• "The Stumbling Block". The 759th mine-and-torpedo aviation regiment on Cuba during the Caribbean crisis of 1962

    It is widely known nowadays that the compromise that was reached long ago between Chairman of the USSR Ministerial council Nikita Khruschev and USA President John Kennedy contributed to the settlement of the most critical international crisis of the second half of the 20th century - the Caribbean crisis. The USSR was obliged to remove nuclear medium-range missiles from Cuba in return for the USA guarantees of non-aggression to Cuba and removal of nuclear missiles aimed at the USSR from Turkey. However, very few people remember nowadays that except missiles a Soviet aviation regiment with Il-28 bombers was placed in Cuba. Burning discussions between the Soviet and American parties about removal of the bombers from Cuba threatened any settlement of the Caribbean crisis. This story is devoted to the 759th mine-and-torpedo aviation regiment and its people who had no slightest idea that were exposed as "the stumbling block".

    In 1961, General Staff of the Soviet Navy (instruction № ОМУ/4/9650сс) formed the 759th mine-and-torpedo aviation regiment (the 759th mtar, military unit 30945) to be based in Khrabrovo airbase (the Kaliningrad area), and subordinated to the 384th Gatchina Red-Banner mine-and-torpedo aviation division (the staff was located in Riga). The regiment was armed with Il-28 bombers.

    The Joint Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces on December 8, 1961, renamed the 759th mtar into the 759th Tallinn Red-Banner aviation regiment awarded with Ushakov and Nakhimov orders. On February 23, 1962, the 759th mtar formally received the Red Banner of the 51st Red Banner Tallinn mine-and-torpedo aviation regiment of Ushakov and Nakhimov orders.

    Il-28 front bomber in flight. Photo provided by “Aviapoisk. Photo gallery of Il-28 jet bomber of Ilyushin OKB”, http://aviapoisk.narod.ru/il28foto.htm

    That is what Lev Evseev, a veteran of the 759th mtar, retired colonel, recollects: “I served in the 759th mtar since 1961 as technician in the first air squadron under command of major Valentin Osennikov, and served four Il-28 planes - “training” Il-28U and combat planes with tactical numbers 11, 17 and 18 onboard. The planes were often used by command staff of the regiment, including its commander lieutenant colonel Dorofey Ermakov, a remarkable pilot and really strong Russian man, and his navigator major Boris Andreev.

    Lev Evseev. The 1970s

    “In July, 1962, - the regiment’s historical logbook states, - the commander of the Red Banner Baltic fleet Air Force ordered to the 759th mtar, the 4287th aero technical base, the 289th separate landing management battalion, and the 47th mine-and-torpedo section to start preparation to perform a “government” special mission abroad”.

    “Under the occasion, - Lev Evseev explains, - all personnel of our 759th mtar were drawn up on the airdrome Khrabrovo taxiway. The commander lieutenant colonel Ermakov ordered: “Those who agree to fulfill an international duty, five steps – forward!” When we made the five steps and turned around, we could see only one or two persons remaining on the place. And on August 4 the work started boiling. The parking space was used to dismantle planes, preserve engines, and to pack all things into containers. The work was new for us, but interesting. By August 25, 11 Il-28 planes, and by September 20 - 33 aircrafts were disassembled and packed. On the average, dismantling and packing of one Il-28 plane took five days. In the middle of September, 1962, all disassembled equipment, arms (mines, torpedoes, bombs, shells), and other necessary property were transported by railway to Baltiysk port”.

    Training Il-28U in parking space. Photo provided by “Aviapoisk. Photo gallery of jet bomber Il-28 of Ilyushin OKB”, http://aviapoisk.narod.ru/il28foto.htm

    On September 4, 1962, US president John Kennedy in the private message to Ninita Khruschev, Chairman of USSR Ministerial council, stated that the USA would not tolerate “the Soviet offensive * arms” presence on Cuba. In turn, Khruschev answered that the Soviet Union “does not have necessity to place such weapons in the Caribbean basin”.

    From September 10, till October 5, the equipment and the personnel of the 759th mtar and serving units were put in Baltiysk on vessels and shipped. Dry-cargo ship “Kasimov” made in Finland carried 22 Il-28 planes, 38 motor vehicles, 75 РАТ-52 torpedoes, various property, and 368 persons.

