Veteran's Stories About the Cuban Missile Crisis
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The Photo that Averted Nuclear War
By Capt.Jerry Coffee
One of my lighter memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis was hearing that an Air Force squadron commander in California had lobbied hard to get his squadron of Air Force F-104 "Star Fighter" jets deployed to Key West, Fla., to "get in on the action," needed or not. He succeeded.
Upon the squadron's arrival, my fellow Navy pilots and I watched as the 12 planes circled to land. The lead plane landed short of the runway, sheared off the landing gear, and slid up the runway on its belly in a cloud of smoke and sparks, coming to rest half on the runway and half in the grass. The other planes waved off and headed to a nearby Air Force base to refuel and return when the wreckage was cleared.
When the smoldering plane didn't explode and the pilot was safe, we started planning the welcoming "happy hour" for the "Star Fighter" pilots, which would of course include embarrassing posters and songs reminding them of their snappy arrival. The party was a relaxing moment in an otherwise serious and intense evolution in the service of America's national defense.
These and other memories were called to mind last week while watching an episode of the History Channel series, Man, Moment and Machine. The "Man" was President John F. Kennedy, the "Moment" was the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the "Machine" was the RF-8 Photo Crusader jet. Having flown the "machine" at the "moment," I was called upon last July to contribute an on-camera interview for the documentary. So I was eager to see the result, which sparked more memories ...
By the time that F-104 squadron arrived, I had already been at Key West for over a week and we Recce (reconnaissance) pilots had meticulously planned and flown several two-plane missions over Cuba, 90 miles to the south.
The flights in our RF-8s were low, fast and hairy, as we navigated by eye and took pictures of Soviet Premier Kruschev's nuclear-tipped missiles scattered across the verdant countryside. Although close to the ground and unarmed, our defense was speed and surprise. By the time gunners on the ground realized we were there, we were gone. The only flak (anti-aircraft fire) I ever saw was in my rear view mirrors. The Soviet missiles, although not yet fully operational, were all pointed north.
Kruschev and his U.N. ambassador, Zorin, stubbornly denied the existence of the missiles in Cuba. But when America's U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson displayed our aerial photos in the chambers of the Security Council, the poker-faced Zorin squirmed in his chair. President Kennedy, now armed with indisputable proof, gave Kruschev three days to disassemble the missiles and begin removing them from the Caribbean island.
Kennedy had already established a naval blockade which was turning Soviet ships away from Cuba, and he was honing contingency plans for air strikes on the missiles and/or an amphibious invasion by U.S. Marines - either of which could have sparked World War III. These were probably the most dangerous three days of the 17-year Cold War, and would be until its finale: the crumbling of the Berlin Wall.
My final flight over Cuba was through Santiago harbor on the south coast with all cameras on "go." The photos showed crated missiles on the decks of Soviet freighters about to leave the Western Hemisphere. Strength and resolve, and the American people's faith in their commander in chief, had paid off.
Today's "Man" is President George Bush, the "Moment" is Iraq and the "Machine" our military. But the danger is even greater than in October 1962. The Soviets were rational and responded to the principle of self-preservation. Today's enemy is irrational, caring only about our destruction at any cost. If we are to prevail again - and again we must - our resolve must be unflagging, and our faith in our commander-in-chief must remain strong - a faith based upon more than five years since 9-11-01 without another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
P.S. After the program, my son called and reported my 8-year-old twin grandsons' reaction: "So, Dad, Bapa really saved our country, right?" The other chimed in; "Correction, Brother! Bapa saved the world!"
Ah, the innocent faith of a grandchild!
Webmaster's Note: I remember Capt. Coffee during my tour in VFP-62. We are pleased to have his permission to reprint this article. Following his tour in VFP-62 he was the Recconnaisance Training Officer for the new RA-5C, Vigilante, the aircraft that eventually replaced the RF-8.
