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This Day in History: Rudolf Anderson & the Cuban Missile Crisis

On this day in 1927, a hero is born. Rudolf Anderson would go on to become the first recipient of the Air Force Cross. It’s been speculated that Anderson’s sacrifice during the Cuban Missile Crisis may have saved millions.

During that crisis, of course, Russia and the United States teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

The world’s superpowers were locked in a delicate struggle during those Cold War years, but matters came to a head in October 1962: The Soviets had allied with Cuba, secretly moving nuclear missiles to the island nation, so close to American coastlines. Those missiles were discovered on October 14 by two American reconnaissance planes.

One of these planes was piloted by Anderson.

The flights that Major Anderson made in those days were risky, but necessary. He was flying unescorted—and unarmed—in a U-2 “Dragon Lady” surveillance plane. The photos that he obtained would confirm that ballistic missile and nuclear storage sites were being built in Cuba.

Anderson volunteered for his sixth, and final, mission on October 27. By then, the Soviets were worried that Americans intended to invade. After all, our planes had been crisscrossing the sky for days.

“Every hour there were dozens of planes overhead,” a Soviet General described. “The roar of motors shook the air. The atmosphere was that of a mass airstrike with bombs dropping. The Americans were conducting a psychic attack.”

On the night of October 26, the Soviets prepared for the invasion they expected the next day. It never came, of course, but “everyone’s nerves were strained to the breaking point,” one Russian officer said, “and people were weary after a sleepless night.”

Did exhaustion factor into what happened next?

Anderson’s U-2 was picked up on Russian radar at 9:12 a.m. The American pilot efficiently went about his business, collecting the photos he needed.

Meanwhile, the Soviets below were becoming increasingly upset by Anderson’s presence. The photographs he was taking would upset their work. Russian Lt. General Stepan Grechko wasn’t supposed to fire upon an American plane without a direct order, but his commanders were getting antsy.

“Our guest has been up there for over an hour,” he told a deputy. “I think we should give the order to shoot it down, as it is discovering our positions in depth.”

Two surface-to-air missiles were fired. Anderson was killed as his plane crashed to the ground. Moscow was horrified, but the damage had been done.

John F. Kennedy was in a meeting with security advisors when he learned about the downed plane. He thought it “much of an escalation.” His brother, then the Attorney General, would later write of the “feeling that the noose was tightening on all of us, on Americans, on mankind, and that the bridges to escape were crumbling.”

Would the situation now escalate into full-blown war?

Fortunately, the opposite happened. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev became concerned. “It was at that very moment—not before or after—that father felt the situation was slipping out of his control,” his son wrote. For his part, Kennedy didn’t take the advice of those who wanted him to respond, immediately, with force. His gut instinct told him that Khrushchev had not ordered the attack.

A deal was soon brokered: The Soviets would dismantle their sites in Cuba. In return, the United States would remove missiles then maintained in Turkey.

Anderson was the only combat casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross.

“Maj. Rudolph Anderson’s death was not without purpose,” historian Serhii Plokhy concludes. “It may have helped prevent a nuclear war.”

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