The U-2 spy plane could fly higher than most missiles could shoot, but that wasn’t always enough.
Rudolf “Rudy” Anderson, Jr., was born on September 15, 1927, in Greenville, SC. He was an Eagle Scout, a graduate of Clemson, and a commissioned officer and pilot in the United States Air Force. He flew missions as a reconnaissance pilot over Korea, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
He is more widely known for his seat time in the U-2 Dragon Lady high-altitude reconnaissance plane. And for dying in one on October 27, 1962.
U-2 missions over Cuba were originally flown exclusively by the CIA, for high-altitude aerial reconnaissance. The platform itself was developed by Lockheed’s Skunk Works division, under a CIA-backed program. Once the USAF fully opted-in to that program and ordered its own aircraft, the transaction was codenamed DRAGON LADY… which is where the U-2 gets its nickname.
According to the History of the 4080th Strategic Wing (SAC) Special Operations 10–31 October 1962, less than two weeks prior to Anderson’s final flight, the U-2 mission had shifted ownership from the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence to the United States Air Force (on October 14, 1962). After the USAF’s first mission at the helm, CIA “squinties” (IMagery INTelligence analysts; so called due to their squinting over backlit tables deciphering the runes of IMINT) assertained that the Soviets had stationed ballistic missiles on Cuba. This analysis led to what you and me call the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On October 27, 1962, during that Crisis, Anderson went wheels-up from McCoy AFB, Orlando, FL. His U-2 was struck by shrapnel from an exploding Soviet S-75 Dvina (surface-to-air missile; big one). Shrapnel also breached his cockpit and punctured his flight suit — which was pressurized far greater than normal flight suits, due to the extreme altitudes at which Dragon Ladies typically operated. As a result of that puncture, Maj. Anderson decompressed from his suit at high altitude. And with all due respect… that is not at all a good way to go.
Wreckage was spread over miles of Cuban soil near Banes. His body was never recovered. What could be collected of the debris was collected by Cubans and the Cuban government, and was put on display in museums around the country.
By order of President John F. Kennedy himself, Anderson was posthumously awarded the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, the Cheney Award, and the U.S. Air Force’s very first Air Force Cross. Though the U.S. suffered several casualties during the Cuban Missile Crisis (19 total), Rudy Anderson was the single combat death… dying alone in the skies over a hostile nation.
Although the U-2 program suffered a few fatalities over the course of its existence, Anderson was the platform’s sole combat casualty.