11:59 A.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (7:59 A.M. ALASKA)
Had Chuck Maultsby kept to his assigned flight track, he should have been landing back at Eielson Air Force Base after a seven-hour fifty-minute return flight to the North Pole. Instead, he was wandering alone through the pitch-black stratosphere in a flimsy airplane, like a blind man stumbling through the dark. The northern lights had disappeared, but the stars had changed positions, and he had no idea where he was. Strange things kept happening to him that he found difficult to explain.
An hour before landing at Eielson, he had been scheduled to rendezvous with the Duck Butt air rescue plane circling above Barter Island, off the northern coast of Alaska. They had promised to "leave a light on in the window" for him to see on his return, but there had been no sign of them at the appointed time. He was unable either to reach Duck Butt or pick up the radio beacon on Barter, even though both should have been within range. He began broadcasting messages in the clear, hoping someone would steer him in the right direction. Perhaps he had never even reached the North Pole. Dazzled by the aurora borealis, his fixes had been based on "wishful hoping" rather than definite sightings of stars.
Suddenly, Duck Butt came on the line, over the single sideband radio. They said they would fire flares every five minutes, starting immediately. The U-2 driver strained his eyes, but he could see nothing. They fired another flare. Still nothing. Alone in the vast blackness, Maultsby had difficulty fighting off "a panic attack." He was "either many miles east or west of Barter Island...but which?"
A few minutes earlier, the navigator from the Duck Butt air rescue plane had called again, and asked him if he could identify a star. On the horizon ahead was the familiar shape of Orion, the Hunter. It was easily identifiable by the three bright stars in the middle that made up Orion's Belt. A little higher up in the sky, on Orion's right shoulder, was the large red star Betelgeuse. Further down, on the constellation's left knee, lay Rigel, one of the brightest stars in the sky.
"I can see Orion about fifteen degrees left of the nose of the aircraft," Maultsby radioed back.
There was a pause as navigators aboard Duck Butt and at Eielson consulted almanacs and star charts to figure out the position of the missing U-2. After some hurried calculations, the Duck Butt navigator called back with an order to steer ten degrees left.
Shortly after receiving this instruction, Maultsby got another call over his sideband radio. This time, the voice was unfamiliar. Whoever it was used his correct call sign, and told him to steer thirty degrees right. Within the space of a few minutes, Maultsby had received calls from two different radio stations, ordering him to turn in opposite directions.
"What the hell is going on?" he asked himself.
The befuddled pilot did not know it yet, but he had flown over the border of the Soviet Union at 7:59 a.m. Alaska time (11:59 a.m. in Washington). He had hit landfall on one of the most desolate places on earth, on the northern shore of the Chukot Peninsula, more than one thousand miles off course.
As he crossed the border, at least six Soviet interceptor jets took off from two different airfields in Chukotka. Their mission: to shoot down the intruder plane.
More than four thousand miles away, at the White House in Washington, President Kennedy walked down the hallway from the Cabinet Room to meet with a delegation of state governors concerned about civil defense. He was still focused on how to reply to the latest message from Khrushchev and had no idea about the drama unfolding in the skies above Chukotka. He struck the assembled governors as "unusually somber and harried," but this did not stop them from wondering aloud whether he was being "forceful enough" with the Soviet leader.
Governor Edmund Brown of California was particularly blunt. "Mr. President," he asked. "Many people wonder why you changed your mind about the Bay of Pigs and aborted the attack. Will you change your mind again?"
Kennedy made clear that he was irritated by the second-guessing. "I chose the quarantine because I wondered if our people are ready for the bomb," he replied evenly.
Many governors felt that the federal authorities had not done enough to protect Americans from the threat of the bomb. "It was all so empty," one of them complained, referring to the U.S. civil defense program. After years of propaganda about "Duck and Cover" and bomb shelters in everyone's backyard, Americans were almost numb to the dangers facing them. The mere mention of "civil defense" at a McNamara press conference earlier in the week had triggered chortles of laughter from the assembled journalists. Bert the Turtle, the cheery cartoon character invented by the Truman administration to help children defend themselves against the atomic bomb, had become a national joke.
There was a turtle by the name of Bert
And Bert the turtle was very alert;
When danger threatened him [firecracker goes off]
He never got hurt
He knew just what to do...
He ducked! [whistling sound]
And covered! [Bert retreats into shell]
Civil defense films showed pictures of children diving under their desks and rolling themselves into a ball. Adults were taught similar drills in offices and factories, but many people questioned their effectiveness. "Upon seeing the brilliant flash of a nuclear explosion, bend over and place your head firmly between your legs," advised a poster pasted to the walls of student dorms. "Then kiss your ass goodbye."
Despite a massive public relations campaign promoting shelters, little had been accomplished by the fall of 1962. Civil defense officials reported to the governors that shelter signs had been posted on fewer than 800 public buildings across the country, providing a total of 640,000 spaces. Emergency food supplies were located in only 112 buildings. If the Soviets attacked that weekend, there was shelter and rations available for just 170,000 Americans.
