When we think about countries that pose a nuclear threat to the United States, North Korea probably tops the list. But in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, it was the Soviet Union whose missiles kept the U.S. on high alert. And some of those nuclear missiles were as close to the U.S. as 90 miles – in Cuba. A new book explores the Cuban Missile Crisis through the little-known story of U.S. pilots who flew U-2 spy planes in an attempt to find out what sort of threat the Soviets’ armaments posed..
Michael Tougias is co-author of the book, “Above and Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Spy Mission.” It tells the story of two U-2 pilots who put their lives at risk in moments of nuclear confrontation. He co-wrote the book with Casey Sherman.
“The U-2 program took from the very best of the Air Force and in the early days they went through the CIA as well,” Tougias says. “One of the pilots is still alive. He has flown any kind of plane imaginable, and he says by far the hardest aircraft to fly is the U-2.”
Tougias describes the U-2 spy planes as “a giant glider with a jet engine”. They played a key role during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, because of their ability to fly higher than any other aircraft of the time, at around 13 miles above the Earth.
“They were invulnerable to Russian MiG fighters,” Tougias says. “The way [the Cuban Missile Crisis] began was when one of our U-2 spy planes discovered the nuclear missiles in Cuba.”
Many of the U-2 spy planes were launched from an air base in Del Rio, Texas, where the pilots’ families stayed during their operations, Tougias said.
In preparation for “Above and Beyond,” the authors interviewed Jerry McIlmoyle, the last surviving U-2 pilot who flew over Cuba. They also talked with Sergei Khrushchev, whose father, former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, decided to place nuclear missiles on Cuba.
“The book opens up with Jerry [McIlmoyle],” Tougias says. “He is flying over Cuba during the missile crisis and two surface-to-air missiles come right towards him. He sees them explode in his rear view mirrors and gets them on film, but when he lands and tells everybody ‘hey, they are firing at us, a three-star general come down from Washington and squashed that information. They destroyed his film and they destroyed his intelligence report.”
According to the author, that anecdote shows the tensions that existed between the Department of Defense and President John F. Kennedy. The book poses the theory that the military did not want Kennedy to know about McIlmoyle’s experience, because he might have ordered a stop to the U-2 flights over Cuba.
Doing his research of “Above and Beyond,” Tougias realized that miscommunication was an important factor that lead to unintended consequences during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his opinion, that lesson can be applied in current and future nuclear threats.
“For me the lesson today is to have open communication as best as you can with your adversaries, so there’s no unintended consequences of one of your actions.”