'Thirteen Days' stirs memories of man who was hero and friend

historic military

Seeing the current movie "Thirteen Days" about the Cuban Missile Crisis brought back both pleasant and sad memories about Rudolf Anderson Jr. He was not only the single casualty of that showdown between the U.S. and Soviet Union, he was a hero to many, including the late President Kennedy.

This is not impersonal. Rudy was a friend, a native Greenvillian, a teammate on the Buncombe Street Methodist Church softball team of the late 1940s. And, as the U.S. Air Force decided, a pilot and officer of skills high above the norm.

Note: Dan Foster, former sports editor of The Greenville News who passed away in 2009, wrote this account on Jan. 29, 2001, upon the release of the movie "Thirteen Days" starring Kevin Costner.

Pilots chosen to fly the exotic U-2 spy plane were an elite group. Their missions required special skills, extraordinary courage and a deep sense of responsibility in the protection of their country.

It was aerial photos that Rudy and another U-2 pilot made in mid-October 1962 that convinced Kennedy and his advisers that the Soviet Union had put offensive missiles into Cuba.

The movie portrays the keen anxieties and hurried discussions the Kennedy circle had before the administration's decision to tell Nikita Khrushchev to remove the missiles. That was joined with a blockade of Cuba, which appeared then and now as the closest the world has come to World War III.

Oct. 27, Rudy's family was informed that he was missing. That was national headline news. His family here knew nothing more for four days. Then on Oct. 31, U Thant, acting secretary general of the United Nations on a peace-seeking trip to Cuba, told the world that Fidel Castro would allow Rudy's body to be returned to the United States.

That was when his father, mother and other family members learned a Cuban weapon had shot him down.

I had not seen Rudy since May 1956. On an Air Force Reserve trip to Alaska our plane was grounded at Larson Air Force Base, Wash., where Rudy was an F-86 jet fighter pilot with the Strategic Air Command. That's the type of plane that now serves as a memorial to him near Cleveland Park.

He felt he had that Saturday in Washington off and suggested three of us go fishing in one of those rich lakes near Spokane.

But SAC pilots had known for a long time that their time was not always their own, and Rudy was put on alert status, insisting that two of us take his car and fishing equipment, which we did.

Later that weekend he came over to our room at the air base and in a leisurely discussion I asked when he was going to get out of the Air Force.

"Get out? Man, I'd do what I'm doing for nothing, and they pay me."

Not nearly on the scale that he would pay them back six years later.

Although the Anderson part of "Thirteen Days" is brief, it conveyed the same appraisal Jack Kennedy had in real life. That was that Rudy's legacy was an enormous factor in avoiding all-out war.

After his body was flown to Florida, then to Washington, D.C., it was flown with an escort to Donaldson Air Force Base in Greenville on Nov. 5 for later burial in Woodlawn Memorial Park. The plane that brought him to Greenville was one of the three designated Air Force Ones.

That was a fine gesture by President Kennedy but not a surprise to those who knew what had gone on in those four days since Rudy was declared missing.

After Rudy's death was confirmed, Kennedy had his military aide call Col. Roland Barnick, commander at Donaldson, to ask if Barnick had communicated with Rudy's family. Barnick told Washington that he had sent a letter saying how proud he was to have a man such as Rudy as a fellow Air Force officer and said the letter told the family that the base stood ready to help them in any way possible.

A later Kennedy message was that he did not want to send flowers that overshadowed those of the family, and the family asked that he be told of their appreciation for his help and concern and whatever flowers he sent would be appreciated.

Rudy's wife, Jane, was pregnant at that time, and Air Force officials advised Barnick that when they flew her and many others from Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio, Texas, that blue staff cars could not be used for ground transportation.

Jane, who later remarried, died in the early 1980s. But in the aftermath of Rudy's death, an Air Force spokesman said she became hysterical when a staff car was involved.

That problem was solved when Bill Baker, a teammate of Rudy's on the church softball team, a longtime friend and a Plymouth dealer here, volunteered a dozen new Plymouths to be at the base when Jane's flight arrived.

Gen. Thomas Power, the four-star commander of SAC, attended the service at Woodlawn and presented Rudy's widow and mother with U.S. flags from atop the casket.

Power's presence became a mission unto itself. Advance SAC parties came to determine where, even at Woodlawn, Power would not be more than a minute away from contact with the Pentagon and his headquarters in Nebraska.

Although those were nervous times, they were made considerably less so by the Rudolf Anderson missions. And while the "Thirteen Days" movie spent little time on Anderson's role, in real life John Kennedy made no secret that he and the world owed a huge debt of gratitude to Rudy.

Dan Foster (Published Jan. 29, 2001)