Be There When Lightning Strikes


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Local retiree played key role in missile crisis

Leonard LeMaster, with photo from his Air Force fighter pilot days. Leonard LeMaster, with photo from his Air Force fighter pilot days.

The other jets had turned away and headed back toward the Florida coast.

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Lt. Leonard LeMaster, a veteran pilot behind the stick of his silver RF-101 Voodoo, had a hunch that made him stay in the air over Cuba.
"There was one place that was an airfield," LeMaster said. "I told the wingman, we're going to 1,500 feet and 550 knots, set the cameras up. And I spotted some IL 28s Russian bombers on the far side of the field. No one knew that. That's when Kennedy started calling Khrushchev."
LeMaster's discovery may have altered the course of history; at the very least it ratcheted up the urgency and hastened the resolution of the military and diplomatic showdown that we know today as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fifty years ago, the young Air Force lieutenant had the instinct to aim his plane's six-inch nose cameras at a squadron of Russian bombers concealed under a grove of trees. He had caught the Soviets and their western hemisphere friend Fidel Castro in a second level of a military buildup. The American president and his aides regarded Cuba and its Soviet sponsors as an imminent threat.
LeMaster, 27 at the time and 77 now, talked about his service with the Tactical Air Command during the hottest weeks of the Cold War in the early 1960s. A native of Michigan who went on to a long career as an airline pilot, LeMaster is modest about his role in history. While working to repair wheelchairs and other equipment at the Medical Loan Closet at St. James Episcopal Church, LeMaster shared with other volunteers tales of his flying days. Among his friends is Gordon Ludwig, who toils with LeMaster in the basement repair shop.
The Soviet bombers had remained a secret because of the way they got to Cuba.
"The Russians were bringing them over by ship and assembling them once they got 'em over there," Ludwig said.

'Under the radar'
The term under the radar had a life-or-death meaning for LeMaster. As the Cuban threat came into focus, the Air Force transferred the skillful young flyer from Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter, S.C., to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
"We didn't have guns, we had to be sneaky," he said. The only shooting he could do from his sleek Voodoo jet was with a camera. Outfitted with three cameras in the nose, two on each side and two large high-altitude cameras in the rear, the Voodoos were the eyes in the sky gathering the intelligence the CIA and the White House needed to know.
"We had a U-2 that spotted something at 80,000 feet that looked like they may be missiles," he said. "That's why we went in, to get up close."
Very close. The job of the Voodoo jet pilots was to fly over the targets — suspected missile sites and other military installations — at 500 feet.
"I used to say, smile" as he snapped photos, he said. "The guys were waving at us in Cuba."
Because the American jets were unarmed, the Cuban soldiers on the ground held their fire. But it was never a sure thing that the reconnaissance flights would avoid a confrontation.

Ludwig said maybe the American fighter jets were faster than what the Russians had on the ground. No, LeMaster said.
"They had some MiG 21s down there, which were a little bit faster than we were," he said. "They also had rockets, which are faster."
"We went down there two at a time because cameras do foul up, we needed two cameras. Plus if one of us got shot down the other one could hightail it back, and they would have sunk Cuba," he said.
The Air Force had the bullets in the chamber if Cuba shot down one of the reconnaissance planes. LeMaster recalled the young guns spoiling for battle.
"They had every fighter outfit in the country in Florida, waiting. They had them at different bases," he said. "When you taxied back in, they knew we were going to Cuba. The pilots for those fighter planes, they didn't want us to come back. They would have sunk Cuba."
"First time going in there, we're low, and the radar would be sweeping us, and when it came on steady you knew you were in trouble," he recalled. With the Russian radar locked on, the American jets risked becoming the target of "beam rider" missiles. "We'd go down to the salt spray and start sweeping again. They couldn't stay with us down there."
The day he saw the medium-duty turbojet day bombers, LeMaster knew higher-ups would be wide-eyed.
"There was a whole mess of 'em under the trees," he said. Kennedy "called Castro first, because he was running Cuba, and then he called Khrushchev because Russia had their planes in there."
Ludwig said LeMaster's photos were crucial.
"What pretty much forced Khrushchev to withdraw was the pictures that Kennedy had after Leonard got back to MacDill," Ludwig added. "Khrushchev knew that we had a base in Turkey, which was not very far from the Kremlin, so that was the threat. The thing that Khrushchev didn't know (was) that Leonard had pictures of the bombers, until Kennedy called him. We got all the evidence right there. And that's the key thing. If it hadn't been for him going down, his tuition" the Americans would have been guessing.
LeMaster won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his daring missions over Cuba. But the young flyer just wanted to fly; he wasn't interested in ceremonies and medals.
"They tried to have a whole show where all the guys on base line up for the presentation," he said with a grin. "I always happened to be gone, and even after I got out they wanted me to come to the National Guard and have the whole thing."
Ludwig added: "That's why they called him the Phantom. They never could find him."
LeMaster said it seemed like an inconvenience.
"Why get those poor guys out (in formation on the base) just to give me (an award). They finally mailed it to me."

Hiding the planes
LeMaster and his flying buddies made one other lasting mark on the Air Force.
When a four-star general visited MacDill to congratulate the flyers on their work, one brash pilot stood up and addressed the general.
"This one guy with a high voice, stood up and said, how come we're flying these planes that aren't camouflaged? And he said, send me the pictures, and we did, and after that all the planes in TAC were camouflaged."
After his aerial photography days were over, LeMaster switched to the F86 — "the 86-Dog" — a fighter jet designed to intercept incoming threats in U.S. airspace.
"I wanted to shoot the bad guys down if they came in," he said.
LeMaster left the Air Force in 1964 as a captain, not that he didn't enjoy the military. He was 29 and wanted to fly for civilian airlines. "They wouldn't hire anybody to be a pilot after they turned 30," he said. He signed on with US Air (then Mohawk and Piedmont). Based in Buffalo, he flew first in the Northeast and then flew routes across U.S. He flew Boeing 727s — "that was a pilot's plane" — and got promoted to overseas flights.
"I didn't like that," he said. "I did enough of that in the Air Force. It's boring."
He had seen excitement many years before over Cuba. He looked down at a revelation that could help seal President Kennedy's case against the Soviets. He snapped the photo and turned the Voodoo toward home, carrying a piece of history with him.