udolf Anderson Jr. is not a household name, at least not where I am from. But if it wasn’t for his sacrifice on October 27, 1962, it is very likely that the world in which you read this today would be a much different one.
It’s quite possible that none of us would even be here at all.
The Fateful Mission
As with many tragic tales, Major Rudolf Anderson Jr was not even meant to fly on the day that would cost him his life, but his mission was added to the schedule at the last minute.
His mission was to fly over Cuba at the height of the Cuban Missile crisis which saw the United States and the Soviet Union standing at the brink of nuclear war.
Mission 3127 was Major Anderson’s sixth over Cuba in what was known as Operation Brass Knob. His high-altitude U-2 spy plane was out of range of the Soviet fighters that couldn’t fly high enough to intercept, but his presence could be detected on radar.
As Rudolf Anderson Jr entered Cuban airspace on October 27, 1962, his presence was indeed detected by Soviet radar and what happened next would change everything.
The Soviet’s tracked Major Anderson’ U-2 as he neared America’s Guantanamo Naval Base. They were afraid that he was taking photographs of the secret locations of their tactical nuclear weapons.
The person in charge of the Soviet base on the ground that day was Lieutenant General Stepan Grechko. After tracking the flight of Major Anderson for an hour, he decided that the time for action was needed.
“OUR GUEST HAS BEEN UP THERE FOR OVER AN HOUR. I THINK WE SHOULD GIVE THE ORDER TO SHOOT IT DOWN, AS IT IS DISCOVERING OUR POSITIONS IN-DEPTH”
Soviet Lieutenant General Stepan Grechko
With only a commanding general having the authority to shoot down an enemy plane, Grechko was left in a difficult position when it became clear to him that the American could be getting ready to take home very sensitive information to the Americans.
No commanding general could be found and so Grechko gave the order for Major Anderson’s aircraft to be shot down.
The long-range missiles sent out by the Soviets hit their target without fail and Major Anderson was most likely killed instantly by the strike.
It didn’t take long for news to get back to Washington about the shooting down of Major Anderson’s U-2.
President John F. Kennedy is said to have remarked upon hearing the news that “We are now in an entirely new ball game.”
The president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, would later write about this critical moment in 13 Days, his memoirs of the time:
“THERE WAS THE FEELING THAT THE NOOSE WAS TIGHTENING ON ALL OF US, ON AMERICANS, ON MANKIND, AND THAT THE BRIDGES TO ESCAPE WERE CRUMBLING.”
Robert Kennedy, Former United States Attorney General
The American military leaders strongly pushed for President Kennedy to retaliate with all the force that they had, but the president rightly guessed that Soviet leader Kruschev had played no part in personally authorizing the downing of Major Anderson’s plane.
Instead, that night, the president sent out his brother to meet personally with the Soviet Ambassador with his authority to peacefully end the standoff.
The Soviets were in agreement with this suggestion and an all-out nuclear war was averted at the very last moment.
Major Rudolf Anderson’s legacy
Other than keen historians, not many people know the name of Major Rudolf Anderson, but his sacrifice is remembered by all of those in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina.
His memorial site is visited by thousands every year and his legacy will live on there for many more generations to come.
Major Anderson was posthumously awarded the first Air Force Cross and the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, but more importantly, his death allowed two world leaders to realize that they were at a point of no return and a much greater crisis that our planet may never have recovered from was avoided.
Even one man’s death is always one too many, but Major Anderson’s sacrifice was one that changed the course of the world and the lives of us all as we know it today.