The possibility of Soviet retaliation against American civilians worried the president as he reviewed plans for a U.S. invasion of Cuba. There was a risk that the Soviets would fire their missiles rather than permit their capture. By White House calculations, 92 million Americans lived within range of the missiles already deployed on the island. Earlier in the week, Kennedy had asked his top civil defense official about the feasibility of evacuating Miami "before attacking the missile sites." Assistant Defense Secretary Steuart Pittman felt that an evacuation was impractical and would only create "a hell of a mess." The idea was dropped.
In the absence of government action, ordinary Americans were left to fend for themselves. Waves of panic buying swept through some cities, but bypassed others. Residents of Los Angeles rushed to local supermarkets following a rumor that they would be closed if war began. Grocery stores reported a 20 percent jump in sales in Miami after a local official said everyone should maintain a two-week supply of food. There was a run on bottled water in Washington; the dean of the National Cathedral ordered the basement to be flooded as an emergency reservoir. Gun stores in Texas and Virginia recorded brisk sales of rifles and handguns. A Richmond gun dealer explained that Virginians were arming themselves not against Russians, but against "city dwellers who might seek shelter in rural areas."
12:15 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27
While the president was closeted with the governors, his spokesman called a dozen journalists into his West Wing office. Kennedy was worried that Khrushchev's offer of a Cuba-Turkey missile swap would go down well with international public opinion, undercutting the American negotiating position. The White House needed to get something out quickly.
Reading from a hastily prepared text, Salinger told reporters that the latest Soviet message was just one of "several inconsistent and conflicting proposals" made by Moscow within "the last twenty-four hours." The crisis had been caused by Soviet actions in Cuba, not American actions in Turkey. The "first imperative" was to stop work on the Soviet missile bases and make them "inoperable." After that had been accomplished, anything could be discussed.
The reporters were as confused as ExComm members had been.
"There are two messages, then?"
"That is right."
"What did the last one say?"
"We can't give you that."
"Do you think the two replies will go to Moscow this afternoon?"
"I can't tell you that."
On the sidewalk outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, demonstrators were shouting slogans for and against the blockade. Cuban exiles and college students marched up and down in the crisp autumn air chanting: "Invade Cuba, Attack the Reds." A half-dozen American Nazis with swastika arm-bands carried signs demanding an immediate invasion. Peace activists waved signs proclaiming NO MORE WARS.
12:30 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (8:30 A.M. ALASKA)
General Power was on the golf course on Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, when news arrived that a U-2 pilot on an air-sampling mission to the North Pole had gone missing. Tracking data intercepted from Soviet air defenses indicated that the spy plane was over Soviet territory, and that at least six Soviet MiGs had been scrambled to shoot Maultsby down. As CINCSAC rushed back to his office, he passed by a large billboard emblazoned with the Orwellian slogan: "Peace is our Profession."
Nobody at SAC headquarters had paid much attention to the air-sampling missions. One of Power's subordinates called the commander of Maultsby's unit, the 4080th Strategic Wing, to find out "what the hell you are doing with a U-2 over Russia."
"You'd better ask someone else because I have my hands full down here," replied Colonel John Des Portes, who was more worried about the already overdue Major Anderson. "I don't know of a U-2 being over Russia."
Back in his command post, Power found SAC intelligence officers plotting Maultsby's flight path on a giant screen, along with the tracks of the Soviet MiGs. The Americans were in effect looking over the shoulders of Soviet military flight controllers as they followed the missing U-2 over Chukotka. The security-conscious Soviets were unable to use a very strong encryption for their air defense net, as the information had to be made available in real time to tracking stations all over the country. The data from high-frequency radio transmissions skipped off the ionosphere and was then picked up by American listening posts thousands of miles away.
Power was in a quandary. The ability to "read the mail" of the Soviet air defenses was a jealously guarded national secret. If SAC commanders alerted Maultsby to the magnitude of his navigational blunder, they risked tipping the Soviets to a prized intelligence technique. They had to devise a way of steering Maultsby back to Alaska without revealing how they knew his precise location. An additional complication was that the Kremlin was likely to interpret the penetration of Soviet airspace as a highly provocative act. There was a risk that Soviet leaders would view a U-2 overflight as a reconnaissance mission prior to an all-out attack.
The intelligence officers needed special clearance from the National Security Agency to share their knowledge about what had happened to Maultsby with his operations commander in Alaska. Permission was soon obtained--on condition that nothing be done or said that would compromise the source of the information. Navigators on the Duck Butt air rescue plane and at Eielson were already attempting to steer Maultsby back to Alaska on the basis of astronomical observations.
Lieutenant Fred Okimoto was the navigator who had plotted Maultsby's flight to the North Pole. After sending Maultsby on his way at midnight Alaska time, he had retired to bed in the officers' quarters at Eielson. He was woken a few hours later by the operations commander, Lieutenant Colonel Forrest Wilson, with the news that the U-2 was missing. "We have a problem," said Wilson, in his usual low-key manner.
