The Cuban Missile Crisis: The View from Okinawa



Jon Mitchell is a Welsh-born writer based in Yokohama and represented by Curtis Brown Ltd., New York. On May 15, 2012, Ryukyu Asahi Broadcasting aired an hour-long documentary based upon Jon's research called 枯れ葉剤を浴びた島 - Defoliated Island. This was followed by a 90-minute program - The Scoop Special aired by TV-Asahi on 20 May 2012. He has written widely on Okinawan social issues for the Japanese and American press - a selection of which can be found here. He teaches at Tokyo Institute of Technology and is an Asia-Pacific Journal associate. This article is adapted from a longer piece focusing on Okinawan history written for JapanFocus.

A TM-72 Mace missile is trundled through the Okinawa city of Gushikawa in the early 1960s in a rare open display. Courtesy of Charles Headlee.

In October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war after American spy planes discovered that the Kremlin had stationed medium-range atomic missiles on the communist island of Cuba in the Caribbean, barely over the horizon from Florida....

Six months prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, a parallel drama had played out on the other side of the world as the U.S. secretly brought near-identical missiles to the ones the Russians stationed on Cuba to another small island -- Okinawa.

While the full facts of that deployment have never been officially disclosed, now for the first time three of the U.S. Air Force's nuclear pioneers have broken the silence about Okinawa's secret missiles, life within the bunkers and a military miscalculation of apocalyptic proportions -- the targeting of unaligned China at a time when China-Soviet polemics were in full public view.

John Bordne, Larry Havemann and Bill Horn were all born during the early days of World War II, but their motivations in joining the U.S. Air Force were very different. Coming from a family steeped in military tradition, Bordne signed up out of a sense of patriotism. Havemann, a laboratory technician, saw the air force as a means to secure a stable income for his family. For Horn, the military offered an escape route from impoverished West Virginia. "Besides, I liked the color of the uniform," he says.

Soon after joining the air force, these three men from contrasting backgrounds were assigned to the 498th Tactical Missile Group and sent to Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado. There they first set eyes on the latest weapon in their nation's nuclear arsenal — the TM-76 Mace. A progeny of the V-1 "doodlebug" rockets that the Nazis rained down on Britain during World War II, the 13-meter-long Mace missiles weighed 8 tons and cost $500,000 each. Packed into the missile's guts was a 1.1-megaton nuclear warhead that, at over 75 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, could obliterate everything within a 5-km radius, create a crater 20 stories deep and irradiate the landscape for decades to come. The Mace was dispatched to West Berlin and Republic of Korea in 1959 and Okinawa in 1961.

"For such a horrendous weapon, it was very unimposing," recalls Horn. "It reminded me of a silver hotdog with wings."...

When Bordne and Horn arrived in 1961 (Havemann went in 1962), Okinawa still bore the scars of World War II — civilian buildings were cobbled together from military scrap timber and the wrecks of U.S. invasion ships lay rusting off the shores. Bordne and Horn were in for another surprise. "The missile sites still hadn't been finished," says Horn. "Site One was a massive hole in the ground. For the first couple of months, we had to help the civilian contractors in the 100-degree heat to pull cables from the launch bays to the control centers down below."

Finally, in early 1962, Bolo Point in Yomitan, the first of Okinawa's nuclear-missile sites, became operational. Hidden beneath tarpaulins and under the cover of darkness, eight Mace missiles were trucked from Kadena Air Base and loaded into launch tubes aimed over the East China Sea....However, considering the apocalyptic power at their fingertips, life within the missile sites was terrifyingly mundane. To pass the time, the men studied for correspondence classes, played endless rounds of pinochle and compared notes on the shows they'd seen recently at base nightclubs — including a (then) little-known band called The Supremes. The missileers had also been tasked by American manufacturers to field test a new gadget — microwave ovens. Bordne remembers, "They only came with one setting, so meat came out like shoe leather and the mashed potatoes had ice cubes in the middle."

The missiles themselves created few problems for the men and the gigantic springs beneath the bunkers — designed to protect them from nuclear blasts — dampened the effects of the earthquakes and typhoons that rattled nerves among their colleagues on the surface.

[T]he events of October 1962 soon dashed any hopes that Okinawa would be a sun-drenched holiday posting. "At Kadena, we learned about the photographs several days before the American public. From that moment on, things became very serious," says Horn....

[During the crisis], tensions escalated in the Caribbean and the Pentagon raised the nation's Defense Condition (DEFCON) to level two. Bordne remembers, "Our colonel told us that DEFCON 2 meant we were within 15 minutes of a declaration of nuclear war. If DEFCON 1 was reached, then we would be within five minutes of launching our missiles. A look of dread washed across everyone's faces, and I felt the blood drain out of mine, too."...

On October 28, Kennedy and Khrushchev finally struck a secret deal whereby the Soviets promised to withdraw their nuclear missiles from Cuba in return for U.S. promises never to invade the island and assurances it would pull its atomic rockets out of NATO-aligned Turkey....

...If that telephone had rung [and DEFCON 1 declared], where would their nuclear weapons have struck?...

"Although we didn't know for sure, we surmised that it was somewhere in China," [said Horn.]

The relatively short range [of the TM-72 Maces on Okinawa -- 1,250 miles] put almost the entire Soviet Union, with the possible exception of Vladivostok, tantalizingly out of the missiles' reach -- and this technical data, combined with Horn's suspicion, illustrates one of the biggest failings of twentieth-century U.S. military intelligence. Today the Sino-Soviet split is well-documented. However, at the time, the Pentagon continued to operate on the assumption that the two countries were allies. This misconception laid the basis of America's infamous blueprint for atomic war -- the Single Integrated Operational Plan -- dubbed by one government adviser as a "massive, total, comprehensive, obliterating strategic attack on everything Red." While JFK had made token changes to the plan in early 1962, the amendments apparently hadn't filtered down to the missile control center on Kadena.

Given the tensions between China and the Soviet Union, it is highly likely that Mao would have sat out the Soviet-American armageddon sparked by the Cuban Crisis. But had the Okinawan Maces annihilated Shanghai and Beijing, killing millions of Chinese, the U.S. and China would have been at war....

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