Above and Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Spy Mission

  • Published

Above and Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Spy Mission by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Touglas. PublicAffairs, 2018, 330 pp. 

Above and Beyond is the latest book about the Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC), the perilous 13 days in October 1962 that threatened to turn the Cold War red-hot as America and the Soviet Union were on the brink of a nuclear war. Casey Sherman and Michael J. Touglas are award-winning journalists and respected public speakers who teamed on award-winning nonfiction books such as The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue and Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy, which were turned into motion pictures. The CMC is one of the most written about events in modern history so the lead author (Sherman) looked for a differentiating theme. With the thought that war was more about the individuals in power than the state entities, he chose to explore the effects of human persona such as President John F. Kennedy’s (JFK) life experiences on his decision making during the crisis. The authors extended their personification of participants to the largely unheralded USAF U-2 Dragon Lady spy-plane pilots who risked all in flying reconnaissance missions high over the secretly emplaced nuclear missiles in support of those crucial presidential decisions.

Those 11 pilots were epitomized by Maj Rudolph Anderson Jr., the lone casualty of the crisis and posthumous recipient of the first Air Force Cross after he was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air (SAM) missile on his sixth mission. It was Anderson’s death that led to ending the 13-day crisis just 24 hours later. Surprisingly, the authors raised another U-2 pilot, Capt Charles Maultsby, to near-equal status by relating a harrowing but errant mission over Soviet territory near the North Pole that had nothing to do with Cuba but contributed to the crisis. (This is not meant to take away from Maultsby, a former Thunderbird who retired as a lieutenant colonel after an extraordinary career spanning the Korean War [where he was shot down and became a prisoner of war], the Cold War and Vietnam).

With the theme set, the authors went about pulling together the background stories on the main participants leading up to their role in the CMC. They devoted four chapters to JFK, beginning with his heroic efforts to save the crew of his PT boat after it was sunk during World War II. The authors then recapped JFK’s political career, which brought him to the White House as a young man still dealing with near-debilitating back problems. The seeds of the CMC were sown early in JFK’s presidency as he was held accountable for the ill-fated attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed Cuban expatriates at the Bay of Pigs. That debacle led to the June 1961 summit in Vienna where Soviet Union Chairman Nikita Khrushchev sized him up as being weak and risk-adverse.

The authors rightfully addressed the amazing story of the rapid development of the U-2 and its all-important camera system in 1955 in some detail. They gave appropriate attributions to Richard M. Bissell Jr., the CIA lead for the project dubbed “Dragon Lady,” and to Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, led by the renowned Kelly Johnson who developed the first article in just eight months. The authors interviewed 97-year-old retired Col Richard S. Leghorn, a legendary World War II and Korean War photo pilot and one of the visionaries of the new spy plane. Leghorn was a consultant on the camera system and involved in the selection of the first pilots.

Above and Beyond relates the story of the initial deployments of the CIA U-2s and the first operational missions over the Soviet Union and its satellites in June and July 1956, noting the aircraft was tracked to some extent by Soviet radars. The revelation that his most secret strategic weaponry was exposed by the US spy plane led Khrushchev to direct an urgent development of the SA-2 SAM system to take down the high-flying U-2 ,which it ultimately did on 1 May 1960. The pilot was Gary Powers, who miraculously survived but was captured and later tried as a spy, which spelled trouble on the world stage for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the time, he was castigated for presumed misconduct by many, including Colonel Leghorn who said, “He should have killed himself,” a quote best left out by the authors. After being exchanged for a Soviet spy, Powers was fully exonerated by Congress and the CIA, who gave him its coveted Intelligence Star. Somehow missed by the authors was the fact that he was awarded the CIA Directors Medal and the USAF’s Silver Star, both posthumously.

Up to this point, I credit the authors for successfully setting the stage for the delivery of their “new” material to be added to the existing body of work as portended by the book’s title. Inexplicably, in my opinion, the wherewith to make good on their goals was there for the taking, but the authors failed to take advantage of it.

It’s said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but here’s an exception. It has a modern-era U-2S on the front that bears little resemblance to the U-2A/C/F variants flown over Cuba, and a review on the back calling it “an adventure yarn worthy of a spy novelist!” The variant oversight was carried forward to a chapter 1 first-page reference to the much longer wingspan of the late-generation U-2S on an aircraft being readied for flight in 1962!