The two men walked through the predawn darkness to the U-2 hangar. They went upstairs to the small office where the mission had been planned. Okimoto went over all his calculations again, checking for mistakes. Everything seemed in order. There were occasional squawks from the high-frequency sideband radio channel that Duck Butt was using to contact Maultsby. Navigational charts and almanacs were spread out all over the office. The fact that the U-2 pilot reported seeing the Belt of Orion off the nose of his plane suggested that he was flying south. The top priority was to get him headed in an easterly direction.
Looking out the window, the navigator noticed a faint red glow on the horizon toward the east. The sun was beginning to rise in central Alaska. This gave him an idea. He got on the radio, and asked Maultsby if he could see the sun coming up.
"Negative," came the clipped reply.
The inescapable conclusion was that Maultsby was hundreds of miles west of Alaska, over Soviet territory. The solution was to get him to swing around to the left, until Orion was off the tip of his right wing. Then he would be heading home.
Frightened and exhausted, Maultsby was still getting strange calls over his sideband radio. This time, the unfamiliar voice told him to turn right thirty-five degrees, a course that would have taken him deeper into the Soviet Union. The pilot challenged him, using a code that "only a legit operator would know." There was no response.
The transmissions from Alaska were getting weaker by the minute. The last instruction Maultsby was able to hear was "Turn left, fifteen degrees."
Maultsby knew he did not have much fuel left, certainly not enough to get back to Alaska. He would probably have to attempt an emergency landing. The transmissions from the unknown source were still strong, but he ignored them. Instead, he selected the emergency channel and shouted: "MAY DAY! MAY DAY! MAY DAY!"
After yelling frantically for help, he picked up a radio station off the nose of the aircraft, playing what sounded like Russian folk music. The strains of balalaikas, accordions, and Slavic voices came in "loud and clear."
Maultsby finally figured out where he was.
Hearing the Russian music over the radio, Maultsby was panicked by the thought of becoming "another Gary Powers." Powers had been shot down over Siberia in 1960 while on a U-2 reconnaissance mission over Soviet nuclear sites. He had parachuted safely to the ground, only to be promptly captured by baffled Russian peasants. After a show trial in Moscow, he spent twenty-one months in prison. The U-2 incident was a huge embarrassment to the United States, and particularly to President Eisenhower. Wrongly assuming that Powers could not have survived the shootdown, Eisenhower authorized a statement claiming that his U-2 had gone down over eastern Turkey "while engaged in a high-altitude weather research mission." A succession of U.S. government statements on the incident were soon exposed as bald-faced lies by a jubilant Khrushchev.
Maultsby knew what life was like inside a Communist prison. His thoughts went back to a January day ten years earlier when he took off for his seventeenth combat mission over North Korea. He had had a 1,000-pound bomb load beneath each wing of his F-80 Shooting Star, ready to drop on Chinese troop reinforcements at Kunri, an important railroad center. An enemy shell crashed into his fuselage just behind him as he attempted to dive-bomb the railroad line. Diving to earth, out of control, he had just enough time to release the two bombs and yank his ejection seat handle. The pilot chute opened automatically, and he floated down to earth, with jet fighters screaming overhead and bombs exploding around him. He fell into the snow, slipped out of his parachute harness, and tried to run. He did not get very far. He soon found himself looking up into "the muzzles of a dozen rifles, all held by Chinese soldiers."
It was the start of six hundred days as a prisoner of war. The Air Force listed him as "missing in action." He was kept isolated from American and allied prisoners for many weeks. For much of the time, he was held in a stinking cave, dug into the side of a hill, that was not high enough for him to stand upright. Eventually, he was joined by another captured American pilot. Their bedding consisted of filthy straw, which they shared with rodents and insects. It was bitterly cold. Meals consisted of rice and water. "There was pain, intense pain. The months filled more and more with hunger and privation, with cold, and with interrogations that went on endlessly.... [Maultsby] was dragged and shoved and prodded from place to place, rarely knowing where he or his fellow prisoners were." He was finally released in a prisoner exchange at the end of August 1953.
The more Maultsby thought about his prison experiences, the more determined he became "to get as far away as possible" from the radio station playing Russian music. He kept on turning left until the signal was directly behind him and Orion was off his right wingtip. He called out: "MAY DAY! MAY DAY!" over the emergency channel of his radio until he was hoarse.
He was still three hundred miles inside Soviet territory.
12:38 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (2:38 A.M. SUNDAY, SYDNEY)
Admiral Anderson had a long-standing engagement in Norfolk, Virginia, to attend the football game between the Naval Academy and the University of Pittsburgh. It was a matter of pride for the chief of naval operations that he could leave his post in the middle of a crisis, and the ship would still be in good hands. The guardian of the traditions of John Paul Jones had total confidence in the men serving under him, whatever his civilian superiors might think. He would remain true to his personal creed: "Leave details to the staff.... Don't bellyache and don't worry."
