Blue Moon Over Cuba
Fifty years ago, the world stood at the edge of the abyss and stared nuclear annihilation in the face. During a two-week standoff, there was a very real chance that the US and the USSR could initiate a nuclear World War III over missile sites placed in Cuba. For the most part, written accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, are told from the diplomatic or political point of view. These usually involve President Kennedy and his advisors struggling to find a diplomatic solution to persuade the Soviets to remove the missiles that were being placed on the island nation of Cuba, just ninety miles from the southern coast of the United States. Blue Moon Over Cuba offers a different perspective…one from treetop level at high speed. It is the story of Operation Blue Moon, undertaken by the Photographic Reconnaissance pilots of VFP-62, also known as the Fightin’ Photos. It is based on the memoirs of US Navy Captain William B. Ecker, the commanding officer of the squadron. The book recounts the dangerous missions during which the pilots, flying RF-8 Crusaders, photographed the missile sites in great detail.
At the beginning of the situation, U-2 spyplanes of the CIA flew high altitude reconnaissance missions from around Cuba, carefully avoiding encroachment of the Cuban airspace. However, these photos, taken from tens of thousands of feet high, were not good enough to see the activity on the ground clearly. It was determined that low level photography would be the only way to be certain that the suspicious activity seen from the U-2 photos were really missile bases being constructed by the Soviets on Cuba. Low level photographic missions were dangerous, since the aircraft were streaking along at almost treetop level. The main advantage was the high speed of the RF-8 Crusaders, which provided a margin of safety since it was much more difficult for anti-aircraft weapons to track and fire on the fast aircraft. In a most fortuitous turn, the US Navy had just developed a camera with the capability of reducing the blur that would normally be associated with such operations. The vast majority of these missions were flown by Naval Aviators, since the Air Force had been caught somewhat flatfooted with camera capabilities lagging behind the Navy. The Air Force was not very happy about the situation and tried to keep up as best they could…actually borrowing cameras from the Navy to install in USAF RF-101 Voodoo aircraft. The Navy brought in a few USMC pilots to supplement the Naval Aviators flying the missions.
The book unfolds the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis in chronological order, beginning with the combat experience of Captain Ecker during World War II and moving through the formation of VFP-62 from its beginnings in the 1950s through the Crisis. The firsthand accounts of Captain Ecker, as the commanding officer, and many others are tense and suspenseful stories as they flew the low level reconnaissance missions over Cuba. The tactics and strategy of the Operation Blue Moon missions are discussed, as well as the nature of keeping the information top secret in the Cold War era. All of the missions over Cuba were daylight missions, since the deployment of flares might give the mistaken impression of an aerial attack which could trigger actions leading to a full scale war. Only one secret nighttime mission was undertaken, flying over the border at Guantanamo Naval Base, which had unintentionally funny consequences as the bright exploding flares brought every Marine on that base to full attention in a matter of seconds.
As a side note, the family of Captain Ecker (who passed on in 2009) recently donated his flight suit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The nondescript flight suit has no insignia, no name badge, nothing to distinguish it or provide any type of recognition. The missions were so secret that the pilots who flew over Cuba carried no identification, other than a prisoner-of-war card, in case they were captured.
The hardcover book is 320 pages long, and contains 32 glossy pages of photographs in Black & White and color, and includes color profiles of four RF-8A Crusaders. It is a fascinating read, giving insights into the strategy and tactics of photographic reconnaissance missions. It specifically delves into the challenges of the pilots who travel “unarmed, unescorted, and unafraid” into the depths of enemy territory. For fans of history, and specifically Naval history, this book is an excellent resource and a most enjoyable reading experience. I give it my highest recommendation.
My sincere thanks to Osprey Publishing for supplying this book and to IPMS-USA for allowing me the opportunity to review it.