On board a Navy combatant, there is nothing quite like the adrenaline rush that comes with the hollow clang of the “general quarters” alarm, accompanied by the words, “Battle Stations. This is not a drill!” Such was the case on 23 October 1973 as I stood on the bridge wing of the destroyer leader USS Harry E. Yarnell (DLG-17), fumbling with the chin strap of a gray helmet marked with the letters “JOOD.” As I stepped through the door leading to the interior of the bridge, I was aware of the thundering sound of hundreds of boondockers striking the steel decks and the loud clatter of metal ladders as men raced to their battle stations, “up and forward on the starboard side, down and aft on the port” as they had been trained. My relief arrived and, without the usual brief of course and speed, etc., he took the watch from me along with the helmet.
I quickly exited the bridge and headed for the electronic warfare shack at the rear of CIC, my GQ station. Two petty officers and one seaman striker were already there, the EW1 tuning the WLR-1 receiver and the striker looking noticeably bewildered. I was breathing hard and—frankly—frightened, but tried hard not to show it, quickly asking the EW1 if he had detected anything.
“Looks like a Bison bomber, sir,” he said matter-of-factly, referring to the large four-engine aircraft built by the Soviets. The EW2 sat with an open publication on his lap, correlating the frequency, repetition-rate, etc., with the readings on the WLR-1. Nodding, he confirmed the assessment. The 17-year-old striker had donned sound-powered phones and, looking at me wide-eyed, reported, “CIC says they have an aircraft on radar inbound from Algeria, closing rapidly, sir.”
We were just outside Algerian territorial waters and, the night before, we had received intelligence reports warning of the possibility of hostile action from either the Soviets or the Arabs, or both. There was no way of knowing if the aircraft was Soviet or Algerian, but either way, it was not good news.
In his pronounced Southern drawl that was somehow calming despite the words, the EW1 said, “He’s locked on us with fire-control radar.” Before I could react, word came over the JA circuit that I was to report to the bridge. When I arrived, I was told that the captain wanted me to visually confirm the identity of the inbound aircraft if I could. My collateral duty as ship’s intelligence officer included familiarizing myself with Soviet ships and aircraft. From the bridge wing, I peered southward trying to locate the incoming aircraft. In my peripheral vision I could see two missiles on the ship’s launcher rail, vibrating spasmodically in response to signals from our fire control radars that were obviously locked on the approaching plane. Aware that our rules of engagement forbade our firing unless fired upon, it was an extremely tense moment, similar to the many Western movie gunfights when the antagonists stood in the street facing one another, waiting for one to make the first draw.
A glint of silver caught my eye, and I could see what was indeed a large aircraft, growing larger by the second. I doubt that anyone on the bridge was breathing as the aircraft closed the distance, coming right at us.
As it flew directly above us, our missiles slewed about violently, trying to preserve the track, and I was aware that the ship was heeling over, apparently responding to the captain’s orders for evasive maneuvering.
And then, it was over. The Bison came about in a large sweeping turn and headed back to an airfield somewhere in Algeria. As it crossed the coastline and dropped from sight, we secured from general quarters and went back to the mind-numbing routine of tracking our own aircraft heading across the Mediterranean, winging their way eastward toward Israel as part of the vital logistics train that was gradually turning the tide in what was becoming known as the “Yom Kippur War.”
The events that led to that adrenaline-filled moment with its somewhat deflating—if certainly preferable—outcome were complex and harrowing. A 2004 Naval War College Review retrospective described the resulting confrontation between the U.S. Sixth Fleet and the Soviet Fifth Eskadra (“Operational Squadron”) as “perhaps the most dangerous of all Cold War maritime crises,” one that would escalate perilously close to nuclear war between the two superpowers. It began in the summer of 1973 with the decision of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and his Syrian counterpart Hafez al-Assad to go to war with Israel.
The so-called Six-Day War in 1967 had been a resounding victory for Israel, one that provided many lessons to be learned for both sides. The Arabs profited more in those lessons than did the Israelis—the former developing new tactics to offset Israeli air superiority, the latter suffering some of the effects of hubris that often follow in the wake of overwhelming success.
Unlike the Arab nations, whose larger populations permit them to maintain sizable standing armies, Israel’s armed forces—though very powerful—rely heavily on the mobilization of a large proportion of reserves. Any time Israel mobilizes, the nation’s economy suffers significantly, which requires Israel to use mobilization judiciously.
