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Cuban Missile Crisis

It is certainly no exaggeration to say that聽the in October, 1962 was聽the most dangerous incident occurring during the decades-long Cold聽War between the Free World and the Union of聽Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In this article聽I tell my personal story of that period as a Crew Commander in the Strategic Air Command KC-135 jet聽aerial refueling tanker force at Westover Air Force聽Base, Massachusetts.

During the Cold War, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 bomber and KC-135 tanker forces were constantly 鈥渙n alert鈥 at multiple bases, 24 hours of every day. Known as the 鈥淪AC Alert Force鈥, every one聽of those airplanes聽and crews had a specific, pre-planned聽mission involving a retaliatory attack against specific targets in the USSR or a Communist聽satellite country.

On Alert

Being 鈥渙n alert鈥 meant that the bombers聽and tankers were continuously guarded and parked in special areas near the runways. The flight crews resided in special buildings near the airplanes on the flight聽line, maintaining the capability to quickly respond by running to the airplanes,聽starting the engines, and taking off.聽聽The reason聽for haste was the threat of Russian missiles being fired from聽Soviet submarines off the US coast with the capability of attacking and crippling the US聽strategic bomber and tanker forces in just a few minutes.

Practice alerts were constantly conducted, to ensure that the crews could always get to their airplanes and take off in minimal time. 聽 One can imagine the tremendous time, effort and expense 鈥 for many years聽鈥搊f maintaining the huge SAC bomber and Tanker Alert Force as described above.聽The reason was very simple: a firm belief by US聽leaders in the willingness聽and ability of the USSR to attack our strategic forces. To deter聽such an attack on our strategic forces by the USSR, maintenance of a credible and invulnerable capability to聽respond to any attack from the USSR was essential.

An Act of War

When the missile launch facilities聽under construction in Cuba were discovered by U-2聽aerial photography, the US viewed it as an聽aggressive activity, virtually an act of war. Intermediate range聽missiles聽launched from only 90 miles away from the US would be able to聽hit American cities and bases in a matter of minutes鈥攁n intolerable danger to the US homeland.

B-52 Bombers Aloft and Armed

It was then that the entire SAC force 鈥 many hundreds of bombers聽and tankers — was put on increased alert. A continuous 鈥減arade鈥 of flying B-52聽bombers armed with nuclear weapons was kept aloft聽24 hours each day. Their various routes took them across the Atlantic聽Ocean and into the approaches of the USSR where they could be seen on聽Russian radar.

Flights Lasting Nearly 24 Hours

Every B-52 flew missions that lasted nearly a full 24 hours, involving multiple refuelings from tankers based both in the US and in Europe. When the bomber and tanker crews were not airborne on missions, they were living aboard the airplanes on the ground, monitoring the radios, ready to launch at a moment鈥檚 notice.

During the most intense days of the crisis, my tanker unit sent out twenty-two (22) sorties聽each day having a duration of three hours and fifteen minutes,聽each sortie offloading 113,000 pounds to a single B-52 in about twenty聽minutes of聽contact. The effort to prepare that many airplanes聽every day and transfer that much fuel, involved Herculean efforts and聽great expense.

Like a Scary Movie

During that period, the atmosphere on the base was like an implausible,聽frightening movie. All crewmembers wore firearms believing that they were very close to聽actual hostilities. We were worried about our families, who were聽alone in the housing area, out of contact. Many dependents moved聽to the North, out of the state, certain that聽if World War III started, our base would be one of the first hit.

One of the strange occurrences during the crisis was the聽broadcasting of Communist propaganda messages on the International Time聽Clock Station, WWV. That station broadcasts a simple time signal聽on聽High Frequency (HF), continuously giving precise time reports for use in聽celestial navigation. All crewmembers are accustomed to getting 鈥渢ime hacks鈥澛爋n WWV and it was a genuine shock to hear a loud voice聽break into the聽transmission with threats and accusations about how 鈥淧resident Kennedy is聽going to cause World War III鈥濃.in English, with a strange accent.

A U-2 Shot Down Over Cuba

Saturday, 27 October 62, a U-2 flown by Major Rudy Anderson was shot down over Cuba. On the same聽day, also not known to the public at the time, another聽U-2 flying near聽Alaska had severe navigational problems that caused an overflight of聽the eastern Soviet Union. 聽Although thought by the Soviets to be deliberate at the time, it was later聽learned that the inadvertent overflight was caused聽by a mistake the聽pilot had made in performing 鈥済rid navigation鈥, a method necessary in the聽Arctic regions.

President Kennedy and Soviet Premier聽Krushchev

During the crisis, behind the scenes and unknown to the public, diplomatic聽contacts were underway and President Kennedy and Soviet Premier聽Krushchev exchanged two formal letters. The crisis was finally聽resolved by聽Krushchev鈥檚 making a commitment to remove the missiles from Cuba.

After the crisis,聽the SAC Alert Force returned to its pre-crisis聽posture, continuing in聽that posture for several more years. Today, the round-the-clock, 24/7 SAC聽Alert Force of bombers and tankers no longer exists.

Col. Woodhull鈥檚 story and many more veterans鈥 stories can viewed on our 鈥Living Histories鈥 page.

Telling their stories is one way we honor veterans at the museum. Currently closed for the creation of new exhibits and annual winter inventory, the museum will re-open for 2024 on March 1. Please come back if you have visited before to see the exciting new exhibits. Open hours will be 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM Tuesday-Friday, beginning March 1.

Article written by Richard G. 鈥淒uke鈥 Woodhull, Jr., Colonel, USAF-Ret.

 

U-2 pilot reunion

Top photo: Far left, Captain Woodhull with his KC-135 tanker crew in 1962 (KC-135 in the background)聽

 

Left photo: Woodhull at a U-2 Pilots’ Reunion, October 2022

 

Richard G. 鈥淒uke鈥 Woodhull, Jr.
Colonel, USAF-Ret.

Richard G.聽鈥淒uke鈥澛燱oodhull, Jr.聽(Colonel USAF, Retired) is a Command Pilot with 6500 hours of military flying.聽During his 30-year USAF career (1955-1985), he held multiple command, staff聽and diplomatic positions.

His Cold War and Vietnam War operational flying qualifications include the U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft and KC-135 tankers, among others. He and his wife, Ann, have lived in Transylvania County since 1997. He volunteers at the 香港六合彩开奖.

Colonel Richard G Duke Woodhull Jr