Hanging over it all was a critical unknown: Where were the nuclear warheads that would go on top of the missiles?
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara: "We need to know where these warheads are. And we have not yet found any probable storage of warheads."
That mystery remained secret for more than four decades, until historian Michael Dobbs found thousands of unpublished photos taken by the Blue Moon pilots.
"They have just been sitting in the National Archives, waiting for a researcher to come and look at them," he told Martin.
And there it was, in black-and-white. "The most important photographs that I found were probably of what would prove to be the main nuclear storage bunkers for nuclear warheads on the island of Cuba, at a place called Bejucal, just a few miles south of Havana."
Dobbs said the warheads were approximately 60 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
"So one warhead basically would have taken out Washington," said Martin.
The photos showed the vans the Soviets used to transport the warheads to their firing positions.
Dobbs actually spoke to one of the Soviet officers responsible for preparing the missiles. "He told me that at the height of the crisis on Black Saturday, they were ready to fire within two-and-a-half hours."
But the very next day, Khrushchev announced he would withdraw the missiles in return for a promise the U.S. would never invade Cuba.
His words to his military are on display at the archives: "Remove them. As quickly as possible. Before something terrible happens."
In the days after the crisis, President Kennedy visited the Blue Moon Squadron, personally congratulating each of the pilots.
Four years later Coffee was shot down over North Vietnam, spending seven years as a POW. He's 78 now, but you can still see the young Navy lieutenant who took what historian Dobbs calls "the photographs that prevented World War III."
"The guys that flew these missions are all a bunch of 20-somethings and 30-somethings, the 'boys of October,'" said Martin.
"Right," said Coffee. "The boys of October. You could say that."
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