Jim Long, director of the Laughlin Heritage Museum (left), presents historian Chris Pocock with a token of appreciation for al of his work chronicling the U-2 Dragon Lady program. Pocock has three published books on the subject. Without Pocock, many of the details and stories of heroism would have been lost. The program was so secret that members of the program, spanning the CIA and the U.S. Air Force, were forbidden from discussing it until recent declassification occurred. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde) (click image to enlarge)
The U-2 program was shrouded in secrecy until recently, within the last 10 years, when important archives of its early and subsequent participation in world events has become better known.
Chris Pocock, and aviation journalist and writer spearheaded much of the recording of the U-2’s history with countless hours of interviews and research. Before Pocock, many of the people involved in the program were unknown, unsung heroes who had accomplished a great bit in the defense of the United States and the rest of the free world at great risk to themselves, but they received little recognition.
Pocock has written three books on the U-2. The latest is titled “50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of the ‘Dragon Lady’” (Schiffer Publishing, 2005. schifferbooks.com). It was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of continuous operation flights of the U-2.
Pocock says he first became interested in the U-2 after graduating from college in 1973. He took what the British call a “gap year” to work at the Pima Air Museum near Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Ariz. While there, he vividly recalls seeing U-2s of all shapes and sizes flying in the traffic pattern there. The seeds planted in Pocock’s mind during that short assignment in the Arizona desert has become a defining accomplishment of his career as a scholarly historian and writer.
We asked Pocock to comment on the U-2’s history and Laughlin AFB’s involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis. What he reveals may surprise you.
When did you get interested in the U-2 program and its history?
In 1987, I had embarked on a research into U-2 history. I had been collecting material on the airplane for over 10 years and it fascinated me. I’m a history major and also an aviation enthusiast and writer. It seemed to me the U-2’s history was a unique combination of a fascinating airplane and some fascinating and very important politics. So I learned that the Air Force Wing, the 4080th, held a reunion in Del Rio every three years. I can’t remember how I got invited. Maybe I just turned up. Anyway, that was my first exposure to these people and their history. And I must say they treated me very well. And when they got over their initial puzzlement of why a “limey” was investigating their history, they were fantastically and greatly cooperative. They really helped me on the road to writing my first book, which was “Dragon Lady.”
When writing your first book, did you encounter roadblocks because of the highly classified nature of the subject matter?
When I wrote Dragon Lady, it was published in 1989, there were then still classification issues. That book was based on my previous accumulation of [press] cuttings and other published sources, not all of which were accurate, plus the interviews I did here [in Del Rio, Texas] and the leads that I got to do subsequent interviews. It wasn’t based on much official declassified documents because there weren’t any. But it evidentially was sufficiently accurate to impress a lot of people and it impressed some people who hadn’t wanted to talk to me during the research who then did approach me and said, ‘oh, okay…’
So this led to more research and subsequent books?
So what happened, instead of that closing a chapter as it were, I got drawn more into the subject as more people would approach me and I would get more leads. And eventually, in the mid-1990s, I was lucky enough to get to fly in the U-2 in the two–seat training aircraft at Beale [AFB, in Marysville, Calif.]. And also [there was] declassification of the program at the end of the Cold War. Many documents became public, and so I wrote another book in the year 2000, which was really to mark the 40th anniversary of the shooting down of Gary Powers. That book just looked to the early years of the program, and in many ways the most fascinating years. It was titled, “The U-2 Spy Plane: Toward the Unknown.”
In 1998, the CIA held a symposium in Washington D.C. celebrating the declassification of the U-2 program from 1954 to 1972. Was that a pinnacle moment in your research?
The CIA has it’s ‘coming out ‘ as it were in 1998. As a matter of fact, I helped them organize it. They asked me for some advice. And I gave them some contacts that I had made. And so I like to think I played a small part in that event taking place. They did declassify some of their history, but by no means all of it. And of course, the closer you get to the current operations of the U-2, the more there is that is classified still and quite properly. And yet, that was a seminal event for quite a lot of people.
