It was 50 years ago this month that United States and Russia stood on the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And Cherry Point personnel and aircraft were on the front lines.
H. Wayne Whitten, a retired Marine colonel once based at Cherry Point, has chronicled the base’s involvement as well as other aspects of the crisis in a new book, "Countdown to 13 Days and Beyond."
Whitten details how a U-2 spy plane captured images of missile sites in Cuba, a mere 90 miles below the Florida Keys, on Oct. 14, 1962. Missiles launched from those sites had the potential to carry nuclear warheads, putting the heart of the United States in range of an attack.
In response, President John F. Kennedy authorized a mobilization of U.S. forces, including those at Cherry Point.
"It seemed like everyone and everything military was headed to Florida in a matter of days," Whitten writes in his book.
Some in the military wanted an immediate, decisive air strike on the missile sites before they became operational followed by a full-scale invasion of the island nation led by revolutionary dictator Fidel Castro, according to Whitten. But Kennedy wanted to talk to Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, and he needed more proof of the sites.
To that end, Navy and Marine photo reconnaissance planes were used to photograph the suspected missile sites.
The Cherry Point-based VMCJ-2 squadron was called to send four RF-8A Crusader jets to join VFP-62, based in Jacksonville, Fla., for Operation Blue Moon.
"The entire squadron was committed," said Whitten, who estimated that about 150 personnel joined pilots to keep the planes operating.
The Navy and Marine Corps units joined together at Key West, Fla., to outfit their planes with panoramic cameras equipped with motion compensation technology necessary for high-speed, low-level photo reconnaissance missions over Cuba.
The first Blue Moon photo missions started on Oct. 23, the day after Kennedy’s television address to the nation informing Americans of the crisis. Crusaders flew over the suspected island missile sites and then on to Jacksonville, Fla., where the film was processed and rushed to Washington for analysis.
Whitten writes that the photos delivered bad news in that they showed launching erectors in place and missiles stored nearby, details captured by the aircraft’s new KA-45 forward firing camera.
"It was the KA-45s that really made the day because they gave really clear shots from a low level," Whitten said. "Everybody could see with the naked eye. You didn’t have to have an interpreter to see those big missiles."
On the photo flights, the pilots took off in radio silence and approached their targets 50 feet above the treetops at 500 mph. As they came upon their targets, the planes would pop up to about 1,000 feet, let the cameras fire as many frames as possible, then return to tree top level until they came upon their next photo target, according to Whitten. Fighter escorts waiting off Cuba’s coast for the mission to end.
Meanwhile, VMCJ-2’s EF-10Bs joined Navy AD-5Q Skyraiders in jamming Soviet radar sites that used surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery that could have been used to fire at the U.S. planes.
"The scary part was they not only decided to put the nuclear missiles in there, but even before they got that under way, they committed to putting 24 SAM sites in there that were manned by Russians," Whitten said. "That was a big indicator that something big-time was up."
By Oct. 24, attention shifted to Soviet ships headed for Cuba with more missiles, and on Oct. 25, the United States presented its evidence — much of it photographs of missile sites gathered by Cherry Point-based aircraft — to the world at the United Nations.
Worried that an invasion was imminent, Castro ordered one of the SAM sites to shoot down an American U-2, which resulted in the death of an Air Force pilot.
The crisis ultimately came to a head when Kennedy ordered American Navy ships to blockade Cuba from the inbound Russian ships, which in the end, turned around. The United States promised not to invade Cuba, and Russia agreed to withdraw its missiles, bringing the crisis to a close on Oct. 28.
Whitten writes in his book that VFP-62 and VMCJ-2 flew 77 Blue Moon missions over Cuba from Oct. 23 to Nov. 15, 1962, providing more than 160,000 photo negatives. The 12 Navy and four Marine pilots all received Distinguished Flying Crosses, and both squadrons received Navy Unit Commendations, the first ever awarded in peacetime.
"The Wing was very critical to the success of that planned invasion," Whitten said. "They were all down there fully expecting to start strike operations against the nuclear missiles, and the surface-to-air missiles and everything else in preparation for an actual landing."
He said many aircraft left Cherry Point in response to the crisis.
"It was like a ghost town around here," he said. "Every asset in the wing was committed, if not in Key West but somewhere. Their anticipated role was to be part of the strike force covering the Marines and Army landings that everybody was sure to come. That was certainly the expectations.
"Everybody and everything at Cherry Point went south to participate. It was one of the few times in history I would suspect, outside of a real hurricane, that every aircraft that was flyable and operable went somewhere."
Havelock residents certainly noticed the participation of Marine Air Group 14 in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"I remember how tight the security was," said Jimmy Sanders, currently Havelock’s mayor but a high school student in 1962. "Civilians were not allowed on base. If you didn’t have a military ID or a dependent ID card or an employee card, you weren’t allowed on base."
He said virtually every type of cargo plane was flying in and out of Cherry Point at the time.
"I know personally I thought we were going to war with the Russians," Sanders said. "I was mighty relieved when Russia turned around. I was a high school kid that really didn’t care a whole lot about what was going on in the world, but this brought everything back very quickly that what went on at Cherry Point was serious business and it impacted the security of the nation and ultimately the world."
To purchase a copy of the book, which costs $14.95, call the Havelock Chamber of Commerce at 447-1101, Danny Walsh at 447-5630, or email email@example.com.
H. Wayne “Flash” Whitten, author of Countdown to 13 Days and Beyond, a book about Cherry Point’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis 50 years ago, will speak at a special event on Wednesday, Oct. 24 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Institute of Aeronautical Technology at the Havelock Campus of Craven Community College. Whitten is a retired colonel in the United States Marine Corps and was stationed at MCAS Cherry Point during his career as an electronic countermeasures officer.