Venice Vet "Key" to Authors' Latest on Cuban Missile Crisis

Arts & Culture


In October of 1962, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis and with a world on the brink of nuclear war, 10 United States pilots flew U-2 spy planes over the island nation and other Soviet territories. One went missing. One was shot down and killed. One still lives, a retired brigadier general living in Venice, FL. In their latest book, Above & Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Spy Mission, New York Times bestselling authors Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman (The Finest Hours) dive into the historical record to explore the men behind the missions, and how they played a role in those fateful 13 days. Due out April 17.

Like many, Tougias always assumed that the Cuban Missile Crisis ended peacefully—a sterling triumph of diplomacy. But then he heard about Rudy Anderson. “I was shocked when I heard that we lost an air force pilot to a Soviet SAM over Cuba,” he says, and began to dig. Enlisting Sherman to the cause, two years of research followed, including interviews with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the sons of Rudy Anderson, and Colonel Richard Leghorn, who helped develop the U-2 program. Tougias even sat down with Sergei Khrushchev, son of Former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, finding him in Rhode Island of all places (“He really helped put things in perspective.”) and listened to the audio recordings from Kennedy’s strategy sessions and staff meetings. “You felt like you were eavesdropping,” he says.

But the book really came together when the authors found Jerry McIlmoyle, the last surviving U-2 pilot from the missions in question, living out his retirement in the Venice sunshine. “He was the key,” says Tougias. “I couldn’t have done the book without Jerry.”

Tougias initially went to Florida looking for Steve Heyser, another U-2 pilot and the one who first discovered the Soviet missiles in Cuba. But arriving in Apalachicola, Tougias was met with grim news—Heyser had passed on. His son was willing to talk, however, and afterwards directed Tougias to McIlmoyle. Meeting at McIlmoyle’s Venice home, not too far from McCoy Air Force Bas in Orlando, relatively speaking, McIlmoyle recounted the missions he flew from that airbase, the contrails and starbursts from missiles fired at him and the puzzling denial from his own superiors. Tougias soaked it all up, recording every detail. “Everybody else is gone,” he says.

Putting it all on the page, Tougias hopes he can turn history into a page-turner, and maybe even another Disney film, like what became of The Finest Hours—whatever gets more people paying attention to the stories of history slowly dying on the fringes.

Above & Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Spy Mission, by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman is due out April 27. To view a brief video of McIlmoyle talking about his experience, visit the author's website below.

Pictured: Pilot Jerry McIlmoyle with his U-2 spyplane in 1963. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Tougias.

Hear Jerry McIlMoyle tell his tale.

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