Fifty-seven years ago, on Oct. 27, 1962, known as Black Saturday, USAF Maj. Rudolph Anderson Jr.’s U-2 spy plane (launched out of McCoy AFB) was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet surface-to-air missile … a defining moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis that threatened to turn the Cold War red hot.
Forty-five years later we learned the surface-to-air missile was fired at the direction of a Soviet air defense general in violation of standing orders from Moscow. He took that risk in fear the U-2 would bring back film of nuclear-armed tactical cruise missiles in the open for the first time at a firing position 15 miles from the Guantanamo Naval Base.
The presence of two FKR-1 tactical cruise missile regiments and 80 nuclear warheads with yields comparable to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was the best kept secret of the crisis that focused on ballistic missiles targeting U.S. cities.
Now revealed here for the first time a former officer from the FKR regiment based near the port of Mariel to cover the invasion beaches near Havana says their missiles were also aimed at NAS Key West!
Targeting two key US bases was a desperate defensive move by the Soviets and undoubtedly approved by then Cuban defense minister Raul Castro, who had been deeply involved in planning for employment of the FKRs and had no qualms with use of nuclear weapons.
The 13-day crisis began on Oct. 16, when President John F. Kennedy was shown U-2 pictures (taken by Maj. Steve Heyser) of missile sites under construction in western Cuba for nuclear-tipped medium range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Washington and perhaps New York.
Things started to heat up after Kennedy in his famous speech on Monday, Oct. 22 announced a naval quarantine of military arms coming into Cuba and demanded Soviet Union Chairman Khrushchev remove the missiles. Trouble was launchers for six medium range ballistic missiles sites were already in Cuba along with their warheads and by the following Friday most were operational … time for military action was at hand.
In Havana that evening Fidel Castro believed an air attack was coming at dawn and after ordering his anti-aircraft gunners to fire at any intruders including unarmed tactical reconnaissance aircraft, he convinced the Soviet commander to activate his air defense network for the first time. Believing war was inevitable, he also ordered the FKR regiments to move to their firing positions and started moving the MRBM warheads to their launch sites. He had authority to use tactical nuclear weapons to repel invasion forces but took the precaution to advise Moscow he intended to use all available means to counter the expected air attack.
Khrushchev responded with an order prohibiting use of any nuclear weapons without approval as unbeknownst to anyone in Cuba he had initiated negotiations with JFK to end the crisis. His order would not be received until after Black Saturday for which the table was now set.
On Saturday morning Navy and Marine RF-8A aircraft flying reconnaissance missions at tree top level in search of the nuclear warheads reported receiving flak as Maj. Anderson’s U-2 was detected entering Cuban airspace headed for Guantanamo.
Word of his loss shocked Kennedy who had approved a contingency plan to immediately attack three surface-to-air sites in retaliation. He decided to forego that option and take retribution with the airstrikes planned for Tuesday.
He also canceled an ill-conceived night photo mission over the missile sites using pyrotechnic flares for illumination. Together these were fortunate decisions as either event could have been mistaken for the start of an invasion triggering launching of FKRs and a hellish nuclear exchange. This on the eve of an agreement to end the crisis with Maj. Anderson as the only combat casualty.
By Col. H. Wayne Whitten USMC (ret) Lutz, Fla.
Author of Without A Warning – The Avoidable Shootdown of a U-2 Spyplane During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Amazon 2017
Whitten is a retired Marine Corps colonel and Naval Flight Officer with nearly 200 aerial combat missions as an Electronic Countermeasures Officer during the Vietnam War. He is the author of Silent Heroes - U.S. Marines and Airborne Electronic Warfare 1950-2012, Countdown to 13 Days and Beyond – U.S. Marine Aerial Reconnaissance Against Castro’s Cuba 1960-1990 and Without A Warning – The Avoidable Shootdown of a U-2 Spyplane During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Amazon 2017)
Since his last book, Whitten has continued his research into the role of reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His recent research led him to a Russian journalist and co-author with an American writer on Cold War events. Through this connection Whitten obtained first person accounts from several former Soviet military officers who served in Cuba during the 1962 crisis. Included in this group was retired Col. Alexey Raypenko who was the missile control officer of the Soviet surface-to-air unit that shot down Maj. Rudolph Anderson Jr., the only combat casualty of the crisis - the event that led to an agreement to end it just 24 hours later.
Now Col. Whitten has just learned from another participant that Key West, along with Guantanamo Naval Base, were targeted for destruction by a nuclear armed Soviet tactical cruise missile that has never been revealed in the U.S.
He can be reached at (813) 784 6017 to discuss the draft article on the subject and its sources.