised to be a conflict of epic proportions. It was one of those signature events where those of us in the active military who played even a small part in the preparations for nuclear war can vividly remember where and what we were doing at the time.

Barely a month before, our new President John F. Kennedy had badly handled a CIA-inspired invasion of Cuba at a place called the Bay of Pigs. Our CIA had recruited and armed a small army of displaced "Cuban Patriots" who launched from Florida with the intention of overthrowing newly installed dictator, Fidel Castro, turned Soviet style Communist.

Not all the "Cuban Patriots" were exactly Cuban as I later served with at least one Air Force pilot, for the moment galvanized as a civilian, who was sitting on alert in Florida in his bomb-laden "surplus" B-26 waiting to launch to support the invasion force hitting the beach in Cuba. President Kennedy had canceled all the air support and the invasion, of course, flopped. My pilot friend, Jake, never forgave JFK for botching the operation. In liberal fashion, the Kennedy crowd attempted to fix the blame on President Eisenhower under whom the invasion to rescue Cuba had been crafted. Ike didn't stand for it and pointed out that he had never authorized any invasion anywhere without the cover of airpower but that is a whole 'nother story!

For me, it was a beautiful clear Saturday morning in October. Several of us Academy graduates stationed at Otis AFB, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (hardship duty that!) had flown to Colorado Springs on a "training mission." We ex-cadet's true mission was to attend the very first ever football game in the brand new Academy Football Stadium. That stadium by the way was paid for with donated funds from personnel throughout all the armed services, no taxpayer funds involved. When we landed at Peterson AFB, the powers that be directed our C-121 "Super Constellation" to return immediately to Otis. We non crewmembers could stay and catch another ride to the East Coast. Hmm -- unusual. Ever the optimists, we stayed to watch the Oregon State Ducks defeat our Falcons, which I've always considered not very nice.

Next day, the rumor mill was running in high gear that something was up on the East Coast. We were able to catch a ride to Westover AFB on a C-54, the military version of the unpressurized DC-4 airliner. I had acquired a head cold and the changes in pressure at altitude caused one of my eardrums to nearly burst. Somehow, we were all delivered to Otis and I went to sick call the next morning to be summarily medically grounded -- no flying authorized.

By then, the whole Air Force was moving. Every bomber in SAC was loaded with nuclear weapons and placed on alert. Fighters were armed, bombed up and flown to the East Coast to put on alert on crowded ramps. In short order my assigned KC-97, Stratotanker, crew along with several others were put on another C-54 and flown to Sondrestrom AB on the southwest coast of Greenland. There we relieved our fellow crewmembers who had already served a week on alert. They rode back to Otis and promptly went on alert in an already overcrowded facility.

Our assignment was to stand alert with our fully loaded tankers for the duration. The idea was that B-47s would launch from bases in the US and we would meet and refuel them on their way past the North Pole.

We would return to Sondrestrom if we had enough fuel to get back and they would go on to bomb briefed targets in the USSR. Hopefully they too would have enough fuel to land at some surviving friendly base somewhere.

It was real. Had the Soviets launched their bombers or their newly discovered ballistic missiles from Cuba, we too would have done our part to wreak havoc on the Soviet Union.

Actually, Sondie was a pretty decent place to pull SAC alert. The base was built in World War II, Bluie West 8 at that time. We could look to the north and see a white haze that was actually the permanent ice cap.

Greenland was a colony of Denmark and Scandinavian Airways maintained a terminal across the runway from our military base. The off-duty SAS crews liked to come over to our side to eat in our small officers club and to play our slot machines. Let's just say that they didn't select homely ladies to be stewardesses. Yes I know, the current term is "flight attendant" but 50 years ago they were proudly known as "stewardess."

Our quarters were World War II quick-construction chic but the base steam plant kept them warm. Built on permafrost, the hallways had developed up and down spots over the years and the walls weren't exactly plumb, but good enough for who we were. An interesting phenomenon at Sondie was to step outside at night and look to the south for brilliant displays of northern lights. Actually the winter wasn't all that bad there in Greenland 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle, not much snow, and I have experienced colder temperatures in Nebraska.

Eventually Nikita Khrushchev consented to remove his SS-4 ballistic missiles and IL-28 bombers from Cuba. In return we, the United States, dismantled our battery of nuclear tipped Thor IRBMs that we had installed in Turkey. I suspect that was the Soviet's goal when they threatened us from Cuba in the first place. We also agreed to never invade Cuba and overthrow their Communist government again.

Not sure that was a good deal for the poor Cubans either.

The Cuban Missile Crisis only lasted about two weeks and then we returned to our normal nuclear alert posture. I flew back home and medically returned to flying status. The rule was no fly, no pay and it wasn't legal to fly when medically grounded. But then, if one is going to war, little details like that don't really matter.

Meanwhile, Ann was back at Otis, seven months pregnant and with a near 2-year-old daughter. She didn't think much though of living on an Air Force base that would have been a sure target had the war started.

Alone, a thousand miles from home, she was not happy to have her husband gone off to she knew not where.

They also serve; the families of our military warriors.

That is how I saw it.

Dick Trail

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My Father was on the USS Independence during the missile crisis. He thought there was a decent a full fledged war was going to break out. He remembers the photo flares flying and planes were shooting at something.

-- Posted by wmarsh on Thu, Oct 11, 2012, at 9:32 PM

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Dick Trail
The Way I Saw It