In the spring of 1973, Israeli intelligence detected increased Egyptian military activity, possibly signifying preparations for war. It was not the first time that the Egyptians had appeared to be making such preparations—Sadat cleverly implemented such moves to keep the Israelis guessing and off balance—but this time the Israeli Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General David Elazar, was sufficiently alarmed and ordered a partial mobilization. When the threat failed to materialize and the cost of the mobilization was tallied at $35 million dollars, Elazar suffered a significant blow to his credibility and was publicly castigated by the nation’s finance minister.
In the meantime, as part of the Cold War offset to U.S. support for Israel, the Soviet Union had been courting the Arab nations, and that support had included providing a large number of missiles to Sadat and Assad that could be used to counter Israeli air power in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. In the Sinai, the Egyptians created a virtual “wall of missiles” that would shield troop movements as they advanced on the Suez Canal. They also prepositioned a significant amount of bridging equipment that would facilitate their crossing the canal. Israeli detections of these preparations were written off as defensive moves meant to intimidate the Israelis rather than to attack them. Sadat had conducted a successful disinformation campaign that “leaked” assessments of Egyptian military weaknesses, and the Israelis took the bait, convincing themselves that the Egyptians and Syrians were not likely to risk another drubbing such as they had suffered in 1967. Even when the Soviets potentially revealed Arab intent to go to war by evacuating their citizens from Cairo and Damascus just days before the commencement of hostilities, the Israelis ignored this rather glaring indication and did not mobilize.
Sadat and Assad had chosen 6 October 1973 as the day to go to war. They chose this because the tides and currents would be favorable for a Suez crossing, and the Israelis would be celebrating their holiest Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur when many people—including the vital reservists—would be on leave, and television and radio broadcasts would be curtailed for the holiday. Also, inspirationally, 6 October fell on the tenth day of Ramadan, when Mohammed had begun his preparations for the battle that would result in his triumphant return to Mecca.
The Egyptians and the Syrians had agreed on the date but differed on the best time of attack, the Egyptians preferring a late afternoon attack when the sun would be in the eyes of the Israelis, and the Syrians preferring morning for the same reason. They compromised on 1400.
Several times in my naval career, I kept what most people would call a diary, but I chose to name it my “log” (sounded more nautical). My second cruise to the Mediterranean was one of those occasions. The first entry is dated 16 October 1973 and begins with:
I choose to start this log because events of late are such that a written record may be desirable. On the sixth of this month, the fourth Middle East War broke out. The exact cause or immediate event precipitating this renewal of hostilities is not at the moment known; however, I strongly suspect that it was a planned, coordinated, totally aggressive invasion launched by the Egyptians and the Syrians. . . . When word was received of the war, our ship and those in company (moored in Palma de Majorca, Spain) were placed in an alert condition. A few hours later all liberty parties were recalled. Tension began to mount as all began to wonder what our involvement might be. However, as the days passed, involvement became more and more remote. We did not get underway, liberty was restored (on a more limited basis), and war raging in the Mideast became a subject for reading off the Associated Press (AP) broadcast and little more.
Those reports told of Egyptian and Syrian offensives in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Despite Elazar’s warnings at 0400 on the 6th of an imminent coordinated attack, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir—under pressure from her U.S. ally not to start another war—refrained from mobilizing until 0800—and even then ordered only a partial mobilization. Six hours later, the Arab assault began.
Air raid sirens blared across Israel, and radio broadcasts that had been suspended for Yom Kippur resumed, calling for reservists to report for duty immediately. But important time had been lost, and the Israelis were thrown back on both fronts. Protected by the missile umbrella provided by the Soviets, 70,000 Egyptian troops and 1,000 tanks crossed the Suez Canal, while two Syrian armored divisions and 40,000 troops entered the Golan Heights, capturing most of the southern portion of that area. Personnel and equipment losses were heavy on both sides, but within two days, the Soviet Union began a gigantic airlift, resupplying their Arab clients.
The rate of losses for the Israelis was soon deemed untenable, and the prospect of losing became very real. In response to this existential threat, Prime Minister Meir authorized 13 20-ton nuclear warheads to be assembled on Jericho missiles and several aircraft, making sure that Washington was aware of these actions. Whether that influenced him or not, President Richard Nixon responded to Israeli desperate pleas for help by authorizing a U.S. resupply airlift, telling Prime Minister Meir, “All your aircraft and tank losses will be replaced.” After exploring and rejecting several options of using commercial aircraft, Nixon ordered the Air Force to “send everything that can fly,” prompting the U.S. military to launch Operation Nickel Grass, the largest strategic airlift since the Berlin Airlift of 1948–49. In a matter of hours, C-141 Starlifters and C-5 Galaxies began loading tanks, aircraft, and other needed supplies for transport to Israel.
