There was much about the future that *John could not foresee in the autumn of 1958 when he went off to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. John entered the military, like many young men at the time, as an act of independence.
He was 18 years old and a recent high school graduate and left home with youthful eagerness to train as a B 52 mechanic. The Cold War seemed more textbook than reality. John couldn’t imagine a Cold War showdown that would take our country to nuclear brinkmanship.
Basic training was followed by B 52 jet mechanic tech school and when he graduated in June 1959, John flew back home to Oregon and married his high school sweetheart. Together, they set out for a base in California, where John began work as a B-52 flight-line maintenance mechanic.
During the Cold War, the B 52′s were ever ready so they might allow America to penetrate Soviet air defenses if necessary. The aircraft hangers where John was stationed were large, inside the walls were unadorned and maintenance crews were hard-working and dedicated at keeping our planes mission ready.
When John F. Kennedy became President John says that he remembers thinking that Kennedy was taking the reins for a new generation. Soon, the first man would fly into space, but all too soon the new Commander and Chief was tested by the fear of all out nuclear war, remembered as the “Cuban Missile Crisis.”
On the flight-line John recalls being briefed that the placing of missiles in Cuba gravely increased the Soviet threat to the United States. Missiles in Cuba would be in a position to attack American population centers and military bases. The formation of such a potential was objectionable on military grounds alone, without considering the great political and psychological consequence.
B 52 squadrons were modern efficient, an all jet force fully capable of conducting nuclear war if we had to. John’s command was well-known for calling middle of the night alerts or Cold War exercise drills. Staged alerts were a Cold War way of life, but the alert called in October 1962 was real. Everyone at John’s military base, but more than ever out on the flight line, felt the fear and tension of probable war.
This time the alert was genuine and John knew all too well, the outcome could define the world’s future. At any moment a nuclear holocaust could erupt. During this national emergency, seventy-five American B 52′s from a number of Air Force bases were kept airborne 24/7.
The crisis had begun October 14, 1962, when U 2 reconnaissance imagery uncovered the Soviets building secret missile bases in Cuba. The photographs were made known to the President on October 16th when he was handed a folder with U-2 (a fairly new plane at the time, the U 2 spy plane was built for the CIA), surveillance photographs. The president now had hard photographic evidence that the Russians were setting up offensive missiles in Cuba.
The President and the military members on standby alert felt what was taking place in Cuba as personally directed from Khrushchev and America’s stand down with the Soviet’s began. Were the missiles to become operational a Soviet strike would have wiped out much of our Country’s defense.
John remembers the first rays of gray dawn were filtering through the trees when he was called back to the base after a scant couple of hours of sleep at home. Under the drifting cloud cover a chilly wind whipped through the open area leading to the base front gate. The drive he says was quiet and eerie; it seemed the world had stopped.
“When I reached the flight-line, I was struck by how silent it was. The usual one security check point now required three different checks. One, my everyday flight-line badge, the second and third were mandatory codes of the day. I had to have these before I could enter to perform maintenance.”
‘It seemed everyone working on the flight-line was lost in their own forbidding thoughts. We all had an intense sense of team and mission and at the same time I don’t think I have ever seen so many people make so little noise. We knew this was a global game from both governments’ perspectives.”
As flight-line mechanics they were issued new tools and an extra issue of clothing, to use if they were deployed without notice. “Our jobs were assigned by priority. Top priority was to be able to launch the planes on 15-minute notice, 24-hours. The next priority was to recover returning aircraft, such as refueling, replenish oxygen tanks, check tires, replace the B-52′s drag-parachute and fix any flight discrepancies.”
The Air Force at that time dominated with its strategic bombing philosophy. John recalls two flight crews flew on board each aircraft to have fresh crews for flying round the clock. “One crew slept while the other crew flew the plane.”
The Cuban Crisis was the most serious episode in the Cold War. It was said during the missile crisis, the President held the power of a god and the responsibility of a man. If he had stumbled, he might have brought about the obliteration of half if not all humanity.
A Soviet surface to air missile did shoot down one of our U 2′s, over Cuba on October 27 and this could have resulted in a full-fledged war were it not for the dispatch from Khrushchev, appealing for the removal of American missiles from Turkey. In return, Khrushchev would pull out of Cuba. This proved to be the culmination of the Crisis and with it the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end.
Two-weeks after it began, on October 28, 1962, following an imposing confrontation that threatened world peace, President Kenney and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed that both sides would dismantle their missile installations.
John says, “The last days of October passed and those of us on the air force flight-line were thankful for the President’s firm resolve that helped end the Soviet missile crisis in Cuba, his determined steadfastness may have helped end the Soviet Missile Crisis in Cuba, but this was to be Kennedy’s last major achievement.” A little more than a year later, on November 22, 1963 he was assassinated.
*John was stationed at Travis Air Force Base, California from 1959 to 1964, assigned to a B-52 Squadron. After leaving Travis he became a C-130 flight engineer and enjoyed a 20-year military career. Today he lives with his wife near San Antonio, Texas.