CHAPTER TEN

Shootdown

10:12 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (9:12 A.M. HAVANA)

After taking off from McCoy Air Force Base, Rudolf Anderson flew down the east coast of Florida. Reaching his cruising height of seventy-two thousand feet, twice the altitude of a commercial airliner, he could see the earth curving away beneath him. Even though it was still midmorning, the skies began to blacken as he entered the upper layers of the stratosphere. American air defenses had been warned about the mysterious plane, but were not allowed to contact him. The U-2 pilot sent a coded signal forty-seven minutes after takeoff as he exited American airspace. He had been instructed to maintain radio silence until he reentered American airspace a few minutes after noon.

From the cockpit of the U-2, Anderson could see the sandy white beaches of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, one of Hemingway's favorite fishing spots. His flight would take him on a diagonal slant across Cuba over the town of Camaguey. He would make a left turn over the SAM site at Manzanillo on Cuba's southern coast, and follow the Sierra Maestra Mountains past Guantanamo to the eastern tip of the island. He would then make another sharp left turn, heading back toward Florida.

As Anderson entered Cuban airspace over Cayo Coco, his U-2 was picked up and tracked by Soviet air defenses. Soviet officers made a note of the time he entered--9:12 local time--and alerted the rest of the air defense system.

Anderson switched on his camera as he headed for the first SAM site outside the little town of Esmeralda. He could feel a familiar series of thumps from the camera bay beneath him as the camera swung back and forth from horizon to horizon, clicking away furiously. Making a photo run was similar to making a bombing run: the pilot's main task was to keep the "platform" as steady as possible as he flew over the target. The camera was a monstrous piece of equipment, with a focal length of thirty-six inches. When fully loaded, it contained roughly a mile of film. In order to maintain the balance of the aircraft, the film was sliced into two nine-inch-wide strips that were spooled in opposite directions and later reassembled.

Thump, thump, thump went the camera, as the U-2 passed over Esmeralda at 9:17 local time. In Washington, it was 10:17.

10:18 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27

The morning ExComm session had been under way in the Cabinet Room of the White House for just seven minutes when Anderson entered Cuban airspace. It began, as usual, with an intelligence briefing from McCone. There was a brief discussion about stopping the Grozny. McNamara then began outlining a plan for round-the-clock surveillance of the Soviet missile sites. Eight U.S. Navy Crusaders would take off shortly from Key West; another eight would be dispatched in the afternoon. These flights would be followed by the first nighttime reconnaissance mission by U.S. Air Force planes, which would illuminate the missile sites with brilliant flares.

An aide handed the president a flash news item that had just been torn off the Associated Press ticker. He scanned it quickly, and read it aloud:

BULLETIN

MOSCOW, OCT. 27 (AP)--PREMIER KHRUSHCHEV TOLD PRESIDENT KENNEDY IN A MESSAGE TODAY HE WOULD WITHDRAW OFFENSIVE WEAPONS FROM CUBA IF THE UNITED STATES WITHDREW ITS ROCKETS FROM TURKEY.

27 OCT 1018A

"Hmmm," objected a startled Bundy, the national security adviser. "He didn't."

"That's how it's read by both of the associations that have put it out so far," said Ted Sorensen. The Reuters bulletin was timed 1015, three minutes earlier. It was worded almost identically.

"He didn't..."

"He didn't really say that, did he?"

"No, no."

As was often the case, Kennedy was one step ahead of his aides. Khrushchev had made no mention of a possible Cuba-Turkey swap in the private message that he had sent the previous day via the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. But it was quite possible that this was an entirely new proposal. The Soviets might have just upped the ante. That would change everything.

"He may be putting out another letter," Kennedy speculated. He called out to his press secretary. "Pierre? Pierre?"

Pierre Salinger stuck his head around the door.

"That wasn't in the letter we received, was it?"

"No, I read it pretty carefully. It doesn't read that way to me."

"Well, let's just sit tight on it." As the ExComm members waited for more news from the wire services, Kennedy turned his attention back to the surveillance flights. He had some doubts about the nighttime mission, the first of its kind over Cuba. It was difficult to predict how the Soviets and Cubans would react to the Air Force pyrotechnics. Bundy and McNamara thought it was important to "keep the heat" on. Work on the missile sites was continuing day and night. Swayed by the arguments of his aides, JFK gave tentative approval to the proposed night flights.

"It's all right with me," he said finally.

But he quickly injected a qualification. "I think we might have one more conversation about it, however. At about six o'clock, just in case during the day we get something important."

"All right, sir," agreed McNamara.

10:22 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (9:22 A.M. HAVANA)

The Soviet air defense system for eastern Cuba was headquartered in Camaguey, an old colonial town known as "the Maze" because of its intricate street pattern. The division staff had moved into expropriated church buildings in the city center. Their combat command post was about a mile outside town, in a two-story mansion built as a sports and hunting club for the local business elite prior to the revolution.

The ground floor of the command post was dominated by a huge screen, about fifteen feet high and thirty feet wide. The screen had been blank for weeks. Air defense units had been instructed to keep their radars turned off in order to avoid revealing their positions and capabilities to the Americans. When the radars were finally switched on, late Friday night, the screen at the command post lit up with potential targets. Air defense officers could see U.S. Navy planes taking off and landing at Guantanamo Bay and U.S. Air Force planes patrolling the periphery of the island.

As the night wore on, the atmosphere became increasingly tense. Word had filtered down from headquarters in El Chico that an American attack was likely overnight, probably before dawn. All SAM missile sites were placed on a six-minute alert, meaning that they had to be able to launch their missiles within six minutes of receiving an order. Duty officers were issued with personal firearms, helmets, ammunition, hand grenades, and dry rations. The senior officers of the division all spent the night at the command post, ready for immediate action. Everybody was dressed in civilian clothes. Most of the officers wore white shirts, black pants, and boots; ordinary soldiers wore checkered shirts.

