The greatest short-term mobilization since World War II took place during the missile crisis of 1962. The plans to take the island are revealed here for the first time.
Most published accounts and studies of the Cuban Missile Crisis tend to concentrate, almost exclusively, on the debates and decisions of the Kennedy White House during those harrowing days of late October 1962. Major aspects of the crisis, strangely overlooked, are just beginning to come to light. One is the preparation for war, against both Cuba and the Soviet Union, that took place in a period just short of two weeks and turned much of southern Florida into a D-Day—like staging area. The result would prove to be the largest short-term mobilization of men and equipment since World War II—exceeded in size only by Desert Storm. Nor have the plans for the invasion of Cuba, which came so close to happening, been revealed until now; the exact tactical details of Operational Plans 312, 314, and 316-62 remain classified. Fortunately for the world, the trains (and planes) could be stopped, and were. This would not be another 1914.
The following account is adapted from Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its author, Dino A. Brugioni, a renowned expert in the analysis of aerial photography, was a key player in the crisis. Working at the time for the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) of the Central Intelligence Agency, he was one of the people who confirmed the presence of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba.
Brugioni tells the story, as it unfolded day by increasingly tense day, of that mobilization and the preparations to invade Cuba and destroy the missile sites if the Soviets refused to back down. If the operation was unbelievably swift and for the most part efficient, remember that in 1962 the United States armed forces had reached a Cold War peak of morale and readiness. But that extraordinary mobilization did not come off without some typically American glitches.
October 15—16, 1962
Throughout the summer of 1962 the CIA had maintained close surveillance over the heavy volume of Russian shipping exiting the Baltic and Black seas bound for Cuba. The dramatic increase in Soviet cargoes and the arrival of numerous “technicians” at Cuban ports became a paramount intelligence concern. A U-2 mission over the island on August 29 revealed that the Soviets were constructing an islandwide SA-2 surface-to-air-missile (SAM) defense network. Soon after, the discovery of Komar guided-missile patrol boats and coastal cruise-missile sites to defend against an amphibious landing alerted the U.S. government to more sinister possibilities.
The emerging picture of a Soviet military buildup in Cuba particularly worried John McCone, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Of the SA-2 missiles he stated: “They’re not putting them in to protect the cane cutters. They’re putting them in to blind our reconnaissance eye.” McCone insisted that the number of U-2 flights over Cuba be increased, and he expressed to top policymakers his concern that the Soviets might introduce offensive missiles in Cuba. On September 4 and 13 President Kennedy issued warnings to the Soviets that “the gravest issues” would arise if they installed surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) in Cuba. In official statements and high-level meetings with U.S. officials, the Soviets stated emphatically that they would not deploy offensive weapons in Cuba.
On Monday, October 15, interpreting a U-2 mission flown over Cuba the day before, NPIC discovered two medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) sites under construction in the San Crist0bal area. When the president was briefed on October 16, he ordered the island completely covered by U-2 missions. Interpreting the photographs these flights brought back, the center found four additional MRBM sites and three intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) sites under construction. (The MRBMs could reach just beyond Washington, D.C., the IRBMs could hit all parts of the United States except the extreme Northwest.) NPIC also spotted four mobile Soviet combat groups.
General Maxwell D. Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), saw the secret Soviet move into Cuba with nuclear missiles as a major effort to change the strategic balance of power. It was an attempt to erase in one stroke the U.S. nuclear superiority to the Soviets. That superiority, according to a top-secret estimate, was at least 7 to 1. (In meetings with Americans in Moscow two years ago, Soviet officials stated that the ratio was closer to 15 to 1—or greater—in favor of the United States.) Taylor and the other members of the JCS recommended a preemptive air strike, an airborne assault, and an invasion to wipe out the missile bases. As Dean Acheson, then a senior adviser with the National Security Council (NSC), put it—and Taylor agreed—one does not plan a military operation of the magnitude of the Soviets’ with the expectation that it will fail.