    “I was loading foreman, - Evseev recollects, - my friend, senior technician-lieutenant Sergey Vershinin worked as crane operator. Day and night, we loaded the aviation hardware, various equipment, and property. Once, we even loaded someone's GAZ-69 vehicle, this car had been put abreast with the equipment of our regiment, and by mistake we have thrown the GAZ car in the hold. The holds of "Kasimov” ship “were crammed to full capacity with hardware and equipment, with tons of torpedoes and bombs, shells and mines. In the fodder hold we arranged special plank beds-balconies for the staff: enlisted men - below, commissioned officers - above. Every officer had a pistol in his holster. All people onboard wore civilian clothes, and the containers put on the main deck of the vessel, carried inscriptions "Avtoexport".

    Dry-cargo ship "Kasimov" cast off on September 15, and left for the Baltic Sea. All personnel of our regiment was placed in the hold under the deck. Only some officers, me including, were allowed to stay on the main deck. There were some military exercises in the North Sea then, some vessels were seen, some planes flied above us. But, somehow, our dry-cargo ship caused no suspicion.

    The life onboard carried on the usual army way: conversations on political subjects, studies of world map. Breakfast, dinner and supper went on as scheduled. As foreman on the ship, I was also to provide my "brigade" with food. Therefore I regularly visited "galley", cooking place on the main deck, climbing from the hold up on a vertical ladder, and balancing on the way back with the cable in one hand, and a tank with food or a teapot in the other. We ate in the hold behind a long table. There were several tables like this in the hold.

    Our passage through the ocean caused seasickness in some airmen. They remained in their beds and only drank water sometimes. I felt it necessary to bring down from the "galley" some herring, onions, pickles to help somehow the sick people”.

    A group of commissioned officers and civilian personnel, 65 persons all in all, left Baltiysk aboard steam-ship "Estonia". The vessel left the port on September 23. Seven planes, 85 РАТ-52 torpedoes, 163 mines, 68 special vehicles, property and 291 persons of the staff have been shipped on cargo ship "Bratsk". Steam-ship "Bratsk" left for the sea on October 2. Steam-ship "Almetyevsk" took aboard four Il-28 planes, 86 motor vehicles, 823 practical bombs, property and 280 persons of the staff and left for the sea on October 5. Steam-ship "Nikolaevsk" with 20 civilians onboard was the last vessel to leave port Baltiysk on October 11. The passage and transportation of cargoes and property of the 759th mtar to the port of discharge on Cuba took with no incidents or losses on the average 15 days.

    “As soon as we passed the Bahamas, - Evseev says, - US NAVY "Neptune" patrol planes with long tails-peaks (magnetic instruments fairing) in the tail part started flying over us. The planes flew by at a main deck level 30-40 meters away from the vessel. We could see the crew; through the open cargo doors they photographed us with big camera lens.

    US NAVY Lockheed P-2 Neptune base patrol plane flies over the Soviet ship. The Caribbean Sea, autumn of 1962.
    Archive of Sergey Isaev

    Such causing behavior of Americans was not left unpunished. Once someone from our officers felt hard to restrain themselves and began throwing potatoes at the American plane, flying by absolutely nearby. Regiment commander colonel Ermakov shouted out some Russian words to potato throwers, and ordered to send all people in the hold. After all, how could the Soviet experts from "Avtoexport" be so uncivilized?! The incident could betray us, and the secret passage to Cuba could be revealed.

    We approached Cuba in the beginning of October at damp tropical night. A small boat sailed up to our ship, and a big black man in the white sea uniform came up aboard “Kasimov” ship. He was pilot. Our dry-cargo ship sailed slowly in the small bay of the borough called Baya-Onde bordered on perimeter with piles made of argan tree. The vessel moored so that it could be unloaded from both sides. Cuban people protected ashore the operation.