The division commander, Colonel Georgi Voronkov, left the command post for his headquarters around eight in the morning. There was still no sign of an American attack, and he needed to get some breakfast and some rest. He remained in touch with his subordinates via radio and a scrambled telephone connection.

Air defense radars had located an American U-2 entering Cuban airspace in the Cayo Coco area shortly after nine. The plane was flying in a southeasterly direction. It passed directly over Camaguey at 9:22 a.m., but was flying too high to be easily visible from the ground.

The American plane showed up as a pulsating dot on the large screen. It failed to respond to a "friend or foe" identification challenge. Air defense controllers labeled the plane "Target Number 33."

10:30 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27

Kennedy had guessed right. The Soviet premier had written a second letter, posing a new condition for the withdrawal of his missiles from Cuba. Unlike the earlier message, this one was being broadcast to the world over Radio Moscow.

The mere mention of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey irritated the president. He was angry at Khrushchev for cynically raising the stakes at the very moment when the two superpowers seemed to be groping toward a solution to the crisis. But he was also angry with his aides for failing to prepare the Turks for the possible removal of the Jupiters, and making a shibboleth out of NATO solidarity. And he was angry at himself for having agreed to deploy the already obsolescent weapons in the first place.

Everybody acknowledged that the Jupiters were "a pile of junk," in McNamara's phrase. The missiles themselves were squat and fairly short. From Cigli Air Base on Turkey's western coast, the missiles could land a 1.44-megaton nuclear warhead--one hundred times the power of the Hiroshima bomb--on Moscow in just under seventeen minutes. The problem with the Jupiters was that they were deployed above the ground, on unprotected sites. Before they could be fired, they had to be fueled with liquid oxygen, a procedure that took at least fifteen minutes. Unlike the Soviet missiles in Cuba, they could not easily be moved to new launch positions. This made them easy targets for a preemptive strike, if the Kremlin suspected that the United States was about to go to war.

It had taken four years, and a lot of diplomatic arm-twisting, to find a home for the Jupiters. Since their range was limited to 1,700 miles, there was no point deploying them in the United States. Eisenhower felt in retrospect that "it would have been better to dump them in the ocean instead of trying to dump them on our allies." Eventually, Turkey and Italy agreed to accept them, and they became fully operational in March 1962.

Unlike the Italians, who only accepted the missiles as a favor to Washington, the Turks regarded the outdated Jupiters as a symbol of national prestige. U.S. Air Force officers retained control over the warheads, but the missiles themselves were transferred to Turkish custody on October 22, the very day that Kennedy went on television to announce the blockade of Cuba. Turkish crews were trained to fire them. The weapon's gleaming white facade bore a Turkish flag and a not-very-subtle depiction of a mushroom cloud with an arrow through it. Shielded at the base by large metal skirts, the Jupiters resembled giant minarets.

Kennedy was so concerned about the Jupiters that he issued a secret instruction to American officers to destroy or physically disable the missiles rather than risk their use without his authorization. The Jupiters were meant to serve as a nuclear trip wire, linking the security of Turkey and other NATO countries irrevocably to the security of the United States. But Kennedy worried that a Soviet attack on the missiles might trigger nuclear war automatically, without any presidential input. A senior Pentagon official, Paul Nitze, assured him that this was not the case, but he remained skeptical. "I don't think we should take the Chiefs' word on that one, Paul," he had insisted.

The ExComm had considered the possibility of a Turkey-Cuba missile trade almost from the start. Kennedy agreed with McNamara that Khrushchev's "price" for withdrawing his missiles from Cuba was likely to be the removal of American weaponry from Turkey and Italy. He had even asked Sorensen to draft a letter offering Khrushchev such a deal; but it was never sent. The president did not want to be seen to bargain under duress, and his advisers began raising political objections. The Friday letter from Khrushchev, combined with the unofficial Soviet approach to John Scali, led everybody to hope that a swap would not be necessary.

With his finely tuned political antennae, Kennedy sensed immediately that Khrushchev's formal offer of a Turkey-Cuba missile trade would be greeted favorably by European public opinion. His advisers believed it would be politically disastrous to abandon the Turks. The president found himself in a minority of one on the ExComm, with only tepid support from Bobby.

"We're going to be in an insupportable position on this matter if this becomes his proposal," Kennedy told his aides. "He's got us in a pretty good spot here. Because most people would regard this as a not unreasonable proposal."

"But what most people, Mr. President?" Bundy wanted to know.

"I think you're gonna have it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in Cuba, against these sites...when he's saying, 'If you get yours out of Turkey, we'll get ours out of Cuba.' I think you've got a very tough one here."

"I don't see why we pick that track, when he's offered us the other track in the last twenty-four hours."

Kennedy interrupted his national security adviser impatiently. "Well, he's now offered us a new one!"

Taylor came to Bundy's support. "You think the public one is serious when he has a private one?"

"Yes! We have to assume that this is their new and latest position, and it's a public one."

Nitze speculated that Khrushchev might be pursuing two tracks at once: a private track "related solely to Cuba," and a public track designed to confuse public opinion "and divide us with additional pressures."

"It's possible," JFK conceded.

Bundy was emerging as the spokesman for the hawks. He warned that the U.S. position would "come apart very fast" if "we accept the notion of the trade at this stage." Talking to the Turks about withdrawing the missiles was tantamount to "trying to sell our allies for our own interests."

"That would be the view in all of NATO," Bundy lectured. "Now it's irrational and it's crazy, but it's a terribly powerful fact." Besides, "the problem is Cuba. The Turks are not a threat to the peace."