The NSC debated three courses of action: a “quarantine” (actually a blockade) of Cuba, air strikes against the missile sites, and an invasion. The president chose the quarantine. At the same time, preparations were set in motion for the alternatives. Acheson began to press for a declaration of war against Cuba. He wanted to make it plain to the Soviets that “their bayonets had struck steel instead of mush.”
To the intelligence community, the Soviet-Cuban venture had the Khrushchev stamp: a gamble—bold, large, premeditated, but not carefully thought through. That gamble would become a colossal Soviet blunder. Militarily, as General Taylor would remark, the Soviets chose the wrong issue and the wrong battlefield.
JCS contingency plans for air strikes, a quarantine, and the invasion of Cuba had been completed by the summer and were known as Operational Plans 312, 314, and 316 respectively. Practice for these operations had already been scheduled to take place with an amphibious brigade landing exercise from October 15 to 20 on Vieques Island, off Puerto Rico. At the last moment the exercise had been canceled because of bad weather. But thousands of marines were still on their ships, ready for a real landing.
During the same period the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force were engaged in exercises called “Three Pairs” and “Rapid Roads” in central Texas. Units of the 82nd Airborne Division, the attacking force, were waiting at the James Connally Air Force Base at Waco, Texas, when ordered to return to their home base, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Tactical Air Command (TAC) fighters that were to support the 82nd Airborne were sent to airfields in Florida. The 1st Armored Division, which was to be the aggressor force in the exercise, was told to return to base at nearby Fort Hood and await orders.
The JCS, through Admiral Robert Lee Dennison, commander in chief, Atlantic (CINCLANT), began alerting naval Task Forces 135 and 136 to head for the Caribbean. Commanding officers were told to round up their men as inconspicuously as possible. Task Force 135 consisted of two attack carrier groups built around the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise and the USS Independence, along with 15 screening destroyers. It was to proceed to positions off the southern coast of Cuba. Task Force 136, the blockading force, consisted of the aircraft carrier Essex and cruisers Newport News and Canberra, along with an underway replenishment group and nineteen destroyers. The quarantine line was marked by twelve destroyers on an arc 500 miles from Cape Maisf.
Lieutenant General Hamilton Howse, commanding general of the Strategic Army Command (STRAC) and the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, ordered the commanders of the 101st Airborne Division, the 1st Infantry Division, the 2nd Infantry Division, the 1st Armored Division, and the 82nd Airborne Division to report to his headquarters immediately. He briefed them on October 19, a Friday, with aerial photos provided by NPIC and ordered them to bring their commands to kill alert status.
The 82nd and 101st airborne divisions stationed at Fort Bragg and at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, were alerted for immediate movement to intermediate staging areas in southern Florida. The 1st Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, and the 4th Division at Fort Lewis, Washington, were also alerted to possible movement. The 2nd Division at Fort Benning, Georgia, would be moved to New Orleans for embarkation. The 1st Armored would be sent to Fort Stewart, Georgia. The commanders assembled their staffs and gave detailed instructions for the movement of men and matériel from their commands to Georgia or Florida.
One of the first priorities was to establish an impenetrable air-defense umbrella over forces gathering in Florida. Just ninety miles and five minutes of jet flying time from Havana, Key West would become one of the principal bases of the crisis. Rear Admiral Rhomad Y. McElroy, the Key West commander, cleared Key West International Airport and the nearby U.S. naval air station at Boca Chica of all utility and support aircraft in order to accommodate the navy and marine strike, reconnaissance, and defense aircraft that had already begun arriving from bases along the East Coast. Naval Squadron VF-41, transferred to Key West from Oceana, Virginia, on October 6, was already patrolling along the Florida Keys and the north shore of Cuba. All leaves were canceled at the base.
Meanwhile, military aircraft of all types, from fighters to reconnaissance planes packed with computers and sophisticated listening equipment, began to converge on other Florida air bases. By the evening of October 19, hundreds of fighters were lined up wingtip to wingtip, ready for action.
