When the U.S. was on the brink of nuclear war

"Flew across the Straits of Florida about 50 feet, actually," Coffee said. "When you pull up, the exhaust from the jet would make a big rooster tail on the water, you're that low."

Soviet officials from Nikita Khrushchev on down were denying there were any missile sites in Cuba. But Coffee could look down from his cockpit and see them with the naked eye.

"Was it clear to you at that moment that these really were missile sites?" Martin asked.

"Absolutely," Coffee laughed. "Absolutely."

"Did you feel like it was a 'gotcha' moment?"

"Yeah, we did. Khrushchev had been denying all that time that there were any, any missile, Soviet missiles in Cuba, and it was very gratifying to say, 'Hell, there are not, we just flew over them!'"

The Blue Moon pictures Coffee's squadron took that day were shown to the president 24 hours later.

The day after that, Adlai Stevenson, America's Ambassador to the United Nations, showed them to the world and demanded an explanation from the Soviet ambassador to the U.N.

"You will have your answer in due course," said Ambassador Valerian Zorin.

"I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that is your decision," Stevenson said.

That same day, the 25th of October, Coffee was once again screaming over Cuba at treetop level - unarmed and unescorted, but fast and low.

"I wouldn't say unafraid necessarily," said Coffee. "But the excitement of doing something knowing that it was going to be really important, I think, overcame any sense of fear."

What he found on that mission was a game changer.

"I'm going across the missile site and I kind of glance off to the left and I see what looks like a motor pool," he recalled. "It's half covered by camouflage netting and so on. Just a bunch of vehicles that I couldn't really identify individually as to what they were, but it looked important. So I wrapped the airplane off to the side and pulled real hard to make that sharp turn to the left, and, and real wings level, all the cameras running again."

The cameras captured short range FROG missiles that could fire nuclear warheads against American soldiers and Marines hitting the beach in Cuba. 120,000 troops were gathering in Florida, but CIA Director John McCone told the president those short-range missiles were "evil stuff" that dramatically changed the odds for an invasion.

"So an invasion, whether or not it succeeded in taking out the missiles, really could have been a disaster," said Martin.

"Yeah, it could have sparked a nuclear confrontation," said Bredhoff.

"They use the nuclear weapons first against the invading force - " said Martin.

"And then the United States would have had to retaliate somehow."

"And there you go - Armageddon."

"Yeah."

With U.S. warships blockading Cuba, the crisis reached its peak on October 27th, known to historians as Black Saturday. Some of the missiles were now ready to fire, and in the middle of another of the almost non-stop meetings at the White House, the Secretary of Defense received an alarming report: That the U-2 was shot down.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy: "Was the pilot killed?"

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor: "The pilot's body is in the plane."

President Kennedy: "Well now, this is much of an escalation by them, isn't it?"

Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze: "They've fired the first shot."

Martin noted how the voices in the White House recordings were different. "You can just hear the tension . . . it's different from the earlier recordings."

"It is," said Bredhoff. "You can really hear the pressure building and I think you do get a sense of, even while these discussions are going on, the clock is ticking. Time ticks away. As the president says, those missile sites are closer and closer to being operational."