Subsequently he was deployed to Vietnam flying the "Vigi" and was shot down in Feb '66 and held as a POW for seven years.
Addendum: The following perspective was provided by Ken Walling VF-32:
The VF-32 Story:
Our mission was to escort the Photo Crusaders to their feet dry point and meet them coming feet wet, we didn't go over Cuba...that I know of.
One of the more interesting events during that period was when a whole shitload bunch of F-104s flew in from George AFB. I was in the alert trailer and heard the distinctive whine of the J-57 and went out to see a whole wing of F-104s coming in the break. They were pretty colorful with one of the jets landing a little short of the runway in the overrun, shearing one main landing gear off and skidding down the runway. The overrun was all of an inch or so below the runway. We heard that our boys in Greyhound blue were being put up in the Holiday Inn while we were in WW-II condemned barracks. Some of the more creative guys like Jerry Coffee and others got a roll of Kraft Paper and made a mural depicting the incident that must have been 15 or 20 feet long. They also wrote a song called "Hitting the Lip." We converged on the bar at the Holiday Inn where a large group of the Air Farce boys were lounging around in their flight suits and ascots. We anticipated that and wore our flight suits. The mural was carefully pinned up on the wall. Then the song was sung. One unknown Major didn't like it too much because he was the guy who hit the lip. He made a lunge at one of our guys but his buds pulled him back. A lot of beer was consumed and we all became friends. We were never able to get those Lawn Dart drivers to engage us in a little fun ACM. Of course with their turning radius of a couple counties they were smart to ignore us.
Capt. Coffee's additional comments: Ah yes, VF-32! That reminds me of the way we "Photo Weenies" rode the fighter pilots for not being allowed to go feet dry over Cuba, but had to circle over the Straights of Florida waiting for us to come feet wet. We called them the "non-combatants" At one happy hour we presented the VF-32 C.O. (can see him but can't think of his name; Ed something I think) with a set of white coveralls with a big red cross and the words "Non-Combatant" stenciled across the back. He good naturedly wore them during the whole party.
Ken Walling's response: The Skipper during that time was CDR Ed Clayton, A photo of him can be viewed at: Gunfighter's Site: VF-32 Swordsmen . Ed Clayton was killed that following year on the USS Saratoga when his F-8 Crusader hit hard on the Flight Deck. His XO was Gordon "Gordo" Gray he passed away this December 2nd, 2007. A piece of that time in history is now gone, I was going to give "Gordo" a call and talk about the CMC.
I think VF-32 just about had an encounter with a Mig during that time but both aircraft were low on fuel and did not engage. Need to find more on this. From my conversation with the pilots from VF-32 during that time, if the Recons needed help or was shot down, they would been ready to come over dry land with their full load of weapons. Fortunately it wasn't needed!
Ken Walling, VF-32
Finally, Capt. Coffee responds:
Ken Walling is right about the VF-32 guys ready to go feet dry with weapons on a moments notice. That was a great comfort to us. We were always hoping a MIG would chase us out to sea for the Swordsmen to gobble up.
Capt. Ed Feeks adds the following:
The only thing that I can add is that I remember that the CO of (I think it was) VF-32 was CDR Gordo Gray. Great guy.
They were the guys who would probably take off via a green light from the tower (radio silence) shortly after the RF-8s took off under the same conditions. Prior to take off, they would have briefed with the photo guys and knew our coast-in and coast-out points.
What a wonderful thought it was to know that they were waiting for us at our exit from the beach. And when we did, they would radio to say that our tails were clear.
I do not recall whether the ROE (rules of engagement) permitted them to fly over Cuba if we were shot down. I seem to think (wishfully?) that they could.
In short, we photo-beanies were most appreciative of the fighter guys who were there to cover us in spades.
Webmaster's Note: Gordon L. Gray Jr. (USN retired) died on December 2, 2007 from complications relating to pneumonia.
Created on ... June 09, 2007