November 8, 2012

Life magazine photo subject remembers Cuban missle crisis, 50 years later

Joe Cowing of Augusta was a 29-year-old Air Force reservist when he was featured in the magazine's coverage of the crisis

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Fifty years ago Friday, Life magazine published a photo of 29-year-old Air Force reservist Joe Cowing getting a shot in his right arm after being called to active duty around the time of the Cuban missile crisis.

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Joe Cowing, of Dresden, was featured 50 years ago in Life magazine in an image depicting him receiving a vaccine during the Cuban missile crisis.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

For more information

The Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has an extensive website on the Cuban missile crisis,, to commemorate the 50th anniversary.

Cowing was one of 14,000 Air Force reservists pressed to service when America came to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

"All through the night, telephones rang in homes across the nation and brisk military voices barked orders to those who answered," the magazine reported in its Nov. 9, 1962, issue. "Of the men who answered the phones, none had more than a few hours to arrange their personal affairs."

Cowing, who lives in Dresden but lived in Michigan at the time, was a special needs teacher at a high school outside Detroit when the assistant superintendent told him to go home and report to duty. He went to Selfridge Air Force Base, which was not far from his home, to begin 30 days of service.

"We thought we were going to have to go into Cuba to clean up the mess," he said. "We had eight or nine planes with 40 to 50 paratroopers on. We were all ready to go. They sent us home that night and said we'd have to watch the news."

It all started in early October 1962, when U.S. aircraft surveillance revealed Cuba, just 90 miles from the Florida coast, had Soviet missile installations. To prevent the Soviets from delivering more weapons, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba that lasted for 13 days until the sides could come to an agreement.

The Soviets agreed to remove the weapons. In turn, the U.S. promised never to invade Cuba and to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey, a fact Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev promised to keep a secret.

At the time he was called up, Cowing and his wife, Donna Mae, had already started their family. "I had three children, a house payment, a car payment, third year at school making $6,000, and here I was on active duty," he said.

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