    Unloading activity started next day. For some time ahead, we slept and took food in the hold. Later we could set up tents ashore to live in. When the time came to move our cargo containers to an airbase, I was appointed the senior of the motorcade. The motorcade consisted usually of 15-25 supersize diesel trailers of American origin. On the way from Baya-Onde to San-Julian airbase located in the southwest part of Cuba 15-20 kilometers away from the coast, we were accompanied by Cuban military motorcyclist Rigoberto Rodriguez, an officer from Fidel Castro’s bodyguard group. We made friends with Rigoberto, we communicated both in Spanish, and in Russian, and with gestures. His motorcycle "Harley-Davidson" was strong, painted white, with sirens and flashers attached to it.

    Technicians of the 759th mtar, from left to right: L. Evseev, F. Pashinin, R. Akhtarov, and L. Kharitonov, with Cuban tractor in the back. Cuba, autumn of 1962. Archive of Lev Evseev.

    All in all, 33 Il-28 planes of our regiment were delivered to Cuba. With containers and cargoes placed on taxiways andl parking spaces of San-Julian airbase, on October 14, we started assembling first two planes, “training” Il-28U among them. FinalIy I checked up engines, fuelling system, and other equipment on the ground, and, signing inspection sheet, reported on readiness for flights. It is necessary to say a few words about technician of the squadron senior lieutenant Alexander Kondratyev who was later awarded with the Red Star order, also my service companion senior lieutenant Rafail Ahtarov, engineer of the squadron captain Vladimir Korkin, commander of our squadron major Valentin Osennikov awarded with the Red Banner order, - they played a big role assembling planes”.

    Transfer to Cuba of the Soviet 40,000-strong grouping, including medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), tactical rockets and air defense missiles, aircrafts, motorized infantry units, and maintenance parts could not remain unnoticed by American intelligence services. However, the USA remained ignorant for long concerning presence of the Soviet medium-range missiles on Cuba.

    Delivery of containers with Il-28 planes to San-Julian airbase. October, 1962. Archive of Lev Evseev.

    On October 14, American intelligence services received for the first time aerial photographs with signs of building up of launching sites for ground-to-ground missiles. Simultaneously, revealed was also the assemblage on Cuba of Il-28 bombers which the American side considered “offensive arms”, in line with medium-range missiles. On October 16, the information on the deployed Soviet missiles on Cuba was reported to US president. Heads of US Armed Forces demanded then from John Kennedy to give the order on bombing positions of the Soviet missiles, with the subsequent invasion of the American troops on Cuba. US president disagreed with the demands of the military chiefs, and suggested to declare sea blockade of Cuba to prevent from arrivals of new Soviet troops and arms on the island. Simultaneously, the order was given to strengthen all kinds of investigation on Cuba, including that from the air. The situation around Cuba became complicated every hour; a serious international crisis was boiling up.

    The photograph of Soviet MRBM launch site in the area of San Cristobal, made by VFP-62 squadron reconnaissance plane
    ought RF-8A Crusader. Taken from the book by William Ecker & Kenneth Jack. Blue Moon Over Cuba. Aerial reconnaissance
    during the Cuban missile crisis.

    In the middle of October, the number of sorties of American strategic reconnaissance U-2 planes carried out at a very high altitude increased sharply. The US Air Force, US Navy, and US Marines were involved in the aerial reconnaissance over Cuba. On October 23, 1962, RF-101A/C Voodoo planes of the 18th, 20th and 29th squadrons of the 363rd tactical reconnaissance wing based on airbase Shau (South Carolina) started to make low-level reconnaissance missions over all territory of Cuba. The Navy VFP-62 squadron (www.vfp62.com) and the Marines VMCJ-2 squadron, armed with new tactical reconnaissance planes RF-8A Crusader, were redeployed on air base Sessile Field (Jacksonville, Florida) and started regular flights above Cuba.

    “Americans daily and very punctually, from 9 am till dinner time flied over our airbase, - Lev Evseev tells. – Two American planes flied always over us: the first plane had open hatches under fuselage (the hatches carried cameras) the second aircraft was combat, flying a little bit behind and above. They flied very low.

    Once, about twenty GAZ-53 trucks arrived to our airdrome, each towing a quadruple antiaircraft machine gun. They were accompanied by combat crews. AA systems were deployed along perimeter of the airdrome. In a day or two, some Cuban military leaders arrived. They visited us to meet command staff of our regiment.