He had flown down to southern Virginia earlier in the morning, after making arrangements for a special telephone to be installed in his game box, in case anything truly urgent cropped up. After his argument with McNamara on Tuesday night over arrangements for the blockade, he had not bothered to disguise his frustration with interfering civilians. Rather than setting general guidelines and letting the Navy get on with the job, the White House had insisted on making the final decision about every single ship interception. At least two Soviet ships, the Bucharest and the Vinnitsa, had sailed right through the quarantine line without being inspected. When he learned of the stand-down order from a McNamara aide, the admiral had uttered a stream of salty oaths.
The football outing meant that Anderson missed the daily crisis meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, coordinating all military actions against Cuba and the Soviet Union. But aides assured him that everything was under control. Early Saturday afternoon, a subordinate called the CNO operations room to check on messages for the boss.
"Tell the admiral to rest easy," Anderson's executive assistant replied confidently. "The boat's on an even keel. He should have a good time, and go to the ballgame."
With "Gorgeous George" cheering them on, Navy trounced Pitt, 32-9.
On the opposite side of the world, in Australia, an American college professor named Irvin Doress was obsessed by thoughts of Armageddon. The thirty-two-year-old sociologist was one of a handful of Americans who had chosen to flee the country rather than wait helplessly for "missiles flying through the crisp night air." He packed his suitcases immediately after Kennedy's speech announcing the blockade, and caught the first Qantas flight out of New York for Sydney. His luggage consisted of "a few of my best books, two manuscripts in various stages of disorganization, a couple of suits, and my trusty typewriter."
He was now sitting in a drab King's Cross hotel room, reviewing his abrupt decision. It was the middle of the night, Sydney time. He thought about the two young children he had left behind in America with an estranged wife, and his students at Union College in upstate NewYork. He had written a hurried note to the head of the sociology department, but had not said any real good-byes. He confided to his diary that he was beginning to feel "shame for having abandoned my loved ones." He asked himself, "Why should I survive and not others, especially younger people."
"There is a time to live and a time to die," he mused. "A post-nuclear world would be an extremely unpleasant place to live--even if the radioactivity didn't kill you."
12:44 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (8:44 A.M. ALASKA)
Located two hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, Pevek was one of the most northerly, most isolated towns in Russia. The local Chukchi culture revolved around the raising of reindeer and the hunting of walrus. The population density was roughly two people per square mile. In winter, temperatures dropped to 50 degrees below zero. To the Soviet state, the region was of interest mainly for its rich deposits of tin and gold, as a winter refuge for the ships that patrolled the Arctic Ocean, and as a remote military outpost. A squadron of MiGs was stationed at an airfield by the edge of the sea to intercept American bombers heading over the North Pole.
When the military radar station spotted the intruder plane heading toward the Chukot Peninsula, the MiGs took off from Pevek Airport. The MiGs shot upward in sudden bursts of speed, but the strange plane remained tantalizingly out of reach. Using their supersonic engines, the Soviet pilots could zoom-climb to 60,000 feet in a couple of minutes, but that still left them 15,000 feet short of their prey. The interceptor jets kept up with the intruder for three hundred miles and then roared off in a westerly direction in search of fuel.
Another group of MiGs took off from the airfield at Anadyr on the Sea of Okhotsk on the other side of the peninsula. They flew north to take over the chase from the Pevek-based interceptors. They almost caught up with Maultsby over the middle of the peninsula and followed him as he turned toward Alaska.
The interception attempts were being tracked 3,500 miles away in Offutt, Nebraska, in the Operations Center of the Strategic Air Command. By monitoring the Soviet air defense radar net, SAC intelligence officers could follow the MiGs the same way that they followed Maultsby's U-2 once it entered Soviet airspace. They plotted the movements of the MiGs with little check marks on an illuminated screen. As the MiGs turned eastward, SAC asked the Alaska Air Defense Command to scramble a pair of F-102 fighter-interceptors to provide protection for Maultsby.
Earlier in the week, technicians had removed the conventional weapons from the F-102s stationed at Galena Air Force Base in western Alaska, and loaded nuclear missiles onto the interceptors. This was standard procedure when the squadron moved to DEFCON-3. Armed with a nuclear-tipped Falcon air-to-air missile, a lone F-102 could wipe out an entire fleet of incoming Soviet bombers. In theory, nuclear weapons could only be used on the authority of the president. In practice, an F-102 pilot had the physical ability to fire the nuclear warhead by pushing a few buttons on his control panel. Since he was alone in the cockpit, no one could override his decision.
One of the interceptor pilots was Lieutenant Leon Schmutz, a twenty-six-year-old recently out of flight school. As he climbed into the skies above the Bering Strait to search for the missing U-2, he wondered what he would do if he ran into the Soviet MiGs. His only means of defense was a nuclear warhead capable of destroying everything within a half-mile radius of the explosion. To use such a weapon was virtually unthinkable, particularly over American territory. The detonation of even a small warhead could result in all-out nuclear war. But to fail to respond to an attack by a Soviet fighter went against a pilot's basic survival instincts.