Army air-defense battalions, equipped with Hawk and Nike Hercules SAMs, were given the highest priority for rail, air, and truck movement. From as far away as Fort Lewis, equipment was moved southward to defend the Florida airfields that were most vulnerable to Cuban attack. The Hawk surface-to-air missiles battalion at Fort Meade, Maryland, was ordered to proceed posthaste by road to Key West. The loading was quickly accomplished, but it was evident that there had been little regard for weight or orderliness in the packing of the equipment. The unit selected U.S. Highway 1 as the fastest route to Florida. As the convoy moved through Virginia, a state highway patrolman noticed that a number of the trucks appeared to be overloaded. He signaled the convoy to follow him to the weighing station. There his suspicions were confirmed. The military officers protested vehemently that they had an important defense mission to perform in Florida—they couldn’t yet say what it was—and that precious time was being wasted. The patrolman remarked that military convoys were always in a hurry. He calmly proceeded to write out a ticket—a warning to the U.S. Army to be more careful in future loading of convoys.
The great mobilization was under way. Ammunition and supplies were moving by rail and road from all parts of the country. Truck after truck left the Letterkenny Ordnance Depot in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and began to roll to Florida loaded with ammunition. Several ordnance plants were placed on three-shift, seven-day weeks to produce 20rn strafing ammunition required for the fighter aircraft. The war plans called for the use of napalm as well as conventional ammunition. Hundreds of napalm drop tanks began arriving at the naval and tactical airfields, where they were stacked, according to one observer, like “mountains of cordwood.” Ammunition for naval gunfire against Cuban installations was also shipped to bases in Florida. Food rations came from such inland storage depots as Bonner Springs, Kansas. Army boat units, which would be needed for an invasion, were ordered to go to Fort Lauderdale and Port Everglades in Florida.
Military hospitals, especially those along the East Coast, previously devoted primarily to treating service dependents, were prepared to receive war casualties. Blood supplies were monitored, and troops not involved in the movement to Florida were asked to give blood. One hospital unit was sent to Florida on chartered buses. Presuming that this movement was another exercise, the buses had stopped at several liquor stores along the way. When it arrived in Florida, the unit itself was a casualty.
Billeting of the troops arriving in Florida was already becoming a problem. At some airfields the bachelor officers and enlisted men’s quarters were operated on the “hot bunk” principle: Three men would be assigned to each bunk with someone sleeping in it at all hours. Mess halls remained open around the clock. Later, after the president announced that missiles were in place in Cuba, the owner of the Gulfstream Park at Hallandale, Florida, invited the army to bivouac some of the troops of the 1st Armored Division at the racecourse. The army accepted, and soon military police were placed at all entrances; parking lots became motor pools, and the infield was used for storage and mess. Troops were billeted on the first and second floors of the grandstand. Weapons and duffel bags were stacked next to the betting windows. Church services were held in the photo-finish developing rooms.
According to Contingency Plan 316, the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions would be the first to land on Cuba. Large numbers of transport aircraft would have to be diverted to support the operation; more than 800 Lockheed Hercules flights would be needed to execute the invasion plan. Plans for deployment of the airborne divisions had been rehearsed and tested again.
Drops would be made at altitudes of from 700 to 900 feet. Airborne commanders knew conducting military operations on Cuba in October would not be easy. It was the season of rain and hurricanes, clouds and high winds, certainly not the best jump weather. Some drop zones would be in valleys containing sugarcane fields and cattle ranches. By the end of October, the cane fields would reach their maximum heights of seven to ten feet. The cane stalks not only posed a landing hazard for the parachutists but also presented problems in rallying and maneuvering—and provided the Cubans with sites that were ready-made for conducting guerrilla operations and harassing the airborne troops.
Those troops were issued a number of instructions about the treatment of any prisoners. They were specifically told that “Sino-Soviet bloc personnel” were to be carefully handled and taken into protective custody. At this point the United States was still trying its utmost to avoid a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union.
To assure proper interrogation of prisoners of war, Spanish-speaking military intelligence personnel were assigned to both division and regimental headquarters. Crash courses on interrogation techniques were offered to the airborne divisions. Prisoners of war were one thing, but it soon developed that the State Department had no specific plan for the handling of Cuban refugees. Although there were generalized plans for the occupation and a military government, there was no detailed plan for the recruitment of indigenous Cuban administrators. Nor were there plans to prevent starvation, disease, or civil unrest. When asked whether it had the funds to deal with such likely calamities, the State Department replied that “none had been budgeted.” This enormous potential for trouble would never really be solved—and other matters were more pressing.
