Both men served in the military. Both knew -- by its very nature -- the mission with which each was charged ran a high risk of death. One wore an American uniform; the other the uniform of the Soviet Union. Both missions, performed thousands of miles apart, were critical to the peaceful resolution sought by Washington to the crisis.
Ironically, despite wearing opposing uniforms, both men died fighting for the same side.
The American was Air Force Maj. Rudolf Anderson, Jr.; the Soviet was army Col. Oleg Penkovsky.
On Oct. 15, 1962, an analysis of U.S. reconnaissance photographs of Cuba taken by a high-altitude, U-2 aircraft revealed Moscow was installing defensive weapons -- i.e., surface-to-air missile sites. The installation of these defensive weapons was most likely being undertaken to protect the delivered and soon-to-be-installed offensive weapons -- i.e., surface-to-surface missiles. Such offensive weapons were capable of carrying nuclear warheads and hitting the United States, significantly reducing U.S. response time to a Soviet first strike.
On Oct. 22, 1962, U.S. President John Kennedy announced he had ordered a U.S. Navy blockade of Cuba.
Kennedy and his staff had wrestled over the best way to defuse the crisis and get the Soviets to remove the offensive missiles from Cuba. The blockade was the first step of their effort to do so. But decisions on future steps required continuing the collection of intelligence on the construction work being done on these sites. Additional U-2 flights were ordered to monitor ground activity as Washington struggled for a diplomatic solution.
For 11 days, numerous U-2 flight missions successfully transited the island, taking pictures without incident. Then came "Black Saturday."
On the morning of Saturday, Oct. 27, Anderson took off from a U.S. air base to conduct yet another reconnaissance flight over Cuba. Unbeknown to him, orders had been given by the Soviets to shoot down any U-2 violating Cuban air space. As Anderson photographed missiles sites below, two surface-to-air missiles streaked toward his aircraft, detonating near their target. The U-2 crashed not far from the sites it had just overflown.
An autopsy on Anderson's body after it was returned to the United States revealed death was probably instantaneous, caused by shrapnel piercing his helmet and pressurized flight suit. He received numerous posthumous honors. Among these was his service's first (the U.S. Air Force had only been established in 1947) -- and highest award for gallantry -- the Air Force Cross.
But in addition to the intelligence provided by the U-2 overflights, there was a need for human intelligence as well. This includes intelligence provided by a human source, such as a spy, sometimes working as a "mole" deep inside an enemy's den, who has firsthand knowledge or access to critical considerations upon which the enemy is relying. When such intelligence can be made available to U.S. analysts, it allows them accurately to assess the enemy's mindset and what decisions he is most likely to make or how he might respond to a U.S. proposal.
Penkovsky was a Soviet military intelligence officer who had been working for the West for more than a year. He had access to critical intelligence concerning the missile sites being built. Information that was badly needed by Kennedy to assess what actions he could take based on what the Soviets knew.
That included knowing what Kennedy's "window of opportunity" was for taking action, which, in turn, depended on what Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev knew about whether any missiles were operational or how long before they could be. Obviously, the longer it took, the more lead time and leverage Kennedy had to force their removal.
What made Penkovsky's mission most dangerous was the Soviets knew there was a "mole" among them. In providing the vital intelligence to the United States, Penkovsky undoubtedly knew he was putting his life on the line.
Kennedy was relieved to learn from the intelligence Penkovsky ultimately provided that no missiles were operational and wouldn't be for quite some time. That allowed Kennedy to pressure the Soviets to remove the missiles. As he proceeded to do so, negotiating a face-saving agreement with Khrushchev to achieve it, Penkovsky was arrested in Moscow.
While death for U-2 pilot Anderson came fairly quickly, it did not for Penkovsky. His arrest had been embarrassing for senior Soviet intelligence officers who sought to make an example of him.
Soviet intelligence agents were assembled in the basement of a building. Penkovsky was carried in, strapped onto a board. In what was an excruciatingly painful and prolonged death, he was slowly fed into a blazing hot furnace -- feet first.
As we reflect on how close the United States and Soviet Union came to nuclear war a half century ago, we should pay homage to two heroes whose sacrifices prevented it -- ironically suffering death at Earth's extremes to do so.
Anderson met his end tens of thousands of feet above the Earth's surface; Penkovsky met his by suffering hell on Earth.
(James. G. Zumwalt, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer is author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will -- Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields" and "Living the Juche Lie -- North Korea's Kim Dynasty.")
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