Not that long ago, just off the coast of south Florida, our country stood at the brink of an all out nuclear exchange. Russian and American submarines, surface ships, aircraft carriers, fighters, soldiers, and strategic bombers gathered in and around the island of Cuba and stared each other down. The US Army had almost a half million troops in south Florida and the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command shuttled bombers to bases across the Gulf states.
The causes that led up to this event are multi-layered and rife with political blunders by both sides, and the outcome was a brush with a global catastrophe the likes of which our planet probably wouldn’t have survived. Yet the only combat casualty was a native son, a humble man that loved Greenville and laid down his life in the quest for peace.
It’s tough to imagine such a scenario where two superpowers would rush into such a saloon fight with nuclear weapons, but that they did. At the time, both nations routinely threatened each other with mass destruction and this was less than 20 years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, so the destructive capability of these weapons was no secret. So when Russia began deploying nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles south of Miami, President Kennedy would have nothing of it and he ordered a blockade of Cuba. And of course, that sent off a global pissing contest between himself and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev. For 13 days in October of 1962, all that stood between us and a nuclear exchange with Russia was the discipline of a handful of our leaders.
In the days before Google Maps, there were photographs, taken on film that had to be carefully processed. And that’s where Rudolf Anderson shows up.
Rudolf Anderson is Greenville’s most famous veteran and the pilot of this iconic aircraft that takes center stage in Greenville’s Cleveland Park. Major Anderson was an Eagle Scout, a Greenville High and Clemson University graduate who joined the Air Force in 1948. He was also the sole combat casualty of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
During the height of the crisis, President Kennedy and his advisors needed daily intelligence on what was happening in Cuba. Kennedy was receiving mixed signals from the Russians and the only way to verify was through photographs. And Rudy Anderson was one of the Air Force’s best photographers. He was a U2 pilot that gained his reputation during the Korean War flying a camera-armed RF-86, similar to the one in Cleveland Park.
Knowing that Cuba was heavily armed with surface to air missiles that could be used against him, he suited up and flew his mission. After Major Anderson’s aircraft had spent an hour taking pictures, the Russian commander of a missile battery grew irritated and gave the order to shoot him down.
Several American commanders assumed we would immediately retaliate so bombers were loaded up, soldiers geared up, and carriers turned into the wind to launch strike aircraft. Yet Kennedy didn’t believe Khrushchev was the one that gave the order to shoot down the U2 and he bravely continued on a diplomatic path. General Curtis LeMay, head of the Air Force, would later refer to this as “the greatest defeat in our history.” Sorry General but a nuclear war would’ve been our greatest defeat.
When the original monument was being planned, many in Greenville wanted a U2 to serve as Major Anderson’s memorial but its wingspan is an astounding 103 feet and it just wouldn’t fit in that space and there weren’t a lot of U2s for sale, either.
So on this Memorial Day weekend, please take a moment to pause and reflect on those fighting men and women that gave the ultimate sacrifice to our country, and why we celebrate this day. And be especially grateful for the gift of a humble kid from Greenville who dangled his toes in the Reedy River, rode his bike across Augusta, and perhaps dreamed of becoming a pilot as he ran to class through the hallways of Greenville High.
Have a blessed and safe Memorial Day weekend.
And if you enjoy my writing, perhaps you would enjoy my novel, Doughnuts for Amy, published this year by Winter Goose and set in Greenville.