The planned airlift was immediately complicated by European nations who—responding to real and threatened reductions of oil supplies—refused U.S. access to their airspace. Only Portugal was unintimidated, allowing the Americans to land and refuel in the Azores. This meant that the aircraft would have to fly a narrow corridor across the Mediterranean, making sure that they did not get too close to the airspace of the nations in the region, especially those sympathetic to the Arab cause. This left the aircraft vulnerable to interception, and that was when the U.S. Navy was called into action.
The “Cutler Log” for 16 October reads:
We got underway as regularly scheduled on 11 October and proceeded on normal ops, seemingly unaffected by the situation to the east of us. However, two days later I entered the wardroom, after having been laid up with gastroenteritis for the previous 30-some hours, and found a kind of restless tension prevailing. Nothing had happened as yet, but there was a certain mood in the message traffic that warned of impending change. Everyone was reading the AP reports very carefully and speculations were running rampant. The day ended with no changes but a prevailing atmosphere of expectant anticipation that just would not be broken. There was nothing specific in the traffic or even on AP that said we would be doing anything different in the days to come, but those of us who had seen crisis before could feel the approach of something big in our bones. It was nothing more than a gut feeling, yet it was every bit as real as it would have been had we seen a large signpost in the middle of the sea pointing the way to the Middle East.
The next morning the feeling became reality. We were ordered to take station off the coast of Algeria. The “Sleeping Giant” has awakened. America is at last responding to the precarious situation of the tiny nation of Israel. A great air convoy of resupply has begun, and huge C5 and C141 jet transports are winging their way to the Promised Land with supplies for the brave but greatly overwhelmed Israelis. Yarnell and other Sixth Fleet units are strung out across the Med to serve as safety and communication and defense monitors for the continuous parade of aircraft making the sadly necessary flights. We are on station, bored by our immediate surroundings and happenings but alert to the explosive ramifications and near infinite possibilities available by our position and our role. Listening to the men piloting the aircraft as we monitor them through our assigned sector, then hand them off to the next ship down the line, one cannot avoid a strange sensation down deep inside, wondering what it must be like to be in one of those birds on your way into certain danger, wondering what will happen if these aircraft are challenged by Arab or even Soviet aircraft, wondering what would follow if one were shot down and we were in a position to rescue the flyers inside Arab territorial waters. The possibilities are endless. They are greatly exhilarating and terribly frightening at the same time. One can sense history and smell danger simultaneously.
As the United States and the Soviet Union continued to support their respective allies, their fleets in the Mediterranean became increasingly hostile toward each other, eventually becoming the largest naval confrontation between the U.S. Navy and the Soviet Navy in the entire Cold War. The Soviet Eskadra had 52 ships in the Mediterranean when the war began, including 11 submarines, some of which carried cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. The U.S. Sixth Fleet consisted of 48 ships, including two aircraft carriers, a helicopter carrier, and amphibious vessels carrying 2,000 Marines.
As the war continued, both sides reinforced their fleets. The Soviet squadron grew to 97 vessels including 23 submarines, while the Sixth Fleet grew to 60 vessels including nine submarines, two helicopter carriers, and three aircraft carriers. Both fleets made preparations for war, and subsequent events compounded the danger. There were several incidents similar to the one the Yarnell experienced with the Bison bomber—any one of which could have ignited an open conflict.
Things grew especially dangerous when the tables began to turn and the Israelis began to gain the upper hand, thanks to the American logistics effort. When it became clear that Israel was going to survive and win (again), Sadat appealed to Leonid Brezhnev, president of the Soviet Union, to broker a ceasefire, first on the 19th and again on the 21st of October.
Brezhnev responded by sending a message directly to President Nixon, proposing a joint U.S./USSR peacekeeping mission to enforce a ceasefire. It was dangerous enough for the two superpowers to be involved in the conflict as they were, but having them intervene directly as Brezhnev proposed would increase that danger significantly. Perhaps the Soviet president expected—even hoped—for his proposal to be rejected, because he added that, if Nixon did not agree, the Soviet Union would consider going in unilaterally.
