October 23, 1962. It was one of those inky nights. The stars were brilliant, but there was no moon and the lights of mainland Cuba had long since disappeared over the horizon to the southwest. We were flying our Lockheed Neptune SP-2H patrol aircraft “dark”; wartime procedures dictated that external running and strobe lights be extinguished. The afternoon had been the mixture of boredom and exhilaration that defines air reconnaissance patrol at sea. For about a week, flying out of U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay on Cuba, our detachment of Neptunes had been making low-altitude flights three miles off the coast of Cuba to find, photograph, and report all aircraft, ship, and submarine traffic. We had already detected several submerged Soviet submarines.
Yesterday, all hands had gathered in the officers club mess hall to watch President John Kennedy announce on TV that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had ordered the deployment of short- and medium-range intercontinental ballistic missiles to Cuba, a mere 90 miles south of Key West, Florida. Some missiles were already in Cuba, along with surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles and the technicians to launch them (see “Cuba During the Missile Crisis,” p. 32). Kennedy was quarantining the island: The United States would deny any Soviet ship carrying missiles, missile equipment, or military personnel from continuing to Cuba.
In Pollysboy 11, our radio call sign, Bruce McCormick was commander and primary pilot; I was copilot. Our flight plan would take us around the eastern tip of the island, then northwest toward Havana harbor. About 40 miles east of Havana, George Fabik, the radar operator, spotted a large target in the harbor, heading north toward the open ocean. “Encrypt a message to Caveman,” McCormick said.
I pulled the KAC-1 Red Book, a huge, metal-bound codebook, into my lap, and composed a report to the commander, Fleet Air Wing Five (radio name Caveman) at fleet headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. “Break, break, Caveman, Caveman, this is Pollysboy 11. Prepare to copy, break, break.” Everyone in the Western hemisphere listening to the tactical frequency would be scribbling down our message.
Caveman’s reply: “Wait for the ship.”
McCormick throttled back the engines to conserve fuel. We spent the next three hours flying lazy circles at 1,500 feet. “Ordnance, fire up the galley and let’s see what they gave us for lunch.” It was the duty of the ordnance man to cook the food. When he wasn’t dropping bombs, Dennis McEachran was a pretty darn good cook.
“It’s steak and fried potatoes, boss. Anybody need fresh coffee?” If we had been in Norfolk, we would also have had the two dozen cupcakes my wife usually made for our patrol flights.
Puffy cumulus dotted the sky, with an occasional rain shower. Often, toward the end of a flight, we would fly under one of these showers to rinse salt from the airplane. We flew so close to the water that we would pick up spray from the waves. After a flight, when I swiped the airplane’s skin and held my fingers to my lips, I could taste salt.
“The ship’s at the three-mile limit.”
“Give me a heading.”
“Roger, sir. Come to 193 degrees, contact five miles.” At 6:03 p.m., the ship had arrived at the three-mile limit. We could legally take a look. Flying at 50 feet above the water, we readied our two bulky KB-10A 70-mm black-and-white cameras to photograph the details of the ship as we raced past it.
As we swept up the ship’s starboard side, we saw eight canvas-covered, cigar-shaped objects lashed on the deck. Was this a Soviet ship carrying the first load of missiles coming out of Cuba? Were the Soviets relenting?
The photo guys confirmed they each had taken the first of 70 photos. As we zoomed down the ship’s port side, the maintenance captain—appropriately named Eric Neptune—threw the Red Book into my lap. This time the message would be highest priority. “Break, break, Caveman, Caveman, this is Pollysboy 11. I have FLASH traffic. Stand by to copy.”
Caveman commanded us to stay over the ship and report every half-hour until released, then fly to Naval Air Station Key West and get the photos developed.
Twilight settled in around 9 p.m., the azure waters slowly turning black. Without our external lights, we were invisible. The only thing an observer could see was the blue fire from the exhausts of our engines. The ship also showed no lights. The captain knew we were up there, but he wasn’t going to make finding his ship easy.
At night, the only way to see the ship was with the 70-million-candlepower searchlight 50 feet out on our starboard wingtip. If the searchlight was on longer than 30 seconds, heat from the burning carbon arc tips would melt the searchlight frame and possibly start a fire in the wing. Two aircraft in our detachment of five had experienced such melting, requiring new searchlight units to be flown in. The destroyed units had to be chopped out with a hammer and chisel.
The extreme brightness of the searchlight would ruin my night vision for at least 15 minutes, making me useless as a pilot. McCormick would protect his eyes by lowering his seat, flipping down his helmet-mounted sunglasses, and using duffel bags crammed into the dashboard windscreen to block the brilliant light. He would not look out of the cockpit, flying on instruments until I switched off the light.
At 11:45 came the message: “Make searchlight pass at midnight. Divert to Key West immediately thereafter.”
At 11:59, we lined up to make a 30-second run up the ship’s stern. We set our altitude at 1,500 feet. Radar operator Fabik was counting down. I adjusted the pistol grip, tipping the searchlight down and slewing it left.
Five…four…three… A blue-white blaze exploded in my eyes. Excruciating pain. I couldn’t see anything.
I hadn’t pressed the trigger. I had not turned our searchlight on.
It had to be another patrol aircraft, at our altitude, flying directly at us. Perhaps it had just started a searchlight run. Its crew had no idea we were there. We were closing at 300 mph. In 30 seconds we would collide.
McCormick yanked the airplane into a 90-degree right bank. We both pulled hard on our yokes, trying to swerve out of the way. I tried blind-calling the other airplane, going from frequency to frequency. “Break off! Turn right! Turn right!” There was no answer.
Seconds later, we heard propellers thrash under the belly of our airplane. We later learned that another squadron’s airplane had wandered into our area to check out the ship, not realizing we were there. We had missed each other by feet.
We landed at Boca Chica air base, Naval Air Station Key West, around 1 a.m. on October 24. The airfield was darkened by the national emergency: a war that might begin at any minute. The crew tied down the airplane while I was driven across town to the photo lab. We passed the silhouettes of countless Marines in foxholes, rifle bayonets protruding, dug into boulevard medians.
After technicians made a print of each shot of the Soviet ship with missiles on its decks, I annotated the back of every one. Around 3 a.m. a courier appeared. “Give me your six best pictures for the president,” he said. I made my selection and he scooped the photos into a briefcase, handcuffed the case to his wrist, and left to fly back to Washington. The photos would be at the Pentagon by dawn on the 24th.
We flew back to Guantanamo Bay, by then having logged 20 flight hours on two hours of sleep in the last 38 hours, with one inflight dinner the evening before. Thank God for coffee.
The official announcement and photos of Soviet ships with missile cargo first appeared on October 28. As far as I can tell, our images never became part of the official documentation of the Soviet pullout. But we knew that on October 23, we photographed the first Soviet missiles coming out of Cuba.
A 1958 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Paul Stiller received his Navy wings in 1959, and flew with Patrol Squadron 56 until 1963. Since then he has designed medical instruments, zoo and museum exhibits, and theater scenery.