Loaded for bear: the Cuban missile crisis in October ’62

Veterans Voices

WINCHESTER, VA. (WDVM) — The United States and the Soviet Union came dangerously close to thermo-nuclear war in the fall of 1962 when a high-flying U-2 spy plane took aerial photographs of Soviet missiles like these being installed in Cuba, the Kremlin’s client state.

An aerial intelligence photograph of MRBM Launch Site 1 in San Cristobal, Cuba, showing missile erectors, fuel tank trailers, and oxidizer tank trailers.

The last thing then President John F. Kennedy wanted was war with our former World War Two ally, but there was no way he could tolerate nuclear missiles being pointed at American cities.

Kennedy was presented with two options; an air attack by six B-47 bombers or a Naval blockade. JFK chose the latter initially.

The naval blockade prevented the Soviets from shipping any more missiles to Cuba, but it did nothing about the hundreds of missiles already in Cuba.

Kennedy went on nationwide television on October 26, 1962 to inform the American public about the U-2 photos and the danger of having Soviet nuclear missiles pointed at major U.S. cities.

JFK told his fellow Americans, “The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”

While Kennedy was speaking from the Oval Office, the U.S. military went to DefCon-3, a heightened state of alert. Strategic Air Command [SAC] bombers at bases like Plattsburgh, New York were loaded with nuclear weapons in case Washington went to war with the Kremlin over those missiles.

B-47 Stratojets were the premier strike aircraft in SAC’s inventory in the 1960s before B-52s Superfortresses shoved Stratojets aside in 1965.

Lt. Charles Pinkham, a 1958 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who feared flying Navy fighters off aircraft carriers like his classmate, John McCain, took a commission in the United States Air Force, and flew B-47s with the 593rd Bomb Squadron based at Plattsburgh.

Pinkham, who retired from USAF as a Lieutenant Colonel, talked about the day his three-man crew was ordered to penetrate Soviet airspace.

“Not many Air Force pilots get a chance to be involved in something that is as close to the front lines as this,” said Pinkham as he showed me the “war room” his wife was putting together in an upstairs bedroom.

The four weapons Pinkham’s plane carried in its bomb bay were what they called, “Tac Nukes,” low-yield weapons that are primarily used against troop and tank formations, not population centers. When I asked him if Moscow was ever in his crosshairs, Pinkham said, “No, No it was not. I guess we didn’t feel we had to go that deep.” But his wife, Jan, standing off camera, corrected her husband.

“At one time you told me your target was Moscow,” said Mrs. Pinkham. Charlie hung his head, and muttered, “Yeah.” But he said the target, a command and control center, was located well outside of the Soviet capitol, “Not Downtown.” And it should be pointed out that B-47s didn’t drop a single bomb during the Cold War.

The Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end on the evening of October 26, 1962 when the U.S. State Department received a telexed letter to President Kennedy from Soviet Chairman Nikita Khruschev.

Pinkham’s B-47 bomber was recalled and both sides stepped back from the abyss of a nuclear winter.

It was already winter at Northeast Cape air station on St. Lawrence island in the Bering Sea of Alaska.

I was stationed there at a distant early warning site about 120 miles from Siberia. We were the proverbial “Canary in the coal mine.” our mission was to monitor Soviet activity in Siberia and notify the Alaskan air command if soviet long-range bombers were headed toward Anchorage and other cities like Seattle to the south.

We thought the Russians were coming the night some reindeer on the island got tangled up in our antenna field, causing sparks to light up the night like headlights on armored vehicles heading our way.

I was part of a defense team that was issued ‘live’ ammunition and grenades. As I left the armory, I couldn’t help but wonder if my 20th birthday I celebrated on October 18 would be my last if Russian special forces attacked our lightly-armed radar site.

But that didn’t happen and life returned to normal on the “Rock,” the nickname we gave St. Lawrence island, the last section of the so-called “ancient landbridge” between Asia and North America.

Northeast Cape no longer exists. What couldn’t be salvaged, like those big screens behind me, were buried or burned. But in my dreams, I can see the tv station in a small building just to the right of the RCA screens that I operated 12 hours a day, seven days a week for the princely sum of $90 a month.

But I learned a trade that 60 years later I am still able to enjoy at WDVM-25.

In addition to co-anchoring the morning news, I also host “Veterans Voices,” the award-winning monthly special on WDVM-25.

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