Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about how two Apalachicolans crossed paths with the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in his early years. Last week we profiled Lynn Wilson Spohrer about the time in May 1959 when she made a trip to Havana as a Miami beauty queen. This week we look at the U-2 pilot whose famous photographs triggered the Oct. 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
The tiny seeds of Lt. Col. Steve Heyser’s skill as a pilot - to fly almost 14 miles high in an experimental spy plane for seven hours, highlighted by seven minutes over Cuba - sprouted roots when he was a boy growing up in Apalachicola.
When World War II broke out, he was a 14-year-old student at the convent school, and would pedal his bicycle to the airport, back then a training site for Tyndall Air Force Base pilots, and if he got lucky, be invited to go up in the air with them.
“They let him fly the plane, he just fell in love with it,” said his eldest son, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Heyser, who now lives in Apalachicola.
A good student, Steve Heyser skipped eighth grade, and in 1944, when he turned 17 joined the Army and was sent to the Pacific, where his unit helped secure Kwajalein Atoll near the Marshall Islands.
Mustered out in July 1947, he opted for Florida State University, then an all-girls affiliate of the University of Florida, on the GI Bill, one of the first 50 men to attend there.
Of all the Seminole sweethearts Heyser he encountered in Tallahassee, the one that most caught his keen eye was an FSU girl from back home a few years younger than him, Jackie Glass, daughter of an Apalachicola dairyman who lived outside town.
“I was real young at the time, my mother was friends with (Steve’s parents) and when I became of the age I could date, he asked me out,” recalled Jackie. “I said (to my mom) ‘I’m going to marry Steve.’ I was probably going with somebody up there (in Tallahassee) she didn’t care for too much. I (told my parents) ‘Don’t worry, I’m just having fun.’ They let it go.”
Studying engineering, Steve Heyser kept hopes alive of getting his ticket to flight school punched though a special program, and that arrived in 1952, when the Air Corps accepted him into officer candidate flight training.
“Once he got that letter he packed and hauled ass,” said Rick Heyser. “He needed only a couple credits for graduation.”
But before he split for Hondo Army Air Field in Texas, to learn on a two-seater T-6 prop plane, he made sure not to leave behind his most precious possession, his intended Jackie, who earned a degree in early childhood development from FSU in 1953, with plans to teach elementary school.
“Dad gave her a promise wing, but they didn’t get married right away,” said Rick Heyser. “He told me ‘I wanted your mother to be on her own, to find out what going to work was all about.’ She spent a year teaching kids.”
After that they were married at St. Patrick Catholic Church, and Steve Heyser finished his training, and was assigned to Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Georgia, where his first son was born.
Heyser’s service as a pilot began with flying combat missions during the Korean War, and later two combat deployments during the Vietnam War. All this meant moving from base to base, in Arizona and in Del Rio, Texas, where at Laughlin Air Force Base in Feb. 1957 with the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, he became the 50th pilot to qualify on the Lockheed U-2, a risky assignment on a newly developed, untried aircraft.
“They had them quietly in the back, it wasn’t a U-2 base,” said Rick Heyser. “Nobody wanted anybody to know they were flying those things.”
The last people on earth America wanted to know about the U-2 were the Soviets, who were by the early 60s, close friends with Castro following the revolution that swept him into power. The Pentagon feared the Russians might expand their military reach into an island base not far offshore of their nemesis, but proof would be hard to come by.
According to Chris Pocock’s "50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of the 'Dragon Lady',” Steve Heyser, then a major, was newly qualified on a second version of the U-2, modified for in-flight refueling, when he departed from Edwards AFB, California, early Sunday morning, Oct. 14, 1962 on a Cuban overflight, dubbed Brass Knob.
“He was a very good pilot, and I know when something was coming up they’d always pick him because they knew he’d get the job done the way they wanted it done,” said Jackie Heyser.
Over Cuba for less than seven minutes, and facing surface-to-air missiles that never came for about 12, the pilot took the photos he was asked to take, and then headed for McCoy AFB, in Florida, where the film was swiftly flown to Washington, D.C.’s National Photographic Intelligence Center for processing. Analysts determined the presence of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba on the photos, secret sites for nuclear missiles.
President John F. Kennedy than faced what was likely the most tense two weeks of his presidency, the Cuban Missile Crisis, which fortunately ended peacefully when Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev ordered the missiles withdrawn.
Heyser served for another 12 years before retiring to Apalachicola in 1974, and rarely sought the spotlight, nor bragged to friends about his moment in the annals of American aviation history, preferring to share that distinction with the many other U-2 pilots in that elite group. In fact, his best friend from boyhood, Fred Fitzgerald, who lived down the street, said he only learned about his buddy’s flight years later, as part of a brief conversation.
But for Jackie, who was married to Steve Heyser for 54 years before he passed away in Oct. 2008 at age 81, “I remember it all. When you go through something like that it does register on you; you just can’t forget about it.
“It was a very scary time for me. It was just the fact that you knew what he was doing was very dangerous. He was very into it,” she said. “I had three sons, and I still had meals to fix for the children.
“You have enough in your life besides worrying whether the blue car was going to appear and come in, and don’t try to pop a pill in your mouth the first thing,” she said.
She said she was very glad when the family returned to Offutt AFB in Bellevue, Nebraska, where her husband bought a house and fixed it up. “We were living very close to the school and the children as they grew up they were starting in school. I could almost see them from the back of my house, I could almost see them as they walked to school,” she said. “It was just a wonderful time for me, because he wasn’t going to get killed.”
While Rick Heyser didn’t become a pilot, he did embark on a military career, despite his father’s caution.
“I had long conversations with my dad. He didn’t talk me into it, he didn’t talk me out of it,” he said. “He asked me ‘Do you really want to do this? It ain’t an easy life.”
The youngest son Matthew worked for the paper mill and the railroad, and resides in Wewahitchka. The middle son, Rob, lives in Davie, where he owns an auto tag agency in Allapattah, in the heart of the Cuban-American population of Miami, where he has worked with fiercely anti-Castro people, who may have been imprisoned or forced into exile, as well as the younger immigrants with a more nuanced view than that of their elders.
“This (Castro’s Cuba) is real personal to people,” said Rob Heyser.
Jackie Heyser remains active, most proud of her granddaughters who have followed in her footsteps and opted for teaching careers.
“I’m getting up in age. I’m going to be 84, but I don’t feel like Methuselah,” she said. “But still and all you have to face facts.”