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The loss of Major Anderson and his U-2 PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Krzysztof Dabrowski   
Jan 30, 2012 at 06:27 PM
While the shootdown of the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union is well known, not least because it received much publicity, a similar incident over Cuba is largely forgotten. There are a number of reasons for this, among others the loss of one man and a single aircraft during the Cuban Missile Crisis seemed not to matter that much considering the prospect of a world wide nuclear Armageddon. In addition, as will be presented below, the incident could have escalated the situation at a point in time when both Washington and Moscow wanted to de-escalate it. Yet since restrictions binding superpowers decades ago have little meaning today the story of men who found themselves at the very center of one of the Cold War's hottest moments deserves to be told.

The Big Brother

As most readers are familiar with the Cuban Missile Crisis a lengthy introduction can be dispensed with. It is sufficient to say that other than the nuclear tipped missiles, the Soviets also deployed conventional forces to Cuba including substantial aviation and AD elements. The former included the Kubinka based 32nd Guards Fighter Regiment [1] which had MiG-21F/F-13 fighters on charge while the latter comprised the 11th Rocket (i.e. missile) Air Defense Division [2] equipped with S-75N Desna (SA-2c Guideline Mod 2) surface to air missile systems. Since the deployment codenamed "Operation Anadyr" was judged to be of strategic importance the units send to Cuba were elite by Soviet standards. Fighter pilots from Kubinka were considered the Soviet aviation's cream of the crop while the AD division selected had achieved good results in training and a large part of its personnel were members of the Party or Komsomol.

Aircraft, missiles, auxiliary equipment and last but not least the personnel were send to Cuba by ship. [3] The fighter regiment left for Cuba from Baltiysk aboard the ships "Volgoles" [4] and "Nikolayevsk". Before embarkation the 32 GIAP left its files and other documents as well as the regimental colors in the Soviet Union becoming the "new" 213 Fighter Regiment [5] for the purpose of its overseas deployment. [6] It appears that the AD division’s unit designation was not changed in similar fashion but its assignment was nevertheless also handled in a very secretive manner. Personnel and equipment were loaded onto the merchant ship "Latvia" (her master was captain Gogridze) in Feodosiya and sailed for Cuba crossing the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The destination was kept secret until the vessel passed the Straits of Gibraltar. Only after entering the Atlantic Ocean did the ship's captain open a sealed envelope and inform those onboard (senior officers first) where they were actually going. [7]

Once in Cuba the 213 IAP was based at Santa Clara military airfield while the 11 AD division established its HQ in Camaguey. Covering Cuba's airspace, or at least as much of it as possible, required to deploy air defense units across the island. For this reason SAM sites dotting the countryside were placed 60 to 80 kilometers away one from the other. However, other than taking up positions, the ground defenses would for the time being stand down. In contrast MiG pilots were much more active - they took to the skies for the first time on 18 September 1962 and were from then on flying a lot. Since US reconnaissance aircraft were monitoring the Soviet build-up encounters between "Cold War warriors" were unavoidable.

Cold War encounters

The first encounter took place in October when a flight of MiGs led by Lt.Col. Sergey Perovsky [8] came across two RF-101s. Despite the fact that the Soviets were just relocating from Santa Clara to San Antonio, their aircraft carried live R-3S air to air missiles. Upon sighting the American aircraft Lt.Col. Perovsky asked ground control for permission to engage them but was categorically forbidden to do so. Another incident took place on 4 November. This time a MiG with Major Dmitry Bobrov at the controls was returning from a training mission when he was ordered by ground control to intercept and chase away two aircraft misidentified as RF-101s(in fact they were F 104s of the USAF's 479 TFW).[9] The Soviet pilot maneuvered to gain an advantageous position and once the Americans realized that they had unwelcomed company both turned in the direction of Florida leaving Cuban airspace at high speed. It should be added that since maj. Bobrov was conducting a training mission his fighter carried only captive training missiles and the MiG's gun was not loaded either. A third encounter with US aircraft involved Major Shtoda. Its circumstances were similar to previous ones - the Soviet pilot was flying between Camague and Santa Clara when he spotted a pair of RF-101s. Wasting no time he maneuvered to attain an advantageous position in the rear hemisphere of the US aircraft. The Americans did not take any chances and decided that leaving Cuban airspace at high speed would be the most prudent thing to do under the circumstances. To the author's knowledge no more aerial incidents involving Soviet and American aircraft took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Before moving on an important issue needs to be adressed first. Namely some aviation writers in the former Soviet Union want their readers to believe that Soviet pilots deployed to Cuba had shot down three US aircraft: a single "Vodoo" on 18 October 1962 as well as two "Starfighters" on 20 and 26 October (one F-104 on each day). Let it be clearly stated that Soviet pilots never made such claims, in fact they did not fire even a single shot in anger. [10] Those who promulgate reports of aerial victories that never took place confuse both professional researchers as well as amateur aviation enthusiasts, make laughing stock out of the airmen who supposedly attained these "achievements" and last but not least seriously undermine the credibility of writings on aviation subjects originating in the former Soviet Union. It would serve much better the readership, aviation veterans and finally the authors themselves to write about facts rather than invent fiction, especially that many interesting stories are still waiting to be told.

