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CDR Ecker's Comments on The Cuban Missile Crisis

Ecker's jet photographed Cuban missiles: The film "Thirteen Days," which debuts across America later this month (review of the movie at the time - webmaster), depicts the most tension-filled two weeks of the Cold War -- the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. One of those 13 days belongs to retired U.S. Navy Capt. William B. Ecker of Punta Gorda.

The Emerald Pointe resident retired in 1974 after 32 years as a Navy aviator. On Oct. 23, 1962, it was Ecker who led a six-jet squadron in a high-risk, all-or-none mission during the height of the missile crisis. The squadron dispersed and flew over Cuba at 400 mph and just 350 feet off the ground in order to obtain clear photographic evidence that the Caribbean nation had secretly become a Soviet nuclear missile base. The photographs taken by Ecker and his squadron gave President John F. Kennedy the proof he needed to challenge Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev's denials.

Ecker said the movie took some minor liberties with the truth about his mission. In the $80 million, 2 1/2-hour film, which opens in New York Jan. 12, some of the jets get hit by anti-aircraft fire. In reality, nobody got hit, he said. Actually, the high-speed flyover caught the Cuban defense forces running for their guns. "It was 'Hollywoodized,'" he said. "They really spiced it up. They had us getting shot, which didn't happen." The truth would have been pretty exciting even without shrapnel from Hollywood.

In a 1999 interview, when Ecker was honored as the Florida International Air Show's Aviation Pioneer, Ecker recalled that after his jet crossed over Cuba, he ran smack into "the granddaddy of all thunderstorms." "Then it got kind of hectic," Ecker had said. "We're talking a wall of clouds rising to 50,000, 60,000 feet. "Here I've got the pictures, and if the airplane gets busted all to pieces, it wouldn't do anybody any good." At the last second, Ecker saw a jet-sized hole open up in the clouds. He hit the afterburners and shot through the hole and "popped out the top" of the ominous storm.

Ecker later received a personal letter from President Kennedy. The letter thanked him for "contributing to the security of the United States in the most important and significant way." Coincidentally, Ecker is played in the movie by a nephew of Kennedy's, Christopher Lawford. Lawford, 45, is the eldest son of the late British-born movie star Peter Lawford, who married Patricia Kennedy. "(Peter) Lawford was one of the Rat Pack," Ecker recalled, referring to the group of swinging entertainers that included Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Lawford. Ecker sees no particular irony in the fact a member of the Kennedy clan portrayed him in the movie. "They could have put anybody in the role, Harrison Ford, for example," he said. The film also stars Kevin Costner who plays the role of Kenny O'Donnell, President Kennedy's former political advisor. O'Donnell found himself torn between the "hawks" and the "doves" in Kennedy's cabinet as they debated whether to invade Cuba or blockade the island.

The script departed from reality, however, in portraying a relationship between Ecker and O'Donnell, Ecker said. "They had me talking to O'Donnell," he said. "I never talked to anybody in the White House." Ecker and his wife got to meet Costner as a result of the movie. The Punta Gorda couple was flown at the movie producer's expense to Hollywood for the Dec. 19 premiere. They were also invited to Costner's house for brunch. "We just went up to a heavily-secured compound (Costner's house) and he came to the door," Ecker said. "He was in a white T-shirt and jeans and hadn't shaved. His kids were there and his girlfriend at the time. We had coffee and pastries and my wife posed for pictures with him." Ecker said he had been contacted about the film a year-and-a-half ago while he was working as a docent for the Smithsonian Institute's Aviation Museum.

Ecker said one moment in his adventure was depicted accurately in the film. That was his top-secret debriefing by a round table of the nation's joint military chiefs. Ecker was dispatched to that meeting immediately after the film taken by his plane was unloaded in Jacksonville. "They didn't even let me get out of the plane," he said. Ecker was then whisked by limousine to a Pentagon conference room known as the "tank." He recalled that Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping head of the Air Force, was jealous that Ecker, the leader of a paltry Navy squadron, had upstaged the Air Force by obtaining the crucial photos. Later, when President Kennedy awarded Ecker's squadron with a presidential citation, LeMay pouted in a limousine, refusing to participate. "He sat in the car and smoked a cigar -- because we skunked him," Ecker recalled. You can e-mail Greg Martin at gmartin@sun-herald.com By GREG MARTIN

Ecker flew jet that proved existence of missiles to Kennedy. As U.S. Navy Commander William B. Ecker streaked toward Cuba in his Crusader jet on Oct. 23, 1962, he suddenly felt a pang of terror. The Havana skyline had just reared up out of the horizon. The problem was, the skyline wasn't supposed to be there. Ecker had intended to cross into Cuba's airspace closer to the more vulnerable Mariel Harbor, about 15 miles west of Havana.

He was traveling at 400 miles per hour just 350 feet off the ocean surface. At that speed, the 100-mile run from Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Key West to the Caribbean island had taken just 14 sweat-soaked minutes. Apparently, Ecker had underestimated the effect of the trade wind that had blown him off course. Now, a city certain to be full of Cuban and Russian military officials surely knew he was coming. "Well, there goes the ball game," he thought.

As it turned out, however, the ball game was far from over. In fact, Ecker's white-knuckle run over Cuba would prove to be a grand-slam home run, with nothing less than the security of the United States from nuclear attack hanging in the balance.