Kennedy cut the discussion short. Before deciding how to respond to Khrushchev, the White House should issue a statement drawing attention to contradictions in the Soviet position. He was still concerned that "you're going to find a lot of people who will find this is a rather reasonable position."

"That's true," acknowledged Bundy.

"Let's not kid ourselves."

In Moscow, the official government newspaper Izvestia was rolling off the presses. The editors had remade the front page at the last moment to include Khrushchev's latest message to Kennedy acknowledging the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and offering to withdraw them, if the United States withdrew its missiles from Turkey.

"Keeping the peace is the main goal of the government of the USSR," the newspaper declared.

Unfortunately for Izvestia's credibility, there was nothing to be done about the commentary on page two, which had gone to press many hours in advance. The writer accused the United States of concocting stories about Soviet missile bases in Cuba. He poured scorn on the notion of a Turkey-Cuba missile swap as a cynical public relations initiative by the "Pentagon propaganda machine."

11:16 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (10:16 A.M. HAVANA)

The Soviet generals on duty in the underground command post at El Chico had been following the tracking reports on "Target Number 33" with mounting concern. After overflying Camaguey, it had made a 130-degree left turn over Manzanillo on the southeastern coast of Cuba. From there, it had flown along the northern foothills of the Sierra Maestra toward Guantanamo Bay. The island's highest mountain range had been a refuge for Castro and his barbudos during the war against Batista and still bristled with secret fortifications, artillery positions, and armed camps.

The spy plane had almost certainly photographed the forward cruise missile positions near Guantanamo now equipped with tactical nuclear warheads aimed at the American naval base. The latest tracking data showed that the U-2 had made a sharp left turn at the eastern end of the island, and was flying along the northern Cuban coast back toward Florida. If the intruder was permitted to exit Cuban airspace, the Americans would soon possess up-to-date intelligence on Soviet military positions in eastern Cuba, including the plan to wipe out Guantanamo.

General Pliyev had left the command post to get some rest. In his absence, decisions were being taken by two of his deputies. Lieutenant General Stepan Grechko had overall responsibility for Soviet air defenses; Major General Leonid Garbuz was the deputy commander in chief for military plans. Both men knew that Pliyev had informed Moscow of his intention to shoot down American planes if an attack seemed imminent. They also knew that Castro had ordered Cuban anti-aircraft batteries to open fire on low-level planes. It was getting difficult to distinguish between reconnaissance flights and the start of an American bombing raid. A devastating U.S. attack was expected at any moment. The standing rules of engagement appeared to authorize the use of any weapons short of nuclear missiles to defend Soviet troops on Cuba.

"Our guest has been up there for over an hour," Grechko complained. "I think we should give the order to shoot it down, as it is discovering our positions in depth."

"We mustn't allow our military secrets to fall into the hands of the Pentagon," agreed Garbuz.

The two generals tried to call Pliyev by phone, but he could not be reached. In the meantime, the tracking reports showed that the U-2 had turned toward the north, and would soon be leaving Cuban airspace. There was not a moment to lose.

"Very well," said Grechko. "Let's take responsibility ourselves."

They dispatched a coded order to the air defense division based in Camaguey, three hundred miles to the east. It was timed 10:16 in Havana, 11:16 a.m. in Washington.

"Destroy Target Number Thirty-three."

In Washington, at the White House, the president had stepped out of the Cabinet Room to make some telephone calls. In his absence, other members of the ExComm were speculating about the reason for the sudden shift in signals from Moscow. It was difficult to explain why Khrushchev was now demanding the removal of American missiles from Turkey after his emotional-sounding letter on Friday fretting about "the knot of war."

"We had one deal in the letter, now we've got a different deal," complained McNamara. "How can we negotiate with somebody who changes his deal before we even get a chance to reply?"

"There must have been an overruling in Moscow," speculated Bundy.

Other ExComm members reasoned that the impulsive Khrushchev had probably written the first letter himself and sent it "without clearance" from his colleagues. Perhaps there had been some kind of coup in the Kremlin, with the relatively moderate Khrushchev replaced by hard-liners or forced to do their bidding. Over at the CIA, officials noted that the premier had not been seen in public for two days. Nobody guessed the truth, which was that Khrushchev himself had detected a wavering in the U.S. position and decided to exploit it.

One thing was certain, said Llewellyn Thompson, the ExComm's in-house Kremlinologist. The latest missive from Khrushchev was the official position of the Soviet leadership.

"The Politburo intended this one."

11:17 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (10:17 A.M. HAVANA)

A U.S. Navy Crusader flew over the Soviet command post in El Chico almost at the same time the generals decided to shoot down Target Number 33. Moments later, it joined another reconnaissance plane that had taken a slightly southerly route, over the port of Mariel and an intermediate-range missile site at Guanajay. Antiaircraft guns opened up on the two jets as they skimmed the tops of the palm trees and swung northward, skirting the high-rise buildings of downtown Havana.

The low-level surveillance flights had a dual purpose: they were primarily intelligence-gathering missions, but they were also paving the way for bombing raids. As Robert McNamara explained to the ExComm, it was impossible for the Soviets and Cubans to distinguish a reconnaissance plane from a bomber until they were actually bombed. The goal was to "establish a pattern of operation that...cannot be differentiated from an attack." The reconnaissance missions had the effect of reducing the warning time of a real attack to practically zero.

As the Crusaders were nearing the Cuban capital, another pair of jets entered Cuban territory over Mariel and headed westward toward the missile sites clustered around San Cristobal. The pilots got a clear view of the frantic activity below, and captured much of it on film. The canvas covers had been taken off many of the missile launchers. In some cases, the missiles were sitting on their launchers, but still in a horizontal position. Soviet soldiers were scrambling to finish the arched-roof storage bunkers for the nuclear warheads. Men dressed in checkered shirts were digging foxholes and trenches. Bulldozers and dump trucks were improving the roads leading to the launching positions.

