From manning quarantine lines to flying reconnaissance missions to preparing for an invasion, the U.S. Navy played instrumental roles during the Cuban Missile Crisis 50 years ago.
On a tense day in October 1962, the USS Allan M. Sumner (DD-692) was about 500 miles off the northern shore of Cuba, trailing a Soviet freighter. President John F. Kennedy, after learning that the Soviet Union was sending ballistic missiles to the island nation, had proclaimed a quarantine against ships carrying offensive arms there. The Cuban Missile Crisis had moved from the White House and the Kremlin to the sea, and suddenly the crisis was focused on the Sumner.
“I was in the wheelhouse,” Quartermaster Third Class Bob Bourassa remembered. “The freighter was about 1000 yds off our port side.” When the transport failed to respond to an order to stop, Commander William J. Flynn, captain of the Sumner, sent a handwritten message down to the radio shack “and after the first message was returned to him, he instructed the guns to be turned toward the freighter.” After a while, Commander Flynn sent down a second message. Before it was answered, “the freighter came to a stop . . . backed down for some time, stopped and then turned around and sailed eastward.”1
That was the Navy on the quarantine line—ships ready for action and a command system that reached from the Pentagon and President Kennedy to destroyer captains and their crews. Before the crisis ended, the Navy would have more than 140 ships in the Caribbean and over 350 combat aircraft at area airfields.2 They were responding to a Cold War confrontation that had begun in September 1960 when the Soviet freighter Atkarsk arrived at Nikolaev, the Black Sea port used for exporting weapons and military equipment from the Soviet Union.
The National Security Agency, monitoring Nikolaev radio traffic, tracked the Atkarsk and several other cargo ships from the port as each sailed to the same destination: Cuba.3
Strengthening his bond with Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was arming the country 90 miles from American shores less than a year after Castro had led a revolution that toppled the U.S.backed regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Eventually the arms transported to Cuba would include nuclear weapons, and the day would come when a wrong move by ships such as the Sumner could launch a nuclear war. Not since the Cold War had begun would so much depend on the ships and men of the U.S. Navy.
As the NSA tracked the Atkarsk, President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to the rapidly strengthening Soviet-Cuban alliance by preparing to proclaim a trade embargo of Cuba, barring all exports except medical items and food.4 President Eisenhower’s decision came as Cuba was becoming a major issue in the presidential campaign of Vice President Richard M. Nixon and then-Senator Kennedy.
Soon after Kennedy won the election, a new Cuban chapter opened. The Central Intelligence Agency revealed to the president-elect that covert plans authorized by Eisenhower spanned “a range of possible paramilitary operations” against Castro, including a “combined sea-air assault by trained Cuban exiles coordinated with the guerrilla activity generated on the island”—a U.S.-managed invasion of Cuba.5
On 16–17 April 1961, some 1,400 Cuban exiles, mostly from the Miami area, landed on a swampy shore known as the Bay of Pigs in an amphibious operation doomed from the start.6 Khrushchev, angrily reacting to the failed landing, told Kennedy that the Soviet Union would give Castro “all necessary assistance” to defend Cuba and urged the president to refrain from any future attacks to prevent “a conflagration which it will be impossible to cope with.”7
That potential fire began to smolder in the summer of 1962, when the CIA picked up rumors in Miami’s Cuban émigré community that Khrushchev was deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba. The agency dismissed the rumors as expatriates’ propaganda. But in July 1962, as the seaborne flow of conventional Soviet weapons and military equipment steadily increased, CIA Director John McCone believed that “the buildup was a prelude to the deployment of nuclear missiles.” McCone was the successor to Allen Dulles, who had been forced to resign after the Bay of Pigs debacle. According to a CIA assessment of the time, McCone “was virtually alone” in his belief.8
On 29 August, photographs taken by a U-2 spy plane revealed eight surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites under construction. When briefed on the U-2 photographs, McCone said: “They’re not putting them in to protect the cane cutters. They’re putting them in to blind our reconnaissance eye.”9 The first shots of the looming crisis were fired on 30 August, when a Cuban patrol vessel fired at an unarmed U.S. S2F Tracker antisubmarine warfare plane flying over international waters.10 By then there was no doubt that thousands of Red Army soldiers—“technicians,” said the Soviets—were pouring onto the island.