Historian and author Chris Pocock conducts a seminar on the U-2 program at the Laughlin Heritage Museum. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde) (click image to enlarge)
How important were the early over flights of the U-2 deep into Soviet Union territory?
In the early years of the program, when the CIA was doing the over flights of the Soviet Union, that airplane was really the major source of intelligence on that country. It spied on its weapons development, it’s strategic bombers, it’s nuclear research, and nuclear bomb production facilities, submarines… All sorts of information [was gained in] only 24 flights, but [it was] a fantastic harvest of imagery and intelligence from every one of those carefully planned and carefully targeted flights.
The early flights in 1956, their primary target was the airfields of the Soviet’s aviation, the bombers, long-range aviation, because it was thought that they were building strategic long-range bombers with the capability of reaching the U.S. at a far greater rate than the U.S. was. That was proved to be an inaccurate assessment. They didn’t have the bombers. So the so-called ‘bomber gap’ was disproved.
Later on, the flights were directed to try to determine whether a ‘missile gap’ had developed whereby the Soviets were leading the race to develop and deploy intercontinenintal ballistic missiles. And when Gary Powers was shot down, he was trying to fly over some suspected Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile sites. The fact is that [shoot down] brought an end to those flights. And the U-2 was not able to solve the intelligence question of the ‘missile gap.’ That was done over the next two years mainly thanks to the overhead reconnaissance satellites which first began bringing back imagery shortly after Powers was shot down.
When did the CIA start transferring U-2 responsibilities to the Strategic Air Command and to Laughlin AFB?
After Powers was shot down, it looked for a while that that was the end of the U-2. It couldn’t fly over its primary target anymore. But after a bit of deliberation, the CIA decided that they would keep a small unit in the U.S., which was capable of being deployed worldwide on a covert basis.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force bought its own U-2s and had been flying them already for three years in the Strategic Air Command. That operation continued [after the Powers shoot down]. They were majoring on nuclear sampling. They would gather debris from Soviet nuclear tests, although they also did some photoreconnaissance and some signals intelligence flights.
Didn’t SAC’s use of U-2s make the CIA unit obsolete?
The CIA U-2 outfit soon found its continued existence to be justified because a series of flights began over Cuba in November 1960. Those flights were flown on a regular basis keeping an eye on the Castro regime and it’s increasing military ties to the Soviet Union. Those flights were flown covertly by the CIA unit, which was based at North Edwards [AFB, near Bakersfield, Calif.], but as a matter of fact they deployed to Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas, to be closer to Cuba. They launched their missions out of the same base as the Strategic Air Command’s U-2 unit, although on a completely detached and separate basis. So ironically, hardly anyone on the base knew what the CIA U-2 unit was up to.
Were there any operational differences between the CIA and USAF U-2 airframes?
When it was realized that the U-2 had a continuing role, if not in Soviet over flights, an improvement program was launched by the CIA. They re-engined the airplane and they developed some new radar-warning equipment so the pilot would know if he was being tracked by a surface-to-air missile radar similar to the one that shot down Powers. The new engine gave them a little more height as well. So those airplanes were designated ‘U-2C.’ and those were the ones they were flying on the missions over Cuba throughout 1961 and the first half of 1962.
How did SAC take over the Cuban over flight operation?
The CIA flights over Cuba would occur on a monthly basis. And it became apparent from those flights and from other sources, particularly émigrés arriving in Florida coming out of Cuba that a buildup of Soviet weapons was beginning. This was a secret buildup. The Soviets did all they could to mask their shipments by sea to Cuba. But, in August of 1962, they [the Soviets] sent surface-to-air missiles, the same SA-2s that shot down Gary Powers, to Cuba and began erecting them at a number of sites around the island. And on the 29th of August 1962, one of the U-2 over flights flown by Bob Ericson took photos of the first of those SA-2 sites. In the subsequent month, in September, there were a few more flights planned, and the pace of those flights was due to be stepped up. Unfortunately, a combination of bad weather and a reluctance to risk the airplane against these new surface-to-air missiles limited the number of flights that actually were launched.
