Cold War Era

The story of the U-2 shot down that nearly escalated the Cuban Missile Crisis into World War III

The U-2 and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Built in complete secrecy by Kelly Johnson and the Lockheed Skunk Works, the original U-2A first flew in August 1955. Early flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the president and other US decision makers with key intelligence on Soviet military capability.

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In October 1962, the U-2 photographed the buildup of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 dramatically proved the importance of the U-2 and aerial reconnaissance, the scenario was not the least pleasant for the US pilots involved in recce missions. As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Hunt for the U-2, the primary issue was the presence of the Soviet S-75 SAM-sites: their deployment had been detected by a U-2 mission on Aug. 29. The Americans also had little problem in finding out that by Oct. 26, 1962 the personnel of the 11th Missile Air Defence Division had constructed and deployed 24 SAM-sites.

Major Rudolf Anderson

SAM-sites power up their radars

However, not one of all these was ever activated. Indeed, multiple missions Boeing RB-47Hs of the 55 Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, not to mention the US Navy `technical research ship’ USS Oxford (AGTR- 1) – a vessel well-equipped for ELINT and SIGINT gathering – could not even collect enough intelligence to confirm that they had been integrated into an air defence system. In other words: Soviet S-75s were in Cuba, but ‘zip lip.’ Despite all the overflights by reconnaissance aircraft, they never powered up their radar let alone opened fire.

The Americans were not the only ones wondering about this behaviour. Late in the evening of Oct. 26, Fidel Castro visited the Soviet HQ at El Chico: considering the situation and near-constant violations of Cuban airspace by US aircraft and the threat of an invasion, he demanded that the Soviets activate their air defences: to open fire – in the same fashion as he had already issued an order for the air defences of the Cuban armed forces to open fire – at the intruders. Having no such orders from Moscow, the Soviet proved reluctant. Nevertheless, they were eventually to bow to Castro’s demands.

Early on the morning of Oct. 27, their SAM-sites powered up their radars, de-facto establishing, a `no-go’ zone over Cuba for high-flying US aircraft. The RB-47Hs and USS Oxford took a few hours to detect and confirm this important development, and then to report it to Washington.

By then, it was too late.

Four U-2 missions planned for Oct. 27, 1962

Meanwhile, preparations for another day of intensive flying activity were taking place across the Florida Strait. Originally, as many as four U-2 missions were planned for Oct. 27, but in the end only a single U-2 operated by the USAF, with Major Rudolf Anderson at the controls, received the order to make an overflight from McCoy AFB, while equipped with reconnaissance cameras and SIGINT-gathering systems. Since by the time of his take-off nobody in the USA had issued any warnings about the activation of Soviet S-75 SAM-sites on Cuba, Anderson was totally oblivious to the mortal danger he was about to confront.

Wreckage of Major Rudolf Anderson Jr.’s U2 at the Museo del Aire, Havana, Cuba

Of course, as soon as the USAF U-2 approached Cuban airspace it was detected and tracked by Soviet radars and assigned the designation ‘Target 33.’ Together with their commanders, the operators nervously monitored the aircraft’s progress as it crossed the island on a north-west to south-east axis, all the time feeding related reports to several S-75 SAM-sites that were now on full combat alert.

Right from the start, the Soviets knew that the high-flying intruder was neither innocent: nor alone. Their work in turn was still tracked by one of the RB-47Hs of the 55th SRW and by the crew of USS Oxford. Just as the presence of the U-2 and the RB-47H did not escape the attention of Soviet radar operators, so also the activity of their radars did not escape the attention of US operators: however, the latter were unable to communicate directly to Anderson, and warn him in time.

U-2 over a Soviet unit equipped with cruise missiles

Initially at least, the Deputy Commander of the Soviet Forces in Cuba, General Leonid Garbuz and the Deputy Commander Air Defence, General Stepan Grechko were debating how to handle the situation. They wanted the overall Commander of the Soviet Forces on Cuba, General Issa Pliyev, to make the decision about what to do – or not – with Target 33. However, it proved impossible to get hold of Pliyev, because he was absent – or at least that is what his aide-de-imp stated. Pliyev is known to have suffered serious health problems related to his kidneys and was thus most likely incapacitated.