1:28 P.M. SATURDAY (9:28 A.M. ALASKA)
Maultsby made a quick mental summary of his situation. The main plus was that he could no longer hear the Russian radio station. The principal minus was that his plane carried sufficient fuel for nine hours and forty minutes of flight. He had been airborne for nine hours and twenty-eight minutes, having taken off at midnight. Twelve minutes of fuel remained.
To have any hope of making it back to Alaska alive, Maultsby knew he would have to make full use of his plane's extraordinary gliding capabilities. With its long, billowing wings and exceptionally light airframe, a U-2 could travel up to two hundred miles without power, buoyed by the wind currents as it slowly descended through the earth's atmosphere. It was a glider as much an airplane.
He needed to save some fuel for an emergency, and also wanted to conserve his battery power. He made a final call in the clear to announce that he was going off the air. "A sense of despair set in" as he reached out to the control panel in front of him and shut down the plane's single Pratt & Whitney J-57 engine. He settled into a gentle glide.
By switching off the engine, Maultsby had also disabled the cockpit pressurization and heating system. The capstans in his flight suit inflated with a whoosh from the emergency oxygen supply to compensate for the loss of cabin pressure, preventing his blood from exploding into the thin air. He looked like the Michelin man. A single phrase kept running through his exhausted, sleep-deprived brain as he glided through the stratosphere at a height of seventy thousand feet, unsure of his location and unable to communicate with anybody.
"This is a fine mess you've got yourself into, Charlie."
1:41 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (9:41 A.M. ALASKA)
The latest message from Khrushchev had only confirmed the worst suspicions of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military brass was convinced that the Soviet leader had no intention of taking his missiles out of Cuba. He was merely playing for time, dragging the United States into an endless round of pointless bargaining. By the time Kennedy realized what was happening, it would be too late. The missiles would be mated with nuclear warheads, pointed at America and ready to fire.
The way the Joint Chiefs saw it, any conciliatory words or gestures from Moscow were merely a feint. A top Marine general warned the chiefs that "Khrushchev, like every doctrinaire Communist before him, is a slavish follower of Sun Tzu." To prove his point, he cited several aphorisms from the venerated Chinese military strategist, drawing parallels between the Middle Empire in 512 B.C. and the Soviet Empire of A.D. 1962:
* Speak in humble terms, continue preparations and attack;
* Pretend inferiority and encourage the enemy's arrogance;
* The crux of military operations lies in the pretense of accommodating to the designs of the enemy.
The chiefs were meeting in the Tank, their Pentagon inner sanctum dominated by a huge map of the world. Seated around the polished wooden table, they debated the latest intelligence from Cuba, including evidence of nuclear-capable FROG missiles and many more Soviet troops than previously suspected. Curtis LeMay dominated the session as usual, even though he spoke in monosyllables and refused to engage in discussion. The Air Force chief wanted his colleagues to recommend execution of a full-scale air strike against thousands of military targets in Cuba, followed by a ground invasion in seven days. At LeMay's insistence, the generals began drafting a document to send to the White House accusing Khrushchev of "diplomatic blackmail."
"Delay in taking further direct military action toward solving the Cuban problem is to the benefit of the Soviet Union," the chiefs warned. "Cuba will be harder to defeat. U.S. casualties will be multiplied. The direct threat of attack on the Continental United States by Cuban-based nuclear missiles and nuclear capable aircraft will be greatly increased."
The chiefs were discussing the timing of the initial attack on Cuba when McNamara walked into the Tank. Having come straight from the ExComm meeting, he was preoccupied by the Jupiter missiles in Turkey, easy targets for the Soviets if the United States attacked Cuba. One way to reduce the temptation to Khrushchev to "knock out" the Jupiters would be to station a Polaris nuclear submarine off the coast of Turkey, and let Moscow know it was there. The invulnerable submarine, with sixteen Polaris ballistic missiles on board, was a much more effective deterrent to a Soviet attack on Turkey than the vulnerable Jupiters. Sending a nuclear submarine to Turkey would also pave the way for the withdrawal of the obsolete Jupiters.
The defense secretary instructed the chiefs to prepare a plan for redeploying at least one nuclear sub to the eastern Mediterranean. He also wanted to know what exactly they had in mind when they talked about "early and timely execution" of the air strike plan against Cuba.
"Attacking Sunday or Monday," LeMay replied gruffly.
The generals made little secret of their impatience with McNamara. They had clashed with him repeatedly over the purchase of new weapons systems, and suspected him of "pacifist views." After McNamara vetoed the new B-70 bomber and insisted on limiting the Minuteman to one thousand missiles, LeMay asked his colleagues whether things could be "much worse if Khrushchev were secretary of defense." He found such squeamishness difficult to stomach. When McNamara asked whether it was possible to bomb Soviet missile sites without killing many Russians, LeMay looked at him with amazement. "You must have lost your mind."