So during September, the Soviets were beginning to bring in the surface-to-surface missiles that posed the actual offensive threat to the U.S. But this went actually undetected. However, there was more human intelligence coming out of Cuba. The CIA had a pretty large operation in Florida debriefing people who were coming out of the island. And they were telling them about these strange, large truckload movements out of the ports where the Soviet freighters had arrived. They were going out into the Cuban countryside. From those reports, it became more and more apparent that the reconnaissance of the island needed to be stepped up. Moreover, the CIA Director John McCone came up with the theory that if the Soviets had deployed SA-2 missiles, they had something pretty serious that they wanted to defend. Indeed, they probably wanted to defend the island against aerial reconnaissance. And he was right, because he had a hunch that these would be offensive missiles.
In the first two weeks of October 1962, there was a lot of discussion in Washington about how to conduct this reconnaissance. And ultimately it was decided that things were getting so serious that a major increase in the number of flights, U-2 flights, would be needed. And that really transformed the nature of the operation from a covert one into overt reconnaissance.
And of course with the Soviets having deployed those SA-2s and those radars, you could not deny that these flights were taking place. So at the highest level there was a decision made to transfer the operation from the covert CIA squadron to the SAC squadron based at Laughlin AFB.
Were there squabbles between the U.S. Air Force and the CIA over ownership of the Cuban mission?
Some of the people in the CIA’s U-2 operation didn’t like being usurped. There was somewhat of a turf battle. That has been a bit overstated because the USAF general officer that actually ran the CIA operation was quite happy, in fact he almost suggested that the switch be made. But he said if you’re going to switch, then get the Air Force guys checked out on our airplane, because our airplanes are the C-models, which are more capable against the enhanced threat of the SA-2. And so that was done. A couple of the [Air Force] pilots were flown in a hurry to Edwards AFB to be checked out on the C-model and one of those pilots was Major Richard Heyser. And so it was Heyser that flew the flight under Air Force control but using a CIA airplane on 14 October 1962 that took pictures of the Soviet M.R.B.M site being erected in Cuba. That was the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Of course due credit has been given to him and the others—the 11 pilots that flew those missions over Cuba during the subsequent days.
Unfortunately, because of the covert nature of the CIA operation, due credit hasn’t been given to the guys that flew the CIA flights in the preceding period.
Major Rudy Anderson was the only U-2 pilot fatality during the Cuban Missile Crisis; his U-2 was shot down by the SA-2. I’ve seen it written that Castro himself may have been the one who pushed the button.
There is a lot of mythology developed around the shooting down of Rudy Anderson. The fact is that he was shot down on the orders of the P.V.O. general that was running the Soviet SA-2 deployment in Cuba. The P.V.O. is the Soviet air defense troops. He actually exceeded his orders because he was supposed to get permission to fire from the overall commander of the Soviet deployment to Cuba, General Gribkov. But General Pliyev (P.V.O. commander) went ahead anyway. And so there was in fact the possibility that the high command from General Gribkov and back through the Soviet leadership in Moscow didn’t really want to shoot that plane down at the very height of the missile crisis. This did, of course, ratcheted up the tension even more.
There’s been stuff written about how Castro got control of the missiles himself and pushed the button that sent the SA-2 up into the air that nailed Rudy Anderson. But it’s absolute rubbish.
Did the Soviets have tactical nuclear weapons on Cuba to defend the island against an impending U.S. invasion of that island in October 1962?
The Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons along the coast of Cuba that would have decimated an American amphibious landing. The subsequent U-2 and low level (RF-101) missions identified those missiles, but not as a nuclear-tipped missiles. That they had tactical nuclear missiles wasn’t actually known until the end of the Cold War [after 1992], when all the Soviet players started talking and writing about their part in the operation.
If the Americans had invaded, who knows what would have happened. It really was the crisis point of the Cold War and no doubt the point in which we came the closest to a nuclear exchange, which could have developed into a worldwide nuclear exchange.