All Rights Reserved by the Author Colonel H. Wayne Whitten USMC (ret)
At 9:09 AM on Saturday October 27, 1962 USAF Major Rudolph Anderson Jr. took off from McCoy AFB in a SAC U-2 on his sixth mission over Castro’s Cuba since the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. His targets selected by the national intelligence agencies were Soviet SA-2 SAM sites in eastern Cuba. SAMs posed the greatest threat to the high flying U-2 but two weeks into the crisis there had been no attempts to engage the unarmed reconnaissance aircraft. His pre-flight intelligence brief indicated no change in the Cuban air defense posture.Tragically, his intelligence briefing was dead wrong and he was shot down without a warning by a Soviet SAM shortly before he was to exit Cuban air space. He became the lone combat casualty of the crisis that took the U.S. to brink of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. This happened on what is now known as Black Saturday, the day the Cold War nearly turned red hot.
Ironically at 10 AM as Major Anderson was entering Cuban air space, President Kennedy and his ExComm senior advisors were listening to an intelligence update by the CIA director. He reported the Soviet Mid Range Ballistic Missile sites fully operational but made no mention of a change in the Cuban air defense posture. The EXComm meeting focused on how to respond to Soviet Union Chairman Khrushchev’s latest proposal for a peaceful resolution to the crisis coming after his missile-laden ships headed to Cuba were ordered to turn around and return to port.
News around 2 PM that Major Anderson’s U-2 was overdue and presumed down sent a shock wave across the Washington leadership. It would be well into the 4 PM ExComm meeting before confirmation would come that he was shot down by a Soviet manned SAM site. The grim news came from a local Cuban radio station as there was no monitoring of Soviet air defense tracks by NSA listening posts and the U-2 was beyond the range of friendly radars. Even later the Chairman of the JCS reported that tell-tale radar intercepts of the missile engagement were made by a SAC SIGINT aircraft.
The historic record now shows that JFK saw the U-2 shoot down as a point of no return unless a quick agreement could be reached with Khrushchev. Even as the ExComm debate continued he sent his brother Robert to meet with the Soviet ambassador and deliver an ultimatum to Khrushchev.
Khrushchev had gambled that he could secretly emplace strategic nuclear missiles in Cuba and present JFK with a Fait Accompli. Once a SAC U-2 had discovered the missile sites under construction Khrushchev knew he would likely have to remove them, but pushed to get them operational as bargaining chips. For a week he bought time while walking a tightrope over a nuclear abyss. He then floated a face-saving solution to remove the missiles in exchange for a non-invasion pledge, later upping the ante by insisting U.S. Jupiter missiles be removed from neighboring Turkey. Unknown to JFK, Khrushchev had not authorized the shoot down of the U-2 and had to be relieved to hear that JFK had essentially agreed to his last proposal albeit with an understanding removal of the Jupiter missiles would not be disclosed. Knowing he had dodged a proverbial bullet, Khrushchev quickly agreed to JFK’s ultimatum knowing it was better to be “Red and not Dead”. In the end both super power leaders realized military events were spiraling out of their control and the fate of the world was at stake.
*Stay tuned tomorrow for Part II of the story.