The events described so far may convey a false impression that the whole Cuban affair was not much more than a Soviet overseas excursion resulting in some of the usual Cold War games. Nothing could be further from the truth as the situation was very serious to the point of being grave. The United States made it clear that Soviet nuclear missiles right at its doorstep are not acceptable and will have to be removed from Cuba in one way or another. At the same time the Cubans, with the Bay of Pigs invasion fresh in their memory, were very nervous especially that Moscow did not bother to inform them about the ongoing Kennedy - Khrushchev negotiations.[11] The Soviets on the island also felt a great strain for they clearly understood that they were at the very front line of the Cold War which could turn really hot at any moment. To complicate the matters even more Moscow kept them in the dark about how the situation was developing [12] while the instructions given were vague in many crucial aspects. Concerning the actual use of weapons, permission to open fire was granted only in the case of manifested attack. The trouble was that "manifested attack" was not defined in any way. It could be when bombs were already being dropped by hostile aircraft or when an incoming formation of aircraft was detected as well as everything inbetween. Such lack of clarity was not accidental but resulted from what can be called Soviet "political culture". On one hand Moscow wanted to maintain tight control over unfolding events but on the other hand decisionmakers in the Soviet capital desired to have convenient scapegoats in case anything went wrong. The former required issuing instructions with many restriction but the latter called for purposeful vagueness so as to enable to put the blame on the people in the theatre of operations who "did not act according to the orders".

The shootdown

Taking the above mentioned circumstances into account a serious incident was hardly avoidable. As already previously noted Soviet air defenses were standing down. The 11 AD division turned on its radars for the first time on 22 - 23 October but most of the time they were off. On the evening of 26 October Fidel Castro visited the Soviet headquarters at El Chico arguing that considering the situation - multiple aerial incursions by US aircraft on a daily basis and the threat of an invasion - air defenses should be activated. The Cuban leader gave orders to his country's forces to fire at American aircraft and, as subsequent events demonstrated, the Soviets went along with him. Meanwhile preparations for another day of activity were also taking place across the Florida Strait. Originally as many as four U-2 missions were planned for 27 October but in the end only a single U-2F serial 56-6676 with Major Rudolf Anderson Jr. at the controls received the order to fly over Cuba, taking off from McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Florida.

When in the morning of 27 October Maj. Anderson entered Cuban airspace the Soviet radars were tracking his U-2 which for those on the ground become Target 33. Soviet radar operators and their superiors nervously watched his aircraft's progress with missile batteries across the island being put on full combat alert but Maj. Anderson was totally oblivious of the mortal danger he was exposed to. Others however knew, for apart from high altitude and tactical photographic reconnaissance aircraft which were actually flying over Cuba the US also deployed SIGINT assets in the vicinity of the island. The latter comprised RB-47 electronic reconnaissance aircraft belonging to the 55 Strategic Reconnaissance Wing as well as an appropriately equipped naval vessel, the USS Oxford. Soviet radar activity did not escape their attention and a report was swiftly dispatched, which went up all the way to Washington, alas there were no means to alert Maj. Anderson.

At the same time the Soviet forces' deputy commander Gen. Leonid Garbuz and the deputy commander responsible for air defenses Gen. Stepan Grechko were debating how to handle the situation. They wanted Gen. Issa Pliyev who was in overall command of Soviet forces deployed in Cuba to make a decision on what to do with the US aircraft. Unfortunately it proved impossible to get hold of him because he was away - at least this is what his aide-de-camp stated. One should however keep in mind that Gen. Pliyev was suffering from serious health problem in particular the kidneys were giving him trouble. It is therefore likely that he was not gone but might have been incapacitated by his illness. Meanwhile the U-2 overflew the area of Guantanamo [13] after which it turned in a northwesterly direction taking it on a course that would eventually lead back towards the USA. Since the aircraft's progress was steadily reported Generals Garbuz and Grechko understood at this point, that the time to make a decision was running out. Because their superior could not be reached they took the responsibility upon themselves.