McNamara's feelings about his Air Force chief were more ambivalent. Their relationship went back to World War II. The brilliant statistician from Berkeley had served under LeMay in the Far East, plotting ways to maximize the devastation caused by the bombing of Japanese cities. McNamara considered his former boss "the ablest combat officer" he ever knew. LeMay was brutal, but he got the job done. He thought in the simplest of terms: loss of his own crews per unit of target destruction. McNamara had helped LeMay make the calculations that led to the burning to death of a hundred thousand residents of Tokyo--men, women, and children--in a single night. But his admiration for the general was mixed with revulsion. McNamara had been prepared to accept the fire-bombing of Tokyo. A nuclear war with the Soviet Union that could result in millions of American casualties was a different matter.
"Who will win such a war?" he would ask the Air Force chief, when they debated the subject.
"We will, of course," LeMay would reply. "The country that ends up with the greatest number of nuclear weapons wins."
"But if we lose ten million people, what's the point of winning?"
McNamara was tired. The last few days had been a whirlwind of meetings, conference calls, and hundreds of decisions. He slept on a cot in the dressing room of his third-floor Pentagon office overlooking the Potomac. He had only managed to get home for dinner once, on Friday evening. He ate most of his meals at a card table in his office. He rose by 6:30 a.m. and worked as late as 11:00 p.m. or midnight. His sleep was often interrupted by calls from the president or senior officials. His only relaxation was the occasional game of squash in the Officers' Club in the Pentagon basement. His mind still worked like a computer, but he was losing some of his trademark sharpness and no longer dominated ExComm meetings with his crisp analyses and multipoint options.
In the midst of this strained conversation, McNamara received an urgent message, passed on to him by LeMay. He looked through it quickly.
"A U-2 has been lost off Alaska."
It had taken SAC commanders an hour and a half to report the loss of the plane to civilian authorities, despite strong evidence that Maultsby had strayed over the Soviet Union. The initial reports were fragmentary. The Pentagon told the White House that the pilot "got off course" after developing "gyro trouble," and was picked up by a "high frequency direction finder" off Wrangel Island. "Then seems to have overflown, or came close to, Soviet territory. Not clear at this time exactly what cause was. Russian fighters scrambled--ours too."
The first reports were alarming enough. An American spy plane had probably overflown Soviet territory at a time when both countries were close to nuclear war. It had almost certainly run out of fuel. McNamara rushed out of the room to call the president. The logs of the meeting show that it was 1:41 p.m.
Worried about shutting down his engine, Maultsby had neglected to pull the cord that prevented his helmet from rising after his pressure suit inflated. The lower part of the helmet was now blocking his vision, and he had "a helluva time seeing the instrument panel" in front of him. He struggled with the helmet until he finally got it back in place.
Shortly afterward, the windshield fogged up and condensation appeared on the faceplate of his helmet. Maultsby pushed the faceplate as close to his mouth as he could. By sticking his tongue out, he was able to lick away enough of the condensation to see the instrument panel.
The altimeter continued to show a height of seventy thousand feet. Maultsby assumed that the needle had gotten stuck, but then he realized that the aircraft was still flying at that height, even without any power. It took at least ten minutes for the U-2 to start its slow descent. He told himself that all that remained for him to do was "keep the wings level, maintain a rate of descent for maximum range and hope my guardian angel wasn't taking a nap."
The throbbing noise of the engine had given way to an otherworldly silence. The only sound that Maultsby was able to hear was his own labored breathing. His most pressing physical need after nearly ten hours in the air was to urinate. Under normal conditions, relieving himself in a U-2 involved laboriously unzipping his partial-pressure suit, peeling away several layers of undergarments, and aiming into a bottle. A maneuver that was complicated enough at the best of times became virtually impossible when the pressure suit was inflated, almost filling the cockpit.
1:45 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (9:45 A.M. ALASKA)
It had been a hectic morning, but the president was determined not to miss his regular swim. He usually went twice a day, just before lunch and again before dinner, with his aide, Dave Powers. His doctors had prescribed swimming exercises for his back, but it was also a way of relaxing. Originally built for Franklin Roosevelt as part of his treatment for polio, the indoor pool in the West Wing basement had been refurbished with a mural of a glorious sailing scene in the Virgin Islands donated by Joe Kennedy, Sr. The two friends engaged in light banter as they swam breast-stroke up and down the fifty-foot pool, which was kept at a constant ninety degrees.
Returning from his swim, Kennedy passed by the Oval Office before heading up to the mansion for a light lunch. The phone rang at 1:45 p.m. It was McNamara, with news of the U-2 missing off Alaska.
A few minutes later, the chief of intelligence from the State Department came running up the stairs from Bundy's basement office. Roger Hilsman had just heard about the scrambling of Soviet and American fighter jets. Having gone two days without sleep, he was exhausted, but instantly understood the significance of what had happened. "The implications were as obvious as they were horrendous: the Soviets might well regard this U-2 flight as a last-minute intelligence reconnaissance in preparation for nuclear war."
Hilsman was expecting a furious outburst from the president, or at least some sign of the panic he himself was beginning to feel. But Kennedy broke the tension with a short, bitter laugh and a truism from his Navy days.