The Navy spotted a Soviet-built missile patrol boat off the Cuban port of Mariel, and photographs showed others moored nearby. When told of this, President Kennedy, a PT boat skipper in World War II, sent a memo to Secretary of the Navy Fred Korth: “I would like to get a report on the ability of our destroyers to deal effectively with the new motor torpedo boats of the KOMAR class that the Cubans now possess.”11
On 9 September, a CIA U-2, flown by a Taiwanese pilot, was shot down over China by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile, providing policymakers with a reminder of how the Soviet SAMs in Cuba endangered U-2 overflights.12 Consequently the spy plane missions over the island were halted. But, determined to get photographic proof to confirm reports that Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) had arrived in Cuba, the National Security Council eased restrictions.
And, because the Kennedy administration wanted a military officer at the controls, a CIA U-2 was piloted by Air Force Major Richard S. Heyser when the spy plane took off from edwards Air Force base in california near midnight on 13 October. Four and a half hours later, at 0731 on Sunday, 14 October, Heyser began his pass across a cloudless Cuba, 72,500 feet below.
Twelve minutes after that, he veered eastward to land at Mccoy Air Force base (present-day Orlando International Airport), Florida. Two rolls of film were swiftly transferred to an aircraft, which flew them to the Naval Photographic Intelligence center in Suitland, Maryland, where the film was developed and positives made. The next morning, a Navy truck pulled up to a nondescript seven-story building in a run-down Washington neighborhood. Two armed Marines climbed out, and an armed Navy officer and two enlisted men removed a box from the vehicle. They carried it into the building, which had no outer sign that it housed the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation center.13
NPIc photo interpreters leaned for hours over light tables, peering at frames of the U-2 film through magnifying glasses and stereoscopic viewers. They were convinced they were looking at evidence that could prove the Soviet Union had delivered MRbMs to cuba. Once operational, the missiles would be capable of hitting U.S. cities with nuclear warheads. On the morning of Tuesday, 16 October, cIA officers presented blowups of the photos to Kennedy and briefed him about the interpreters’ findings.
The president sat at the head of a conference table in the cabinet Room. As the briefing began, he touched a hidden switch under the table, activating a tape recorder.14 After cIA officers presented their intelligence briefing, Secretary of State Dean Rusk went through the implications of a cuba with Soviet missiles and then said, “I do think we have to set in motion a chain of events that will eliminate this base.”
This was the beginning of the first meeting of what would be called the excomm, which consisted of members of the National Security council and other government officials to whom Kennedy turned for advice, including his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. (eventually excomm would become the label for numerous high-level crisis meetings.)
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara introduced “some possible military alternatives,” especially the idea of “an air strike against these installations . . . plus the airfields plus the aircraft . . . plus all potential nuclear storage sites.” The word “nuclear” was uttered a dozen more times during the meeting.
