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.

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.

He and the other airmen did what the military does in such situations — they trained and practiced. Cowing, an intelligence technician, taught survival, evasion, resistance and escape training to make sure the troops were ready just in case.

They were never called to duty, and Cowing went on to put in 20 years as a teacher and 20 years as a social worker.

By the time he retired as an Air Force major in 1987, he had served 36 years in the military, four of it on active duty from 1951 to 1955 as a radar operator on a small island near Okinawa. He then went to active reserve status and was called up many times.

All of his sons served in the military as well, something that makes him very proud.

“I like to think that their dad might have been a pretty good model,” he said. “Of course, the home front, my wife was right there supporting all of us all the time.”

His wife now lives in the Alzheimer’s unit at Woodlands Senior Living of Hallowell, and Cowing often visits the nearby Cohen Community Center to keep in touch with other veterans.

“The Air Force made me the person I am today,” he said. “I found my wife in the military. The military has been a very good thing for us in our family.”

Susan Cover — 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com