Both generals agreed that the U-2 has to be shot down and decided to take responsibility for this act. Once that happened events moved quickly. Gen. Grechko issued the order to destroy Target 33 via telephone to the CO of the 11 AD division Colonel Georgi Voronkov, the latter repeated the order to his superior [14] and than related it to the CO of the 507 AD regiment Guseinov (rank ?) who in turn did the same passing down the order to Major Ivan Gerchenkov, the commander of the regiment's 1 battalion. The actual shooting was the work of a SAM site located in the vicinity of the town Banes in Oriente province. Its radar van was crewed – aside from Major Gerchenkov who was supervising the actions of his subordinates – by Vasily Gorshakov, Alexander Ryapenko (the latter was the guidance officer) as well as others but unfortunately sources available do not provide their names. The American aircraft which was flying at an altitude of 22 000 m was engaged at a range of 12 km. As a result of a three missile salvo fired the U-2 was hit, coming down near the village Veguitas with Major Anderson’s body still strapped in the cockpit. It transpired that his pressure suit was pierced by fragments causing a rapid decompression at high altitude - needles to say Maj. Anderson did not survive. Soviets SAM operators reported to have fulfilled the task assigned (i.e that the US aircraft was shot down) up the chain of command with the timing of the event being put at 10 : 19 a.m.

Curious villagers quickly flocked to the crash site and Cuban military personnel also appeared at the scene. In no time the Cuban radio, soon to be followed by the press, boasted of a great victory over the "Yankee imperialists". Understandably the mood across the Florida Strait was not that ecstatic. The news of the U-2's downing reached Washington just as president Kennedy was holding another meeting in the White House. Beforehand the US president and his close circle agreed that if an American aircraft was shot down the US would attack Cuba. Fortunately the Americans changed their mind not least because they thought that the decision to fire on US aircraft was not a deliberate provocation by Moscow but was made locally. As we now know their assessment was correct for this was indeed the case. In no small part due to president Kennedy's ability to resist being carried away by sudden developments, no retaliatory action took place, negotiations with the Soviets continued and nuclear war was avoided.

Scans of contemporary press reports about the downing of Anderson's U-2. (DAAFAR Museum)

The aftermath

Let it be added that the US came close to loosing a second aircraft. Castro did not make an empty threat the previous evening for he indeed ordered Cuban air defenses to shoot at US aircraft. Several hours after the U-2 was brought down a US Navy RF-8 belonging to the Light Photographic Squadron 26 on a low level photoreconnaissance missions was hit by a 37 mm shell. Fortunately this time luck was on the pilot's side for he managed to fly the damaged aircraft back to base. Since no loss of life took place and the material damage was limited the White House choose to completely ignore this incident. Therefore it had no impact on the situation's development during the Cuban Crisis whatsoever. [15]

The downing of the U-2 caused different reactions among the Soviets. Those deployed in Cuba, while not gleeful, felt a sense of having done a good job - they had shot down an aircraft which was after all their "field of business". Col. Voronkov visited the SAM site congratulating Maj. Gerchenkov and his men. Perhaps a little surprisingly the whole affair made almost no impression in Moscow. USSR's defense minister at that time Marshal Rodion Malinovski laconically remarked that it was done a little too early. Arguably the Soviet leadership was preoccupied with the ongoing negotiations and since this incident did not derail them it did not warrant much attention.

Once the Cuban Missile Crisis ended Major Rudolf Anderson's body was returned to the United States and laid to rest on 6 November at Woodlawn Memorial Park. Major Anderson who paid with his life for the superpowers' brinkmanship, deserves not to be forgotten as all the other victims of the Cold War. Concerning the aircraft in which he flew his final mission the remains of the shot down U-2 are on display at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. Some parts are also at the Playa Girón museum though of course the U-2 had no connection of any sort with the earlier Bay of Pigs affair.

