News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

October 21, 2012

MARK BENNETT: A moment on the brink

Realities of nuclear war visited Terre Haute during the Cuban Missile Crisis a half-century ago

TERRE HAUTE — Ominous, but distant.

The black-and-white pages of the Oct. 23, 1962, Terre Haute Tribune conveyed the threat of nuclear war, brewing 90 miles from America’s southernmost shores. Still, the stare-down between the world’s military superpowers — a duel known as the Cuban Missile Crisis — seemed far-off, despite the newspaper’s bold block-letter headlines and grim wire-service reports.

On Page 2 — just below the conclusions of stories about the U.S. blockade of Cuba, ordered by President Kennedy, and Congress coming to grips with the possibility of a full-scale USA-Soviet Union nuclear battle — were ads for Thursday-night prime-rib dinners at the Hotel Deming (just $2.75), and a special introductory offer on the new line of 1963 appliances at the local Sears store.

If Armageddon loomed for the Wabash Valley, fine dining plans and next year’s washing machines would be irrelevant, right?

Yet, one paragraph deep inside The Associated Press story from Washington offered a hint of Terre Haute’s largely unknown footnote in Cold War’s most dire confrontation, involving the Soviets’ buildup of nuclear missile bases in Cuba. The article explained that the Air Force was sending “superfast interceptor planes into better positions to defend the East Coast,” specifically F-106s (capable of flying at 1,600-mph) and F-104s (at 1,400-mph).

The local connection, not spelled out in that day’s Terre Haute Tribune, was detailed decades later in the 2010 book, “One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro On the Brink of Nuclear War” by Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs.

As worries that Kennedy’s imposition of the Cuban blockade could trigger an attack by the Soviet Union from its bases on the Caribbean island, the North American Defense Command issued a startling order for the Air Force’s F-106s, the book explains. A 1.5-kiloton, air-to-air MB-1 “Genie” nuclear warhead — one-tenth the strength of the Hiroshima bomb — was to be installed on each of the F-106s. Those single-seater jets, designed to destroy incoming enemy aircraft, were then armed and dispersed to “dozens of airfields in remote locations.”

One of those turned out to be Hulman Field in Terre Haute.

On the evening of Oct. 22, 1962, less than an hour before Kennedy went on national television to explain the dangerous situation to Americans, a squadron of six F-106s from Selfridge Air Force Base near Detroit scrambled toward Hulman Field — an alternate destination, according to the book, selected after fog shrouded a similar air field in Wisconsin. Five of the nuke-toting jets landed without incident in Terre Haute. The sixth, piloted by flight leader Captain Darrell Gydesen, encountered difficulties.

Last week, on the 50th anniversary of the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis, Gydesen, now 77, recalled that tense moment in a telephone interview with the Tribune-Star from his home in Los Angeles.

The mission was extraordinary, according to “One Minute to Midnight.” Sending the F-106s, piloted by one man, cross-country above populated areas contradicted the Air Force’s long-standing “buddy system” doctrine, which mandated that two officers be present to maintain control of a nuclear weapon at all times to prevent an inadvertent act, the book stated; this circumstance transcended that policy.

A half-century later, Gydesen recalled it clearly.

He was 27 years old then, and a captain in the squadron. “We were just headed south toward Cuba,” Gydesen said, “to join the forces Kennedy had assembled.”

The choice of Hulman Field as a stationing point came with a complication. The airfield was undergoing repairs, limiting it to just 7,000 feet of available runway, the book said, but the mission went forward. Even on the flight from Detroit to Indiana, the pilots were on the lookout for Soviet aircraft or missiles, Dobbs wrote.

Upon arrival, the first five planes landed safely, well before the rubble at the runway’s end. Gydesen’s F-106 caught a burst of tailwind, the book said, and when he released the drag parachute to slow the jet, it didn’t expand properly; he quickly realized his nuclear-armed jet was speeding down an abbreviated runway.

“The 106 needed to brake, a drag chute, to stop, and in my case, it didn’t work,” Gydesen said last week. “I casually mentioned to the tower, I’ll be taking the barrier.”

That barrier consisted of a web that raises when a controller pushes a button from the tower. If an aircraft overshot the runway, a hook on the fuselage would grab the barrier cable. Hulman Field installed that emergency system just months earlier, the book indicated. In its most crucial test — at 6:39 p.m. Oct. 22, 1962 — the runway backstop worked.

Last week, Gydesen recalled the cable caught the jet, braking and slowing it. The F-106 continued, though, beyond the runway’s pavement, onto a rougher path and eventually into a field. It hit a concrete slab holding navigation equipment, breaking off the nose wheel, and dug into the grass before finally stopping.

“The plane was bent a little bit,” Gydesen said. The landing gear, tires and a pressure indicator were damaged, but the nuclear warhead emerged intact.

A crash would not necessarily result in a detonation of the warhead, he explained.

He also did not think the faceoff over Cuba would escalate into a USA-Soviet war, based on his previous experiences of international tensions.

One year earlier, Gydesen was part of an Air Force squadron dispatched to Florida during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, an unsuccessful attempt by CIA-trained Cuban exiles to overthrow that country’s communist leader Fidel Castro.

“Basically, my feelings from that standpoint carried over to [the missile crisis],” Gydesen said. “Yeah, it was blustery, saber-rattling, but, no, I wasn’t worried about a nuclear holocaust.”

His instincts were correct.

As terms of catastrophe — such as “mutually assured destruction” — got repeated in newspaper, TV and radio reports, the two-week saga ended on Oct. 28, when Kennedy and the United Nations secured an agreement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for the USSR to pull its nuclear weapons from Cuba and return them to Russia. Within a month, the Soviet arsenal was headed back overseas.

Gydesen, with his jet repaired, and the Detroit squadron eventually flew south to monitor the Soviet departure.

“It was a successful effort. They took the missiles and went home,” Gydesen said. “We got to escort a few Russian planes out,” shadowing those cargo planes’ trek up the East Coast. It was “flight cover to make sure that they didn’t turn inland.”

Gydesen served 12 more years in the Air Force, including a stint in Taiwan during the Vietnam war, and then retired. A 32-year career as a tax accountant followed. He never flew after leaving the military, but still has a fondness for the F-106s.

“I loved the airplane,” he said. “It was a nice-flying airplane. It was powerful and very maneuverable.”

And in 1962 on that runway in Terre Haute, the F-106 and Gydesen maneuvered safely through trouble, during one of the most troubling times of the 20th century.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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