One of the first issues President Kennedy raised during the crisis had been whether U.S. dependents at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Station on the southeastern end of Cuba should be evacuated. At the time there were over 2,800 women and children living on the base. The navy had strong feelings that the Soviets and Cubans might regard removal of the dependents as a sign of weakness rather than a matter of practicality. More to the point, it might also tip them off that the United States knew about the missiles, and the Soviets and Cubans might respond by upgrading their military and naval defenses. But Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had insisted that the dependents be removed. It had not yet been established that McNamara was reflecting the president’s views. In an attempt to convince McNamara of the value of keeping the dependents at Guantanamo, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Paul Nitze, and the Second Fleet commander, Admiral Alfred G. Ward, met with him. Ward was in charge of the blockade—and the navy’s role in any invasion. Nitze pointed out various reasons why it would be inadvisable to pull out the American civilians. After listening patiently, McNamara stood up and said. “Mr. Secretary, you have your instructions to get the dependents out of Guantanamo Bay. Please carry out those instructions.”
Shortly after 11:00 A.M. on October 21, the Sunday-morning routine at Guantanamo was interrupted by phone calls and messengers hurrying to the buildings where families were housed. Each family was told to pack one bag per person and be prepared to evacuate within 15 minutes’ notice. Loading on aircraft and naval vessels was completed before 4:00 P.M. At this point the Cuban military threat was spelled out to them only in the most general way.
If the Cubans thought the Americans were showing signs of weakness by evacuating service dependents from Guantanamo, they were soon to see an impressive display of strength as cargo aircraft began landing on the airfield. By the evening of the next day, 3,600 marines and 3,200 tons of equipment had been airlifted by the Material Air Transport Service. In a glaring overestimate of U.S. strength, Soviet intelligence reported that “the garrison had been increased from 8,000 to 18,000 personnel from the 2nd Marine Division, and reinforced by 150 tanks, 24 antiaircraft missile systems and 70 recoilless guns. The number of airplanes had been increased to 120.” The actual U.S. defense force deployed to Guantanamo, including men and equipment already in place, comprised 5,750 marines, a Hawk missile battery, 155 tanks, several battalions of 105mm artillery pieces, three gunfire support ships, two marine air-attack squadrons, and a patrol squadron. Two aircraft carriers were in the area to render support.
The Guantanamo reinforcement was largely a deception, and it worked. While the United States regarded this as a defensive operation, the Soviets and Cubans saw the “uninterrupted intensive reconnaissance along Cuban shores and approaches” as proof that Guantanamo was “actively being prepared as a bridgehead for military operation.” But for the moment, the marines’ function was to secure the Guantanamo defensive perimeter; once fighting started, it was to take on the Cuban artillery dug in on the surrounding hills. Only when the main amphibious and airborne forces established themselves on the island would the marines consider moving out.
Kennedy had originally intended to make his speech to the nation that evening, but politics dictated that he inform Congress first, and it proved impossible on such short notice to round up everyone who was out campaigning.
This was the day, a Monday, when the “Cuban Missile Crisis” became public. Planes had been dispatched to bring back ranking senators and congressmen. Even so, their briefing took place little more than an hour before the president’s speech, and there was considerable anger that he had waited until the last minute to inform them. Just before Kennedy went on the air at 7 P.M., U.S. jet fighters scrambled into the sky from bases in Florida. The action was termed an airborne alert—a precautionary measure” in the event of a rash action by the Cubans.” Not just the Cubans: As the president made clear, any offensive action by them would be considered an offensive action by the Soviet Union.
