Crew collected photos with a colossal camera onboard their beat-up Boeing Stratocruiser.
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In autumn of 1962, Capt. Charles Rainey was a U.S. Air Force navigator making routine flights through the Berlin Corridors, narrow air lanes that linked Allied territories on opposite sides of Soviet-dominated East Germany during the Cold War.
Trouble was, Rainey was 30, getting bored and thinking about leaving the service.
With one call, his plans changed. But it would take 50 years before Rainey, now living in the Salt Lake City VA nursing home, could tell the story.
In mid-July of 1962, the Soviet Union had sent 42 nuclear ballistic missiles to Cuba, its ally 95 miles from the Florida Keys. In response, the United States sent U-2 spy planes, flying at up to 70,000 feet, and fighter bombers flying low over the island to find the missiles. One U-2 did get photographs, and, amid an exchange of mounting threats, the Cuban Missile Crisis hit its peak in mid-October.
About that time, Rainey's squadron commander told him, "Chuck, I have maybe what you want. It's a top-secret assignment. I can't tell you what it is. It's overseas, but I can't tell you where it is. Are you still interested?"
Rainey didn't hesitate. "You're damn right. I'll take it."
Operating under strict secrecy, he and the pilot left Germany and flew to Fort Worth, Texas, in a beat-up old Boeing Stratocruiser, known in the Air Force as a C-97, then headed for Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to be briefed on the mission and to plan their operations.
As Rainey started on the plane's navigation plan, his pilot told him the mission was his show and that he'd keep him supplied with coffee.
"And he did for four or five days," Rainey said. "It was truly a lead navigator's operation there."
Meantime, Pentagon planners developed contingency plans, including tactics and forces that would be used if President John F. Kennedy decided to launch an air attack on the island. Instead, Kennedy imposed a Navy blockade around Cuba to keep other offensive weapons from entering.
Mission begins • On Oct. 20, Rainey and the crew (given the name Operation Bad Gang, which the airmen thought was just right) flew the first of 29 missions over Cuba.
"It was such a slow old transport. We couldn't escape or evade fighters or anything. We were sitting ducks," Rainey said in an interview.
"We knew if we went down that nobody would claim us," he said. "We were strictly on our own."
The mission involved the enormous Boston Camera, 12 feet tall, 12 feet deep and 5 feet across, that was wedged into the C-97's fuselage. It shot photos on 18-by-36-inch film hundreds in a single flight that were whisked off to be developed and printed, then sent to military analysts who briefed commanders, including the president.
Rainey dubbed the camera Big Brownie.
"They had to cut away some of the structure of the aircraft to get it in, and crew members had to grab a bar, put their feet up, push our equipment ahead of us, then, with our parachutes on, slide to pull ourselves over the top to get to the cockpit," Rainey said.
"It was a suicide machine in a sense," he said. "They tried to brief us on how to get out in case of a crash landing or we had to ditch in the ocean. We knew that monster [camera] would just come crashing in and wipe us out. I have to say, it was exciting."
Rainey, a former Missouri farm boy, sat beside the pilot on a milking stool to operate the camera's sight.
"If I got too excited, the milk stool would turn over and dump me on the floor."
Roughing it • The plane wasn't pressurized, so the men wore heavy boots, pants, coats and oxygen masks for flights of up to 10 hours. In one fuzzy old photo of the crew, Rainey sports a scarf that he got in an Athens bar when a prostitute dropped it after realizing "I wasn't going to spend any money," as he put it. (At that, his wife, Darlene, gave an exaggerated wink.)
In an early mission around Cuba, the crew members were returning to their U.S. base but couldn't radio in to say how it had gone. So they tied the scarf to a broomstick "something the old submariners did" and waved it out the hatch on top to signal success, Rainey said. The missions involved flying around the Cuban coast, about 30 miles away and at altitudes of 10,000 to 25,000 feet to be safe from missile attacks.
They flew over the western tip of Cuba a few times at an altitude that Rainey thought was safe but that "scared the hell out of my scanners. They looked down and saw Cuba below us and thought, 'Oh, my God, here come the missiles.' "
Rainey and the crew flew their last mission Dec. 13, 1962. The fighters and U-2s were long gone, Rainey said, adding, "We couldn't understand why we were still there."
Asked if he'd ever been afraid, Rainey said "not really, but as I always say, when you're sitting up there in a clear, beautiful blue sky, you remain optimistic."
The last time Rainey saw the C-97, it was in a burn pit in Fort Worth after being used for firefighting training.
Rainey retired in the mid-1970s as a major. He earned a doctorate and taught communication classes at Texas Tech and Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
Writing history • He also started to write a book about his crew's role in the missile crisis, but learned that the operation still remained secret. After Darlene Rainey executed her own persuasion campaign, the Department of the Air Force determined there was no classified and sensitive information in his manuscript and cleared "Operation Bad Gang" for public release.
Some of the men Rainey flew with couldn't be located, and some have died. All had received medals and the pilot got a Distinguished Flying Cross, which he cut into pieces and gave to his men.
"Historians say this was as close to World War III that we ever encountered, and these crew members were just ordinary Air Force people," Rainey said. "The only difference is that they had volunteered for a top-secret assignment."