By Mark Wilderman
314th Airlift Wing Historian
Fifty-two years ago this week, the men and women stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base played a role in one of the most pivotal events of the Cold War: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Never before, or since, has the world come so close to global nuclear war.
In October 1962, Little Rock AFB was a major Strategic Air Command bomber base hosted by the 384th Bombardment Wing and its three squadrons, the 544th, 545th, and 546th Bombardment Squadrons. The 70th Air Refueling Squadron and its Boeing KC-97G Stratofreighter tankers supported the SAC bomber mission and their B-47s. A handful of Fairchild C-123 Provider aircraft assigned to SAC also supported the bombers and tankers.
The 308th Strategic Missile Wing and its 18 Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile launch control facilities were under construction north of the base, but not yet operational. The entire force at Little Rock AFB was under the control of SAC’s intermediate headquarters, the 825th Strategic Aerospace Division, at Little Rock AFB, which reported to SAC headquarters, Second Air Force, Barksdale AFB, Lousiana.
During the crisis, several hundred members of the air police, now known as Security Forces, armed themselves with light infantry weapons and defended Little Rock AFB.
While the air police were responsible for holding the down the home front, each of Little Rock Air Force Base’s squadrons played an important role in supporting President John F. Kennedy’s strategy against the Soviet Union and their Cuban allies.
The 384th BW and the 70th ARS were immediately placed on a higher state of alert in response to the discovery of Soviet offensive missiles and bombers in Cuba. During the October-November period, the base’s aircraft maintenance complex experienced its largest workload to date, with organizational maintenance squadrons working 24 hours a day to generate every available B-47 and KC-97 aircraft.
On Oct. 22, 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff raised the nuclear war readiness level of the 384th BW and its supporting KC-97 tankers to Defense Condition 3, one level above the normal SAC readiness posture. On Oct 24, as the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated, SAC forces were ordered to DEFCON 2. During DEFCON 2, all available B-47s went to alert status, loaded with weapons, and were made ready for immediate launch against targets in the Soviet Union. Eleven B-47s from the wing were dispersed to municipal airports throughout the United States to enhance their survivability and complicate Soviet targeting. Likewise, the 70th ARS generated every available KC-97 tanker to support the B-47 force if launched against their Soviet targets. All SAC bomber and tanker combat crews remained close to their aircraft at the SAC alert facility on the flight line, ready to scramble to their bombers and tankers to retaliate in the event a Soviet missile launched against the U.S. mainland from Cuba. Starting Nov. 2, 1962, the 70th ARS also supported Operation COMMON CAUSE, the refueling support of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft conducting aerial surveillance over the Communist country by contributing six tanker crews flying KC-97s from the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Forbes AFB, Kansas. Little Rock AFB’s SAC combat crews remained in DEFCON 2 until Nov. 21, 1962, a period of over three weeks.
For several days, despite overwhelming photographic evidence, the Soviets denied the presence of their offensive missiles in Cuba. On Oct. 25, the U.S. requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Adlai E. Stevenson, directly confronted the Soviet U.N. ambassador over the presence of the missiles. In the Caribbean Sea, U.S. warships intercepted Soviet ships bound for Cuba and checked for additional shipments of offensive missiles and bombers. U.S. Navy blockade ships narrowly averted a nuclear exchange when they intercepted a Soviet diesel-powered submarine, B-59, which was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo.
Tensions increased further on Oct. 27, when a local Soviet commander in Cuba ordered an SA-2 SAM battery to shoot down a U-2 reconnaissance plane. Throughout the long weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy administration and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev secretly pursued a diplomatic solution via letters and radio broadcasts to avoid an imminent nuclear war.
On Oct. 26, Khrushchev proposed removing Soviet missiles from Cuba. In exchange, the U.S. promised not to invade the island and to remove its intermediate-range Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Finally, in Nov., the two parties reached an agreement, ending the Cuban Missile Crisis and pulling the world back from the brink of nuclear war. In addition to the stipulations, the Hotline Agreement, which established a Moscow-Washington hotline to allow U.S. and Soviet leaders to confer directly in any future crisis, was established.
The base’s Heritage Park has preserved a Boeing B-47 Stratojet similar to those operated by the 384th BW during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Also preserved is a Fairchild C-123 Provider, similar to those that supported the B-47s and its personnel. Building 160, the former semi-hardened SAC alert facility, is the home of the 34th Combat Training Squadron, but is not open for tours. The adjacent SAC alert aircraft “Christmas Tree,” haunted by the ghosts of Cold War B-47 Stratojets, KC-97 Stratofreighters, KC-135 Stratotankers and B-58 Hustlers, is routinely used as the staging location for Team Little Rock Airmen participating in the joint exercise Green Flag.
The nearby Jacksonville Museum of Military History has preserved several artifacts relating to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. Their hour are Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.