Tags: Cuban Missile Crisis; Chronicles of Naval Aviation, history lessons
“Special Missions” commands – oft times one hears the title and catches the slight eyeroll, or smile with a hint of a sneer about it . . . you know, the outfits that are “almost” a combat unit, but, well, you know, only “special” people go there – usually those in a career cul-de sac. The photo community was one such – usually tolerated (at best) by CAG, his staff and the ship, the photo det received its scraps and pressed on nonetheless performing their necessary, but oft taken for granted, services. Funny thing is, those special mission outfits often find themselves in the thick of crises when their “special” services are suddenly in demand. Such was the case in 1962 when a young President found himself looking full at the beast – and needed more information. VFP-62, fortunately, was there to answer the call. . .
15 Oct 1962. Imagery from U-2 flights begun on the 14th continue to roll in for imagery analysts at NPIC (National Photographic Interpretation Center), located in Washington, DC, from high altitude flights over Cuba. Of interest is the Soviet build-up of forces on the island which apparently include nuclear-armed medium range ballistic missiles. While detailed, the imagery isn’t granular enough to accurately determine operational status and equipment details. To do so would require high-speed, low altitude runs…and the new RF-8A Crusaders of Light Photo Sixty Two were the perfect platforms to execute the mission…
Designated the F8U-1P under the pre-joint designation system, the RF-8 differed markedly from the F-8 by having the lower half of the forward fuselage squared off to accomodate the installation of cameras (three CAX-12 trimetrogen cameras and two K-17 vertical cameras. All armament was removed, the upper fuselage “area-ruled” to account for the squared off forward section and camera installation. A smaller tail reduced drag, boosting that all important speed factor (doubly important for unarmed recce birds). The imagery configuration was pretty complex and originally consisted of three trimetrogen cameras, which gave horizon-to-horizon coverage at Station 2, actually the aft-most bay. Eventually, the definitive camera arrangement was two cameras giving vertical and oblique coverage in station s 3 and 4, while station 1, located below and forward of the cockpit, mounted a forward-looking oblique camera. Station 1 could also carry a 16-mm movie camera. Although the cameras at Stations 3 and 4 could give several degrees of obliquity, those most commonly used were 5 degrees, 15 degrees, and 30 degrees. The cameras were manufactured by Chicago Aerial and were designated KA-66 (station 2), KA-51, KA-53 or KA-62 (stations 3 and 4) and KA-45 or KA-51 (station 1). First flight for the Photo-’sader was 17 December 1956.
- Tuesday, 16 October: The Joint Chiefs of Staff were ordered to emergency session at 1100Q on October 16. Admiral Anderson was recalled after a National War College/Industrial College of the Armed Forces lecture and General Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff, was recalled from Europe. At this meeting came the first firm revelation that military action would be taken relative to the Soviet offensive build-up in Cuba. At 0900Q, the President received photographic evidence of the Cuban offensive missile sites from Mr. Bundy. Three hours later, he convened a meeting at the White House with the Vice-President, Secretary Rusk, Secretary McNamara, the Attorney General, General Taylor, Deputy SECDEF Gilpatric, Deputy SECSTATE George Ball, Asst. SECSTATE Edwin Martin, Mr. Bundy, Presidential Assistant Ted Sorensen, Douglas Dillon, Charles Bohlen, and Kenneth O’Donnell. The outcome of the meeting was that reconnaissance of Cuba should be increased greatly. Six U-2 flights were scheduled for the next day. Conferences that afternoon at the State Department included Messrs. Rusk, Ball, Martin, Alexis Johnson, Ambassadors Bohlen, Thompson, and Stevenson. At 1830Q there was another White House meeting at which a Guided Missile and Astronautic Intelligence Committee evaluation of U-2 missions and photographs taken on October 14 and 15 were considered.
- Wednesday, 17 October: On the 17th, the Joint Chiefs notified CINCONAD to take action without delay for the augmentation of air defenses of the Southeast U.S., and CINCLANT alerted shore-based Navy and Marine Corps fighter squadrons in the area to assist CONAD forces. The Chief of Naval Operations sent a personal message to the Fleet Commanders advising them to be prepared to order as many ships as possible to sea on a 24-hour notice, provided their main propulsion plants were ready. Project “BLUE MOON” a CINCLANTFLT operations order to obtain low-level photographic reconnaissance of Cuban military buildup areas, became operational at Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Fla., utilizing F8U-1P aircraft.
