In these times of heightened tensions between Russia and the United States, one retired Venice resident is remembering his own role during the Cuban missile crisis, when our country approached the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In 1962, Brigadier General (retired) Jerry McIlmoyle, 33 years old and a Captain in the Air Force, was a member of an elite team of pilots who flew the ultra-secret U-2 spy plane over Cuba.
The crisis began when one of those pilots photographed a Soviet military installation that housed an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Washington, D.C. President Kennedy wanted to know where any missiles were located and how close to operational they were and ordered more U-2 flights over Cuba.
The U-2 has a lightweight frame, a powerful jet engine, and is armed with cameras rather than bombs. With a wingspan of 103 feet, it looks like a glider on steroids. The plane can fly so high –73,000 feet—that the pilot must don a specialized pressure suit and fish-bowl style helmet, similar to what an astronaut must wear. Should the single-seat cockpit lose air pressure, the suit is designed to inflate and keep the pilot alive. Otherwise, in the thin air of the stratosphere, the pilot’s blood would literally begin to boil.
Jerry McIlmoyle was one the pilots sent to learn more about the Soviet missiles. During McIlmoyle’s first two flights over Cuba he knew the Soviets were tracking his progress via radar, and he also knew their surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were capable of reaching him. Just two years earlier Francis Gary Powers had been shot down in his U-2 over the Soviet Union, creating an international incident.
McIlmoyle’s first two flights went smoothly, and he was able to photograph nuclear missiles, SAM sites, and other Russian military installations. His third flight, however, was another story. On October 25, 1962, the young pilot from McCook, Nebraska, launched from McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Florida, and arrived in enemy airspace in under an hour. Skies were clear over the 780-mile-long island, and Jerry succeeded in filming his first and second targets. The third and final objective was near the town of Banes, on the northeast coast of the island. When McIlmoyle arrived, he had been over Cuba for approximately an hour and 15 minutes. He got the photos he needed and started to make his turn for home, thankful for a safe and successful run.
Then , through his tiny rearview mirror, he spotted two contrails that stretched from the earth all the way toward his aircraft.
They’re firing at me!
One missile already had exploded above and behind him, a deadly starburst that sent fiery shrapnel in all directions, causing streaks of white light against blue sky. The second missile exploded a mere second after Jerry had first looked in his rearview mirror, detonating perhaps 8,000 feet above the plane. The blast sent a burst of adrenaline coursing through the pilot’s body.
He craned his neck around as best he could in the cumbersome helmet and flight suit but did not see a third contrail. Then he made an instant decision. He banked the plane, and during the turn, flicked the cameras on—he wanted to get the contrails and starbursts on film. Despite the near misses and the adrenaline, McIlmoyle says he felt calm, as he knew the guideline missile could not turn and intercept him at this altitude.
He turned the aircraft once again for home and took a deep breath, relieved to be looking north toward a horizon where ocean met the sky. Less than four minutes had gone by since he had noticed the contrails.
When he arrived at McCoy he was debriefed by intelligence officers. He told them about the SAMs and capturing the starbursts on film. He also made sure to tell the other U-2 pilots.
The next day, McIlmoyle was walking out to the tarmac when a three-star general, who had just arrived from Washington, confronted him, declaring his film had shown no sign of missiles and his intelligence report was going to be destroyed. McIlmoyle protested, but the general retorted, “That’s what we are going to do, because we don’t think you were shot at.”
McIlmoyle shook his head in frustration, “Do whatever you want, but I know what happened.”
The general shook his head “no,” all the while staring into McIlmoyle’s eyes.
The message was delivered. McIlmoyle now believes the incident was covered up because the military was afraid that if President Kennedy or the public knew he had been fired upon, U-2 flights over Cuba would have been cancelled, depriving the military of information they would need for a possible invasion.
Just two days later U-2 pilot Major Rudy Anderson was flying over the same area Jerry had when two SAMs blew his plane out of the sky, killing him. He was the only combat casualty of the Cuban missile crisis.
McIlmoyle earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his reconnaissance missions over Cuba. He rose through the ranks of the Air Force achieving Brigadier General in 1977. He retired in 1981 and moved to Venice in 1998, where he has been active in his church. Now 87, he discounts any talk of heroism for his missions. “I was just doing my job as millions of others have done before me,” he says.
McIlmoyle is featured in a new book co-written by part-time Florida resident Michael J. Tougias: Above & Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Spy Mission. To view a video of McIlmoyle describing his close encounter with two Soviet SAMs visit www.michaeltougias.com. Tougias is available to give a narrated slide presentation (sometimes with McIlmoyle) on Above & Beyond. His last co-written book, The Finest Hours, was made into a major motion picture.