Blue Moon Over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis

by Captain William B. Ecker USN (ret.) and Kenneth V. Jack
Copyright 2012 by Osprey Publishing; Oxford (United Kingdom)

Blue Moon Over Cuba, based largely on the previously unpublished memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis written by Captain William B. Ecker in 1986, gives a detailed accounting of the low-level photography missions carried by the U.S. Navy’s Light Photographic Squadron 62 (VFP-62) at the height of the Crisis and for several weeks afterward. Captain Ecker (who was portrayed in the film “Thirteen Days” by actor Christopher Lawford, nephew of President Kennedy and the son of actor Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy) was the commanding officer of VFP-62 at the time of the crisis. He planned and flew many of the high-speed, low-altitude missions which photographed the Soviet missile sites in Cuba while under fire from Cuban anti-aircraft guns.

The sites had been identified by high-altitude U-2 photography, revealed to President Kennedy on October 16th, but the U-2 photos were not enough; they did not provide sufficiently detailed imagery to convince the American public, the Congress, and the international community of what the Soviets were doing in Cuba, nor were the images informative enough to help the military devise a plan for air strikes, an option that was seriously considered in the early phases of the crisis, and was deemed a necessary prelude to a U.S. invasion of the island. Detailed low-level photography was needed, and the one unit in the U.S. military with strong capabilities in this area as of October 1962 was then-Commander Ecker’s squadron of RF-8 Crusaders based at NAS (Naval Air Station) Cecil Field, Florida. The code name for the low-altitude reconnaissance operation was “Blue Moon.”

Blue Moon Over Cuba gives a vivid account of how VFP-62’s high-speed, low-altitude photography provided President Kennedy and policymakers in Washington with detailed photographic evidence of Soviet construction of medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Western Cuba, allowing photo interpreters and the intelligence community to identify precisely what weapons were being prepared, how fast construction was progressing, and to provide the President of an estimate of when the missiles would become operational. There is also evidence that photos taken by VFP-62 Crusaders were relied upon by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson when, in a dramatic, televised confrontation on October 25th, he presented the Soviet Union’s U.N. Ambassador, Valerian Zorin, with photographic proof of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

VFP-62 flew these missions at considerable hazard, dodging flak, small arms fire, and in the later phases of the crisis, interception by Soviet MiG fighters. VFP-62’s tactics, which included approaching photo runs from different directions each day, were in part responsible for the fact that they suffered no losses during these operations. Although the Russians had installed surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) near the sites being photographed, these anti-aircraft missiles did not threaten the Navy’s reconnaissance missions because the Crusaders came in too low for the SAMs to effectively intercept them. Air Force U-2’s, operating exclusively at high altitude, were far more vulnerable to SAMs, and one U-2 had been shot down over Russia in 1960. The book details how the need for fresh intelligence combined with gaps in U-2 photo-reconnaissance due to weather, the status of U.S.-Soviet negotiations, and fears that a U-2 would be shot down led to the need for daily low-level photo-reconnaissance. It was Blue Moon photos, for example, that revealed the presence of small Soviet tactical nuclear weapons called Frogs, that would very likely have been used against a U.S. invasion force. In perhaps the most dangerous moment of the crisis, a U-2 piloted by Air Force Major Rudolph Anderson was shot down on October 27th — after which President Kennedy resisted the most strident calls for military action from the Joint Chiefs and a number of his civilian advisers. Blue Moon confirms that Premier Khrushchev did not order the U-2 to be downed, and that Kennedy’s restraint after this incident was based on part on his knowledge that neither he nor Khruschev were fully in control of their governments’ armed forces.

There are also anecdotes about lighter moments, as when, to cope with down time between reconnaissance flights, a maintenance crew painted “Smile, You’re on Candid Camera” on the belly of at least one flat-bottomed photo Crusader; and the F-104 Starfighter squadron commander based in California who lobbied hard, and successfully, to get into the action, only to have the lead plane in the first F-104 flight to land at VFP-62’s home field wreck its nose gear and go skidding down the runway in a spray of sparks. The pilot walked away, but that night in the Officer’s Club, VFP-62 pilots treated their Air Force contemporaries to a great deal of ribbing, and a derisive song, about their arrival. Finally, Blue Moon details how the Marine squadron of photo Crusaders assigned to help complete the grueling schedule of reconnaisance flights, VMCJ-2, had Playboy bunny logos on the tails of their planes, and how the Marines took it upon themselves to give VFP-62’s birds the same logo in a series of illicit “midnight paintings.”

This book underscores and removes all doubt about the need for good intelligence, specifically aerial reconnaissance, in the nuclear age. Blue Moon dashes the notion that the crisis was “over” as of October 28, 1962, the day Soviet Premier Khruschev announced on Radio Moscow that the USSR would remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for President Kennedy’s pledge not to invade. Within the military and intelligence communities, tension remained high for many weeks afterward, as it became clear that Fidel Castro would not allow United Nations inspectors into Cuba to verify Soviet dismantling and removal of the missiles, and that therefore VFP-62’s low-altitude reconnaissance would need to continue for some time. Many in the military and in Congress doubted that the Russians would make good on their part of the deal, intensifying the need for accurate photo-reconnaissance, which by late November confirmed that the missiles were being shipped back to Russia.

This is an important book about a select group of aviators on the front lines during perhaps the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, giving a detailed account of how heavily the intelligence community, and the President of the United States, relied on aerial reconnaissance to navigate a way out of a confrontation that had the world on the brink of nuclear war in October 1962.

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