"There's always some sonofabitch who doesn't get the word."
The calm exterior belied a deep frustration. Unlike other members of his family, particularly his brother Bobby, Kennedy turned quiet when he was angry. His closest aides feared his gritted teeth more than his occasional explosions. When he was truly beside himself, he would tap his front teeth with his fingernails or grip the arms of his chair so hard that his knuckles turned white.
He was discovering the limits of presidential power. It was impossible for a commander in chief to know everything that was being done in his name. There were so many things he would never find out until "some sonofabitch" fouled everything up. The military machine operated according to its own internal logic and momentum. The Pentagon assured him that the air-sampling flights to the North Pole had been planned and approved many months in advance. Nobody had considered the possibility that a U-2 might end up over the Soviet Union on the most dangerous day of the Cold War.
It was not just the extent of his own ignorance that disturbed Kennedy. Sometimes, he would ask for something to be done and nothing would happen. An example of this phenomenon, at least in his own mind, was the Jupiter missiles in Turkey. He had wanted to get them out of there for months, but the bureaucracy had always found a compelling reason to override his wishes. He had voiced his exasperation during a walk in the Rose Garden with Kenny O'Donnell earlier that morning. He told his aide to find out "the last time I asked to have those damned missiles taken out of Turkey. Not the first five times I asked for their removal, just the date of the last time." It turned out that the president had instructed the Pentagon to look into the removal of the Jupiters in August, but the idea had been shelved for fear of upsetting the Turks. Bundy later insisted that he never received a formal "presidential order" to remove the missiles, and the archival record appears to confirm his recollection.
Removing the Jupiter missiles had become even more complicated now that Khrushchev was attempting to use them as a public bargaining chip. But Kennedy was sure of one thing: he was not going to go to war over a few obsolete missiles. As a young naval officer in the Pacific, he had concluded that "the people deciding the whys and wherefores" had better have a convincing motivation for going to war because otherwise "the whole thing will turn to ashes." That pretty much summed up the way he felt twenty years later, now that he himself was determining the whys and wherefores.
But the drama that Saturday afternoon had little to do with the wishes of either Kennedy or Khrushchev. Events were moving faster than the political leaders could control.
An American spy plane had been shot down over Cuba. Another had gone astray over Russia. A Soviet cruise missile battery had taken up position outside Guantanamo, ready to carry out Khrushchev's threat to "wipe out" the naval base. A convoy of nuclear warheads was on its way to one of the R-12 missile sites. Castro had ordered his army to open fire on low-flying American planes and was urging the Soviets to consider a nuclear first strike.
The president did not even exercise complete control over his own forces. He had only a vague sense of a gathering confrontation in the Caribbean where American warships were attempting to force Soviet submarines to the surface and exhausted Soviet submariners were wondering if World War III had broken out.
The paradox of the nuclear age was that American power was greater than ever before--but it could all be jeopardized by a single, fatal miscalculation. Mistakes were an inevitable consequence of warfare, but in previous wars they had been easier to rectify. The stakes were much higher now, and the margin for error much narrower. "The possibility of the destruction of mankind" was constantly on Kennedy's mind, according to Bobby. He knew that war is "rarely intentional." What troubled him most was the thought that "if we erred, we erred not only for ourselves, our futures, our hopes, and our country," but for young people all over the world "who had no role, who had no say, who knew nothing even of the confrontation, but whose lives would be snuffed out like everyone else's."
A faint glow appeared on the horizon off the nose of Maultsby's plane. His spirits rose for the first time in hours. He now knew for certain he was heading east, back to Alaska. The navigator at Eielson had observed the same golden glow one and a half hours earlier when it was still pitch-dark over Chukotka. Maultsby decided to hold his heading until he descended to twenty thousand feet. If there were not any clouds, he would go down to fifteen thousand and look around. If there were clouds, he would try to maintain his altitude as long as possible. He did not want to crash into a mountain.
At twenty-five thousand feet, his pressure suit started deflating. There were no clouds and no mountains in sight. By now, there was just enough light to permit Maultsby to see the ground. It was covered with snow.
Two F-102s with distinctive red paint on their tails and fuselage appeared on either wingtip. They seemed to be flying at "near stall speed" at a dangerously steep angle. Maultsby had just enough battery power left to contact the fighter jets on the emergency frequency of his radio. An American voice crackled through the ether.
The two F-102 interceptors darted in and out of the clouds, circling the stricken spy plane like buzzing gnats. If they tried to match the slow-gliding speed of the U-2, they would flame out and crash. At least there was no sign of the Soviet MiGs, which had turned back toward Anadyr well before Maultsby reached international waters.
The nearest airfield was a primitive ice strip at a place called Kotzebue Sound, a military radar station just above the Arctic Circle. It was about twenty miles back. The F-102 pilots suggested that Maultsby try to land there.
"I'm going to make a left turn, so you'd better move out," Maultsby radioed the plane on his left wingtip.
"No sweat, come on."