    At the moment two American planes entered the space of our airdrome. When they were near our command post at a low altitude, someone opened automatic fire. We had no idea who fired. But the Cuban AA machine gun’s crews, taking it as a signal, opened fire, too. Near my plane there was located an AA machine gun, with the crew of black soldiers. I climbed quickly on the wing of the Il-28 plane (it had slipcovers on) and witnessed shell bursts below the US planes, above and below, but no one was hit. The Americans made three approaches, and the three times antiaircraft guns opened fire. The mission over, the Americans left the space unharmed. But for some time there were no flights over our airbase since then.

    The RF-8A Crusader of VFP-62 had four camera bays. Taken from the book by William Ecker & Kenneth Jack. Blue Moon Over Cuba. Aerial reconnaissance during the Cuban missile crisis.

    At 19:00 on October 22, 1962 (Washington time, in Moscow the time was 3:00 of October 23) US president John Kennedy went to the national radio and TV to deliver a speech to the American people in which he informed them of detection of the Soviet nuclear medium-range missiles on Cuba. US president demanded from the USSR to withdraw the missiles, and declared the so-called "quarantine", pointing out that “the USA will consider any launch of a nuclear missile from the territory of Cuba against any country of the Western hemisphere as an attack of Soviet Union against the USA, that in turn will cause the corresponding answer against the Soviet Union”.

    US Strategic * Air Command was put on full alert, its * bombers were placed in civil airports and started round-the-clock air missions. US nuclear submarines armed with Polaris ballistic missiles onboard were moved to fighting positions. In order to put into practice the blockade of Cuba, *some additional forces of the US Navy were directed to the Caribbean Sea*.

    On October 22, after the US president’s TV speech was over, Fidel Castro, commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary armed forces of Cuba issued the order to put armies to full alert. Simultaneously, Group of the Soviet forces on Cuba was also put to the higher degree of alert.

    The world found itself on the verge of nuclear war …

    On October 23, Nikita Khruschev sent John Kennedy a letter in which proved legality of actions of two sovereign states - the USSR and Cuba, compelled in reply to “barefaced aggressive actions of the USA” to take measures to maintain safety of Cuba. Overall mobilization was declared in Cuba. That very day the Soviet strategic missile forces, long-distance air forces, armies of air defence of the country, frontier troops, and the groups of armies deployed outside the USSR, and armed forces of the Warsaw Pact countries were also put in the higher level of alert.

    On October 23, the 759th mtar historical logbook states, - the units deployed in San-Julian airdrome, got the order to raise their alertness. From October 23 till October 30, the regiment staff, keeping on assembling planes, was in gun positions of land defense in readiness to repel any hostile attack.

    On October 24, the situation got more aggravated. Nikita Khruschev in another message to US president accused the latter of “laying down the ultimatum to the USSR”, and in strong words rejected an “attempt of the USA to dictate terms”. During this time, according to American experts, about 30 Soviet medium-range missiles and over 20 Il-28 bombers were delivered to Cuba. The USA took measures to toughen sea blockade of Cuba.

    On October 26, Nikita Khruschev in the next letter to President John Kennedy officially recognised for the first time the deployment of Soviet missiles on Cuba, and declared thus that they would be never used against the USA. The message of the Soviet leader included the offer to the USA to guarantee non-aggression against Cuba and to raise island blockade in exchange for removal of the Soviet offensive weapons from the island. The American side regarded this message as a positive signal to crisis settlement.

    On October 27, the situation has again sharply become aggravated again. At 10.21 (Havana time) upon the order given by general Sergey Grechko, deputy commander of Group of the Soviet forces on Cuba, the 1st battery of the 507th antiaircraft regiment under command of major Ivan Gerchenov brought down American reconnaissance plane U-2 over Cuba. The pilot, major Anderson, was lost. Plane fragments fell down to the island. The American military men demanded that they immediately begin bombing positions of the Soviet missiles on Cuba, and simultaneously assault the island with amphibian forces.

    “Tensions were growing, - Lev Evseev continues the story, - when the Soviet crew brought down American U-2 plane with an anti-aircraft missile. The American plane fell down to the island’s territory. The place was visited then by Fidel Castro. Fidel's photos against U-2 on the ground spread all over Cuban newspapers next day, and initiated a triumph wave on Cuba.