Meanwhile, Anderson steered his U-2 over Guantanamo Bay before continuing in a western direction – a fact that became crucial in what happened next. This brought him on a course directly over a Soviet unit equipped with FKR-1 Meteor (ASCC/NATO-codename SSC-2 Salish’) cruise missiles, deployed outside the village of Filipinas. The FKR- 1 missiles deployed there were equipped with 12 kiloton nuclear warheads and meant to ‘neutralize the US base at Guantanamo in the case of an invasion.

Because the missiles were moved into this position during the night from Oct. 26 to 27, their presence could not have been revealed by earlier US reconnaissance missions and therefore they were still a secret from the Americans (their discovery came about on Oct. 28, but they were mistaken for anti-ship missiles). The tact that Major Anderson overflew the area in question was arguably one of the main reasons behind the decision of two Soviet deputy commanders to order their 5-75 units to op fire and shoot down the U-2.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. U-2S Dragon Lady “Senior Span”, 9th RW, 99th RS, 80-329

The U-2 shot down that nearly escalated the Cuban Missile Crisis

Having flown over Guantanamo, Anderson turned in a north-westerly direction, actually intending to overfly the island and then continue straight back to the USA. His progress was constantly monitored by Soviet radars, and Garbuz and Grechko now understood that the time had come to decide and to act. Unable to reach their superior commander, they took the responsibility upon themselves the two Soviet generals agreed to order the downing of Target 33.

The events then moved very quickly: General Grechko issued the order to destroy the U-2 via telephone to the CO of the 11th AD Division, Colonel Georgi Voronkov. The latter repeated the to his superior (it was a standard procedure for the recipient to repeat the order received so as to ensure to his superior that it was clearly understood), and then forwarded it to the CO of the 507th AD Regiment, Guseinov, who in turn did the same passing down the order to Major Ivan Gerchenkov, the commander of the regiment’s 1st Battalion. The later was located in the vicinity of the town Banes in Oriente province. Its radar van was crewed – besides Major Gerchenkov who was supervising the actions of his subordinates Vasily Gorshakov, Alexander Ryapenko (the latter was the guidance officer) and several others, in accordance with related procedures.

No way to survive

The American aircraft, which was flying at an altitude of 22,000m was engaged at a range of 12km. While two of the three missiles fired by the Soviets detonated underneath and behind the target, the third exploded above it, spraying the U-2 with shrapnel: one piece penetrated not only the cockpit, but also the protective suit of Major Anderson, thus instantly decompressing both. The disabled pilot promptly lost control of his disintegrating aircraft, the wreckage of which came down near the village of Veguitas, with pilot’s body still strapped to his ejection seat. Unsurprisingly, yet tragically, there was no way for Anderson to survive this catastrophe. Gerchenkov reported up the chain of command that he had fulfilled his task – i.e. to have shot down the US aircraft – at 10:19hrs local time.

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Not deliberate provocation by Moscow

Curious villagers quickly flocked to the crash site and Cuban because military personnel also appeared at the scene. In no time, Cuban radio- soon to be followed by the press – boasted of a great victory over the ‘Yankee imperialists.’

Understandably, the mood across the Florida Strait was not ecstatic. The news of the U-2’s downing reached Washington just as President Kennedy was holding another meeting in the White House. Beforehand the US president and his closest aides had agreed that if an American aircraft was shot down the US would attack Cuba. Fortunately, they changed their mind, not least because they thought that the decision to fire on US aircraft was not deliberate provocation by Moscow, but one that was made locally. With hindsight, it is on record that this assessment was correct. The action by Major Gerchenkov, and the decisions by Grechkov and Garbuz thus did not result in the Third World War.

The following video features excerpts from Thirteen Days movie and shows the sequence of Major Rudolf Anderson’s U-2 shot down.

Hunt for the U-2 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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