As Maultsby banked to the left, the F-102 disappeared under his wing. The pilot radioed back to say that he had gone to look for the little airstrip.
Roger Herman was waiting at the end of the runway at McCoy Air Force Base outside Orlando, Florida, scouring the southern sky for any sight of Rudy Anderson. A mobile officer had a crucial role in assisting the pilot of a U-2 to land his plane. A U-2 was difficult enough to fly; it was even more difficult to land. The pilot had to get its long wings to stop generating lift exactly two feet above the runway. The mobile officer would chase the aircraft down the runway in a control vehicle, calling out its altitude every two feet. If the pilot and the mobile officer were both doing their jobs properly, the plane would belly-flop onto the runway. Otherwise it would continue gliding.
Herman had been waiting for Anderson for over an hour. He was rapidly losing hope. The pilot had failed to send a coded radio message to signal that he had crossed back into American airspace. It was possible that a navigational error had caused him to go astray. But he was only carrying enough fuel for a flight of four hours and thirty-five minutes. He had taken off at 9:09 a.m. The time was about to expire.
Standing at the end of the runway, Herman felt like someone in a World War II movie, counting the minutes to his friend's return. He waited until he received a call from the commander of the wing, Colonel Des Portes.
"You might as well come back."
2:03 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27
McNamara was increasingly troubled by the lack of information. Dramatic events were unfolding in real time, but he was learning about them many hours later, if at all. His philosophy was the opposite of Admiral Anderson's. He worried about everything and wanted to know all the details immediately. In his effort to keep informed, he reached deep down into the bureaucracy. He was able to patch himself into the communications system of the Joint Chiefs from his Pentagon suite. He personally got on the phone to low-level officials, including a radar operator in the Florida Keys, to find out what was happening in and around Cuba.
It was unclear to McNamara whether military leaders were deliberately withholding information or whether they themselves did not know what was going on. He and his deputy, Roswell Gilpatric, had noted discrepancies between what they were told by Navy Plot and what they learned from the Defense Intelligence Agency. They were not at all sure that the Navy was "operating on the basis of the very latest information." It turned out that Air Force commanders had been unaware of Maultsby's flight to the North Pole until he got into trouble.
The defense secretary learned that another U-2 had taken off on an air-sampling mission to the North Pole on the same route followed by Maultsby. He ordered its immediate recall. He would later halt all U-2 flights outside U.S. territory until the Air Force provided a full report on Maultsby's overflight.
More startling news greeted McNamara soon after he rejoined the Joint Chiefs in the Tank. At 2:03 p.m., a grim-faced Air Force colonel burst into the room to announce that "a U-2 overflying Cuba is thirty to forty minutes overdue."
2:25 P.M. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27 (10:25 A.M. ALASKA)
As Maultsby descended below five thousand feet, the F-102 pilots began to get nervous. They could not understand how a plane could fly at that altitude without any power and not flame out. But they had no experience flying a U-2.
Maultsby made an initial pass over Kotzebue airstrip at a height of one thousand feet. It was on a snow-covered peninsula jutting out to sea. A truck marked the beginning of the runway. Beyond the airstrip were a few Eskimo shacks and a military radar installation on a hill. There was barely any crosswind. This was a relief, as even small gusts of wind could blow his flimsy plane off course. As he started a low left turn out to sea, one of the F-102 pilots was convinced he was about to crash.
"Bail out! Bail out!" yelled Lieutenant Dean Rands, the lead F-102 pilot.
But Maultsby refused to panic. He lowered his wing flaps and shut down his idling J-57 engine, as it was giving him too much thrust. Everything looked good, except he was approaching the runway with more airspeed than he wanted. As he passed fifteen feet over the truck, he deployed a parachute out of the back of the plane and kicked the rudder back and forth to slow down. Without a mobile officer racing along the runway behind him, it was difficult to judge his altitude precisely. The U-2 "did not seem to want to stop flying, even without an engine." It finally did the required belly flop onto the runway, skidded along the ice, and came to rest in the deep snow.
Maultsby sat trancelike in his ejector seat, unable to think or move. He was physically and emotionally drained. After sitting numb for several minutes, he was startled by a knock on the canopy. He looked up to see "a bearded giant" wearing a government-issue parka.
"Welcome to Kotzebue," said the giant, a huge grin on his face.
"You don't know how glad I am to be here," was all Maultsby could manage in return.
He tried to climb out of the cockpit, but his legs were numb. Seeing that he was in difficulty, his new friend "put his hands under my armpits and gently lifted me out of the cockpit and placed me on the snow as if I had been a rag doll." Radar station personnel and half a dozen Eskimos gathered round to greet the unexpected visitor. The two F-102s bid farewell by buzzing the airfield and rocking their wings.
The bearded giant helped Maultsby off with his helmet. A blast of bitterly cold air hit him in the face, momentarily reviving him and reminding him of the one piece of business he needed to take care of before anything else. He excused himself from the welcoming committee and shuffled laboriously to the other side of the U-2, where he emptied his bursting bladder into a bank of virgin snow.