    Our spirit was strong, no one felt panic. All of us were ready to fulfil the international duty to protect the Cuban revolution. Often meeting Cubans, we sang a song which refrain was “Cuba - Si, Yankee - No, Cuba - Si, Yankee - No!”

    On October 27, US president received Khruschev's next letter containing additional demand to remove American missiles from Turkey. In his answer John Kennedy informed that the USA were ready to give guarantees that Cuba would not be invaded, and quarantine measures would be cancelled provided that “all offensive kinds of arms” would be taken out from the island under the UN supervision.

    On October 28, the Soviet leaders made decision to give their positive answer to the American offers. Under the severe time conditions, there was no time to transfer the statement of the Soviet government through traditional diplomatic channels. Therefore the statement which informed “that the Soviet government gave the order to dismantle the weapons which USA name offensive, to ship them and return to the USSR”, was announced at 10 am, Moscow time, by nation-wide radio. In his answer president Kennedy made a short statement on the American TV in which he expressed satisfaction with the USSR position, and spoke in favor of further development of the Soviet-American dialogue in constructive spirit. The sharpest and dangerous phase of the crisis was over.
    Assembly of Il-28 bombers of the 759th mtar in San-Julian airdrome. October, 1962. Archive of Lev Evseev.

    However, the statement of the Soviet government of October 28, Il-28 bombers, which assembly was going on, were not mentioned. On October 28, at 13.00, Havana time, army general Ivan Plev, Commander of Group of the Soviet forces on Cuba, declared to major general Igor Statsenko, commander of the 51st missile division, the instruction issued by the USSR Minister of Defense to dismantle launching sites of R-12 medium-range missiles, and to relocate the formation to the Soviet Union.

    On October 29, Soviet-American negotiations on peaceful settlement of the conflict began in New York under the aegis of the United Nations. During the negotiations there was a problem of adequate treatment of the term “offensive weapon”, which the Soviet government was obliged to take out from Cuba. The term “offensive weapon”, the American side claimed, applied both to missiles and Il-28 bombers, and demanded their removal from the island. According to the Soviet side, these bombers were out-of-date types of planes; neither did present threat to the USA nor fall under the category of "offensive weapon”.

    By October 29, the regiment historical historical logbook marks, one Il-28U and one Il-28 were assembled. From October 19 till November 10, seven planes were assembled and examined both on the ground and in the air; three Il-28 planes were 80% ready and three planes - 40% ready.

    On October 30, the first of the assembled on Cuba planes of the 579th mtar - Il-28U was tested in the air. After that the regiment started planned flights. In total, five flight shifts were made with total flight time of 23 hours and 12 minutes. Totallyl 77 landings were made, 14 crews accomplished their missions.

    “Usually flight shifts were carried out every two or three days, - Lev Evseev continues, - and no more than 2-3 planes were planned to fly. Flight crews in flying formation tested combat equipment. There were no arms suspended in these flights. Our planes carried no state insignia (red stars), they were painted over. There was radio silence in the air when our planes were in flight. Once, when Il-28 carried out its training flight, two American fighters joined up with it, almost nearby. Pilot captain Youry Sidorov shouted to his gunner: “Look, do not move the gun!” Launches and landings were made on alarm rockets. On the ground, bombers were carefully masked with grids and tree branches”.

    By October 31, launching sites of the Soviet missiles were dismantled. General Igor Stetsenko reported on that to UN Secretary General U Than, who arrived to Cuba, and the USSR ambassador in Cuba ALexander Alekseev. On November 2, the Soviet missiles R-12 were concentrated in the ports of loading. From November 5 till November 9, 1962, all 42 missiles were shipped and taken out from the island on the Soviet vessels.

    “On November 7, 1962, on the Day of October revolution, commander lieutenant colonel Ermakov congratulated the gathered personnel on the occasion of the Holiday, and declared the day off. – Lev Evseev says. – The Americans presented their so called congratulations also: a couple of US fighters made only one flight above us that day. There were a concert and dances in the military station club, with free of charge Coca-Cola and big pieces of white loaf with pork in the evening for all. We liked the evening”.

    On November 9, 1962, Minister of Justice Robert Kennedy, brother of US president, declared to the Soviet representative about “an imperative need to solve promptly the matter of removal of Il-28 planes from Cuba”. The conflict thus threatened to annul all arrangements reached before.