This was even more disquieting. The Soviet Navy already had virtually flooded the Mediterranean with warships armed to the teeth with surface-to-surface missiles, and now, in the wake of Brezhnev’s ominous plan, seven airborne divisions—numbering 50,000 frontline and 100,000 support troops—were placed on alert. There also were reports of Soviet pilots flying MiG-25 Foxbats from Egyptian airfields to reconnoiter the battlefield.
After a late-night cabinet meeting on the 24th, the White House announced a worldwide alert, increasing the threat level to Defense Condition (DEFCON) 3.
The “Cutler Log” entry for 25 October:
Message received this morning indicates possible trouble ahead. Condition of readiness is ordered up to three now; not sure why but I notice the captain and the operations officer talking in hushed tones and looking rather serious.
Another participant—Yevgeni Semenov—also kept a journal:
Our forces have very powerful cruise missiles, and they are directed only at five objects—three aircraft carriers and two helicopter carriers. All others are secondary. Everybody's waiting only for a signal. The pressure has risen to the breaking point.
I still don't know what has happened or is happening or is about to happen, but I do know that this is big! An emergency action plan has been put into effect, and the next higher one is for actual war. Included in the new instructions is the implementation of an evacuation plan for U.S. citizens. Beyond that, I know nothing, and the same is true of everybody up through the captain. I must admit that I’m a little scared. . . . It’s not Algerian bombers or PT boats I’m anticipating—it’s the incredibly strong arm of the Soviet Union. It’s not just myself I’m risking—it’s my entire family as well as the entire world that is now at stake. It’s no longer a matter of this cruise, it’s a matter of a long war or, worse, a very, very short one. . . . I want more than anything to see those possibilities reduced to the realm of reason! I hope others in high places want that too.
Admiral Daniel Murphy, the U.S Sixth Fleet Commander, recorded:
The two fleets were sitting in a pond in close proximity, and the stage for the hitherto unlikely war at sea scenario was set. . . . Both fleets were obviously in a high readiness posture for whatever might come next, although it appeared that neither fleet knew exactly what to expect.
The situation remained tense until it became clear that the Soviets were not going to commit their ground forces as threatened. Admiral Murphy suggested to the Joint Chiefs that he move his forces westward, a move that actually would improve his tactical situation by providing more maneuvering room but also might send a helpful signal to the Soviets by moving away from the war zone. The JCS approved and, after battling heavy weather, the move was indeed executed.
For the next two weeks, both the Sixth Fleet and the Fifth Eskadra remained on high alert, and the tension remained nerve-rackingly high. When the three U.S. carrier groups at last stood down and headed for Mediterranean liberty ports on 15 November, it signaled that the crisis was over.
Only the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 rivaled October of 1973 in terms of immense peril. In some ways, this was more perilous, because the Soviet Navy was far more powerful than it had been in the early 1960s. Largely focused on Watergate and typically only vaguely aware of what their Navy does, the American public never fully understood what was happening in the Mediterranean during the Yom Kippur War. Yet there can be little doubt that the war would have had a very different outcome had the U.S. Navy and Air Force not implemented Nickel Grass, providing the lifeline that permitted Israel to ultimately prevail without resorting to nuclear weapons. Further, what navies do best is to deter, and in those harrowing weeks in the fall of 1973, the Sixth Fleet stood firm in the face of the powerful Fifth Eskadra, giving both sides the necessary pause needed to prevent the unthinkable.
The Yom Kippur War offered many lessons for the participants, both tactical and strategic. Of particular significance, this fourth attempt to defeat Israel seemed to finally make clear that such conflicts were too costly—for both sides. In March 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty that likely cost Sadat his life—he was assassinated in October 1981. Yet the two nations have managed to avoid war in the 50 years since this last clash that was deemed existential for Israel and nearly transformed the Cold War to hot.
Yom Kippur is a time for the forgiveness of the sins of others and by sincere repentance for one’s own sins. It is marked by abstention from food and drink. Let us hope in this time of yet another brutal conflict in the Middle East, that the lessons of that 1973 war can be brought forward and the world can abstain from a widening war and somehow find a path to peace in this troubled land.
Author’s Note: There are many informative and thought-provoking sources (besides the “Cutler Log”) for understanding the Yom Kippur War, but two in particular provide valuable insight to the roles of the U.S. Navy and Air Force:
“A Tale of Two Fleets” by Lyle Goldstein and Yuri M. Zhukov. Naval War College Review, Spring 2004.
The Two O’Clock War by Walter J. Boyne (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002).