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Cuban missile crisis: Really touch-and-go?

Oct. 14, 2012 - 04:10PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 14, 2012 - 04:10PM  |  
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GREENVILLE, S.C. — The forgotten man of the Cuban missile crisis was once its hero — the only American to perish in a conflict that could have killed millions.

Maj. Rudolf Anderson was "the martyr who died for us all," said Eric Sevareid, the CBS Evening News analyst. Future generations would lay flowers at Anderson's grave, he predicted, in thanks for the "hosts of others who did not die."

The crisis, the closest the planet has come to nuclear war, took place over 13 days — Oct. 16-28, 1962. It started after aerial photos showed the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba in order to bolster its communist ally, Fidel Castro, and its own ability to strike the United States.

Armed only with a camera, Anderson flew an unescorted U-2 spy plane over the island more times in the crisis than any other pilot. He and his comrades took the photos that the U.S. used to show the world the Soviets had nuclear missiles 90 miles from Florida.

After Anderson was shot down by a Soviet missile — without permission from leaders in the Kremlin — President Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev realized they had to end the crisis before their underlings pushed them into war. Within 24 hours, they did.

Yet 50 years later, Anderson's memory has faded, along with that of the crisis itself.

There are unforgettable moments — Kennedy on TV telling the nation about the missiles and announcing a quarantine around Cuba; U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson unveiling photos of the missile sites and offering to wait "until hell freezes over" for a Soviet response; Soviet ships in the Atlantic turning back from the quarantine line.

But the crisis that historian James Blight calls "the most dangerous moment in modern history" is hazy to young Americans and widely misunderstood by their elders.

Despite revelations since the end of the Cold War, the crisis is encrusted by myth: of a cool, hard-line Kennedy, a bellicose Khrushchev and a resolution in which the Americans stood firm and the Russians backed down.

Alice George, author of a social history of the crisis, says its memory was diminished by subsequent traumas, especially the assassination of Kennedy a year later. And the end of the Cold War two decades ago deprived the crisis of its doomsday context.

"If you were alive in 1962, you have a story about the crisis," George says. "If you weren't, you have no clear idea what happened."

Here in Anderson's hometown, however, some people want to change that. One is Jack Parillo, a retired architect who learned of Anderson only when he stumbled on his memorial. "People don't realize Rudy's importance to history," he says. "Without him, there might not be any history."

‘A taste of death row'

By 9 a.m. on Sept. 27, 1962, Rudolf Anderson was 72,000 feet above Cuba, on the blue-black edge of space, snug in a pressurized flight suit, flying an aircraft that did not officially exist. In addition to the top-secret target list, he carried photos of his two sons and his wife, two months' pregnant with what he was hoping would be a girl.

The U-2 was one of the most exotic aircraft ever made. Fly too fast at this altitude (twice that of a commercial jetliner's) and the wings and tail break off; fly too slow, and the engine stalls. The difference between the two extremes: 7 mph.

It was Day 12 in the crisis. With the Soviet missiles in place, says Alice George, "everyone in America got a taste of death row." The nation's southeastern quarter, including Greenville, was in range of warheads 70 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Day and night, U.S. military forces moved toward Florida. The Strategic Air Command, which controlled the nation's nuclear arsenal, moved to DEFCON2, one alert level short of war. It dispersed 183 B-47 bombers to 33 civilian and military airfields and kept 60 B-52 bombers, most carrying atomic bombs, aloft at all times. About 130 long-range nuclear missiles were ready to be fired; their silo hatches were open, and the Soviets could see it.

Americans reacted with a mixture of anxiety and resignation. Some hoarded canned food and built fallout shelters. Millions of city dwellers decided it was a good time for a trip to the country. In Memphis, a man told police who found him lifting a manhole cover that he was seeking a bomb shelter for his family.

Bunkers outside Washington were readied for government officials, and federal agencies made plans for emergency wage-price controls, rationing and censorship.

Anderson's hometown was jittery, especially after the state civil defense director told local officials there was emergency shelter space for only 7% of the population.

A 16-year-old called the Marine recruiter in Greenville to ask whether the president had lowered the enlistment age. Ed Smith, American Legion district commander, said he had volunteered for World War I and was ready again.

No one knew that Greenville already was represented by Rudy Anderson.

He'd always wanted to fly. As a kid, he built model airplanes, and once got in trouble in school for using his pencil to trace in the air the flight of a fly.

He was something of a daredevil. At Clemson, he was so intent on catching a pigeon that had gotten loose in his dorm that he chased it down a hallway and out a second-story window, breaking a few bones in the fall. Later, his buddies would call it "Rudy's first flight."

As an officer, he was both top gun and by-the-book, a pilot's pilot who was selected to evaluate his peers. All agreed he'd make general. "He wanted to keep climbing the wall to be the leader," recalls Jim Black, a fellow Korean War reconnaissance pilot. "He was strong-headed. It was his way or no way."

He wanted as many flights as he could get, even if it created jealousy in the competitive U-2 brotherhood. "Hot to go all the time," Black says. "He was bent on being in the middle of whatever was going on."

He'd jockeyed for this flight over Cuba, his sixth in the crisis, even though two days earlier another pilot reported being fired on by Soviet surface-to-air missiles — the first time any of the U-2 flights had drawn fire.

He didn't seem worried. The night before, he called his mother in Greenville and told her not to worry, he was doing what he loved.

After 10 a.m., Anderson completed his pass over the eastern end of Cuba — his plane's camera clicking, Soviet radar watching — and turned toward Florida. But a Soviet general, absent his commander and for reasons still unclear, ordered two surface-to-air missiles fired at the U-2.

One exploded behind Anderson, sending shrapnel into the cockpit and through his pressurized suit. He probably was dead before the plane hit the ground, 13 miles below. He was 35.

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