McNamara deferred to General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff, who outlined potential military actions. After “we have destroyed as many of these offensive weapons as possible,” he said, “we should, should prevent any more coming in, which means a naval blockade.”15
The Navy, in fact, had a contingency plan that had been developed in the wake of the bay of Pigs disaster. The Joint chiefs of Staff, believing cuba would continue to be a potential cold War flashpoint, had directed Admiral Robert L. Dennison, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Atlantic command, to develop what became OPLAN 312. It laid out three possible moves against cuba: a strike against a single type of target, such as a SAM site; an attack on all sites of a specific type; and a massive air attack followed by an invasion.16 Later revisions of the plan proposed the deployment of about 100,000 troops and hundreds of ships.17
Coincidentally, a large U.S. naval force was in the Caribbean for an annual amphibious-landing exercise. Three Marine battalion landing teams were to storm the beach on Vieques Island, east of the Puerto Rican mainland, and wrest it from an imaginary dictator given the not very subtle name “Ortsac” (spell it backward). Antisubmarine-warfare (ASW) exercises also were scheduled, putting more ships and aircraft into the Caribbean. Admiral George W. Anderson, chief of Naval Operations, told all fleet commanders to be ready to order as many ships to sea as possible on a 24-hour notice. The Joint Chiefs ordered the strengthening of air defenses in the southeastern United States, and Air Force bases and shore-based Navy and Marine Corps squadrons prepared for a possible invasion of Cuba.18
On Thursday, 18 October, while the Navy was preparing for a blockade or an invasion, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko called on Kennedy, who had publicly warned Khrushchev not to arm Cuba with offensive weapons. Gromyko insisted that Soviet aid to Cuba was defensive and did not threaten the United States. Kennedy, without revealing what the U-2 had discovered, merely reiterated his warning. “The President,” said a CIA officer, “knew what Khrushchev was doing in Cuba, and Soviet officials did not know he knew.”19
Friday, 19 October, “was a day of preparation for some form of military action,” according to Admiral Anderson’s post-crisis report. “At 0830Q [Q designates Eastern Standard Time], a message went out from the Chief of Naval Personnel to District Commandants and the Chief of Naval Air Reserve Training alerting them to the possibility of recalling Reservists. . . . All Navy and Marine Corps aircraft and squadrons not required for air defense, reconnaissance, or ASW surveillance were ordered relocated because of overcrowding at Florida bases.” Anderson ended his day working on the legal and logistical issues involved for a sea blockade of Cuba.20
By Sunday, 21 October, a blockade proclamation was ready for the president, who would use the document as the basis for a speech about the crisis. During an afternoon meeting, ExComm members went over a draft. Secretary of State Rusk suggested that “blockade” be replaced by “quarantine” because the latter “avoids comparison with the Berlin blockade,” the Soviet attempt in 1948–49 to block Allied access to the divided city. Kennedy agreed.21
Although “blockade” had changed to “quarantine,” Anderson did not change his proposed rules of engagement. A destroyer intercepting a ship approaching the quarantine line was to hoist a signal flag or a blinking light to transmit the international code K (meaning, you are to stop at once) or ON (you are to heave to at once). Each destroyer on the line would have on board a Russian speaker.22
Anderson said he would allow Navy ships to enforce the quarantine by firing a warning shot across the bow of a defiant ship, and if that did not work, the ship’s rudder would be disabled, presumably by a well-aimed shot. When Kennedy said the vessel might be unintentionally sunk, Anderson replied that a ship could be disabled and stay afloat.23
As the meeting was ending, President Kennedy went out of his way to give special recognition to the man who would be running the quarantine, Anderson. “Well, Admiral, it looks as though this is up to the Navy,” he said.
“Mr. President,” the CNO replied, “the Navy will not let you down.”24
That same day, the ASW carrier Essex (CVS-9) arrived at Guantanamo Naval Base, on Cuba’s southeastern tip, for six weeks of training. The oldest carrier in the Navy, she had been launched in 1942 and soon sailed into the Pacific, where she fought in several battles and survived a kamikaze attack. Overhauled at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, she had departed in September 1962 with up-to-date sonar and electronic countermeasure equipment. She carried two S2F Tracker squadrons and a helicopter squadron.
For some lucky members of her crew, the day after arrival at Gitmo was to have been a liberty day. But their orders had changed. At 0330 on 21 October reveille sounded for a surprised crew, and the Essex steamed toward her quarantine station.25 She was one of 44 ships in Task Force 136, under the operational control of Vice Admiral Alfred G. “Corky” Ward, commander of the 2nd Fleet. Of the ships heading toward cuba, Ward was told, at least one “had missiles in her hold” and had to be intercepted.26
Ward arrayed destroyers in a crescent shape that encompassed a swath of ocean 500 miles east of cuba, athwart the routes used by ships carrying Soviet cargoes. At the northern end of the crescent was the guided-missile cruiser Canberra (CAG-2) with two destroyers; at the southern end were the cruiser Newport News (CA-148) and two destroyers. The Essex and five destroyers backed up the quarantine line. Meanwhile Task Force 135, built around the carriers Independence (CVA-62) and Enterprise (CVAN-65) and including 32 ships, took up stations off cuba’s southeastern shore.27 The possibility of an invasion was still high, and Guantanamo would be a likely battleground.