Looking back at the events described above it can be stated that on one hand the shooting down of a reconnaissance aircraft was almost a "typical" Cold War incident but on the other hand it was unique, not only because every case is unique but also for the circumstances of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Namely it was one of those situations when the Cold War could have turned really hot with an exchange of nuclear missile strikes between the superpowers being a realistic possibility. This particular incident illustrates well various dangers, difficulties and problems faced by all sides: the assessing of what was actually going on, what were the other side's intention, what to do in case of sudden developments, how do deal with a lack of vital information and how to interpret instructions that are either vague or do not fit the circumstances, just to name a few. Fortunately the parties involved were able to restrain themselves and the U-2's downing remained an isolated incident which did not result in an escalation or we might not have been reading this piece now.

Above: left wing and part of the tail of the downed U-2 as preserved in DAAFAR Museum. Below: the engine of the same aircraft. (Olivier Fourt & Alain Cuenca)


[1] 32 GIAP to go by its Russian abbreviation - let it be added that the unit was not a stranger to overseas deployment ("fraternal help" as the Soviets preferred to call it) for it had already send a squadron to Indonesia

[2] The 11 AD division was headquartered in Volgograd; it included the 507 Air Defense Regiment

[3] with the exception of some of the fighter regiment's personnel who were flown to Cuba on board a passenger plane

[4] she was also one of the vessels which ferried the nuclear missiles from Cuba back to the Soviet Union once the crisis was over

[5] the Russian abbreviation being IAP

[6] Once the Cuban deployment was over the regiment's personnel returned to the Soviet Union with the 32 GIAP being "resurrected". As for the aircraft and ground support equipment it was left over to the host nation becoming the nucleus of the Cuban air arm's "Fishbed" force.

[7] let it be pointed out that having made the round trip Soviet Union - Cuba and back for a few times (it took several shiploads to move an entire AD division) capt. Gogridze knew the destination but each time maintained secrecy

[8] he was the 213 IAP's deputy commander

[9] Soviet pilots identified US aircraft encountered as "Voodos" on all three occasions when they came across them in the Cuban sky. While this was obviously not the case on 4 November it appears that in the two remaining instances the American planes met were indeed RF 101s. It should be pointed out that such cases of misidentification were not uncommon during the Cold War. In Vietnam the Soviets frequently referred to American aircraft as "Thunderchiefs" or "Phantoms" regardless of their actual type. Similarly Western pilots would often call any Eastern military aircraft a MiG.

[10] A small correction is necessary for two shots were actually fired though not in the air but on the ground. Namely a late night intruder, who could not be identified because of darkness, failed to stop when challenged by a Soviet guard. The man fired a warning shot but since it was ignored a bullet was sent in the direction of "the menace hiding in the dark". As a result the intruder was "dropped" and the first glance at the cadaver revealed that it was ... a cow ! The net result of the incident was positive - at least from the Soviets point of view - for 213 IAP's personnel could enjoy some fresh beef.

[11] According to Aleksandr Alekseyev who was at that time the Soviet Union's ambassador to Cuba he briefed the country's leader on each exchange of massages between Moscow and Washington but if it is to go by most sources Fiedel was kept in the dark about the ongoing negotiations. Ambassador Alekseyev's claim is doubtful for it taking into account his rank and posting is unlikely that he would receive informations (detailed ones in particular) about the Kennedy - Khrushchev correspondence.

[12] This is illustrated best by the fact that an important source of information for the Soviets in Cuba were the "Voice of America" broadcasts (sic !).

[13] It is important to note that the U-2 had overflown a Soviet FKR cruise missile site in the village of Filipinas to the west of Guantanamo. The missiles had nuclear warheads and were meant to "neutralize" the US base at Guantanamo in the case of an American invasion. Since the missiles were moved into position on the night of 26-27 October their presence could not have been revealed by earlier reconnaissance missions therefore they were still a secret to the Americans (their discovery came about on the 28 October but the missiles were not identified for what they really were). The fact that Maj. Anderson overflew the area in question was arguably one of the main reasons behind the Soviet Generals' decision to down the U-2.

[14] It was a standard procedure for the recipient to repeat the order received so as to ensure his superior that it was clearly understood.

[15] While the Cubans had no means to effectively engage high flying targets such as the U-2 their numerous AA guns posed a serious threat to low flying aircraft. However despite opening fire on a few occasions they made relatively little use of them. As a result other than the damage inflicted to the "Crusader" no more serious incidents took place. One reason is that ambassador Alekseyev was pressuring Castro to refrain from shooting at US aircraft in order not to aggravate the already strained situation.

Last Updated ( Dec 20, 2012 at 10:24 AM )
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