Downing of U.S. spy plane in Cuba turned hot crisis feverish 30 years ago

MIAMI — MIAMI -- At 10 a.m., the U.S. Air Force suddenly lost radio contact with a U-2 reconnaissance plane flying over Cuba.

For the next two hours, radio operators frantically tried to make contact the plane. No answer.


By early afternoon Oct. 27, 30 years ago today, the military was certain that the plane piloted by Maj. Rudolph Anderson Jr. had been shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile.

At Homestead Air Force Base, 16 F-100 pilots were brought into a briefing room.


The Pentagon already had a plan that had been approved by the top-level ExComm group: If a reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba, the Air Force was to destroy a surface-to-air missile site within two hours.

The pilots were to take off as soon as they were briefed. Each would be flying an F-100 equipped with Zuni 5-inch high-velocity air-to-surface rockets.

The plan was to use the rockets to knock out the surface-to-air missile site's radar, then destroy the site with cluster bombs.

Virtually all experts agree that the shooting down of the U-2 was the worst of many incidents on what was to prove to be the worst day of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"It was a day of horrors," recalls Dino Brugioni, a key CIA photo analyst during the crisis who later wrote the book "Eyeball to Eyeball." "We could have stumbled into World War III very easily."

In Washington, the day had started poorly for the top-level ExComm group.

At 10 a.m., knowing nothing about the U-2, the group opened its morning meeting with a puzzled President John F. Kennedy reading a news report that Nikita S. Khrushchev was offering a deal: Take out the U.S. missiles in Turkey and he would remove the Soviet missiles in Cuba.

"That wasn't in the letter we received, was it?" Mr. Kennedy asked.


No, it wasn't. The letter Mr. Khrushchev had sent directly to Mr. Kennedy the night before discussed only a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba in exchange for lifting the U.S. quarantine and naval blockade of the island.

There had been no mention of Turkey. But this latest proposal, broadcast over Radio Moscow, introduced Turkey into the equation.

The president was told that Raymond Hare, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, thought any deal involving missiles there would be "absolutely anathema." As a "a matter of prestige and politics" with the United States' European allies, it would be exceptionally difficult to remove the Turkish missiles.

What should be done? The ExComm members were chagrined that Mr. Khrushchev had released the new letter publicly.

Mr. Kennedy said removing the Jupiter missiles from Turkey wouldn't be that big a deal because "they're not militarily useful." The weapons were old and not particularly reliable.

The conversation shifted to analysis of a military strike.


Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara suggested that it might better to remove Jupiter missiles in both Italy and Turkey than to attack Cuba because it would reduce the likelihood that the Soviets would then attack Turkey in retaliation.

Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disagreed. He favored a massive strike against Cuba within 48 hours "unless there is irrefutable evidence in the meantime that the offensive weapons are being dismantled."

In the midst of this meeting came the news that the U-2 had been shot down.

"Pilot killed?" Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asked.

"The pilot's body is in the plane," General Taylor responded.

"How do we interpret this?" Mr. McNamara asked. "I know -- I don't know how to interpret . . ."


It wasn't entirely clear that a Soviet surface-to-air missile had shot down the U-2, but if it had, the implications were ominous. Most ExComm members were convinced that Moscow had ordered the U-2 shot down to escalate the crisis.

General Taylor said they should strike a Soviet surface-to-air missile site, as the plans called for. The military felt strongly: If a U.S. plane was shot down, there had to be retaliation. This wasn't eyeball to eyeball; it was an eye for an eye.

President Kennedy was hesitant. This was the supreme moment of the crisis. He knew that if the United States blew up a Soviet surface-to-air missile site, it would almost be begging for the Soviets to find a new way to retaliate.

Mr. Kennedy decided to wait a day.

In the meantime, the White House ordered that there should be no retaliatory strike by the Homestead pilots.

Gen. Curtis LeMay, chief of the Strategic Air Command, was aghast. "He chickened out," the general thundered.


For Fidel Castro's Cuba, Oct. 27 had been a day of highs and lows.

Mr. Khrushchev obviously had not consulted Mr. Castro before Radio Moscow broadcast the Turkey-for-Cuba missile offer.

To the whole world, it seemed the Soviets were quite willing to forget about Cuban security in favor of better protection for their own country.

But when the Soviet SAM missile crew, acting on its own, fired on the U-2, the Cuban leadership had been ecstatic. Mr. Castro suggested recently that the Soviet soldiers in Cuba were expressing solidarity with their Cuban brethren.

Cuban anti-aircraft batteries, meanwhile, were firing at low-flying U.S. reconnaissance planes. They were convinced that any moment the planes would start dropping bombs, signaling the invasion.

Late in the afternoon, a low-flying U.S. reconnaissance plane was hit by a 37mm anti-aircraft shell, apparently fired by a Cuban battery.


The plane managed to limp back to its Florida base. If it had crashed into the sea, some experts speculated later, President Kennedy might have felt compelled to retaliate, and the shaky equilibrium might have been lost forever.

To make everyone even more tense, a U-2 strayed briefly into Soviet air space, and for a hectic few minutes it was feared that the Soviets might think the U-2 was a prelude to a nuclear strike.

John A. McCone, the CIA director, meanwhile, suggested sending a wire to Mr. Khrushchev with "the most violent protest" of the U-2 being shot down over Cuba. If it happened again, the Soviets were to be told, "we're going to take those SAM sites out immediately."

Mr. McCone also was in favor of a deal: "I'd trade those Turkish things out right now. I wouldn't even talk to anyone about it."

A smaller group of advisers met later in the Oval Office.

It was decided that the Soviets were to be told that if the missiles weren't removed quickly, the U.S. military would blast them out.


If the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles, the United States would publicly promise not to invade Cuba and drop the blockade. It would also remove the nuclear missiles in Turkey, though it wouldn't announce this publicly.

At 7:45 p.m., Robert Kennedy informed Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador, of this proposal at a secret meeting in the Justice Department. He said the deal had to be made quickly or the United States would unleash a military attack.

Twenty minutes later, a formal letter from President Kennedy was transmitted to Moscow.

It discussed the vow not to invade Cuba but made no mention of Turkey. It said arrangements could be completed in a couple of days and announced to the world.