On October 16, 1962, President Kennedy reviewed aerial photographs showing the Soviets were installing offensive missiles in Cuba. Ordering daily reconnaissance flights over the island, the President and his advisors met regularly to consider military options while he mustered diplomatic support around the world.
On the evening of October 22, the President explained to the nation and the world that U.S. policy demanded the withdrawl of the Russian missiles from Cuba. He further declared a quarantine of all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba, and directed the armed services to be prepared for any eventuality. President Kennedy ordered increased surveillance of the island, called for emergency meetings of the Organization of American States Council and the United Nations Security Council, and appealed to Nikita Khrushchev "to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stablize relations between our nations." The President also asserted that any missile launched from Cuba at the United States would be considered tantamount to a missile launched from the Soviet Union, and would require an appropriate response.
The crisis expanded as the
world watched Russian merchant ships steam toward Cuba. The first,
a tanker, was allowed to pass about noon on October 25th. By
the 27th, Soviet vessels were either sitting dead in the water
or seemed to have turned back. While this and some formal and
informal signals from the Soviet Union suggested that the tension
might lessen, there was still much cause for concern in the midst
of which the Air Force Reserve troop carrier units were participating
in preparations for an invasion of Cuba.
Headquarters Continental Air Command (CONAC) and its reserve troop carrier wings actually became involved in the Cuban missile crisis at 5:42pm on Friday, October 12. CONAC Headquarters received a telephone call from Headquarters Tactical Air Command (TAC) requesting Air Force Reserve help to airlift cargo from undetermined points all over the United States. The operation was to begin the following morning and be completed by Monday, October 15. In the end, 80 C-119s flew 1,232 hours that weekend carrying material into Key West Naval Air Station and Homestead AFB, Florida. the buildup of military forces in the southeast United States had begun. The 434th Troop Carrier Wing from Bakalar AFB, Columbus, Indiana participated in the weekend operation.
The military buildup continued as forty naval ships became involved. At scattered posts, 40,000 Marines were preparing to head toward the Caribbean to augment the 5,000 at Guantanamo Bay if necessary. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were made ready for immediate deployment. Altogether, the Army gathered more than 100,000 troops in Florida. Strategic Air Command bombers left Florida airfields to make room for tactical fighters flown in from bases all over the United States.
Air Force Reserve airlift support of the Tactical Air Command continued at an exceptionally high rate. CONAC increased its normal daily aircraft support to TAC from ten to twenty-five. Between October 20 and 28, Air Force Reserve C-119s, C-123s, and C-124s delivered cargo and military personnel into the southeast. Having watched the President's telecast the night before, reserve troop carrier wing officials were not surprised on October 23 at 4:00pm when Headquarters CONAC directed them to activate their command posts and operate them around the clock, seven days a week.
During a meeting at 9:00pm on October 27th, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara advised the President a call-up of reservists was necessary to meet invasion plans, and that it would also put some pressure on the Russians. Without much additional discussion, President Kennedy approved McNamara's recommendation to mobilize 24 Air Force Reserve troop carrier squadrons - about 14,000 reservists and 300 aircraft. The official recall message came from Headquarters USAF at 2:23am on October 28, 1962. The message ordered one C-123 and seven C-119 troop carrier wings along with six aerial port squadrons to active duty at 9:00am October 28, 1962, for no more than twelve months. The 434th Troop Carrier Wing and its 71st and 72nd Troop Carrier Squadrons and 16th Aerial Port Squadron were affected. The mobilized Air Force Reserve units brought a total of 14,220 people and 422 aircraft on active duty.
About the time the mobilized troop carrier wings were reporting for active duty, the White House received a new message from Premier Khrushchev. Conciliatory in tone and accepting President Kennedy's terms, it promised removal of the missiles and verification of the fact by the United Nations. Although this definitely relieved the crisis, the President decided that U.S. ships would stay on station and the recalled Air Force Reserve units would remain on active duty pending satisfactory United Nations arrangements. Not wanting the United States to appear too anxious to return to normalcy, the President and Secretary McNamara wanted the Soviets to understand that Washington would not consider the matter ended until the missiles were gone. Not until November 20, therefore, did the President announce he was lifting the quarantine and that the mobilized air reserve units would be released before Christmas.
On November 22, 1962, the Air Force directed the Tactical Air Command to release the activated units at midnight, November 28. the unit's aircrews were given the opportunity to remain on active duty voluntarily for an additional 15 days to help the Air Force redeploy the military forces that had been delivered to the southeastern U.S. during the preceding 45 days. Electing to do so were 442 crew members - 290 pilots, 64 navigators, and 88 flight engineers.
The Air Force Reserve did absolutely all that it was asked of it between October 13 and December 29, 1962. It augmented the active air force in assembling materiel in the southeast corner of the United States. When the President thought he might need an invasion force and the Department of Defense mobilized the Air Force Reserve troop carrier units as essential to the task, they responded quickly and were prepared for their part. Then, individual crew members stayed on to help redeploy the assembled force.
Although the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis and the stabilization of the situation in the Caribbean seemed in 1963 to signal a lessening of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, other developments in Southeast Asia were beginning to draw the Air Force and its reserve components into a new level of military activity.