Senior Memoirs - November contribution
It was Monday, October 22, 1962 when my home phone rang in the late afternoon. It was the duty officer at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth , New Hampshire . It was an alert call; it was not an exercise. I had to report to the squadron immediately. President Kennedy was to address the nation that evening to inform the public about recent events in Cuba . Our national defense status had been upgraded to DEFCON 3 ; the nation
was threatened with nuclear war.
As I quickly assembled my flying gear and jumped into my flight suit, my thoughts were about the safety of my family. Once again I would be leaving them during a time of crisis. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the Air Force Base made the seacoast region of New Hampshire a primary target for a Soviet nuclear missile attack. Would I ever see them again? Would I survive the dangers of our wartime mission? There was little I could do now. I kissed my wife, my three year old daughter and my one year old son goodbye and hustled to the base. My wife then acted quickly to move food, clothing, blankets and other emergency essentials into the basement to prepare for the imminent disaster.
Aircrew and maintenance personnel assembled at the base and were given a “TOP SECRET” briefing on the status of the emergency. Intelligence sources had discovered Soviet missiles deployed in Cuba . My crew was assigned an air refueling mission in the Strategic Air Command War Plan. After we set up our aircraft for launch we would live in the barracks. Alert crews in the “Mole Hole”, as the alert facility was called, were to take-off first. We were a part of the “follow on” force. The Wing Intelligence Officer who provided the overview of the crisis then stressed the “TOP SECRET” classification of what we had just heard, and in the strongest of terms, he admonished us not to discuss this with anyone. We were not to make any phone calls or have contacts with persons outside the base.
When the briefing was finished and the briefing team and top brass had left the room, someone in the room shouted: “There is a television set on the stage, turn it on and let’s see what they are saying on the news!” The screen brightened slowly and a snowy black and white image emerged to reveal Walter Cronkite, anchorman for CBS News. He was starting his report on the crisis. We sat in amazement as he related the same information, almost word for word, that we had heard in the “TOP SECRET” Wing Intelligence Officer’s briefing only a few minutes earlier. So much for official secrecy!
Crews were deployed to bases further north in the following days. Some went to Sondrestrom in Greenland , others to Newfoundland ; my crew was assigned to augment the alert force at Goose Bay , Labrador . At the same time the U.S. Navy created a naval blockade around Cuba while the Army prepared for an airborne and amphibious invasion of the island. The crisis was resolved in the next week and the press lauded the President for forcing the Soviet Premiere, Nikita Khrushchev, to take the missiles out of Cuba and thereby averting a thermonuclear war. The peace preserved, it was an October to remember!
I was happy to fly home to my family when the crisis ended. They were safe; there had been no mushroom clouds in North America . However, I have never understood the conventional wisdom regarding the outcomes of this crisis. I voted for John Kennedy in 1960. When his administration came into Washington they initiated a superb public relations campaign. Their theme was picked up by the television networks and major newspapers and the image of “Camelot” was created. Ted Sorenson, the President’s speech writer, came up with the phrase “The Best and the Brightest” to anoint members of the Kennedy Administration. These people were heralded as the smartest folks in the nation.
Secretary of State Dean Rusk was quoted at the termination of the crisis as saying: “We came ‘eyeball to eyeball’ with the Soviets, and they blinked.” I suspect that it was more likely that Khrushchev “WINKED” at them! Just look at what happened!
In the final days of the Eisenhower administration (1959-1960) the United States positioned intermediate range missiles in Turkey . Naturally, this upset the Russians. They retaliated by positioning their missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev’s successful Cuban strategy got the U.S missiles out of Turkey as he established a Soviet base in the western hemisphere. Goodbye Monroe Doctrine! Fidel Castro became a Soviet vassal, and soon Russian trained Cuban guerrillas infiltrated into South and Central American Republics where they exerted immeasurable harm to our national interests … even to this day. Meanwhile, the “Best and the Brightest” have proclaimed for over forty years that they forced Khrushchev into retreat.
So, who was the brilliant one in this crisis? I believe that the sly old Bolshevik in the rumpled suit actually out-foxed the “Best and the Brightest” in this encounter. But this was only one of many battles in the Cold War. That’s how I remember it! But you decide for yourself! I am certain that my memory does not agree with the version printed in my grandchildren’s history books.