The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred 48 years ago, and Team Hill participated directly and actively throughout. It was an extremely tense, pressure-packed time as the planet came very close to unprecedented all-out war. As usual, combat readiness was the order of the day, but everything was “real world” — devoid of simulation.
By way of background, although confrontation had not generally worked for the communists in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, or the Far East, they still appeared bent on world domination. In 1961, the United States tried unsuccessfully to win back Cuba and the Soviets put up the Berlin Wall, further alienating the nations of the Warsaw Pact and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
While America’s nuclear arms did not prevent such setbacks, whenever the Cold War heated up there was always more than just a lot of activity here. Such was the case during the failed action for Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and construction of the Berlin Wall, and especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
During the so-called missile crisis, America employed a flexible response to persuade, if not force, the Soviets to remove their nuclear-capable missiles, bombers and some 20,000 troops from Cuba. United States military preparations went forward for invasion, if a preferred naval quarantine should fail.
Marines reinforced their base at Guantanamo Bay, six Army divisions went on alert, and the Air Force Reserve augmented active forces with 14 squadrons of transports, including the one here, to help carry combat troops and equipment, if necessary.
Active-duty Air Force RF-101 and Navy F-8 tactical reconnaissance aircraft flew low over Cuba to bear out high-altitude U-2 surveillance photographs, which, on Oct. 14, 1962, had first revealed a ballistic missile launch site near San Cristobal. The Air Force’s Tactical Air Command planned strikes to destroy the missiles and, along with the Army and Navy, spearhead an invasion.
To reduce vulnerability to a surprise Soviet attack, the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) dispersed nuclear-armed B-47s among some 40 airfields, including this one, and put B-52s on airborne alert along with “Looking Glass,” an airborne command and control platform that had become operational in February 1961. All available ICBMs — Atlas, Titan, and the first squadron of Minuteman — were readied for launch.
If war had come, however, the targets of these aircraft and missiles would not have been in Cuba, for when President Kennedy announced the naval quarantine on Oct. 22, 1962, he said, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
He ordered the U.S. armed forces to Defense Condition (DEFCON) 3. On Oct. 23, he ordered SAC to DEFCON 2, while the rest of the armed forces remained at DEFCON 3. SAC remained at DEFCON 2 until Nov. 15, 1962, which was the first and still only time that level actually occurred.
Here SAC stationed eight B-47 jet bombers on nuclear alert, while numerous cargo aircraft transited with primarily supplies and equipment. Most of those flights were launched and recovered at night, unbeknown to many people on base and most off base. Similar to the actions aimed at the Bay of Pigs and Berlin, “Hillfielders” served again to acquire and move personnel and equipment, including hundreds of tons of conventional air munitions, for combat. They also rushed high-priority resources to the Midwest in time for the first operational Minuteman missiles to be ready for launch. Without warheads, those missiles had been assembled at and deployed from this base, beginning nuclear alert duty that continues today.
As planned, the naval blockade went into effect on Oct. 24, 1962. Ships believed to be carrying offensive weapons to Cuba slowed to postpone a face-to-face confrontation. The situation became very dangerous on Oct. 27 as Soviet work continued at the missile sites and a surface-to-air missile hit a U-2 killing USAF Maj. Rudolf Anderson Jr., who had helped to discover the missiles on Oct. 14.
Despite unprecedented international tension, the more violent levels of flexible response — an air attack set for Oct. 30 and subsequent invasion — proved unnecessary because the Soviet Union did not challenge the quarantine and, on Oct. 28, agreed to remove the contested weapons from Cuba.