As Kennedy was speaking, the secretary of defense placed the entire U.S. military establishment on DefCon (defense condition) 3 status (DefCon 5 was all normal; DefCon 1 meant war). In accordance with JCS directives, Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-47 bombers were dispersed to more than thirty predesignated civilian airfields in the United States. At two SAC bases in Spain, three in Morocco, and three in England, B-47 bombers were loaded with nuclear weapons and prepared for takeoff. Simultaneously, a massive airborne alert was begun by U.S.—based B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers. The B-52s were loaded with nuclear weapons and ordered to fly under continuous command control, either far out over the Pacific, deep into the Arctic, or across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. There the planes would wait for instructions either to proceed to the Soviet Union or to return to their home bases. In addition, fighter-bombers at American bases in England, France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines were placed on alert and armed with ordnance, including nuclear, for striking targets in the Soviet Union or in Eastern Europe.
There were three intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) systems in the SAC inventory at the time: Atlas, Titan I, and Titan II. A fourth system, the solid-fuel Minuteman, would enter the inventory during the later days of the crisis. There were also 60 Thor IRBMs in England, 30 Jupiter IRBMs in Italy, and 15 in Turkey. Late in the evening General Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the air force, notified McNamara that 91 Atlases and 41 Titans were being readied for firing. Nine missile-carrying submarines capable of firing 144 Polaris missiles had left their bases and taken up stations in the North Atlantic. Matador and Mace cruise missiles deployed in tactical wings were brought to combat status in West Germany; they could strike strategic targets in Eastern Europe.
Fifteen minutes before the president’s address, the nation’s railroads were also put on alert. The Pentagon asked the Association of American Railroads for the immediate use of 375 flatcars to move air-defense and air-warning units to Florida. That evening the 1st Armored Division began the 1,100-mile trek from Texas to an intermediate staging base at Fort Stewart. This division alone would require 3,600 flatcars, 190 gondola cars, 40 boxcars, and 200 passenger cars. In all, over 5,000 men, 15,000 vehicles, and thousands of tons of supplies would be loaded on 38 trains, some up to 150 cars long. At the height of the crisis, normal rail movement in the Southeast practically came to a halt. Another 10,000 men would be airlifted in 135 commercial flights.
The president authorized the use of low-level aerial photoreconnaissance and of the navy’s F8U Crusaders; later, air force RF-IOI Voodoos began flying from Florida at treetop level over the Cuban missile sites. The low-altitude photography, transferred immediately to Washington for analysis, added a new dimension to NPIC’s reporting. Each piece of missile equipment could be identified precisely and its function in the missile system determined. Rather than taking the interpreter’s word as they had with the U-2 photography, policymakers now could see clearly what the interpreters had seen and were reporting.
The JCS ordered DefCon 2—maximum alert before war with the optimum posture to strike either Cuba or the USSR or both. With this change of status, 1,436 U.S. bombers loaded with nuclear weapons and 134 ICBMs were now on constant alert: One-eighth of the bombers were in the air at all times, and air crews were waiting near the rest of the bombers, prepared for takeoff on a moment’s notice.
Both the White House press secretary and the news desk at the Pentagon were being besieged by reporters demanding to know more about the reported buildup for an invasion of Cuba. Although the president felt that the Washington press would exercise control in reporting military infonnation, he was appalled by reports that local television crews throughout the United States had stationed themselves near military bases and were making public the sort of details that would never have been leaked during World War Il and the Korean War.
Kennedy decided that a nationwide reporting guideline had to be established for the news media, and he asked the Department of Defense to draft it. While he made it clear he was not imposing censorship, he did want to restrict information on the deployment of forces, degrees of alert, defenses, dispersal plans, vulnerabilities, and air- and sea-lift capabilities.
Late that evening, the president called McNamara to confirm when U.S. forces would be ready to invade Cuba. The secretary replied, “In seven days.” When Kennedy pressed him on whether all the forces would be well prepared, McNamara replied that they would be “ready in every respect in seven days”: Wednesday, October 31, Halloween.
