Still Flying High
Former U-2 pilot, a Knight of Columbus, had key role in Cold War
By John Burger
Recent events in Ukraine and tensions with Russia have brought back memories of the Cold War for many older Americans. For retired Brigadier General Gerald McIlmoyle, echoes of that era have a particularly personal tone.
A U.S. Air Force veteran and Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus in south Florida, McIlmoyle had a role in one of the key events of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were testing their mettle over nuclear weapons. McIlmoyle was one of the pilots who flew a U-2 spy plane over Cuba during the very tense two-week missile crisis in October 1962.
At other times in his long career, he coordinated Air Force policy with the space program, helped track down missing military personnel in Vietnam, and was responsible for the secret codes that a president would use to launch a nuclear weapon. But he is best known for his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Earlier in 1962, he joined the Knights of Columbus, becoming a member of the Order that already claimed the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. Though McIlmoyle wasn’t always an active Knight due to overseas missions and domestic relocations, he is now a leading figure in Our Lady of Lourdes Council 9924 in Venice, Fla., serving in many positions, including grand knight, financial secretary and district deputy.
“I affectionately refer to the general as ‘Worthy Past Everything,’” said current Grand Knight Paul Krause. “He is right there whenever we need it.”
McIlmoyle’s military career took flight in college, when he weighed the options of marching or flying.
“I attended the University of Omaha in 1950 and was going to get drafted into the Korean War,” said the Nebraska native, now 84. “Then an opportunity came along to go to Aviation Cadets [school] and graduate with pilot wings as a second lieutenant, and I compared that to being in a foxhole, eating cold food and getting rained and snowed on.”
Soon he was flying fighter jets out of Great Falls, Mont., where he was recruited for a secret reconnaissance program. A single-seat plane, the U-2 jet was designed to be as light as possible and reach altitudes of 70,000 feet to elude enemy missiles, fighter jets and radar. In thin air, pilots wore space helmets and pressurized suits, and were trained to fly at controlled speeds to prevent the wings or tail from coming off. Landing was also precarious; the pilot stalled out the engine while touching down so the light aircraft wouldn’t bounce back up.
On the front lines of the Cold War, McIlmoyle flew nine-hour missions around high-altitude nuclear test blasts to collect samples of the air near the mushroom clouds, a task that required him to be monitored for radioactive exposure.
“Sometimes the airplane, when you got back, would really be hot from the nuclear debris,” he said.
High Above Cuba
But the action really heated up in October 1962, when reconnaissance photos showed the Soviets installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. McIlmoyle and other pilots were sent on missions to confirm the activity. The crisis, dramatized in the film Thirteen Days, with Kevin Costner, ended with the Soviets withdrawing the missiles. President Kennedy later toured the U-2 aircraft that played such a crucial role in resolving the impasse, and McIlmoyle was chosen to conduct the tour.
“He put his arm around my shoulder and his face almost next to mine and he said, ‘I’ll never be able to thank you guys enough for those pictures you brought back. It allowed me to negotiate a peaceful settlement to this crisis.’”
McIlmoyle went on to conduct U-2 missions over Vietnam. But concern for his wife and their four children brought him back to earth.
“The last year, I’d been gone for eight months out of the year, and I didn’t get to see my wife or kids or anything,” he said. “I loved flying the U-2; it’s a wonderful, great airplane for a pilot. But I wanted more family time, and I wasn’t getting it.”
“He was gone a lot when we were growing up,” recalled his son, Patrick McIlmoyle, who would go on to join the Marines and is now a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C. “It’s the military life. Our family was used to it. We didn’t really think of it as hard. That’s the way it was, and we did what we needed to do — mostly my mom pretty much taking over everything while he was gone and then going back to her normal role when he would get home.”
The elder McIlmoyle took a job as a plans officer with the Strategic Air Command, and was assigned back to where he started, in Omaha. A while later, he was promoted to brigadier general and appointed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., where one of his duties was to brief President-elect Ronald Reagan on nuclear capabilities, just days before his inauguration in 1981. It was one of McIlmoyle’s last acts before retiring that year.
McIlmoyle and his wife, Patricia, eventually settled in Venice, Fla., where the general quickly got involved with the local K of C council, as well as the Fourth Degree Bishop Charles McLaughlin Assembly. Mrs. McIlmoyle died last year at age 81.
“The Knights believe in honesty, forthrightness, charity, working with each other, treating each other like brothers,” said McIlmoyle. “And of course we are. We are brothers.”
As Memorial Day approaches, McIlmoyle says he would like to see more done for those who served their country in the military. His own council has programs for veterans, including visits to the Douglas Jacobson State Veterans Home in Port Charlotte, where soldiers, sailors and airmen are “hungry for conversation,” as he put it.
Said Grand Knight Krause, “He jumped right on that committee. That’s very meaningful to him.”