    On November 11, the issue concerning removal of Il-28 was considered by Presidium of the Central Committee of the CPSU, and the decision to meet the American demand was accepted, but “after some little bargaining”.

    On November 12, commander of the 759th mtar got the order to stop assembling Il-28 planes.

    On November 14, Robert Kennedy met once again the USSR ambassador in the USA Anatoly Dobrynin and told that “President Kennedy will be disappointed by the received answer concerning Il-28 planes if it is not certainly positive”. The Soviet side insisted that removal of Il-28 had to be coordinated with cancellation of quarantine measures and termination of American flights over Cuba.
    On November 20, the Soviet party informed that the USSR undertook to take out Il-28 planes within 30 days. President Kennedy declared that disputes round the Soviet arms on Cuba were settled, and he consequently gave the order to cancel readiness №1 alert in the US armed forces.

    On November 21, military alert was abandoned in the USSR Air defense forces, missile strategic forces, long-range aviation, and in the groups of the Soviet forces abroad. Direct threat of a world war passed away.

    Technicians of the 759th mtar S. Vershinin (on the left) and L. Evseev (on the right) against the background of dry-cargo ship "Kasimov" under loading in port Mariel. Cuba, beginning of December 1962. Archive of LevEvseev.

    On November 21, command staff of the 759th mtar and the 47th mine-and-torpedo section received the order to return to the Soviet Union. Dismantling of the combat ready planes and those under assemblage, and their packing in containers began on November 22. During the period, from November 25 till December 5, all equipment of the regiment and the mine-and-torpedo section was transported from San-Julian airbase to port of Mariel. From December 1 till December 5, planes Il-28, property of the 759th mtar and the 47th mts were loaded on cargo vessels "Okhotsk", “Kasimov”, “Krasnogradsk”, and “Kimovsk” in port Mariel. On December 16, the personnel left port of La Habana by passenger steam-ship "Mikhail Kalinin".

    Touching upon the removal of Il-28 bombers from Cuba, it is necessary to note that after the arrangement to take out the Soviet missiles from the island was achieved, an issue arose how to control performance of the arrangements. The American side suggested that such a control would be carried out in ports of Cuba. Fidel Castro's government disagreed flatly. After sharp discussions held between the USSR and the USA, the following arrangement was reached: inspection would be carried out by the American sea and air means at an exit of the Soviet ships to the ocean. For this purpose, missiles to be taken out from Cuba had to be placed, in infringement of sea transportations rules, on the main decks of ships, with open top covers of containers that allowed to record removal of missiles from the island by photo cameras. Since the Soviet side agreed to remove Il-28 planes as “offensive weapon”, the inspection procedure concerning bombers was similar to the removal of missiles: containers with Il-28 planes with open top covers were placed on the main decks of ships that allowed Americans to make sure of performance of the arrangements.

    Dry-cargo ship "Kasimov" on its way back from Cuba with Il-28 planes on the main deck photographed on December 18, 1962, between Stevns (Denmark) and Falsterbo (Sweden). The photo was taken from a Danish Air Force RF-84 Thunderflash.
    Historical collection of Danish Air Force, www.flyhis.dk

    On December 19, "Kasimov" arrived to the port of Kaliningrad, and steam-ship "Okhotsk" to the port of Nikolaev. On December 20, the vessel “Krasnogradsk” arrived to the port of Kaliningrad. On December 28, steam-ship "Kimovsk" arrived to the port of Baltiysk.

    On December 30, 1962, "Mikhail Kalinin" ship with the staff of the 759th mtar and the 47th mts arrived to the port of Baltiysk. All staff, planes, motor transport and equipment was transported without any incident or losses.

    Lev Evseev: “On December 30, 1962, we arrived to Baltiysk, and then to our garrison place. All families were glad that all arrived healthy. Containers with planes were brought soon. And further events went on as planned: Il-28 planes that visited tropic areas were assembled and tested in flight, regular flights started. Our business trip to Cuba was over.

    The author is very grateful to historian Peer Henrik Hansen, the Leader of Cold war museum Langelandsfort (www.langelandsfortet.dk), for his contribution to this article.

    Sergey Isaev, sm.isaev@gmail.com


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