The Photo That Averted Nuclear War

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - January 24, 2007
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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-105 “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-105 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!

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