Approaching the last of the missile sites, the pilots could see Cuban defenders running across a muddy field to their antiaircraft guns. Large paving stones had been placed in the mud to provide a pathway to the guns. A radar made a futile attempt to lock onto the moving target. By the time the Cubans swiveled their guns and trained them on the Crusaders, it was already too late. The Navy jets had disappeared in a cloud of exhaust.

At the R-12 missile site near Sagua la Grande, Soviet soldiers fired pistols at the Navy jets. More experienced officers shook their heads in disbelief. "First of all, don't shoot at planes from a standing position," a major named Troitsky, who was chief of the chemical defense unit, lectured the greenhorns. "Second, don't use your pistol to shoot at a plane."

Even in normal times, there was an almost hallucinatory quality to life in Castro's Cuba. The sense of living in a dreamworld was heightened during the missile crisis when Cuba--and 7 million Cubans--was threatened with nuclear annihilation. The island was the center of international attention. At the same time, it was disconnected from the rest of the world, and functioned according to its own peculiar rhythms.

The few foreigners left in Havana were amazed by the calm in the eye of the hurricane. "The people at large show neither enthusiasm or panic," reported Herbert Marchant, the British ambassador. "They have been buying up stocks of such things as paraffin, petroleum, coffee, but there has been no frenzied rush on the shops, and food supplies still seem to be adequate. Many fewer people than usual appear on the streets, but it has been raining heavily." Apart from the antiaircraft guns along the shoreline, there was few public signs of serious military preparations. To the Italian journalist Saverio Tutino, Havana was "a city of children playing with pistols."

"Of course we were frightened, but it was more complex than that," recalled Edmundo Desnoes, the Cuban writer who later emigrated to the United States. "When you are in great danger and you feel righteous, it balances out somehow. Besides, we did not really know what it meant to be destroyed. We had no experience of World War II. The only images we had of massive destruction came from the movies."

The Argentinean journalist Adolfo Gilly was unable to detect any sign of panic as he strolled through the streets of Havana on Saturday morning. He dropped in on the Ministry of Industry, hoping to meet with Che Guevara, but he was in Pinar del Rio. An assistant filled Gilly in on the latest news. "We are expecting the attack this afternoon between three and four o'clock," he said, as if discussing the weather or the arrival of a foreign delegation. On the way down in the elevator, the journalist overheard a militiaman tell a colleague that he had been unable to shave that morning.

"It seems they'll be here very soon," the second militiaman replied. "Your shave will have to wait until after the war."

Returning to his room in Vedado, Gilly noticed that the royal poinciana trees in his street had burst into bloom. A beautiful girl was walking along the pavement beneath the brilliant flame red blossoms. Gilly felt a sudden stab of nostalgia for a world that seemed on the point of annihilation. "What a pity," he found himself thinking, "that all this beauty is going to disappear between three and four o'clock this afternoon!"

Havana seemed more timeless, more precarious, more enchanting than ever. The city was like Venice sinking languorously into its lagoon or Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation, a place of heartbreaking beauty threatened with doom. All that remained was to savor the moment.

The Cuban government had finally begun to make some halfhearted attempts at civil defense by announcing the formation of neighborhood first-aid teams. Local defense committees were ordered to fashion improvised stretchers out of sheets and burlap sacks. First-aid manuals were in such short supply that anybody who owned one was instructed to hand it over to the authorities. A qualified health professional would head each first-aid team, "whether or not he is a member of a revolutionary organization." Hospitals turned away all but emergency cases to leave room for casualties in the event of an invasion. Officials offered a stream of instructions on how to prepare for American air raids:

* Keep two or three buckets of sand in the house to extinguish fires. Cover glass windows with gummed paper.

* Keep a small piece of wood handy to place between teeth when bombing begins.

* Do not gather in groups, as there will be more victims from a single explosion.

* Do not hoard food. Storing food for more than two or three days will cause artificial shortages which helps the enemy.

Along the Malecon, crowds gathered to cheer ships entering Havana Harbor after passing through the American naval blockade. Every so often people would be drenched with a great spume of seawater from the mixture of wind and waves lashing against the seawall. Robert Williams, the founder of Radio Free Dixie, led a march along the waterfront to greet several hundred East German tourists who had arrived in Havana on board one of the ships. He carried a placard reading: "Love Thy Neighbor, Jack?"

On a hill above Vedado, rumors of a possible American invasion were seeping through the thick stone walls of the Castillo del Principe, a colonial fortress that had served as a prison since the days of the Spaniards. The prisoners included some of the exiles captured the previous year at the Bay of the Pigs, mixed in with murderers and common criminals. As a security precaution, prisoners were no longer permitted to receive visits from relatives. Guards spread the word that they had placed dynamite in the lower floors of the massive white castle. If the Marines landed and tried to free the captives, everybody would be blown sky-high.

11:19 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (10:19 A.M. HAVANA)

It had been raining much of the night at the SAM site commanded by Major Ivan Gerchenov. His soldiers had got what rest they could in the water-logged trenches. Everybody was on edge. The battery had been on full alert since late the previous evening when it received the order to switch on its radars. There were rumors that the Americans were planning a paratroop attack in the vicinity of the nearby town of Banes.

The radar screens pulsated with bleeping dots.

"Follow Target Number 33."

Gerchenov ordered Combat Alert No. 1. The missile crews had practiced the drill many times. They transferred the missile from the transporters to the launchers, attaching the necessary cables. The Spoon Rest acquisition radar was already tracking the target. An officer called out height, speed, distance and azimuth data. The gunners raised the elevation of the launcher until the missile was aimed at the target.

