HAVELOCK - In an incident that could have triggered nuclear war, four pilots from Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station took daring photographs of Cuban missile bases, racing past enemy fire at 500 mph.
On Oct. 14, 1964, an American U2 spy plane captured images of what appeared to be launch sites for Soviet missiles. The photos required an expert to interpret the structures, appearing grainy from the high-altitude flight.
President John F. Kennedy and Pentagon officials asked for unmistakable proof the following day, sending four jets from Cherry Point to assist in the reconnaissance effort.
"The Navy didn't have enough airplanes, so they asked the Marines to help them with four aircraft," said Col. H. Wayne Whitten, author of "Countdown to 13 Days and Beyond." "The Marine commander at Cherry Point said, 'no problem, you get the four aircraft, but they're coming with my crew.'"
Four RF-8A Crusader jets from Cherry Point took off for Jacksonville, Fla., where all branches of the military assembled to prepare for war. Capts. Fred Carolan, Dick Conway, John Hudson, and E.J. Love of Cherry Point flew perilous low-level missions over enemy territory, taking panoramic photos between 50 and 1,000 feet above the Cuban jungles.
"Kennedy needed very big, up front and easy-to-see pictures of those sites that he could show not only to his staff, but to the world," Whitten said in a phone interview Monday. "Sometimes the Cherry Point Marines led the missions, other times, the Navy did. But these Marines were a crucial part of the intelligence gathering."
Historians have said the photos may have prevented World War III, a nuclear war between the world's superpowers. The images were presented to the United Nations Security Council as clear evidence of Soviet plans to stock nuclear arms in Cuba.
Fifty years later, many Havelock residents are unaware Cherry Point Marines captured the historic photos. When shown the images, people living near the base were impressed with the pilots' bravery and skillful flying.
"These pictures are extremely clear," Craven County resident Brett Loveland said. "Fifty years ago, the technology was great, and this is an impressive shot."
The crisis came to a close Oct. 28, 1962, when Soviet ships suspected of carrying nuclear arms turned around en route to Cuba. The U.S. had imposed a naval blockade, and promised to invade if the missiles were delivered.
The Cherry Point pilots received Distinguished Flying Crosses and Navy Unit Commendations, awarded for the first time when the country was at peace.