TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — It’s been 50 years since now-retired Lt. Col. Morrie Wasserman and his fellow Travis airlifters helped move troops and supplies to Florida for a possible invasion of Cuba, in case the crisis over Soviet missiles in that country turned into a war with the United States.
“We were alerted and sent to a base on the East Coast, which was an assembly point for C-124 aircraft,” Wasserman said of his specific assignment. “It was a classified mission and, to this date, I don’t think it has ever been cleared (for public knowledge). We did have a war plan for that mission.”
Wasserman said that while it’s more than 50 years since the missile crisis and people and technology change, many war plans don’t.
A lot of odd air strips around Florida were lit by car headlights at night to allow military aircraft to fly in and position troops for the possible invasion, Wasserman said.
“We had all these paratroopers to put on airplanes,” he said. “The plan was to drop them to take the airports and then air-land more troops. They were pretty serious about Cuba.”
That period in October 1962 was the closest that the U.S. and Travis came to war with the Soviet Union – after an Air Force U-2 reconnaissance plane captured photos of Soviet missile bases being built in Cuba on Oct. 14, 1962.
At first, the U.S. considered an invasion. Instead, President John F. Kennedy decided to impose a military blockade with the expectation that it would end up as a military confrontation.
“Anything could have happened. It was a close call,” said 60th Air Mobility Command historian Mark Wilderman.
Wilderman said, “It was a time of one confrontation after another with the Soviets,” with the Cuban Missile Crisis happening only a year after the Berlin Wall’s construction and subsequent crisis.
At the time the Cuban Missile Crisis started, Travis was home to the Military Air Transport Service’s 1501st Air Transport Wing and its three squadrons of C-124 Globemaster IIs, a squadron of C-133 Cargomasters and the then-new C-135B Stratolifter, according to Wilderman.
It was also home to the Strategic Air Command’s 5th Bombardment Wing, with its B-52G Stratofortress bombers, which were equipped the year before with the GAM-77 Hound Dog cruise missiles, and KC-135A Stratotankers.
The base was surrounded by a ring of Nike Hercules surface-to-air missile batteries of the 1st Missile Battalion. The remaining structures of two are now parts of the Fairfield-Suisun School District’s school bus maintenance facility and the Goodrich Corp. facility in the Potrero Hills.
It also had a squadron of Delta Dagger jet fighters, which were parked on the northeast part of the base behind the old David Grant Medical Center.
When the crisis started, the 1501st was alerted and tasked to airlift military personnel to Guantanamo Bay and Florida to support the possible invasion of Cuba if the standoff turned into a shooting war. The wing’s official history from that time simply and tersely states, “Many operations were flown by the 1501st as a result of military build-up observed on the island of Cuba.”
It was probably the greatest workload surge in the history of Military Air Transport Service, which the Chief of Naval Operations praised as “an absolutely magnificent performance,” according to the wing history.
Wasserman, now retired in Vacaville, was a C-124 pilot and chief of Travis’ Transport Control Center at the time the missile crisis started.
“The base was under control of the Military Air Transport Service and we still had some B-52s there,” Wasserman said.
While Travis’ Strategic Air Command bombers were not directly involved at the time, the air transport squadrons were alerted and sent out.
Before Wasserman left, he managed to get home long enough to tell his family that something may happen and they would have to be prepared, according to his daughter, Wendy Wasserman, who was a young child at the time and remembered that the schoolchildren were taught to duck-and-cover in case of nuclear attack.
“Our entire garage was filled with provisions, boxes of water and food,” Wendy Wasserman said. “He kept it really low-key. We had no fear.”
Wasserman said he figures he got the assignment to oversee the C-124s going to Florida because, earlier in the year, he attended a course on ballistic missiles that required him to have security clearance so he could have access to top-secret materials.
“We were very close to war. We were waiting for Kennedy to pull the plug and sink those ships,” Wasserman said of the Soviet freighters and their missile cargo, which were approaching the military embargo line the Americans put around the island.
By Oct. 22, 1962, the base’s Strategic Air Command forces were put on Defense Condition 2, one step below nuclear war. The B-52s were put on alert status, loaded with nuclear weapons from the on-base facility called the Secret City and made ready to launch strikes against the Soviet Union.
The aircrews were on standby at the recently constructed Strategic Air Command alert facility on the south side of Travis’ flight line, which is now home to a Navy strategic communications unit. The base stayed on DEFCON 2 until Nov. 15, 1962.
The base’s Delta Daggers of the 82nd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron were sent to Siskiyou Airport near Mount Shasta as a precaution to help ensure their survivability in case of a surprise Soviet attack, according to Wilderman.
This came less than a month after the U.S. Air Force Air Defense Command made a deal with the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors for use of the airfield because it was “ideally suited for use as a dispersal site, because it was well outside any targeted or fallout area,” according to the Siskiyou Historical Society.
Tense public and secret negotiations ended the crisis on Oct. 28, 1962, with a public agreement that the Soviets would dismantle their weapons in Cuba and a secret agreement that the U.S. would dismantle its Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy.
“Kennedy was not kidding and we were very pleased when the Soviets backed down,” Wasserman said. He was glad that the country had a president who was willing to do what was necessary, he said.
Wasserman described the crisis as a good example of Travis’ and the American military’s ability to mobilize to protect the country.
“The United States was threatened. Everything we do in peacetime is to train for war and we were prepared,” Wasserman said. ”It was a tense time. It happened fast and it ended fast.”
Outside of some of the buildings, the only remnants of Travis’ role in the crisis 50 years ago is a C-124 and a C-133 now at the Travis Air Museum. They were flown by the 1501st Air Transport Wing during the crisis. The Travis Air Museum also has a B-52D bomber, an F-102 Delta Dagger and a Hound Dog missile on display.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.