The SAM site was laid out in a hexagonal Star of David formation, with the command post in the center of a fortified ring of six missile launchers. Gerchenov kept his eyes on the Fruit Set fire-control radar, which was receiving continually updated target information from the Spoon Rest radar. Before pushing the button, he needed one last instruction from regimental headquarters at Victoria de las Tunas, seventy-five miles away. The chain of command followed the geography of the island. The regiment received its orders from division headquarters in Camaguey, another seventy miles away, which was in turn waiting for a decision from El Chico.

Suddenly, a new order crackled across the radio. Despite the heavy rain, the connection was clear.

"Destroy Target Number 33. Use two missiles."

There was a whoosh as the first missile roared into the air, chasing the distant contrail in the sky at three times the speed of sound. A second missile followed a few seconds afterward. They locked onto the target through radar, accelerating in a graceful arc. Watching the radar screen, Gerchenov could see two little dots honing in on a larger dot, gathering speed as they moved across the screen. After a few seconds, the dots merged into one and disintegrated. There was a sudden poof of light in the darkened sky. The major could see pieces of wreckage falling to earth.

"Target Number 33 is destroyed," he reported at 10:19 a.m.

Most of the wreckage fell to earth eight miles from the Banes SAM site. One wing of the plane ended up in the center of a little village called Veguitas. A mangled and charred section of fuselage containing Major Anderson's body landed in a sugarcane field a few hundred yards away. The tail of the U-2 glided onward to the sea.

Reconstructing the incident later, American investigators concluded that a proximity fuse had detonated the SAM missile as it closed in on the spy plane, spraying shrapnel in all directions. Several pieces of shrapnel sliced through the cockpit, piercing the pilot's partial-pressure suit and the back of his helmet. Rudolf Anderson was probably killed instantly. Had he somehow survived the initial explosion, he would certainly have died a few seconds later, from the loss of oxygen and the shock of depressurization.

11:30 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (10:30 A.M. HAVANA)

The column of trucks transporting the nuclear warheads from Bejucal to Sagua la Grande had stopped twice during the night to permit the drivers to get some rest. Everything had gone smoothly. Cuban villagers greeted the slow-moving military convoy during the hours of daylight with shouts of "Que vivan los sovieticos!" "Fidel-Khrushchev!" and "Patria o muerte!" But none of the onlookers had any idea what was hidden in the boxy, humpbacked storage vans.

image

The convoy was within sixty miles of its destination when U.S. Navy planes flew low over the central highway. The Americans had still not succeeded in locating the nuclear warheads, despite a frantic search effort. One of the morning reconnaissance missions passed directly over the main nuclear warhead storage facility outside Bejucal, which CIA analysts were still describing as a "munitions storage site." "Bunker not seen," the photo interpreters reported. "No change in visible portion." The previous day, Air Force jets had photographed the storage site for the Luna warheads, six miles east of Bejucal, without finding anything new. "No apparent change," read the photo interpretation report on the Managua bunker. "Single fence around site is supported by Y-shaped posts. Vines have grown on fence in some sections."

The shipment of nuclear warheads to Sagua la Grande meant that the missiles were almost ready to fire. The commander of the missile troops, Major General Statsenko, was pleased with the rapid progress of the last couple of days. By juggling his supplies and diverting some fueling equipment, he had deployed all twenty-four intermediate-range missiles three days earlier than planned. The last remaining battery near San Cristobal had achieved "combat readiness" on Saturday morning.

On the other hand, hitches had occurred in the plan to circumvent American surveillance by moving at least some of the missiles to reserve positions. The sites had been surveyed in advance and were already aligned to targets in the United States. The R-12 missiles could have been transported to the backup sites in a few hours, but there was a shortage of prefabricated launching pads. Without the heavy concrete pads, the missiles would topple over when fired. In ordering the redeployment on Wednesday evening, Statsenko had hoped that his engineers could get around this problem by constructing makeshift pads. But the pads were still not ready by Saturday morning. At a critical moment in the crisis, there were no backup positions.

In the meantime, Statsenko was picking up signs of mounting tension in the Kremlin. The Soviet High Command had received the message reiterating the prohibition on firing nuclear weapons "without approval from Moscow." This was followed by an instruction to halt all daytime work at the missile sites.

"You are irritating the United Nations," the order read. "Conduct thorough camouflage, work only at night."

During the five days that Che Guevara had been living in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains, his guards had done their best to ensure him some privacy. They built a makeshift hut for him in a corner of the soaring cave known as Cueva de los Portales. Constructed from concrete blocks, the hut included a study for Che and a room for his closest aides. The comandante slept on a simple metal bed beneath a sloping stone ceiling, with an inhaler by his side to ward off frequent asthma attacks. A secret tunnel provided an escape route down the mountain in the event of an American paratroop drop. Just outside the cave, there was a chair and a stone table, where Che played chess with his aides.

The legendary revolutionary had not spent all that much time in the cave since his arrival late on Monday night. He had traveled all round western Cuba, planning ambushes for the invader, inspecting militia units, meeting with Soviet officers. On one such outing, he had visited a Soviet air defense unit in Pinar del Rio. The sight of the "bearded, energetic man dressed in a jump suit and black beret" had "an almost electric effect" on the Soviet troops, who staged "a brilliant demonstration" of how to prepare a SAM missile for firing. A Soviet general was impressed by "the instant rapport our soldiers felt with Guevara, a measure of the attachment they had formed to the Cuban cause."

Whatever his human qualities, Che was also the most fanatical of Castro's aides. How many people would die in the coming war with America was less important to him than the struggle between the opposing ideological systems. In a newspaper editorial written during the missile crisis but published posthumously, he made clear he saw only two possible futures for mankind: "the definitive victory of socialism or its retrogression under the nuclear victory of imperialist aggression." Che had already made his choice: "the path of liberation even when it may cost millions of atomic victims."

