In 1962 our bomber force was the most reliable leg of our offensive strategy against any potential adversary. Still, it required highly skilled pilots, navigators, and ground crews. Missiles launched from silos or submarines were in their infancy and were very unreliable. All those in our group that dispersed to Duluth Minnesota were greeted by the entire community with respect and a patriotic fervor that was something very special to experience. The Cuban Missile Crisis marked the closest call with a nuclear war in our history. This is a true story of 8 days in October 1962 when we looked WWIII in the face...and we did not blink. Our strategic defense consisted of land, sea, and air forces, and tens of thousands of military personnel who participated in our defense—then as now. This is just one story from the perspective of one participant.
ne of America’s favorite pastimes is remembering where we were when an unforgettable event happened. The day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the day WWII ended, President Kennedy’s assassination, and 9/11 immediately come to mind. We were all affected in very direct and powerful ways on each of those dates in history. So much so, in fact, that where we were and what we were doing when the news of each event flashed across the media outlets remain indelibly etched in our collective consciousness. The Cuban Missile Crisis does not rank quite that high—unless you were personally involved. Those of us who scrambled into position to participate in a looming nuclear war with the Soviet Union during those long days in 1962 remember it well.
The stage for the clash of the giants was set: The Soviets had been building hardened missile launching pads in Cuba for several months. They had also delivered many long range missiles there. We had photographic evidence of them taken by high flying U2 reconnaissance planes. President Kennedy had confronted Khrushchev with the pictures, and Khrushev had denied any involvement. So Kennedy placed a naval blockade around Cuba with instructions to sink any ship that tried to run the blockade. And on this cold day on October 23rd, 1962, a group of Soviet vessels loaded with more missiles and assorted equipment were in the North Atlantic. They were heading straight for Cuba. We were on high alert, and with each passing minute, Russia was closing the gap between them, us, and the war to end all wars.
It was bitter cold as the North winds swept down across the western shores of Lake Superior on that October day. The lake was frozen solid. From high atop the hill just outside of town where our planes had landed and were now perched, I could see only snow and ice in all directions. On the drive from the center of town to our location, long lines of people stood outside of churches waiting to get in. Confessionals were very busy that day. "This was too peaceful a setting from which to launch a war," I thought. But this much I knew for certain: My planes were ready.
I was a young Air Force sergeant, a member of the vaunted Strategic Air Command (SAC). We had just responded to a DefCon 2 alert, a condition second only to actual war, ordered by President Kennedy, and relayed to us from the toughest General of his day, Curtis LeMay. LeMay was a cigar-chompin’, no nonsense kind of guy, known far and wide as one tough, mean son-of-a-bitch. He was among the first you might want to lead an attack against an aggressor, but the very last person you would want to sit down at a diplomatic table to discuss the gentler arts of peace or how to resolve differences. You may recall later, in 1968, when he became Gov. Wallace’s running mate for President, even tough-talking George Wallace had to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining away many of LeMay’s comments about our potential use of nuclear weapons with the comment “What the General meant to say was…”
When the alert sounded several days before, our wing of strategic bombers took off from their central location and dispersed in many directions. The objective was to make a large number of targets for our Russian adversaries, to assure our own survival, and to be able to strike back from many different locations. It was a strategy that we all had rehearsed and knew very well. I went to our northern location with a squadron of B-47 Stratojet bombers, each with an 11 megaton H-bomb in its bomb bay. These planes alone carried more destructive power than had been unleashed in all the wars in all of recorded history combined. My job was to assure that each of their bombing and navigation systems worked perfectly.
Our only shelter from the cold was an old tin Quonset hut that elements of the local National Guard used from time to time. We kept a fire and a small black and white TV going inside for a bit of warmth and a way to stay up with the news. We put together an antenna made from coat hangers to maintain a barely visible TV picture. The town of Duluth provided us with a small fleet of taxis for our exclusive use, but mainly for transportation to and from the Hotel Duluth to our operations.
Everyone treated us as if we were movie stars, sports stars, and royalty all rolled into one. Every shop owner, every worker, and every resident that we saw offered us warm greetings and anything they had to make us comfortable. We could not pay for food at restaurants, not even for a snack. Everything was free. But it was all done with reverence, not in celebration. Everyone cleared the way for us especially when we were headed back to those silver birds parked high up on the hill.
Late one night I left the Quonset hut and walked over to see how my planes were doing. It was my job to run every system every day, to monitor its performance, and to assess its ability to get that plane to its target and to be able to release its bomb on target. I did not have the slightest doubt that I was the right person at the right time at that moment in history to assure that these planes could and would do exactly as we had planned. I had studied, and trained, and practiced, and honed my skills with these systems to a very fine edge. But I had never seen, or touched, a nuclear bomb. And here were 8 Superjets with their bomb bay doors open.
I walked up to our sole guard, a youngster armed with only a WWII carbine, and started a conversation. He was a lot younger than me and did not have a clue about what he was guarding. The longer I chatted with him, the larger his eyes got. We both walked back a few yards and stuck our heads in the bomb bay to ponder the power of 11 million tons of TNT. The bomb was huge. It filled the entire bomb bay. I put my bare hand on the bomb’s casing. I wanted to feel some sense of history in the making. What I felt instead was something so cold it was painful. I quickly withdrew my hand out of fear that it might stick to the surface. I left that bomb to leave its own imprint on this setting without me in attendance.
The next day as I was running one system, an amplifier failed and the navigation system sputtered out of control. We carried spare parts in the planes. I diagnosed the problem, replaced the amplifier, and finished the system’s performance checks. When I was finished, I called back to my home base and asked the home crew to send me another amplifier on their next flight coming up our way. It arrived about 2 hours later with the wing commander and my boss. They were concerned that I had not called back as often as some of the other technicians at other locations. Perhaps I wasn’t doing my job, they feared, so my boss came along. He wanted to check to be certain.
We started at one end of the row of planes, ran every system, and tested its performance, If even one system was out of tolerance in any way, I would be on the next flight back. We spent that day going from plane to plane, system to system, check by check. At the end, he looked at me and said “Phil, actually, I never doubted you. Yours are the best systems I have ever seen. You can stay. I’m getting out of here. It’s too cold for me.”
A few days later, the Soviet trawlers made a U-turn in the Atlantic, and headed back to Russia. Khrushev agreed to remove his missiles from Cuba, and Kennedy agreed to remove some outdated missiles from Turkey so Khrushev could save face. But the crisis was over.
I knew Duluth had returned to normal when I had to pay for breakfast at the hotel. But that was a pleasure. This small city on the edge of Lake Superior had shown us what it means to really be appreciated—even more than a Hollywood star. We had had a rendezvous with history, my peers and my superiors learned that I was someone they could count on, and I had reached a meeting of minds with the Air Force—we were mutually compatible. I didn’t know it at the time, but just two years down the road another challenge awaited all of us. It was in a small country called Vietnam.