On 22 October, Guantanamo’s Navy families were handed notices telling them that “Higher authority has directed the immediate evacuation” of all dependents. The only women allowed to stay were Navy nurses, who might be needed in the darkening future.
“Please do not ask questions or request exceptions,” the notice said. “There is no time for that. . . . Get your suitcases and children and wait quietly.” They were told to get on buses and leave pets behind. At 1630 that day, four Navy ships transported 2,400 people to the Norfolk Naval Station, where service families took them in.28
As the dependent families were sailing away, ships of the Amphibious Force Atlantic arrived to disembark Marines who had been scheduled to stage the Vieques Island exercise. Other Marines were airlifted in, joining a motley defense force that included Seabees from Naval Mobile construction battalions 4 and 7 and cuban volunteers from the civilian work force.
By now, people beyond Gitmo knew there was some kind of crisis. but newspapers were not getting any reliable information from Kennedy or the tight-lipped members of excomm. Finally, as the Gitmo refugees packed their suitcases, the White House announced that at 1900 the president would make an important statement that would be carried on television and radio.
President Kennedy told about the discovery of the missiles and said he had ordered a quarantine “on all offensive military equipment under shipment to cuba.” He also said he had ordered the armed forces “to prepare for any eventualities.” The 18-minute address ended with a thought that had just entered the minds of millions of Americans: “No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred.”29
Officially the quarantine did not begin until the next day, but already Navy ships and aircraft watched for the ships heading for the blockade line. In concert with President Kennedy’s quarantine proclamation, the Joint chiefs ordered U.S. armed forces to DeFcON-3, an increase of readiness beyond normal. The U.S. Strategic Air command went to DeFcON-2, a state of readiness short of war that put SAc bombers aloft carrying nuclear weapons—a clear sign to the Soviet Union that the United States was not bluffing.30
Meanwhile McNamara requested risky low-level photography, and the Navy got the mission.31 Six RF-8A cru saders from Light Photographic Squadron (VFP) 62—the “Fightin’ Photo”—took off from the Key West Naval Air Station. Dropping down to 400 feet, they sped across Cuba, then headed for the Naval Air Station Cecil Field, near Jacksonville, Florida. There, Navy photographer’s mates removed film from the Crusaders’ cameras for processing and delivery to the NPIC in Washington.
Commander William B. Ecker, who led the mission, was ordered to refuel and continue to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. A helicopter flew him to the Pentagon, where he was met by Admiral Anderson and General Taylor. They took him directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff conference room, known as “the Tank.” When Ecker apologized for his appearance, General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said: “God damn it, you’ve been flying an airplane now haven’t you? You ought to sweat and smell. Sit down.” Ecker, noting that his flight over the target area had been shorter than 30 seconds, advised the chiefs to wait for the photographs.32 NPIC interpreters were astonished at the details revealed by the photos, which erased all doubts about the missiles. Kennedy later hung one in his outer office.33
McNamara’s hands-on management, as demonstrated by his call for low-level photography, put him on a collision course with Anderson. Accounts vary about their encounter at the Navy’s Flag Plot command center in the Pentagon on 24 October. But what stands as at least a semi-official version comes from an official Joint Staff historian: “McNamara persisted in asking why a destroyer had left the quarantine line.” Anderson, aware that secret information was involved, took the Defense secretary aside and “explained that the destroyer was shadowing a submarine.” When “Mc-Namara asked what would happen if a Soviet ship refused to stop or resisted boarding, Anderson answered angrily: ‘This is none of your goddamn business. We’ve been doing this since the days of John Paul Jones, and if you’ll go back to your quarters, Mr. Secretary, we’ll handle this.’”34
As the end of October approached, Khrushchev and Kennedy were nearing agreement on terms for ending the crisis. But aerial photography showed that the Soviets were still constructing missile sites and assembling IL-28 bombers. Then a Soviet surface-toair missile shot down a U-2, killing its pilot, Air Force Major Rudolph Anderson Jr. Though President Kennedy decided not to retaliate, the NSA wanted proof that the Soviets had done it.
