The American Jets Sent Off to Fight World War III


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The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 14, 1962, when the United States obtained photographic evidence of a Soviet nuclear missile installation in Cuba. For nearly two weeks, the world was on the brink of nuclear war. The U.S. military went to high alert. Any action on either side of the conflict could have resulted in mutually assured destruction, as both militaries and their nuclear arsenal were at the ready.

On the night of October 25 and into the next morning, that nearly happened. Nuclear-armed U.S. jet planes were ordered to the skies to intercept incoming Soviet bombers. They thought the Soviet Union had started World War III. Late that evening, around midnight, a would-be intruder attempted to gain access to a military base in Duluth, Minnesota. The base was one of a handful that held a large computer network called the SAGE system—Semi-Automatic Ground Environment—which collected and reconciled radar data to give military officials a single image of the region’s airspace. Using this information, officials could coordinate a response in case of a Soviet air assault.

Had the Soviets gained access to the Duluth base and sabotaged the computer network, parts of the U.S. military operations would be flying blind.

The intruder did not make it into the Duluth base. A sentry noticed him climbing the fence and shot him, incapacitating the apparent Soviet saboteur. For reasons unreported—given the global situation at the time, this was prudent—the guard sounded the alarm signaling a sabotage attempt. The alarm system was designed to sound in bases throughout the region if not the entire United States—after all, if the Soviets were taking a crack at one base, there’s a good chance others were immediately at risk as well. If things went right, many U.S. bases would, once the alarm sounded, run a security sweep for possible breaches.

Unfortunately, things went wrong. At Volk Field in Wisconsin, something was amiss with the alarm wiring. The alarm that sounded wasn’t the one signaling a possible saboteur. Instead, it was the one telling nuclear-armed jet fighters to take to the skies. This wasn’t a drill, either—the policies at the time did not allow for such practice runs when on such high alert, as to avoid ambiguity. As far as Volk Field’s personnel believed, World War III had begun. To make matters worse, because of the activity in Cuba, the military had sent nuclear bombers into patrol, some near Volk Field. Had the interceptors ever taken flight, there’s a good chance the American fighters would have shot down their own nuke-laden bombers— and above U.S. soil.

The planes, however, never took off. An official raced from the command center to the runway, probably while the jet fighters were still doing their pre-flight checks, to inform them that it was a false alarm. Not only had the wrong alarm sounded at Volk Field, but there was no saboteur in the first place. The man who tried to invade the Duluth base wasn’t a saboteur or a Soviet, or for that matter, a man.

It was a bear.

Bonus Fact

In 2008, a beekeeper in Macedonia noticed that his hives were being attacked by an unknown invader. The culprit, taking a page from Winnie the Pooh’s playbook, turned out to be a bear looking for honey. The beekeeper, though, wanted to be compensated for the bear’s damage, so the local government pressed criminal charges against the bear, according to the BBC. The bear was convicted in absentia (officials couldn’t locate the bear to arrest him). Because the animal had no owner, the beekeeper was able to collect damages from the local government, totaling about $3,500.

Excerpted from Now I Know More Copyright © 2014 by Dan Lewis and published by F+W Media, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.