McCook native son's harrowing tale of duty and heroism

Thursday, April 5, 2018

During the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Venice resident Brigadier Gen. (retired) Jerry McIlmoyle had a front row seat to the tense events that had our country on the brink of nuclear war.

McIlmoyle’s seat just happened to be 13 miles above Cuba. Thirty-three years old and a captain in the Air Force in 1962, Jerry was a member of an elite team of pilots who made daring missions over Cuba flying the ultra-secret U-2 spy plane.

The crisis began when Major Richard “Steve” Heyser made a solo flight over the island in a U-2 and photographed a Soviet military installation that housed an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Washington D.C. When President Kennedy was informed of this alarming discovery he ordered more U-2 flights over Cuba. He needed to know where the missiles were located and how close to operational they were.

Gen. Jerry McIlmoyle

The U-2 is no ordinary aircraft. It has a lightweight frame, a powerful jet engine, and is armed with cameras rather than bombs. It looks something like a glider on steroids with a wing span of 103 feet. The plane can fly so high — 73,000 feet — that the pilot must don a specialized pressure suit and fish-bowl style helmet, similar to what an astronaut must wear. Should the single seat cockpit lose air pressure the suit is designed to inflate and keep the pilot alive. Otherwise in the thin air of the stratosphere the pilot’s blood would literally begin to boil.

One of those pilots asked to risk his life was Jerry McIlmoyle. During Jerry’s first two flights over Cuba he was well aware the Soviets were tracking his progress via radar, and he knew their Surface to Air Missiles (SAM’s) were capable of reaching him. Just two years earlier Francis Gary Powers had been shot down in his U-2 over the Soviet Union creating an international incident.

On Jerry’s first two flights the missions went smoothly and he was able to photograph both nuclear missiles, SAM sites, and other Russian military installations. On his third flight, however, things did not go quite so smoothly. It was Oct. 25, 1962, and the young pilot from McCook, Nebraska launched from McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Florida and arrived in enemy airspace in under an hour. When Jerry identified landmarks he had been briefed about, such as a certain bay, peninsula or bridge, he knew he was fast approaching his target and he flicked the switch on the cockpit sensor control panel and activated the cameras.

Once he was certain he photographed target number one, he altered course to the south-east and in approximately 40 minutes arrived and filmed his second target. The mission was going as planned and the clear skies were holding over the 780 mile long island.

The third and final objective was near the town of Banes, on the northeast coast of the island. When Jerry arrived, he had been over Cuba for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes. Once over the target he started filming, got the photos he needed, shut the camera off and started to make his turn for home, thankful for a safe and successful run.

That’s when he saw them. Through his tiny rear view mirror two contrails stretched from the earth all the way toward his aircraft.

They’re firing at me!

One SAM had already exploded above and behind him, sending fiery shrapnel in all directions causing streaks of white light against blue sky, a deadly starburst. The second missile exploded a mere second after Jerry first looked in his rear view mirror, this one causing an explosion perhaps 8,000 feet above the plane. The blast sent a burst of adrenaline coursing through the pilot’s body, even though he could not hear or feel the impact.

He craned his neck around as best he could in the cumbersome helmet and flight suit, but did not see a third contrail. Then he made an instant decision. He banked the plane, and during the turn, flicked the cameras on – he wanted to get the contrails and starbursts on film. Despite the near miss of the missiles and the adrenaline, Jerry felt calm as he knew the guideline missile could not turn and intercept him at this altitude.  

He turned the aircraft once again for home and took a deep breath, relieved to be looking north toward a horizon where ocean met the sky. Less than four minutes had gone by since noticing the contrails.

When he arrived at McCoy he was debriefed by intelligence officers where he reported about the SAM’s and how he captured the starbursts on film. He also made sure to tell Steve Heyser and the other U-2 pilots.

The next day a strange thing happened. Jerry was walking out to the tarmac when a three star general, who had just arrived from Washington, confronted Jerry and told him his film had shown no sign of missiles and his intelligence report was going to be destroyed. Jerry protested, but the general silenced him by looking him in the eye and saying, “Well that’s what we are going to do, because we don’t think you were shot at.”

Jerry shook his head in frustration, “Do whatever you want, but I know what happened.”

The general stood stock still, then slowly, subtly, shook his head “no,” all the while staring into Jerry’s eyes.

The message was delivered.

Just two days later U-2 pilot Maj. Rudy Anderson was flying over the same area Jerry had when two SAM’s blew his plane out of the sky, killing Major Anderson. He was the only combat casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Epilogue

Jerry grew up in McCook and North Platte and is a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Because of his reconnaissance missions over Cuba, Jerry earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He rose through the ranks of the Air Force achieving Brigadier General in 1977. One of his later duties while serving as Deputy Director for Strategic Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff included responsibilities for the presidential briefcase or “nuclear football” that housed the computer generated launch codes for our nuclear arsenal.

He briefed President Reagan on how to codes worked.

Jerry is featured in a new book co-written by NY Times bestselling author Michael J. Tougias titled Above & Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Spy Mission.

Tougias dedicated the book to Jerry, saying “We could not have written this book without the guidance of Mr. McIlmoyle, particularly in helping us understand what it was like to be a U-2 pilot during the Cuban Missile Crisis.” To view of video of Jerry describing his close encounter with two Soviet SAM’s visit www.michaeltougias.com.

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