Photo interpreters at NPIC had identified four camps suspected of housing Soviet armored combat groups. All were in the vicinity of the missile sites, which would tend to indicate that their main function was to protect them. But other intelligence analysts had maintained that they were simply camps where Cubans were being trained to handle Soviet arms—or that they were temporary equipment transfer points, places where, as one U.S. general put it, “The Cosmoline was removed.” NPIC kept insisting that these were more likely to be Soviet combat facilities, since the equipment observed was parked in neat formations, characteristic of the Soviet army, rather than in the haphazard ones typical of Cuban installations. That equipment, of the most sophisticated recent vintage, included T-54 tanks, assault guns, tactical rocket launchers, antitank weapons, and personnel carriers. It wasn’t until October 24 that the intelligence community agreed with the photo interpreters that these were Soviet installations and that they did house combat troops, as many as 1,500 each.
The next day a low-altitude reconnaissance aircraft brought back absolute confirmation. At the Santiago de las Vegas installation, Soviet groundforce-unit symbols and insignias were seen implanted in the flagstone and flowers in front of garrison areas. One unit proudly displayed the Elite Guards Badge, the Soviet equivalent of the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation. These four camps were quickly targeted, and ordnance, including nuclear, was selected for their destruction in the event of an invasion.
That day, too, the continuing Soviet denial that offensive missiles were in Cuba was exposed as a lie when Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, confronted the Soviet ambassador with aerial photographs of the missile sites during a Security Council meeting.
Throughout the crisis, President Kennedy was concerned that an American move on Cuba would provoke a countermove by the Soviets on Berlin. Close watch of Soviet forces was maintained in the Soviet Union and East Germany, but there was no indication of preparations for offensive action. The Soviets were obviously concerned that any such indication might provoke a first-strike response by alerted U.S. forces. Soviet U.N. ambassador Valerian Zorin told a group of neutral African and Asian U.N. delegates that “The Americans are thoroughly mistaken if they think we shall fall in their trap. We shall undertake nothing in Berlin, for action against Berlin is just what the Americans would wish.”
Khrushchev’s overall behavior during this week appeared unsure and erratic. He continued to lie about the missiles after their presence had been established beyond doubt. Even as he attempted to pacify the United States, his soldiers at Cuban bases were working frantically to bring the missiles to an operational status. After ordering his ships to turn around, he threatened to run the blockade using submarines. He threatened to fire missiles but took no overt offensive action that might cause the United States to further increase its alert status. U.S. military leaders knew that Khrushchev could be ruthless when desperate. The JCS was wary of what direction the crisis would take, determined, as Admiral Ward later put it, that they were not going to be “the Kimmels and Shorts of this generation”—a reference to Admiral Husband Kimmel and Major General Walter Short, who were relieved of their commands after Pearl Harbor.
To ensure the success of possible amphibious landings in Cuba, Ward decided that exercises should be conducted in Florida in as realistic a manner as possible. A number of projected landing areas in Cuba were at or near resort areas, so Hollywood Beach, near Fort Lauderdale, was selected to simulate the Havana beach area. In the predawn chill the sea off Fort Lauderdale was rough, and it was late morning before the marines climbed down nets from the ships offshore into the bobbing personnel landing craft. The bigger LSTs (landing ship tanks) prepared to move toward the shore to disgorge tanks and armored personnel carriers.
The littoral behind the landing zone, situated along the central portion of Hollywood Beach, was dense with hotels, motels, restaurants, and bars. By the time the men and equipment hit the beach, the sunbathers had already gathered under their umbrellas. The tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantrymen soon joined the crowd on the narrow beach. Instead of obeying the instructions of a forward observer who was installed on the roof of a jai alai court, some of the marines began fraternizing with bikini-clad girls on the beach; others posed for tourists’ cameras in their combat gear; while an even greater number headed for the bars. Admiral Ward later characterized the exercise as about the closest thing to the Keystone Kops that he had ever seen. He never reported the Hollywood Beach fiasco to his superiors but, instead, emphasized that the landing exercises the same day at Hutchinson Island, Fort Pierce, and near Fort Everglades had gone as planned.
At 6:00 P.M. on October 26, the White House began to receive transmission of a long, rambling polemic from Khrushchev—which did, however, give a glimmer of hope. The Soviet premier hinted that he was prepared to withdraw his missiles if Kennedy would agree not to invade Cuba.