The tranquillity of Che's mountain hideout was shattered by the roar of a pair of U.S. Navy jets skimming across the palm tops. They came from the south, following the line of the San Diego River that linked the Cueva de los Portales to the missile sites of Pinar del Rio. They flew so low that the Cuban defenders could even see the pilots in their cockpits as the Crusaders flew overhead. Surely, they must have been discovered.

As it turned out, it was a coincidence. The Crusaders were merely returning to Florida after flying over the missile sites at San Cristobal. In order to conserve film, the pilots had turned off their cameras well before they overflew the warren of secret caves. Although the Americans knew that Che had left Havana, they never did discover his real hiding place. The previous day, the CIA had reported that Che had "established a military command post at the town of Corral de la Palma," some fifteen miles to the east of his true location.

At about the same time that the Crusaders roared over Che's hideout, two other jets overflew San Julian Airfield on the western tip of Cuba. From the cockpit, the American pilots could make out an Ilyushin-28 light bomber in the "final stage" of completion, with both of its engines already installed. Another five planes were in various stages of assembly, a couple with just a fuselage. At least twenty-one planes had still not been removed from their crates, which were neatly lined up on the apron. Cranes, earth-moving equipment, and radar vans were scattered around the airfield.

The IL-28s were of great interest to American intelligence because they were known to be nuclear-capable. Their jet engines had been copied from Rolls-Royce turbojets licensed to the Soviets by the British during the aftermath of World War II. The three-man crew consisted of a pilot, bombardier, and rear gunner. The Ilyushin could carry several small bombs, torpedoes, or naval mines, or a single atomic bomb such as the "Tatyana," the Soviet version of the American "Fat Man" dropped on Nagasaki. It had a range of seven hundred miles, enough to reach southern Florida.

By the early sixties, the IL-28 was teetering on the verge of obsolescence and certainly no match for U.S. air defenses. Nevertheless, its nuclear capabilities worried American generals. Hundreds of IL-28s had been stationed in Poland and East Germany during the fifties to spear-head a wave of tactical nuclear strikes against NATO forces in the event of war. The use of tactical nuclear weapons had long been an integral part of Soviet war plans. The Soviets had even dropped a live Tatyana on their own troops during a military exercise in Siberia that was meant to simulate a nuclear war with the United States. Some forty-five thousand officers and soldiers were exposed to fallout from the blast, and many subsequently died of radiation-related illnesses.

American intelligence analysts had tracked the transport of the bombers across the Atlantic by analyzing the shape of the crates on Soviet freighters. Identical crates had been used to ship IL-28s to Egypt several years earlier. When the crates showed up in San Julian, they had requested intensive low-level surveillance to follow the assembly process. What the Americans did not know at the time was that the San Julian planes were never intended for use with tactical nuclear weapons. They were under the control of the Soviet navy, and were equipped with torpedoes and naval mines for use against an invading fleet.

Nuclear-capable IL-28s had been delivered to Cuba, but they were at the other end of the island, at an airfield outside the city of Holguin in Oriente Province. No attempt had been made to unpack them from their crates. The Americans would not become aware of their existence until early November, when they sent a low-level reconnaissance mission over the field. The Holguin squadron consisted of nine bombers under the command of the Soviet air force. Six of them were designed to carry the Tatyana bombs; the remaining three planes would fly in front of the squadron, serving as a decoy to enemy radar systems.

Soviet commanders regarded the IL-28s and the Tatyanas as an unnecessary encumbrance. Khrushchev had sent them to Cuba as an additional means of defense against an invading force. In theory, they could have been used against U.S. troop concentrations. But the Soviets already had more effective tactical nuclear weapons on the island, in the form of the FKR cruise missiles and the Luna rockets. The six Tatyanas were overkill, as the officer responsible for them discovered as soon as he stepped off the Indigirka,the ship that had transported them from Russia. When Lieutenant Colonel Anastasiev asked what he should do with his bombs, he received a dismissive shrug. The officers greeting the Indigirka referred to the Tatyanas as "those things that nobody needs."

After initially taking the Tatyanas to one of Batista's seaside estates, Anastasiev had eventually persuaded his superiors to move them to a more secure location. The new storage place consisted of a tunnel in the nearby mountains protected by some barbed wire and a fence. The security arrangements were rudimentary, but they were an improvement on the padlocked shed by the sea. Equally important, it was easier to control temperature and humidity levels inside the mountain caves. Anastasiev and his men used rounded metal bars to roll the crates containing the 12-kiloton bombs into the tunnel.

Having found a place to store his bombs, Anastasiev went looking for an airfield for the IL-28s. According to the original Defense Ministry plan, they were meant to be based at Santa Clara, in the center of the island. But the Santa Clara field turned out to be totally unsuited to the storage of nuclear weapons. After flying around Cuba for a couple of days, Anastasiev finally settled on the airfield at Holguin. There were earthen bunkers next to the field that could be camouflaged and hermetically sealed. When the IL-28s were assembled, they could be wheeled into the bunkers, along with the Tatyanas.

The next challenge was to transport the Tatyanas from their storage point in western Cuba to Holguin, a journey of five hundred miles. This was the problem that Anastasiev was grappling with on Black Saturday.

If Russian generals had tactical nuclear weapons, American generals wanted them too. The discovery of the Ilyushin light bombers and the nuclear-capable FROG missiles had touched off a new arms race. Even though they had no firm evidence that nuclear warheads had arrived in Cuba, U.S. commanders felt they had to plan for all eventualities. While the rest of the country was focused on the medium-range R-12 missiles, the generals were preparing for a tactical nuclear war, to be fought in and around Cuba.

On Saturday morning, the Joint Chiefs of Staff received a top secret message from the commander in chief of the North American Defense Command describing the threat from the Ilyushins. General John Gerhart was responsible for preventing Soviet bombers from attacking Florida from Cuba. He had deployed HAWK missile batteries along the Florida Keys, but had been forbidden to load the missiles with nuclear warheads. He wanted the policy reversed.

"In the event of an IL-28 raid from Cuba which penetrates U.S. air space, I consider it imperative to use weapons with a maximum kill capability," Gerhart cabled the Pentagon. He asked for clarification of his authority to "declare Cuban/Sino-Soviet tactical aircraft hostile" and advance permission "to use nuclear weapons" against incoming Soviet bombers. The Joint Chiefs assured him that nuclear weapons could be used to destroy hostile aircraft if a "pattern of actions" elsewhere in the air defense system indicated a general "Cuban and Sino-Soviet attack." If the Cubans attacked by themselves, nonnuclear weapons should be used.

The commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Robert Dennison, was worried about the short-range FROG missiles first discovered on October 25 during a low-level reconnaissance flight. If equipped with nuclear warheads, the FROGs could decimate the invading force now heading for Cuba aboard his warships. The admiral proposed equipping "U.S. air and ground forces earmarked for Cuban operations" with "an atomic delivery capability."

The appearance of the FROGs had also alarmed Rear Admiral Edward J. O'Donnell, commander of the Guantanamo Naval Base. He wanted authority to declare "any movement of FROG missiles" into positions threatening the base an "offensive act unacceptable to the United States." The admiral was blissfully unaware of the much more immediate threat from nuclear-armed FKR cruise missiles deployed within a fifteen-mile radius of GITMO.

After earlier discounting the threat from Soviet battlefield nukes, the Joint Chiefs had to rewrite the war plan. They asked for casualty estimates that took into consideration "possibility of enemy use of tactical nuclear weapons." The Cuba invasion force would be supplied with nuclear-capable Honest John rockets, the American equivalent of the Soviet FROG, or Luna. Even though McNamara refused to authorize the deployment of tactical nuclear warheads with the Honest Johns, they could have been delivered very quickly from depots in Florida.

Dozens of Navy and Air Force strike aircraft were already "on call" to attack targets in Cuba with tactical nuclear weapons if hostilities escalated to that level. Two aircraft carriers, the Independence and the Enterprise, were stationed off Jamaica, within 150 miles of Guantanamo Bay. Some forty tactical nuclear bombs were aboard each carrier, ready to load onto A4D Skyhawks. The nuclear cores for the bombs were stored separately on nearby cruisers, a short helicopter ride away. Other nuclear-armed jets belonging to the Tactical Air Command were on fifteen-minute alert at airfields in southern Florida. If all else failed, the Strategic Air Command was ready to obliterate Cuba with 20-megaton weapons dropped from B-47 Stratojets.

The way the Pentagon saw it, these plans were necessary to counter the Soviet reliance on battlefield nuclear weapons. Before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Maxwell Taylor had made a detailed study of Soviet military doctrine. He was alarmed to discover that the standard Soviet plan of attack called for an army group to be equipped with "250 to 300 nuclear weapons." The general had also received reports of a military exercise in the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe in July 1961 during which Soviet troops planned to use as many as seventy-five tactical nuclear weapons in a "surprise first strike" against NATO. Taylor warned of the "emotional resistance in some quarters" against tactical nuclear weapons. In his view, the real issue was not whether to develop such weapons, but how to make them sufficiently small and flexible to permit "a separate stage in escalation short of the use of weapons of mass destruction."

Other Kennedy advisers believed that a limited nuclear war was a contradiction in terms. They recalled an exchange with Dean Acheson soon after the discovery of Soviet missiles on Cuba. Living up to his hard-line reputation, Acheson advocated an immediate air strike against the missile sites. Someone asked how the Soviets would react to such a strike.

"I know the Soviet Union very well," the former secretary of state replied with his trademark confidence. "They will knock out our missiles in Turkey."

"Well, then what do we do?" someone else asked.

"I believe under our NATO treaty, with which I was associated, we would be required to respond by knocking out a missile base inside the Soviet Union."

"Then what would they do?"

By now, Acheson was becoming a little less sure of himself.

"Well," he said with some irritation. "That's when we hope that cooler heads will prevail, and they'll stop and talk."

Other ExComm members felt a "real chill" descend on the room as they listened to the legendary "wise man" of the Truman era. Unwittingly, Acheson had laid bare a somber Cold War truth: it was impossible to know where a "limited" nuclear war would end.

At the same time that U.S. generals were fretting over the threat posed by the IL-28s in Cuba, they were lobbying the White House for an end to restrictions on loading high-yield thermonuclear bombs onto Quick Reaction Alert aircraft in Europe. On Saturday morning, they finally achieved their goal.

In some ways, the F-100 Super Sabre fighter-bombers were analogous to the Ilyushins. They were deployed in front-line NATO countries like Turkey, and could bomb targets inside the Soviet Union with little warning. On the other hand, they were designed to carry much more powerful bombs than the IL-28s and were much faster. A two-stage thermonuclear bomb loaded onto a Super Sabre had several hundred times the destructive power of the relatively crude atomic bombs carried by the Ilyushins. Unlike the three-seater Ilyushins, the F-100s were single-seater aircraft. The bombs were under the physical control of a lone pilot, a violation of the traditional "buddy system."

Concerns about nuclear safety had led Kennedy to refuse permission for loading thermonuclear weapons onto the Super Sabres back in April 1962. Since the weapons were not secured with electronic locking systems, it was impossible to exclude their unauthorized use. The president also worried about inadequate security at some European airfields and the possible theft of American nuclear secrets.

