California Forum

A surreal atmosphere around the Cuban missile crisis

In 1962, B-52 bombers, like the one shown here in 2003, were loaded with nuclear payloads and poised to strike the Soviet Union upon the president’s command.
In 1962, B-52 bombers, like the one shown here in 2003, were loaded with nuclear payloads and poised to strike the Soviet Union upon the president’s command. Associated Press file

Evening, Oct. 22, 1962. I had just come home from my duties as security operations officer at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My wife and I turned on our television to watch my commander-in-chief, President John F. Kennedy, deliver an ominous special address to the nation.

Right after he declared that this nation would not permit the Soviet Union to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, some 90 miles from our shore, our telephone rang and I was summoned to the base’s alert area where B-52s, loaded with nuclear bombs, were poised to strike upon the president’s command.

For the next six days, I donned combat fatigues, carried a sidearm and worked the midnight shift overseeing the security of several bombers and KC-135 tankers that were part of the Strategic Air Command’s massive arsenal that contained the thermonuclear power to destroy the planet.

Each of SAC’s 900-plus bombers could deliver a nuclear payload equivalent to 16 times the tonnage dropped during World War II. At maximum strength, SAC had nearly 3,000 nuclear weapons in the air or on 15-minute alert and 182 intercontinental ballistic missiles. As the nation’s preeminent defense, SAC was under the president’s direct operational control.

Because our DEFCON 2 (defense readiness condition) was close to nuclear launch, pilots and crews resided in the alert complex and could get their bombers airborne in minutes. Once the attack order was given, the pilot could open a safe containing targets in the Soviet Union. Because of the polar route, the bombers at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base had a shorter travel time to those targets. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis LeMay, who had essentially created SAC, kept urging the president to use our nuclear superiority and bomb the Soviets “back to the Stone Age.”

Each day when I returned home, my increasingly anxious wife, who was six months pregnant, kept asking whether war was imminent. I tried to reassure her that Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev would avert a nuclear holocaust. But my assurances faded as I watched those behemoth B-52s roar down the runway during the predawn hours, knowing that the slightest miscalculation by either superpower could spell the end of civilization.

And yet there was a surreal atmosphere about the missile crisis. I recall going to base headquarters for a daily briefing where the entrance was flanked by sand bags. This retro scene from a John Wayne war movie was all the more bizarre because the entire building would be vaporized by a nuclear blast. Then there was the nervous sentry with his rifle at the ready demanding that I drop to the ground, with arms and legs spread wide, so he could determine why I was walking along the alert-area perimeter.

SAC personnel were accustomed to constant readiness and were routinely placed on alert whenever trouble brewed. I volunteered for this elite command fully aware of its rigorous demands and remained relatively confident that our leaders would navigate this crisis as it intensified. When the first Soviet ships stopped short of our naval quarantine of Cuba on Oct. 24, I was hopeful. Three days later, dubbed “Black Saturday,” a Soviet missile downed a SAC U-2 spy plane, killing the pilot.

Providentially, Kennedy refused to retaliate in kind and cut a deal with Khrushchev on Oct. 28, whereby the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba in exchange for our promise to remove medium-range nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Kennedy’s critics denounced this compromise and Khrushchev’s consent eventually cost him his job. Meantime, millions were grateful for the wisdom of these two military veterans whose wartime experiences motivated them to evade a nuclear Armageddon.

Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He currently teaches at American River College. Contact him at miller396@comcast.net.

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