This was the day that would be referred to as “Black Saturday” by both the president and members of the National Security Council. Khrushchev remarked that “a smell of burning hung in the air. ”
Just before 10:00 A.M., Soviet personnel fired an SA-2 surface-to-air missile and downed a U-2 reconnaissance plane flown by Major Rudolf Anderson, who was killed. The order to fire was apparently given by General Igor D. Statsenko, commander of the Soviet forces in Cuba. The intelligence community could come up with no reason why the Soviets, who had been tracking the U-2 flights, would select this moment to down one. Most feared that the Soviets were escalating the crisis.
JCS Contingency Plan No. 312 directed CINCLANT to be prepared to strike a single SA-2 SAM site, or all Cuban SAM sites, within two hours of a U-2 shootdown. The established policy, agreed to by the president, was that any SAM site that fired at a U-2 was to be immediately neutralized. Sixteen armed F-100 Super Sabre fighters stood by at Homestead Air Force Base in southern Florida on 30-minute alert to attack any firing SAM site.
When word that Anderson had been shot down reached General LeMay, he ordered the F-100s readied to strike. The White House, realizing that there was a standing order for this operations procedure, frantically contacted LeMay and asked if the fighters had been launched. LeMay replied that they were being readied. He was admonished not to launch the fighters until he received direct orders from the president. Angered, LeMay hung up. “He chickened out again,” he said. “How in the hell do you get men to risk their lives when the SAMS are not attacked?” When an aide said he would wait at the phone for the president’s order, LeMay disgustedly replied, “It will never come!”
The crisis had entered a new phase. A fragile and volatile situation existed that could explode into a major conflict with little or no warning. The CIA now believed that all the MRBM sites in Cuba were operational. Pilots returning from low-altitude flights reported that antiaircraft weapons were firing on them. Analysis of the aerial photography revealed that antiaircraft weapons were being installed around the MRBM sites. There was also a desperate effort by the Soviets to camouflage and conceal those sites. And hundreds of trenches were being dug to protect them from ground assault.
That afternoon ExCom (the Executive Committee of the NSC) discussed what retaliatory action should be taken. It decided that, beginning the next morning, all low-flying reconnaissance aircrafts would have armed escorts. That afternoon, too, McNamara ordered 24 troop-carrier squadrons of the air force reserve, along with their associated support units, to active duty. Besides paratroopers, these squadrons would drop supplies to the ground units that would be placed ashore in an invasion of Cuba. And LeMay announced to McNamara that 1,576 bombers and 283 missiles stood poised to strike the seventy principal cities of the Soviet Union.
In the evening the CIA briefed the president in depth on the startling events of the day. He had already responded to Khrushchev’s message of the previous evening with the suggestion that he would be willing to make a pledge not to invade Cuba if the Soviets met his conditions. But Kennedy decided it was time to deliver an ultimatum. The president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was sent to meet with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, warning him that the United States had to have a commitment by the next day that the missiles would be removed, or the United States would remove them by force.
At that moment in Florida, 156 tactical aircraft were ready to strike Cuba. They were backed up by almost 700 more strike planes that were on the ground or at sea. The air force and the navy were prepared to conduct continuous air strikes until all the SAM, MRBM, and IRBM sites, as well as the Cuban air force, had been destroyed. If an invasion of Cuba were ordered, a total of 1,190 sorties could be flown the first day.
U.S. planning for the invasion of Cuba and possible war against the Soviet Union was now going so well that the date had been moved forward: It could come as early as Tuesday, October 30. Military leaders openly admitted, however, that an invasion of Cuba would be as bloody as Korea. The estimate of total U.S. casualties for the first few days of the combined airborne and amphibious operation was about 1,000 a day. The invasion would be opposed by 75,000 Cuban regular troops, 100,000 militia, and 100,000 home guards—not to mention Soviet personnel, then estimated at 22,000. (The Soviets later maintained that there were almost 40,000 in Cuba at the height of the crisis.)