The readers will find few new revelations about the crisis or the U-2 beyond those detailed by investigative journalist Michael Dobbs in his 2008 book, One Minute to Midnight, and U-2 author/historian Chris Pocock’s 50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of the Dragon Lady. The authors compiled an extensive bibliography of relevant books, reports, and websites but conspicuous by their absence is the long declassified and very detailed Strategic Air Command (SAC) operations and intelligence histories of the crisis. This was a puzzling research oversight because SAC’s 4080th Strategic Wing (SW) conducted the USAF U-2 operations during the crisis from its forward Operating Location-X at McCoy AFB in Orlando, Florida.

More troubling was the fact that the authors conducted just 10 interviews, and only two of those individuals had contemporary knowledge of the crisis! Inexplicably, the authors didn’t interview several available veterans of the 4080th SW who have in-depth knowledge of the aircraft, participants, and mission execution during the crisis. Instead, they relied too heavily on the recollections of one surviving CMC pilot, apparently without even a cursory review of his manuscript by someone with a military aviation background. The result is a book that is replete with errors in easily verifiable information on U-2 pilot training and service records, as well as aircraft configurations and mission details. For example, Anderson’s first operational tour in the Far East in 1953–55 was tied to the Korean War although the war was over months before he arrived, and he flew top-secret reconnaissance missions from Japan, not South Korea (p. 30). Anderson transitioned to the U-2A at Laughlin AFB, Texas; yet the book describes he and Maultsby, who followed him, undergoing training at the CIA’s Area 51 at Groom Lake, Nevada (p. 73). Maultsby is reported to have followed the money to become a CIA pilot but in fact never left the USAF (p. 72).

 One glaring omission is any mention of low-level photo missions by USAF RF-101 Voodoo pilots that complemented the high-flying U-2s while Navy RF-8A pilots were glamorized in that role. In so doing, the authors missed an opportunity to interview Carl Overstreet, who flew the first operational CIA U-2 mission over Poland and East Germany before rejoining the USAF and flying a first day RF-101 mission over Cuba. Another missed story was that one of the two RF-101 squadrons overflying Cuba was led by the legendary World War II and Korean War photo pilot, Lt Col Clyde East, a double ace with 13 kills!

Despite claims of conducting deep research, the authors bought into one version an often repeated but uncorroborated story by the aging CMC pilot that he was fired on by the Russian SAM site that downed Major Anderson two days later near Banes, Cuba. The pilot complained of not receiving an alert from his SAM warning device, but it was not installed on any U-2 aircraft until after the CMC! Then a captain, the pilot recalls being confronted by an unnamed three-star general from Washington the morning after his mission telling him he was wrong, and his intelligence debrief report was being torn up. It was not, and the SAC operational history of the CMC references the mission, stating the pilot reported no coverage of targets in northwest Cuba (more than 300 miles from Banes) due to a solid undercast, with no mention of a SAM engagement. Instead of doing due diligence to corroborate this questionable story, the authors seized on it and ran it in vivid detail as the first chapter of their book!

Unbelievably, the authors preceded to use this alleged cover-up as the basis of a supposition that either Gen Curtis LeMay, the USAF chief of staff, wanted a U-2 to be shot down as a pretext for launching an air attack he had been pushing (p. 252), or that SAC commander Gen Thomas Power, along with LeMay and perhaps Gen Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conspired to cover up the incident to prevent JFK from cancelling U-2 overflights (pp. 251–52, 58). In either case, the inference was these iconic leaders contributed to Major Anderson’s loss as a matter of mission over man.

Most damning is an unsubstantiated assertion in the epilogue that the Anderson family was ordered out of base housing at Laughlin AFB almost immediately after his death, stating this cold treatment was “customary on all military bases” as the presence of a lost pilot’s family was thought to lower morale!

 In summary, this book brings into question whether the mainstream media’s adoption of fake news and alternate facts has spilled over into nonfiction works to sell more books.

COL H. Wayne Whitten, USMCRetired
Lutz, Florida


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."