Accuracy in the Film ‘Thirteen Days’ Was Better Than Average, But…
In the 2000 Beacon Pictures/New Line Cinema film ‘Thirteen Days’ there are great pains taken to make the dramatic events of the Cuban Missile Crisis look and feel as realistic as possible. To the credit of all concerned, the Department of Defense allowed filming on several bases as well as the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65). Museum ships like the USS Joseph P Kennedy (DD-850) were also used for filming of the maritime blockade shipboard scenes. However, we found a few holes in the visuals. First, take a look at the Light Photographic Squadron SIX TWO (VFP-62) Gray Ghosts/Fighting Photos Vought RF-8A Crusader photo reconnaissance mission sequence of 23 October 1962 from the film as uploaded to YouTube by Colt cat.
When You See It
The first thing that jumps out is that GY tailcode for those Fighting Squadron TWO FOUR (VF-24) Fighting Renegades Vought F-8C Crusaders on the flightline at Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West. VF-24 was deployed in the Western Pacific (WestPac) with Carrier Air Wing TWO (CVW-2- tail code NE) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CVA-41) between 6 April and 20 October 1962. Therefore it is unlikely that VF-24 would have been seen wearing GY codes or hanging around at NAS Key West within a week of returning from WestPac. But the presence of all those Gunfighters on the flightline does make an impression. We know that VFP-62, along with a detachment of four Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron TWO (VMCJ-2) Playboys (tailcode CY) RF-8As and pilots were based at NAS Key West at the time.
Location Location Location
The shooting location for the RF-8A mission sequence was the former Clark Air Force Base (AFB) in the Philippines. In 1988, after flying from Cesar Basa Air Base since 1977, the Philippine Air Force grounded and open-stored their remaining operational former US Navy and Marine Corps F-8H jets. They did not operate any RF-8As or RF-8Gs. When Mount Pinatubo erupted just 15 miles from Basa the entire area was covered with volcanic ash, rendering the Philippine Air Force Crusaders entirely inoperable. But that didn’t stop the film crew from using the jets as props for the film. With new coats of paint and semi-realistic markings you have to look closely to spot the gotchas. We did.
Consistency is Key
Tailcode GY never assigned to VF-24. VF-24 wore G on their tails while flying FJ-3Ms and NG (usually) while flying F8Us, F-4s, and F-14s. VFP-63 wore PP. VFP-62 wore GA and of course Air Wing codes when detached. Tailcodes beginning with G were used primarily for Heavy Photographic (VAP), Heavy Attack (VAH) and Heavy Attack/Photographic (RVAH) squadrons. The tailcodes on the supposed RF-8As is correct for VFP-62 (GA) though, as are the Bureau Numbers (BuNos). Both 146871/GA910 and 146886/GA906 were assigned to VFP-62 during 1962 and were flown on the mission depicted in the film by the pilots shown. For this writer the final word on the events during October and November 1962 is William B Ecker’s book Blue Moon Over Cuba. Ecker was not only there, he was the CO of VFP-62 at the time. It’s a great book.
Stand Ins Not Quite Standing Up
Some other inconsistencies surface when one researches the timing of events. The F-8Hs playing the role of RF-8As in the film were dressed up to look like RF-8As but the grafted on flat panels for the camera bays are obvious- especially when the jets taxi in after returning from Cuba. The RF-8A also lacks the prominent nose-mounted infrared seeker head (IRST) and the ventral strakes seen on the jets in the film. The camera bay where the Photographers Mate (PH) is working isn’t very realistic and we’re not convinced about those film canisters either. So the F-8Hs did a decent if not quite believable job as RF-8As in the film. Another inconsistency is that CDR Ecker actually recovered at NAS Cecil Field in Jacksonville, hot refueled, and then flew directly to Washington to deliver the film he shot on the mission dramatized in the film- not back to Boca Chica for a cold one. He deserved to, but he didn’t.
Giving It Away
The shooting location was given away when mountains appeared in the distance during the takeoff. The Philippines have mountainous terrain visible from runways. The only towering mountains near Key West are made of Cumulus clouds! In several cases the ground equipment (yellow gear) shown in the film is either period-inaccurate or wasn’t used at Naval Air Stations at all. We could get into the other inconsistencies in the film (there are a few more) but suffice it to say that VFP-62 did a great job, deserving and receiving a Navy Unit Commendation (the first in peacetime) from President John F Kennedy himself on 26 November 1962.
Ironically both of the jets flown on that 23 October 1962 mission were operational losses after being upgraded to RF-8G standard while flying with VFP-63 Eyes of the Fleet later in their service lives. 146871 entered service with VFP-62 in 1960 and later served with VFP-63, was stored at the Boneyard in 1975 and returned to service with VFP-63 before she was lost to a bad cat shot on 2 December 1976. 146886 entered service in 1961 with VFP-62 and served with both VMCJ-3 and VFP-63 before she was shot down over Vietnam near Vinh on 22 May 1968.
The actor who played CDR William B. Ecker (pilot of 146871/GA910) in the film is Christopher Lawford- the son of Patricia Kennedy Lawford and the nephew of President John F “Jack” Kennedy and brother Robert “Bobby” Kennedy. Ecker retired as a Captain and passed away on 5 November 2009.
The actor who played LT Christopher Bruce Wilhelmy III (pilot of 146886/GA906) is David O’Donnell- the grandson of Kenneth “Kenny” O’Donnell. Wilhelmy’s name is often misspelled as ‘Wilhemy’ but not in the film. Wilhelmy perished when the North American T-28B Trojan he was flying shed its wings on 17 February 1966.
There was much more to the story of the RF-8A photographic reconnaissance mission over Cuba. More than 70 sorties were flown by VFP-62 and VMCJ-2 pilots between 23 October 1962 and 13 November 1962. All 16 of the pilots who flew the Operation Blue Moon missions received the Distinguished Flying Cross.