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50 years ago, Tampa was on front line of Cuban Missile Crisis

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 06:31 PM
TAMPA -

On a Sunday morning during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, operators at a satellite tracking radar site reported a missile had been launched from Cuba and was heading toward Tampa.

Projected impact: 18 miles from MacDill Air Force Base.

The Strategic Air Command on Oct. 28, 1962, was on the highest alert in history: DEFCON 2, one step short of imminent war. The president and Pentagon feared a surprise attack, and that's exactly what the missile rocketing toward Tampa appeared to be.

But none of the command's bombers or missiles was launched. The report was false; controllers were using a software tape to simulate an attack at the same time that the radar, reconfigured to warn of missiles approaching the United States from the south, had detected an unidentified space object.

Much of the attention on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis focuses on the involvement of top government and military officials in resolving the conflict over nuclear weapons the Soviets had stealthily moved 90 miles off U.S. shores.

But as the non-attack of Oct. 28 shows, it was often enlisted men, pilots or low-ranking civiliansmaking tough calls.

Numerous events and now-declassified documents show the critical role that unsung low-ranking military and civilian participants played in averting disaster.

At one of the most tense times in the country's history, as thousands of soldiers and weapons were readied and moved from site to site, they made countless decisions on the fly with little margin of error.

It wasn't President John F. Kennedy making split-second decisions when U.S. reconnaissance bombers and U.S. interceptors nearly exchanged gunfire on night flights near Cuba, or dealing with rifle shots fired at nuclear weapon-equipped bombers temporarily stationed at a commercial airport.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wasn't the one called on to assist U.S. pilots when a U-2 mistakenly flew over Russian territory in the Arctic or an Air Force plane flew through downtown Miami at 50 feet while tracking a U-2.

"When it comes to waging war, it's not done by people wearing suits or dress uniforms," said Michael Binder of the U.S. Air Force Declassification Office at the National Archives at College Park, Md. "Everything is done by low-level people; airplanes are fueled for launch, weapons are uploaded."

One illustration of the challenges faced by mid-and low-ranking officers and enlisted personnel was the task of moving nuclear bomb-equipped bombers to new, temporary locations throughout the country, including commercial airports in Boston, Detroit and St. Louis.

The strategy was to complicate Soviet targeting and lessen chances of losing the bombers in a surprise attack, although some decisions, such as relocating some of the bombers to major cities, remain mysterious 50 years later.

It was a unique scenario. Most Cuban Missile Crisis missions had been rehearsed as part of customary Cold War preparations, but relocating the bombers was a first-time event.

On Oct. 19, 1962, Strategic Air Command ordered 26 B-47s moved from MacDill to Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Ga. The transfer would make more room at MacDill for aircraft being brought in to deal with the missile crisis.

Three days later, when Kennedy addressed the nation to disclose the presence of Cuban offensive missiles and the enactment of a naval blockade, command officials decided to send another three B-47s to the Air Force's Hurlburt Field in the Panhandle and two to the commercial airport in West Palm Beach.

But the stay at West Palm Beach, a former Air Force base converted to civilian use in 1959, proved problematic and short-lived, Binder wrote in a report made public in March.

A lack of jet fuel meant a lower-quality gas had to be substituted. A condemned World War II building was pressed into service as barracks.

The massive bombers attracted lots of attention. Spectators, including occasional late-night drunks, lined the airport fence on a ramp near the bombers. Cars cruised up and down Southern Boulevard adjacent to the MacDill B-47s all day, including one whose driver faked motor trouble near the flight ramp, Binder reported.

Rumors abounded of Castro sympathizers willing to commit sabotage. After less than a week in Palm Beach, the three bombers were flown to the Panhandle.

Retired Air Force Col. Gene Gardner, who served at MacDill and helped launch the organization that would become Central Command, was a B-47 navigator at Little Rock Air Force Base. During the crisis, his bomb wing was ordered to move B-47s to airports in Memphis, Terre Haute, Ind., and Louisville, Ky.

He says the experience was marked by the unexpected. It began with ferrying a nuclear weapon to Kentucky. But the landing on a short runway at dusk in Louisville was troublesome.

"We didn't know the lights were out on the first 4,000 feet of the short runway and we stopped with the nose of the plane hanging over the end of the overrun," Gardner said

By then, there was more tension than usual, especially for crew members with family, said Gardner.

"We were part of the follow-on force," he said. "We wondered what would be left after missiles and tactical air and B-52s on airborne alert struck.

"But everyone performed quite well. With SAC training it was business as usual; you lived and died by the checklist. Not having an accident was no accident."

"Then some crazy started shooting at our airplanes and our guards fired back. We had to inspect the airplanes as best we could to be sure they had not been hit."

Other bases reported incidents that crews kept short of disaster, despite nuclear weapon loads.

A B-47 from Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York lost two of its six jet engines on final approach after a three and a half-minute flight to Burlington International Airport in Vermont.

The plane landed so hard it snapped off a fuselage collar of jet-assisted takeoff rockets, six of which ignited and went through a hangar, a 380th Bomb Wing history stated.

The dozen B-47s that relocated from Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire to Boston's Logan Airport sank into holes their heavy weight created in taxiways where they were parked, an interview by the Center for Military History and Strategic Analysis revealed.

And a group of demonstrators threatened to get onto the seaside airport from dinghys and rowboats.

"This flotilla of flower children were bound to lay down in front of the airplane," Col. Ross Schmoll said in an interview with Virginia Military Institute professor Eric Osborne published online.

However, the Air Police had brought their police dogs with them, which sent the protestors scurrying back to their water craft, Schmoll said.

"Their alternative was unthinkable because they would have had to shoot" to protect the nuclear weapons," he said.

By Oct. 25, 1962, MacDill's tarmacs were packed with 221 aircraft — reconnaissance jets, fighter-bombers and tankers.

Hawk and Nike Hercules missiles were rushed to south Florida to defend against Russian bombers based in Cuba. Soldiers contended with snakes, alligators and insects, and — when a commander ignored a local farmer's warning — flooding at a Nike site at the main entrance to Everglades National Park.

There wasn't enough security to equip the Nike Hercules with nuclear warheads at the temporary sites, so the soldiers concocted a ruse to fool Soviet satellites. They placed fake, red sleeves on the tips of the missiles, similar to those used on Nikes with nuclear warheads at other U.S. sites, said Charles Carter, a Nike veteran.

"I can tell you those guys put in long hard hours, never complained other than normal bellyaching," said Jay Dresser, an Army first lieutenant in charge of assembling missiles shipped in by truck from depots in Colorado and Alabama. "I would say that 99 percent of the men knew they had a job to do and did it well."

Scott D. Sagan, a political science professor at Stanford University, said people worked hard, worked late and served their country well during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"There were a number of cases when people took actions they believed were fully within the scope of their authority and created risks perhaps uncalled for and not approved," Sagan said. "But the vast majority of lower level officers performed with great skill and discipline during the 13 days of severe crisis."


tjackovics@tampatrib.com (8130 259-7817

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