The aerial and naval bombardment of the island would begin early Tuesday morning. The 82nd Airborne Division would be dropped farther inland than the 101st. The 82nd’s objective was to seize the San Antonio de los Bafios military airfield and the José Martf International Airfield just outside Havana. The 101st would also take the military airfields at Mariel and Baracoa, along with the port of Mariel. There would be airdrops of humanlike dummies to confuse the enemy. These, however, would not be ordinary dummies: They would be armed with recorded tapes to create the sounds of firefights.
There were a total of ten battalions of marines afloat in the vicinity of Cuba. They would come ashore at a number of famous beaches on Cuba’s northern shore between Havana and Matanzas and link up with the 82nd Airborne Division. (The Soviets and Cubans suspected the invasion would come ashore at these beaches and had deployed cruise missiles along the coast; they also had dug defensive trenches along those beaches.) Once the beaches and the port of Mariel were secured, the 1st Armored Division would come ashore. They would move along the major highways and isolate Havana; then they would head for the missile sites. Other units of the 1st Armored would strike southward to cut the island in half.
That morning at nine o’clock, Washington time, the U.S. Foreign Broadcast Intercept Service, while listening to Radio Moscow, began picking up an extraordinary message: It was an open letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy. The Soviets were clearly so alarmed by the speed with which events were moving that they elected to bypass the usual method of sending such a high-level message. Even in the time it would take to encode, decode, translate, and deliver the message, the crisis might have escalated out of control and the invasion might already have begun. So the Soviets decided to broadcast Khrushchev’s letter to the president on the radio. “The Soviet government,” the message read, “has ordered the dismantling of bases and the dispatch of equipment to the USSR… I regard with respect and trust the statement you have made in your message… that there would be no attack or invasion against Cuba.”
Less than 48 hours remained before the invasion was set to begin.
U.S. military leaders greeted the end of the crisis with relief. No one relished the prospect of heavy casualties—not to mention the threat of nuclear war. The main responsibility now fell on the intelligence community to monitor the dismantling of the missile sites and verify the removal of the missiles from the island. “The military posture of the United States,” Admiral Ward noted in his diary a week later, on November 4, “continued to be one of increased readiness.” Ships carrying 12,000 marines from the West Coast were on their way, while sizable units of the 2nd Marine Division remained at sea off Florida. Air force and army units were poised for an assault, as were the carriers Enterprise and Independence.
But by now only Fidel Castro remained belligerent. He threatened to fire on the U.S. reconnaissance planes. Anastas Mikoyan, the first deputy secretary, was dispatched from Moscow to pacify the Cuban leader. When Castro told him that the Cuban people were prepared to fight as they had at the Bay of Pigs, Mikoyan replied, “You won’t have a ragtag brigade against you this time. You will have the full might of U.S. forces. If you want to fight, you can fight—but alone.” Mikoyan tightened the screws. He threatened to return immediately to Moscow and cut off all economic aid to Cuba. Grumbling, Castro backed down.
After the Soviet missiles had been removed from Cuba, but before the troops assembled in the southeastem United States were disbanded, Maxwell Taylor wanted the president to see firsthand the military machine that had been assembled for the projected invasion. On November 26, accompanied by the JCS and the chain-nan of the House Arrned Services Committee, Kennedy arrived at Fort Stewart and reviewed just one of the three brigades of the 1st Arrnored Division. He looked on, incredulous, at the armor arrayed before him. That incredulity only grew as he traveled south that day, ending up on a pier at the Key West naval base. At Fort Stewart he recited a poem, supposedly found in a British sentry box at Gibraltar:
God and the soldier all men adore, In time of danger and not before. When the danger is past, And all things righted, God is forgotten and the old Soldier slighted.
The president added, “The United States forgets neither God nor the soldier upon which we now depend.”
But three decades later we have almost forgotten the great invasion that never happened—forgotten it, perhaps, because we never really knew how awesome it would have been. MHQ
DINO A. BRUGIONI worked for the National Photographic Interpretation Center during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He is the author of Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Random House, 1992).
Photo: Abbie Rowe/John F. Kennedy Library
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1992 issue (Vol. 4, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Invasion of Cuba.
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