Ecker's jet was the leader in a six-jet unit that raced low and fast over Cuba that day. Their mission was to photograph -- at very close range -- the secret missile bases that had been identified by a high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance plane. The U-2 photos, taken from an altitude of 14 miles, weren't clear enough for President John F. Kennedy to challenge Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev's denials.

But the photographs taken by Ecker's squadron, which was split into three pairs, provided the proof Kennedy needed. In fact, it was a photo that Ecker took, using a "forward fire" camera his unit designed, that Adlai Stevenson, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, unveiled in a broadcast from the U.S. Capitol. Stevenson pointed to the photo as he demanded a Russian ambassador answer to the allegations there were missiles on Cuban soil. "I am prepared to wait until hell freezes offer for your answer, if that's what it takes," Stevenson reportedly said.

Armed with the photos, Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba and threatened to go to war if the missiles weren't removed. After some tense days, Khruschev backed down.

Ecker retired from the Navy as a captain in 1974 after serving 32 years. He will be honored as the 1999 Pioneer in Aviation for the Florida International Air Show. The show takes place Saturday and Sunday at the Charlotte County Airport . "We're just tickled to death to have Capt. Ecker as our aviation pioneer this year," said Robert "Bucky" McQueen, air show president. "This is just typical of the caliber of people we have in the (Punta Gorda) area."

Ecker exuded a take-no-guff demeanor as he recalled his exploits from a lounge chair at his Emerald Pointe condominium. A rapid-fire interview was only interrupted once, for a telephone call notifying Ecker that his son David, who is an aviator for the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne now engaged in Yugoslavia, had just been promoted from major to lieutenant colonel. "(David) was at Desert Storm and everything, so of course we're concerned, very much so, but, like I say, when you get combat pay, that's what's expected of you," Ecker said.

Originally from Omaha, Neb., Ecker was a senior in high school when he first heard the news of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. He made up his mind to join the Navy as soon as he could graduate. During World War II, he flew the Hellcat and Corsair fighter-bombers from carriers during two tours of duty.

His adventures include March 18, 1945, when he returned from a mission to his carrier, the USS Intrepid, only to find the deck aflame and littered with the debris of Japanese kamikaze planes. "I came back there and there was no boat," he said. Low on fuel, he was forced to land on embattled Okinawa Island. He eventually was refueled from a PBM "Flying Boat" and returned to another carrier.

During the Korean War, Ecker flew about every jet the Navy could throw at him, including the Panther, Cougar, Fury, Banshee, Buckeye and Shooting Star. After that, he was assigned commander of a 600-member, 36-plane squadron headquartered at Cecil Field, 15 miles west of Jacksonville. Ecker's senior photo officer, Bob Koch, is credited with pioneering the use of high-speed cameras mounted in Crusader jets.

On Oct. 19, 1962, the Pentagon's Bureau of Aeronautics contacted Koch while he and Ecker were fishing in Orange Park, Fla. The bureau had a top-security mission in mind. "They called up and said, 'Can you really take pictures this good?' " Ecker recalled. "We said not only 'yes' but 'hell yes.' " A few days later, Ecker got his assignment to fly over Cuba. Ecker and the pilot of a plane that flew just off his starboard wing were assigned to photograph a suspected missile site at San Cristobal. After the Havana skyline appeared, Ecker banked to the west, flying right over a fleet of Cuban trawlers.

Despite that warning, the jets proved too fast for Cuban air-defense gunners. The flight time over Cuba totaled only 4 minutes. "You could see the popcorn in your mirrors," Ecker said, referring to the white puffs of smoke left by anti-aircraft fire. "But we never got hit." One of the jet's photos even captured a soldier scrambling from an outhouse. More importantly, the photos also showed soldiers conducting activities around missile bases.

"Then it got kind of hectic," Ecker recalled. "We were flying right into the granddaddy of all thunderstorms. We're talking a wall of clouds rising to 50,000, 60,000 feet. "Here I've got the pictures, and if the airplane gets busted all to pieces, it wouldn't do anybody any good," Ecker said. At the last second, Ecker saw a jet-sized hole open up in the clouds. "It was just a sunspot," he said. "I said, 'Burners, now!' We popped out the top."

Once back at Cecil Field, technicians unloaded reels of film from the belly of the jet, and Ecker was given orders to fly immediately to Washington, D.C., to brief the joint chiefs of staff. Upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Ecker was whisked by a black limousine to an underground garage at the Pentagon. An Air Force colonel escorted Ecker to a small elevator, which led to an unmarked corridor guarded by a Marine. A door opened, and Chief of Naval Operations George Anderson ushered Ecker into a room. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor and other top commanders sat around a large table. Ecker said he doffed his sidearm and flight suit, which revealed his uniform was soaked with sweat. "I'd like a glass of water," he said in a hoarse whisper. He then apologized for his sweaty condition. "This four-star general took a fat cigar out of his mouth and said, 'You're a (gol-danged) pilot, you're supposed to be sweaty!' " Ecker recalled.

Kennedy used other words to express his appreciation. Ecker's mission "contributed directly to the security of the United States in the most important and significant way," Kennedy wrote to Ecker in a personal letter.
By GREG MARTIN Staff Writer
You can e-mail Greg Martin at gmartin@sunletter.com


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Created on ... December 17, 2006