Capt. William B. Ecker; proved Soviets had missiles in Cuba

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

Retired Navy Capt. William B. Ecker, 85, who led low-level sorties over Cuba in October 1962 and provided photographic evidence of Russian missile installations that almost led to a nuclear confrontation between the Soviets and the United States, died Nov. 5 at a hospital near his home in Punta Gorda, Fla. He had coronary artery disease.

By the time the fighter pilot commanded an aerial reconnaissance squadron over Cuba on Oct. 23, U-2 spy planes had started to document Soviet attempts to ship missile parts to the island nation. But the images were taken from too great an altitude to prove definitively the Soviets' intentions in the communist country.

Capt. Ecker's close-up pictures, taken over a site near the town of San Cristóbal in western Cuba, were credited with showing beyond a doubt the existence of the missiles. The black-and-white images captured missile equipment, fueling vehicles and other related materials.

The evidence, combined with a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba, worsened a nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. On Oct. 25, Adlai Stevenson, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly displayed some of Capt. Ecker's aerial photographs at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council and demanded an answer from the Russian ambassador about placing missiles on Cuban soil.

When Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin demurred, saying he would respond "in due course," Stevenson replied in a rage, "I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that's your decision."

The crisis deepened before a resolution days later, when the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles, and President John F. Kennedy said the United States would remove missiles from Turkey.

Capt. Ecker went on to direct Naval photography and reconnaissance in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He retired in 1974 after 32 years of service, which included combat missions in the Pacific during World War II. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1962 for his quick but risky flight over Cuba.

William Boyce Ecker was born in Omaha and received a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland in 1961. He received a master's degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1967.

From 1988 to 1998, he was a docent at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's facility in Suitland for the preservation, restoration and storage of aircraft, spacecraft and other artifacts. Capt. Ecker was portrayed by actor Christopher Lawford in the 2000 Hollywood film "Thirteen Days," starring Kevin Costner as an aide to Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis.

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, H. Kathryn "Kit" Daley Ecker of Punta Gorda; and two sons, Richard Ecker and David Ecker, both of Fairfax County. A son, Michael Ecker, died in 1996.

In 2001, Capt. Ecker moved to Punta Gorda from the Alexandria part of Fairfax County. The next year, he traveled to Cuba as part of a U.S. delegation commemorating the missile crisis. He expressed little regard for Cuban leader Fidel Castro -- "just kind of a four-flusher," he said -- but admired the country's skill at making cigars. He accepted a souvenir box of Cohiba Coronas Especiales, despite the U.S. prohibition on goods from the communist nation.

"I went out on the porch with one the other day," he told the Tampa Tribune with a shrug. "It is a very good cigar."

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