Kennedy's decision frustrated Curtis LeMay and other Air Force generals. They complained it undermined the effectiveness of their war plans. The Super Sabres were responsible for covering thirty-seven "high priority" Soviet bloc targets, mainly airfields in East Germany. Air Force studies claimed that the use of low-yield atomic weapons against these targets would reduce the "average probability of damage" from 90 to 50 percent. This was unacceptable.

As the missile crisis heated up, the generals stepped up their efforts to get the presidential decision reversed, citing "the gravity of the present world situation." This time, they succeeded. Even though electronic locks had still not been installed on the weapons, Kennedy let the Air Force have its way on this occasion. The Joint Chiefs sent a message to the U.S. Air Force commander in Europe authorizing deployment of the weapons.

One of the airfields that hosted the F-100 Super Sabres was Incirlik in Turkey. Nuclear safety at Incirlik was "so loose, it jars your imagination," the commander of the 613th Tactical Fighter Squadron would later recall. "We loaded up everything [and] laid down on a blanket on the pad for two weeks. Planes were breaking down, crews were exhausted." At the time, it seemed inconceivable that an American pilot would fire a nuclear weapon without authorization. In retrospect, "there were some guys you wouldn't trust with a .22 rifle, much less a thermonuclear bomb."

11:46 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (5:46 A.M. HAWAII)

The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress piloted by Major Robert T. Graff had taken off from Hawaii three hours before dawn. It flew westward to Johnston Island, an isolated atoll in the South Pacific, a federal bird refuge that now served as a nuclear test site. On the other side of the world, dozens of similar airplanes were flying toward the Soviet Union with a full load of nuclear bombs as part of the massive airborne alert known as "Chrome Dome." But this mission was different. The flight crew under Major Graff knew for certain that they would be dropping a live 800-kiloton bomb.

The nuclear airdrop in the Pacific was part of Operation Dominic. Angry at the resumption of Soviet testing, Kennedy had given approval for a series of more than thirty atmospheric tests, including several rocket-launched experiments and a firing of a submarine-launched Polaris missile. A successful high-altitude missile test at Johnston on Friday, October 26, had partially made up for a series of setbacks, including a major disaster in July, when a malfunctioning Thor rocket exploded on the launch pad. The rocket complex and adjoining airstrip were demolished, and the entire island contaminated with plutonium. It took nearly three months to clean the place up. Judging by the results of Operation Dominic, airplanes remained a more reliable delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons than missiles.

It was still dark when the B-52 reached the drop zone in the middle of the Pacific, a hundred miles southeast of Johnston. A tiny slither of moon lay close to the horizon. The test had been choreographed like a ballet, with every move carefully rehearsed and timed. From the cockpit of the bomber, flying at forty-five thousand feet, Graff could see the lights of a dozen warships, assigned to monitor the nuclear explosion. Half a dozen other planes packed with sophisticated cameras and dosimeters were arrayed around the target, a U.S. Navy barge with beacons and radar reflectors anchored to the bottom of the ocean.

As the B-52 began a series of racetracklike runs around the target, the pilot radioed wind information to a ballistician in Hawaii whom everybody knew simply as "Kitty." They were testing a new design from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California that made better use of the available space in the bomb casing. To ensure accurate measurements, it was important that the bomb explode at a precise time, height, and location. Surrounded by navigational charts and overflowing ashtrays, Kitty performed her calculations on a slide rule, and radioed back the necessary offsets for the release of the device.

The key member of the crew was the bombardier, Major John C. Neuhan. A quiet loner completely absorbed in the details of his craft, Neuhan was rated the best bombardier in the Eighth Air Force. He had an almost perfect record. His colleagues attributed his success partly to luck, partly to an extraordinary familiarity with his hand-driven equipment. A rudimentary on-board computer operated mechanically. Electronics consisted of vacuum tubes. Neuhan would check the filaments one by one, to see if they had to be replaced.

Graff made three passes over the drop zone, timing each racetrack pattern to take exactly sixteen minutes. Crew members flicked a series of switches and locks to arm the weapon and permit its release. On the fourth pass, Neuhan announced the countdown over the emergency frequency so that everybody in the array could hear it.

"Three minutes--NOW."

"Two minutes--NOW."

"One minute--NOW."

"Thirty seconds--NOW."

"Twenty seconds."

"Ten seconds."

The crew felt a jolt as high-pressure hydraulics snapped the bomb bay doors open behind them. A yellow warning light on the flight panel signaled "Bomb Doors Open."

"RELEASE."

The bombardier used his thumb to press a handheld pickle switch, resembling the button of a video game controller. A gleaming 4-ton oval-shaped canister dropped into the slipstream. Within seconds, three parachutes had deployed to slow the descent of the bomb and allow the B-52 plenty of time to fly through the zone. The navigator started the post-release countdown. The crew closed the thermal curtains in the front of the cockpit, leaving a chink in the center. They turned their heads away. At 87.3 seconds after release, a flash of white light from behind the plane made everyone blink. Several minutes later, they felt a series of gentle shockwaves, as if they had hit a patch of slight turbulence.

The mushroom cloud rose to over sixty thousand feet, dwarfing the retreating bomber. Rabbits placed aboard several of the diagnostic aircraft were blinded by the flash. As the B-52 flew away and the light from the flash subsided, Neuhan looked through the bombsight to check his aim. He was right on target.

A giant moonlike sphere appeared in the sky, with green, violet, and purple streamers running off. The brilliant aurora from the event code-named CALAMITY lingered for a while, then faded into the warm tropical dawn. Nuclear apocalypse had a strange, almost compelling beauty. It was 5:46 a.m. in Hawaii, 11:46 a.m. in Washington, and 6:46 p.m. in Moscow.

On the other side of the world, in the White House, the morning ExComm meeting was about to break up. And in the sky above the Chukot Peninsula, thirteen miles above the surface of the earth, Chuck Maultsby was about to penetrate the border of the Soviet Union.

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