Rudolf Anderson was raised in Greenville and attended Greenville High. An Eagle Scout, he spent summers at Camp Old Indian. At Clemson University he joined Air Force ROTC and earned a degree in Textile Engineering. After college he served in the Air Force Reserve and took a job as a cost accountant at Dunean Mills in Greenville. He was active in his church and community, and was a Freemason and member of Recovery Lodge No. 31. When the Korean war began he was placed on active duty and heroically flew reconnaissance missions in the F-86, twice earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. After Korea he became one of the original pilots in the U-2 spy plane program.
The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 began when photos from a U-2 mission showed the Soviets were placing medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. Over the next several days, additional missions were flown including one by then Major Rudolf Anderson. After one pilot narrowly escaped a Soviet surface-to-air missile, the U-2 flights were cancelled. Major Anderson objected to the cancellation and convinced his superiors to allow him to fly one more mission. His U-2 was shot down and he perished earning him posthumously the Distinguished Service Medal. American forces reacted swiftly to the downing of an unarmed reconnaissance plane and rapidly escalated preparations to invade Cuba. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev (who had not authorized to plane to be shot down), felt the situation was spiraling out of control and quickly reached an agreement where the the missiles would be removed from Cuba. Consensus among military historians is that if not for Anderson's sacrifice, the confrontation would have escalated to nuclear war and that millions might have died.