MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C., (Oct. 18, 2012) -- Fifty years ago this month, RF-8A Crusaders sped hundreds of miles per hour only 50 feet above the surface of the Caribbean Sea. Their mission: to enter hostile airspace above Cuba and capture photographs.
Unbeknownst to the pilots, their targets were nuclear missiles, and their photos would provide intelligence that helped the highest levels of command, including President John F. Kennedy, shape American policy and actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
During Operation Blue Moon, American military photo reconnaissance aircraft flew over the island every two hours collecting vital information on the Soviet progress in building missile sites. The Navy’s Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron 62 was the primary Navy unit for the mission, which flew with four pilots and aircraft from Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron 2. The Marine squadron was later re-designated Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 2. Marine Captains Ed Love, Richard Conway, John Hudson and Fred Carolan flew the VMCJ-2 Crusaders during Blue Moon.
In a time before the emergence of mass communications technology, the pilots were more concerned with executing their assigned mission than with the potential for nuclear apocalypse.
“We were so far down the chain, we weren’t concerned with all the implications of everything that went on,” said retired Col. Ed Love, the senior Marine pilot during Blue Moon. “No one [in the squadron] knew they had nukes down there. We were aware they had missile sites that put Washington, D.C., and a few other places in range of their ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) if they launched those.”
Their mission, with or without the threat of nuclear weapons, was dangerous and difficult. From Key West, Fla., the pilots flew between 50 and 75 feet above the sea. When they came to the island, they jumped up to about 1,000 feet and proceeded from target site to target site, often dodging anti-aircraft artillery. After leaving the island, the aircraft refueled at Key West and then flew to an airfield near Jacksonville, Fla., to drop off the film.
“The Blue Moon pictures provided the most timely and authoritative intelligence on Soviet military capabilities in Cuba, during and immediately after the crisis,” wrote Michael Dobbs in the Smithsonian Magazine article The Photographs That Prevented World War III. “They showed that the missiles were not yet ready to fire, making Kennedy confident that he still had time to negotiate with (Soviet Premier Nikita) Khrushchev.”
Before the Blue Moon pilots could take pictures of missile sites, mission planners had to know exactly where they were, so they could plan flight routes. As a composite between photo reconnaissance and electronic warfare, VMCJ-2 had unique capabilities for this planning stage. The nuclear launch sites were protected by surface-to-air missiles to deter airstrikes, and electronic warfare could determine exactly where the radars guiding the missiles were located.
“We would go around the island and triangulate to find the radar sites,” said retired Lt. Col. Richard Conway, a VMCJ-2 pilot who flew missions during the crisis. “We sent that back to Washington, so when they planned our targets, they knew where the sites were. They could direct us over one , over another and another in a straight line because we had located those sites for them.”
Eventually, negotiations prevented the war. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba if the United States removed missiles from Turkey. However, Blue Moon continued because the president and top commanders needed make sure the Soviets kept their word and dismantled the missile sites.
During the crisis, the squadron did not know exactly what was happening. Only after they went home and watched the news did they realize the magnitude of their mission.
The actions became a source of pride for the pilots and the squadron. All of the pilots received distinguished flying crosses. VMCJ-2 became the first Marine Corps unit to receive the Navy Unit Commendation during a time of peace. VFP-62 also became the first Navy unit to receive the award during a time of peace.
“Sitting there watching the TV, you feel really proud about what you contributed,” said Conway. “It was a very rewarding experience.”