A Navy-NSA hybrid, the USS Oxford (AGTR-1) was the security agency’s first signal intelligence ship—and one of the strangest-looking vessels in the Navy. Three masts, each bearing tiers of antennas, sprouted from a main deck. Square and cylindrical structures studded the deck. On the fantail was a 16-foot dish-shaped antenna that could bounce microwave signals off the moon to a ground station. The system’s signals could not be jammed and defied interception.35
One of the Oxford’s tasks was to sweep the Cuban coast for signals showing that the Soviets had activated the surface-to-air missile systems protecting the ballistic-missile sites. On the day of Major Anderson’s death, the Oxford flashed a short message: Operators picked up signals from Spoon Rest, the NATO designation for Soviet early warning radar. A helicopter picked up the tape of the signal and sent it on its way to the NSA.
With the quarantine working, on 28 October the Soviets agreed to remove the ballistic missiles.36 On 20 November, President Kennedy announced: “I have today been informed by chairman Khrushchev that all of the IL-28 bombers in cuba will be withdrawn in thirty days. . . . I have this afternoon instructed the Secretary of Defense to lift our naval quarantine.” The United States agreed that it would not invade cuba.37 eventually details of a secret agreement emerged. They indicated that the United States was dismantling several American air and missile bases in Turkey that had been rendered obsolete by the commitment of Polaris submarines in the region.38
Since the cold War ended, Soviet-era documents have illuminated the nuclear reality of 1962. We know now that 158 nuclear warheads had arrived in cuba by the time of the crisis.39 We also know about a final voyage. The freighter Atkarsk, which had left Soviet waters in September 1960 bound for cuba and was tracked by the NSA, was back in cuba during the crisis. And, according to recent revelations, top Kremlin officials ordered the Atkarsk to carry the last tactical nuclear warheads out of cuba on 20 November 1962.40 For the Soviets, the crisis was over.
1. U.S.S. Allen M. Sumner DD-692, Sea Stories—chapter 5, www.dd-692.com/ sea_stories_-_chapter_5.htm.
2. Combat aircraft number: Norman Polmar and John D. Gresham, DEFCON-2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War during the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), 134. Ship count: ibid., 309–10.
3. “Indications of Soviet Arms Shipments to cuba,” Weekly Comint Economic Briefing, 5 October 1960. This is the first declassified document in the cuban Missile crisis Document Archive—1960, at www.nsa.gov/public_info/declass/ cuban_missile_crisis/1960.shtml.
4. “U.S. Puts embargo On Goods To Cuba,” The New York Times, 20 October 1960.
6. Of several estimates of the invasion force, 1,400 is the number that appears frequently in accounts of the invasion. See www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/ The bay of Pigs.aspx.
7. “Premier is Grim,” The New York Times, 19 April 1961.
8. A Look back . . . Remembering the Cuban Missile crisis, www.cia.gov/newsinformation/featured-story-archive/2007-featured-story-archive/a-look-back-remembering-the-cuban-missile-crisis.html.
9. Dino A. Brugioni, Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Random House, 1991), 100–105.
10. The Naval Quarantine of Cuba, 1962, Naval Historical center. www.history. navy.mil/faqs/faq90-5.htm.
11. Brugioni, Eyeball to Eyeball, 105.
12. Polmar and Gresham, DEFCON-2, 80.
13. Brugioni, Eyeball to Eyeball, 190, 193.
14. Sheldon M. Stern, The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (Stanford, cA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 38. Stern was a historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library from 1977 through 1999. The library began declassifying and releasing the secret Kennedy tapes in 1973. They would include excomm meetings, with some colloquies redacted.
15. Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, Presidential Recordings, Transcripts. www.jfklibrary.org/ JFK/JFK-in-History/cuban-Missile-crisis.aspx.
16. Curtis A. Utz, Cordon of Steel: The U.S. Navy and the Cuban Missile Crisis (Naval Historical center, Washington, 1993), 14.
17. Polmar and Gresham, DEFCON-2, 49.
18. Chief of Naval Operations, Report on the Naval Quarantine of Cuba, Operational Archives branch, Post 46 command File, box 10, Washington, Dc., published on the Naval Historical center webpage, www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq90-5.htm (hereafter cited as CNO Report).
19. Ray S. Cline, “A CIA Reminiscence,” Washington Quarterly, Autumn 1982, 91. At the time of the cuban Missile crisis, cline was the cIA’s deputy director for intelligence.
20. CNO Report, 19 October 1962.
21. Stern, The Week The World Stood Still, 75.
22. Brugioni, Eyeball to Eyeball, 335.
23. Stern, The Week the World Stood Still, 75.
24. Ibid., 76. The dialogue between President Kennedy and Admiral Anderson has been quoted by many sources without the specific time and place provided by Stern, who is the leading authority for the White House tapes’ content.
25. Utz, Cordon of Steel, 16.
26. Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington: brookings Institution, 1989), 68. Garthoff quotes from “Personal History or Diary of Vice Admiral Alfred G. Ward, While Serving at commander Second Fleet.”
27. Polmar and Gresham, DEFCON-2, Appendix c, “U.S. Naval Forces in the caribbean,” 309. Task force ship counts include replenishing ships. Positioning of the two task forces is shown on a Flag Plot chart, 24 October 1962, 2230Q, from U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical center, Washington Navy Yard, cuba History Files. Author’s collection.
28. An evacuation notice is posted at the Guantanamo Public Memory Project: http://gitmomemory.org/blog/blog/tag/janet-miller/; Utz, Cordon of Steel, 27, reports the evacuation.
29. “President Grave; Asserts Russians Lied . . . ,” The New York Times, 23 October 1962.
30. Utz, Cordon of Steel, 16; Senate Resolution 479: A resolution commemorating the dedication of the Strategic Air command Memorial during the 20th anniversary of its stand-down, 5 June 2012, www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/ sres479/text.
31. Record of Action of the Fourth Meeting of the executive committee of the National Security council Washington, 25 October 1962, http://microsites. jfklibrary.org/cmc/oct25/doc2.html.
32. Utz, Cordon of Steel, 34. Accounts vary about LeMay’s exact words, but not the sentiment.
33. Brugioni, Eyeball to Eyeball, 375, 554.
34. “The Cuban Missile crisis. How Well Did the Joint chiefs of Staff Work?” Walter S. Poole, chief, Joint Staff History branch in the Joint History Office, www.history.navy.mil/colloquia/cch7b.html.
35. James Bamford, Body of Secrets (New York: Doubleday 2001), 94.
36. When the quarantine began, NSA “listened to radio messages to and from Soviet vessels on their way to cuba” and on 23 October, concluded, “The ships were stopped dead in the water, outside the ring of American naval vessels waiting for them.” Thomas R. Johnson and David A. Hatch, NSA and the Cuban Missile Crisis (center for cryptologic History, Fort George G. Meade, MD, 1998), 10.
37. “Forty Years Ago: The Cuban Missile Crisis,” Prologue, vol. 34, no. 3 (Fall 2002), www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/fall/cuban-missiles.html.
38. McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988), 434.
39. Anatoli I. Gribkov, William Y. Smith, and Alfred Friendly, Operation Anadyr: U.S. and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile Crisis (chicago: edition Q, 1993).
40. Svetlana Savaranskaya, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons in cuba: New evidence.” Cold War International History Project Bulletin, issue 14/15 (Winter 2003/ Spring 2004), 387.