New Book “Blue Moon Over Cuba” Unearths Crucial Evidence That Helped Kennedy Gather Intelligence on the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962
Insider's perspective on the aerial reconnaissance missions arrives just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis
October 16-28, 2012 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of the forgotten yet crucial details of the crisis are the low-level reconnaissance missions—designated as Operation Blue Moon---flown by US Naval, Marine Corps and Air Force pilots that proved to Kennedy that the Russians had moved missiles onto Cuba.
Blue Moon Over Cuba (Osprey, August 2012) began as the unfinished memoirs of the commander of the naval squadron that flew the top-secret missions, Captain William B. Ecker. Ecker was the lead aviator on the first mission and went on to play a leading role in the reconnaissance flights throughout the crisis. The book was completed by historian Ken Jack.
In the book, Capt. Ecker tells the story of how on October 19, 1962, American military planners quietly ordered his squadron and their state-of-the art RF-8A Crusader jets to a remote airbase in Key West, Florida. (John Glenn had previously set a speed record in a Crusader.) Once there, the pilots and crews waited as CIA analysts made their case to President Kennedy.
Ecker and his team got their orders on October 23rd. Their mission was to enter Cuban airspace at treetop level at a fraction below the speed of sound and photograph suspected missile sites with their suite of high-speed cameras. They flew width-wise across the narrow island and then to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, where the Navy’s main photographic lab was located. As soon as the photos were developed and interpreted, they were delivered to the White House.
On October 25th, Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, exhibited prints of Capt. Ecker's photographs to his Russian counterpart and demanded an answer from him.
From October 23rd-November 15th, 168 Blue Moon sorties were flown across Cuba by naval, marine and air force reconnaissance pilots—often under intense enemy fire. Those missions occurring after October 28th were used by Kennedy to verify the dismantling of the missile sites. For their role, the pilots and crews were presented with a Navy Unit Commendation by President Kennedy in November 1962, who said in his remarks, “The reconnaissance flights which enabled us to determine with precision the offensive build-up in Cuba contributed directly to the security of the United States in the most important and significant way.”
Q &A with Kenneth V. Jack, Co-Author of Blue Moon Over Cuba
Q. How did you get involved with this project?
Ken Jack: In 2009, as webmaster of VFP-62’s website (www.vfp62.com), I received an email from Capt. William B. Ecker’s son, David, with the news that his father had written a memoir of VFP-62’s photographic missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. David went on to say that he had digitized the handwritten notes, written in 1986, and created a paperback book for distribution to family and close friends, but he did not publish it. However, the chapters on Captain Ecker’s first mission over the missile sites and his Pentagon mission debrief with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were used by the producers’ of the movie Thirteen Days in 2000.
David asked if I would help him find a co-author to expand the book with more information about the squadron and history of photo reconnaissance during the crisis. Captain Ecker’s main goal was to set the record straight about “who did what” in the collection of photo intelligence for President Kennedy and the intelligence agencies.
After contacting all of the big-name military authors and being turned down due to their other commitments, I asked if the Eckers would consider me as the co-author. I’m humbly grateful that both agreed.
Q. Where were you during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Ken Jack: I was the lead photomate on the VFP-62 detachment to the super carrier, U.S.S. Forrestal in the Mediterranean Sixth Fleet. After President Kennedy’s address to the nation and world announcing the presence of offensive nuclear weapons sites in Cuba on October 22, 1962, The Forrestal immediately prepared for nuclear war by loading nuclear bombs on its attack aircraft. President Kennedy was concerned that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would retaliate somewhere in Europe for his announcement of a naval blockade around Cuba.
Q. Did you know at the time what your squadron mates in Key West were up to?
Ken Jack: Actually not; the home squadron’s missions were part of a Top Secret operation called Blue Moon and obeyed President Kennedy’s orders that only those “with a need to know” would be given access to the operation details. By moving a special detachment to Naval Air Station (NAS) Boca Chica Key West, very few details of the missions were even known by those back at our home base at NAS Cecil Field Florida. Details of the squadron’s missions were delayed until mid-1963 when a special brochure was published and distributed to the squadron. I received mine at home after discharge from the Navy.
Q. Why did you want to finish Captain Ecker’s memoirs?
Ken Jack: Well, after reading the memoir and having had recently read Michael Dobbs’ One Minute To Midnight, where he was the first author in recent years to research and describe the Navy’s critical role in the Cuban crisis, I realized that there was a significant story that needed to be expanded further—particularly as the fiftieth anniversary of the crisis was approaching--with more pilot recollections of their dangerous over-flights and related declassified documentation from the CIA, White House, and State Department. It became clear to me that the full story of the importance of photo reconnaissance to the resolution of the crisis was a great way to retell the Cuban Missile Crisis history in a fresh approach that would interest readers.
Q. How do you describe the legacy of VFP-62?
Ken Jack: As we tell VFP-62’s story in our book, it is clear that VFP-62 was a uniquely competent military asset, ready at the right time in history. VFP-62 was full of tinkerers—and, a squadron leadership that was willing to give them freedom to advance the technology. My assignment on return from a carrier deployment was to work in the photo maintenance shop. I remember Photo Chief Frank Wolle’s experiments with a state-of-the-art photo-cell to be used for night photography with our new experimental cameras--the KA-45--that would give VFP-62 an edge over other military units during the crisis.
A funny story that I relate in the book is how our only detachment to the Vietnam War, hooked-up a Sidewinder (heat-seeking) missile under the unarmed RF-8G’s wing and wired a switch in the cockpit to fire it. Fortunately for all, the Carrier Air Group Commander did not allow it to remain configured that way.
VFP-62’s legacy is made clear in our book: It provided the Commander in Chief with the information he needed to fully assess the threat of the nuclear missile construction in Cuba and to take the time to develop a non-lethal resolution to the crisis. For that, I claim it helped JFK avert nuclear war.
Q. What are the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Ken Jack: The primary lesson is that nuclear-armed nations can make irrational decisions in their national interests that can threaten life on this planet. The happy ending of the Cuban crisis is that both Khrushchev and Kennedy were statesmen who eventually avoided that fate. There is no certainty that in today’s terroristic environment, that would be so. As Robert McNamara is quoted in our book, “Pakistan and India haven’t had their Cuban Missile Crisis.” Today, we face similar ideological conflicts as during the Cold War and with a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction an ever growing threat, we may not be lucky to escape Armageddon again.