Valor: The First Air Force Cross

Dec. 1, 1995

In July 1960, Congress honored an Air Force proposal to establish the Air Force Cross as a decoration parallel to the Army Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross. The first Air Force Cross was awarded for gallantry during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when the United States and the USSR stood on the brink of nuclear war. Air Force U-2 pilots of Strategic Air Command’s 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing played a major role in preventing what might have become a global tragedy. One of them, Maj. Rudolf Anderson Jr., was the first ever to be awarded the new decoration.

During the summer of 1962, shipments of Soviet military equipment and personnel to Cuba increased dramatically. MiG-21s and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles–similar to those that had shot down Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 over the USSR two years earlier–were in place. Both were defensive systems, hence acceptable, but unconfirmed reports of offensive ballistic missile sites under construction soon began to reach the White House. These missiles were not acceptable to the US. Despite Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev’s denial of the latter, President John F. Kennedy directed Strategic Air Command to begin U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance flights over the island. The U-2 flights were made by Major Anderson and Maj. Richard S. Heyser and were supplemented later by low-altitude RF-101 coverage.

On Oct. 14, Major Anderson returned from one of his missions with pictures of ballistic missile sites and nuclear storage facilities under construction. The Soviet threat had to be removed with the least possible likelihood of war with the USSR. The President assembled a group of advisors that included the cabinet secretaries most closely associated with the situation, and they met in tight secrecy during the next two weeks.

The range of options offered to President Kennedy by this group, known as “Ex Comm” (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), boiled down to three: a “surgical strike” to destroy the missile sites, a full-scale invasion of Cuba, or a blockade to prevent completion of the sites and to force withdrawal of offensive weapons already there. Grave dangers were associated with all three options, extending from a Soviet invasion of NATO member Turkey to remove the obsolete US Jupiter missiles there, to a Soviet blockade of Berlin, to a limited war that could escalate to a nuclear exchange with the USSR. Whatever option President Kennedy adopted inevitably would involve the US’s NATO Allies and the members of the Organization of American States. They all would have to be convinced beyond a doubt of the rapidly growing Soviet threat. Continued photographic coverage was essential.

While the debate over options continued, Soviet construction in Cuba accelerated. Soviet officials, including Premier Khrushchev, Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin, and Soviet Ambassador to the UN Valerian A. Zorin insisted that there were not and would not be offensive weapons in Cuba.

President Kennedy finally rejected both the surgical strike and an invasion that, it was believed, would result in thousands of US, Cuban, and Soviet casualties. Either of those options could lead immediately to war with the USSR. The third alternative–a naval blockade–was accepted as less risky, to be followed by military action if it failed.

As a precautionary measure, strong land and air forces were moved to the southeastern US, and naval forces were sent to the Caribbean. B-52s were put on continuous airborne alert, and ICBMs were prepared for launch.

On Oct. 22, the President addressed the nation, describing the threat and the action to be taken. He expressly warned the Soviet government: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

In the six tense days that followed, work on the missile sites and Il-28 bomber bases continued night and day. More than 40 missiles were now in Cuba. Inbound Soviet ships apparently were going to challenge the blockade. War seemed inevitable. The United States was prepared to invade Cuba, probably on Oct. 29, if Premier Khrushchev did not agree to remove the missiles immediately.

It is clear from the Premier’s memoirs that, faced with US nuclear superiority and the censure of most non-Communist nations, he finally realized he had opened a Pandora’s box that only he could close. On Oct. 28, he agreed to recall his ships and remove the missiles if the United States would pledge not to invade Cuba. The crisis was over, but it was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, “the nearest run thing you ever saw.”

On Oct. 27, while negotiations between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev were still under way, Major Anderson’s U-2 was shot down by an SA-2 missile and he was killed. By personal direction of the President, Major Anderson was posthumously awarded the first Air Force Cross. (By regulation, the Bronze Star was then the highest combat decoration that could be made for Cold War action.) The photographs provided by him and other Air Force pilots had rallied worldwide support behind the US refusal to allow Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in the western hemisphere. Without that support, the Cuban Missile Crisis might have had a different, perhaps catastrophic, outcome for the world.

Published December 1995. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.