- Monday, 22 October: President Kennedy established the position of the US in a speech broadcast to the nation.
Tuesday morning, 23 October the first RF-8 flights lifted off the tarmac at NAS Key West to begin the low level recce flights across Cuba. In three flights of two they crossed the Florida Straits and began their missions in the areas identified by the U-2 flights as holding MRBMs with a goal of bringing back photogrpahic evidence of their state of operational capability. Recovering aboard NAS Cecil, the film canisters were downloaded and processed:
In a 1999 interview (in concert with the release of the movie “Thirteen Days”) Ecker reflected on that first mission:
On Oct. 19, 1962, the Pentagon’s Bureau of Aeronautics contacted Koch while he and Ecker were fishing in Orange Park, Fla. The bureau had a top-security mission in mind. “They called up and said, ‘Can you really take pictures this good?’ ” Ecker recalled. “We said not only ‘yes’ but ‘hell yes.’ ” A few days later, Ecker got his assignment to fly over Cuba. Ecker and the pilot of a plane that flew just off his starboard wing were assigned to photograph a suspected missile site at San Cristobal. After the Havana skyline appeared, Ecker banked to the west, flying right over a fleet of Cuban trawlers.
Despite that warning, the jets proved too fast for Cuban air-defense gunners. The flight time over Cuba totaled only 4 minutes. “You could see the popcorn in your mirrors,” Ecker said, referring to the white puffs of smoke left by anti-aircraft fire. “But we never got hit.” One of the jet’s photos even captured a soldier scrambling from an outhouse. More importantly, the photos also showed soldiers conducting activities around missile bases.
“Then it got kind of hectic,” Ecker recalled. “We were flying right into the granddaddy of all thunderstorms. We’re talking a wall of clouds rising to 50,000, 60,000 feet. “Here I’ve got the pictures, and if the airplane gets busted all to pieces, it wouldn’t do anybody any good,” Ecker said. At the last second, Ecker saw a jet-sized hole open up in the clouds. “It was just a sunspot,” he said. “I said, ‘Burners, now!’ We popped out the top.”
Once back at Cecil Field, technicians unloaded reels of film from the belly of the jet, and Ecker was given orders to fly immediately to Washington, D.C., to brief the joint chiefs of staff. Upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Ecker was whisked by a black limousine to an underground garage at the Pentagon. An Air Force colonel escorted Ecker to a small elevator, which led to an unmarked corridor guarded by a Marine. A door opened, and Chief of Naval Operations George Anderson ushered Ecker into a room. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor and other top commanders sat around a large table. Ecker said he doffed his sidearm and flight suit, which revealed his uniform was soaked with sweat. “I’d like a glass of water,” he said in a hoarse whisper. He then apologized for his sweaty condition. “This four-star general took a fat cigar out of his mouth and said, ‘You’re a (gol-danged) pilot, you’re supposed to be sweaty!’ ” Ecker recalled.
Not long after the flights began, they would come under fire. Proving the adage that ‘speed is life’ however, no Navy recce flights were lost (one U-2 and one RF-101 would be shot down though):
VFP-62′s RF-8s would eventually be joined by Air Force RF-101 Voodoos. Interestingly, all but one low level photo recce would be flown form the beach, this despite the fact that photo dets were embarked on the carriers like the Enterprise (VMCJ-2) and Independence (VFP-62). The photographic evidence provided the Kennedy administration with the final proof they needed to show to the world the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles (which the Soviets were denying). In fact, the picture that Adlai Stevenson unveiled in the chambers of the Security Council at the UN was taken by CDR Ecker on that first mission, using a forward-looking camera that VFP-62 had developed prior to the crisis.
After the crisis, President Kennedy would personally award VFP-62 a unit commendation:
and in a note to CDR Ecker, President Kennedy expressed his personal thanks:
- The National Security Archive: Cuban Missile Crisis
- VFP-62.com Fightin’ Photo
- Naval History and Heritage Command: Cuban Missile Crisis
- Author’s personal library and notes collection: Cold War