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Strategic Air Command Casualties in the Cuban Missile Crisis

  • Published
  • By Mr. Don Koser
  • AFGSC History Office
It's been said that history only remembers the glory and not the sacrifice. The 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis offers an opportunity for us to remember those Airmen who performed their mission with pride and professionalism, and whose experience was short on glory and high in sacrifice. Twelve individuals lost their lives in four separate operations during the crisis, performing the mission they and others had worked and prepared so hard for.

Strategic Air Command had more than 280,000 personnel assigned when the Cuban Missile Crisis began in earnest in October 1962. The previous month, SAC personnel began flying electronic intelligence (ELINT) or ferret missions over the periphery of Cuba under Operation Common Cause. These were overt flights using normal Air Route Traffic Control procedures. Crews gathered data on Soviet radar and communications systems and were careful not to fly into Cuban airspace and trigger its air defenses. While performing these missions, on Sept. 27, an RB-47K Stratojet (53-4327) from the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW), lost power in engine six and crashed on takeoff from Forbes Air Force Base, Kan. Onboard were; Lt. Col. James G. Woolbright, aircraft commander, 1st Lt. Paul R. Greenawalt, copilot, Capt. Bruce R. Kowol, navigator, and Staff Sgt. Myron L. Curtis, crew chief.

In all, SAC aircrews flew 116 ELINT missions and 1,065 hours under Operation Common Cause. Another RB-47H crew, flying aircraft number 53-6248, but performing a different mission, died when their Stratojet crashed after takeoff from Kindley AFB, Bermuda, on Oct. 26. On this date, three RB-47 crews took off in search of the Soviet tanker Grozny. One of the RB-47s, aircraft 53-6248, crashed on takeoff while the two remaining aircrews positively identified the tanker only 90 minutes later.
The crew of 53-6248 included Maj. William A. Britton, aircraft commander, 1st Lt. Holt J. Rasmussen, copilot, Capt. Robert A. Constable, navigator, and Capt. Robert C. Dennis, observer. Under operation Blue Banner, the crew's mission was to perform maritime search operations in support of the naval quarantine directed by President Kennedy. The four-day operation supporting the Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic (CINCLANT) ended Oct. 28.

The lone combat casualty of the crisis occurred the following day on Oct. 27. Earlier, the 4080th Strategic Wing (SW) selected two pilots under Operation Brass Knob to perform photo reconnaissance over Cuba to determine if reports of ballistic missile site construction were accurate. Confirmation of the ballistic missiles' existence came quickly when on Oct 14 Maj Rudolf Anderson, Jr. returned from a mission with pictures of ballistic missile sites and nuclear storage facilities under construction. Together with film from two subsequent missions, U-2 pilots provided conclusive evidence of three Medium Range Ballistic Missile sites near San Cristobal. As a result, President John F. Kennedy called for a naval quarantine beginning on Oct. 22. Five days later, while conducting another Brass Knob mission an enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) struck Major Anderson's U-2F, bringing the aircraft down near the Banes-Antilla area of Cuba. President Kennedy posthumously awarded Anderson the first Air Force Cross. He was also awarded the Purple Heart and the Cheney Award. From Oct 14 through Nov 30, 4080 SW crews flew 91 Brass Knob sorties over Cuba during the crisis totaling 402:52 hours.

The final casualties occurred on Nov. 11, when a 55 SRW RB-47H Stratojet (aircraft 53-4297) crashed upon takeoff from MacDill AFB, Fla, on its way to support Operation Blue Ink. The crew of three was killed in the crash caused by engine failure, Capt. William E. Wyatt, aircraft commander, Capt. William C. Maxwell, copilot, and 1st Lt. Ronald M. Rial, navigator. Aircrews flew 72 Operation Blue Ink missions providing critical weather reconnaissance support for U-2 photo reconnaissance missions.

The personnel of SAC performed extremely well under difficult circumstances during the Cuban Missile Crisis to provide conclusive evidence of the Soviet buildup as well as providing the military might necessary to back President Kennedy's course of action. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis E. LeMay stated, "Our people handled this crisis on a businesslike basis. Our crews fly on schedule in all kinds of weather, because that's their job...These are not prima donnas on whom we lavish special privileges, they are typical Air Force men and women, professionals who take pride in their work. Without them our weapons and complicated machines would be meaningless...." We should not forget the dedication and sacrifice of these twelve men or the pride and professionalism of all SAC personnel which led to the successful conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis.