Veterans recall their service during Cuban Missile Crisis

2012-10-14T00:00:00Z 2012-10-14T11:25:19Z Veterans recall their service during Cuban Missile Crisis La Crosse Tribune
October 14, 2012 12:00 am

Mike Niles, Holmen

Mike Niles, 70, of rural Holmen was a boatswain’s mate seaman, in charge of paint and accessories on the destroyer USS Barry when it was part of the naval blockade of Cuba.

The ship was in its home port at Newport, R.I., when the crisis began. Niles was at a club when he heard the televised announcement “everybody back on board. They broke into the programming and announced it.”

More than a dozen of the ship’s crew didn’t hear the announcement, which also was broadcast by radio and repeated by police. “We picked them up at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.,” on the way toward Cuba, Niles said.

The Barry was assigned to follow a Soviet cargo ship and try to identify what was on it, without stopping and boarding it. “We did that for most of a day” and Niles still has photos of the ship that he took with his Brownie camera.

There appeared to be no doubt that the eight oblong objects on the deck of the freighter were missiles, according to an Associated Press article about the incident that Niles still has. But the freighter’s crew refused to completely uncover the apparent missiles.

The next day, the Barry was assigned to follow a Soviet submarine that had surfaced.

“We followed it for maybe half a day before it dove” beneath the surface, Niles said. “The only time it bothered me was when they dropped percussion grenades (into the ocean) to signal them to surface. I thought they might think we were shooting at them, and shoot back.”

In retrospect, Niles said, “The two countries weren’t very far away from shooting at each other. From what I’ve read and seen (in TV documentaries), I think we were real close to a war. We put our foot down. For whatever reason, the Soviets packed up their stuff and went back to their homeland.”

Randy Eddy Sr., La Crosse

Randy Eddy Sr., 69, of La Crosse was a petty officer 3rd class in the navigation department on the aircraft carrier USS Independence while it participated in the naval blockade of Cuba.

“We were at general quarters for 58 days” during the missile crisis and its aftermath, Eddy recalled. General quarters is the ultimate state of readiness, he said.

“It was tense — there’s no question about that,” Eddy said.

“Radar (on U.S. aircraft and ships) would pick up MiGs leaving Cuba. That would prompt U.S. aircraft carriers to immediately launch fighter jets. “They would have each other on their screens,” and the Soviet jets then would return to land, Eddy said.

“This was continuous,” Eddy said. “They played that game — I think it was just to get our attention and let us know they had stuff.”

Eddy said he was very concerned about the possibility of war between the United States and Soviet Union, but was sure America would have defeated any Soviet forces in Cuba. “There was a pretty massive deployment of U.S. forces,” he said.

It was a “great relief” when Khrushchev backed down and withdrew missiles from Cuba, said Eddy, adding he admired President John F. Kennedy’s decisiveness. “Khrushchev was just a loose nut.”

Larry Norris, La Crosse

Larry Norris, 70, of La Crosse was a machinist’s mate 3rd class assigned to the forward engine room of the destroyer USS James C. Owens when it patrolled along the Cuban coast from Dec. 19 to Jan. 4.

About Dec. 1, Norris recalled, “We were told all Christmas and New Year’s leaves are canceled and we had two days to take on supplies and oil” and head toward Cuba for surveillance.

When it was in that area, the ship was at sea for 24 hours and spent the next 24 hours at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Enlisted men such as Norris weren’t told what the ships were looking for, Norris said.

But “(w)e saw several huge civilian-type ships” flying Soviet flags, as well as several small surveillance ships that flew Soviet flags and had lots of antennas, Norris said. Word came down that the Soviets apparently were removing weapons from Cuba, he said.

Norris, who was 20 at the time of the crisis, said he wasn’t worried that Soviet missiles in Cuba might be launched at the U.S. ships. “They weren’t going to waste a nuclear missile on a ship,” he said. “They would have used them to hit the U.S.

“It could have become a bad situation,” Norris said of the missile crisis. “I think there was a lot of bluff, playing chicken, to see who blinked first.”

Fortunately, he added, Khrushchev blinked first.

Bob Powell, Onalaska

Bob Powell, 76, of Onalaska was a tank platoon sergeant in the Army’s 1st Armored Division based at Fort Hood, Texas, when the crisis began. He was in charge of the five tanks in his platoon.

“We were on maneuvers at Fort Hood, and it was raining that Sunday,” Powell said, when the division received its orders to head toward Cuba.

The tanks were loaded onto railroad flatbed cars and their crews were flown in chartered jets to Fort Stewart, Ga. “We went to tank ranges and fired night and day for about two days, to get the tanks zeroed in,” Powell said.

The tanks were loaded with concrete-piercing rounds. “We were told we were going to an area with fortified concrete bunkers” if an invasion was ordered, Powell recalled.

The tanks were put on landing craft and sailed to probably within 25 to 30 miles of Cuba, then traveled in circles, Powell said. “We got up (one day) about 3 a.m., and that morning they issued the hand grenades,” which indicated an invasion was imminent, he said. But later that day, word came that Soviet ships weren’t trying to run the blockade.

The landing craft with the tanks later made a beachhead landing at Hollywood, Fla., and the tanks and their crews eventually returned to Fort Hood.

“There would have been nothing left” if the United States and Soviet Union had entered a nuclear war, Powell believes. “I hate to say it about a communist leader, but Khrushchev saved the world when he backed down.”

Larry Abbott, Warrens

Larry Abbott, 79, of Warrens, Wis., was a ship-fitter with welding and firefighting responsibilities aboard the communications command ship USS Northampton during the missile crisis.

The ship was full of communications equipment and has been called the “floating White House” because the U.S. president could command military operations from it.

The Northampton was part of the blockade, and Abbott once saw a Soviet ship carrying missiles from Cuba.

“We were all-hands during the crisis,” Abbott said. “There wasn’t any free or down time,” and the men aboard the ship were given extra duties.

“We thought there might be some shooting down there,” Abbott said. “It turned out good, because we didn’t have to fire any weapons. But it was touch and go.”

Abbott had been in Havana, Cuba, two or three times in the early 1950s while serving on another Navy ship, the USS Muliphen.

On the USS Northampton, he spent most of his time below deck. “We had to keep going through the ship constantly,” making sure everything was working properly,” he said.

“There was too much going on; you didn’t have time to be nervous,” Abbott said. “We were busy.“

Walter Verdon, La Crosse

Walter Verdon, 74, of La Crosse was an ensign on the USS Noble, an attack troop transport ship, during the missile crisis.

“Our mission was to carry Marines and their gear,” he said. The ship was at its base at San Diego, Calif., when it was ordered to sail near Cuba. “I remember sitting in the officers’ ward room waiting for dinner,” Verdon said, and hearing President Kennedy announce on television that he was ordering a naval blockade.

“We got under way and went to Seal Beach, Calif., to load Marines and Marine equipment,” Verdon said.

The Noble went through the Panama Canal and became part of a battle group south of Cuba. While the ships were heading north toward Cuba “I was on the bridge when the message came from the president for the formation to turn 180 degrees” and head back south, Verdon said. “When we got that order, it was pretty clear the thing was over.”

The Marines on his ship had been doing lots of calisthenics and receives Spanish lessons during the crisis, Verdon said. “They had them pumped up; they were ready to go,” he said. “I had confidence we would have taken Cuba militarily” if an invasion occurred.

“I was amazed at the intelligence information we had” on Soviet troops and the installations in Cuba, Verdon said. “Everybody knew what was going on. They could tell us what vehicles, airplanes and ships were there, and where.”

Don Severson, Ettrick

Don Severson, 74, of Ettrick was a private first class in the Army’s 1st Armored Division based at Fort Hood, Texas, “when all of a sudden, we started doing nonstop war training” at the base.

Severson, whose responsibilities included both firing a mortar from a personnel carrier and then serving as a sniper, remembers being vaccinated for yellow fever. And he remembers that then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson came to Fort Hood to see a firing demonstration.

“It was quite a fireworks display; it lasted maybe 15 minutes,” Severson said, adding that he fired “quite a few” mortar shells during the demonstration for Johnson. “He was very impressed,” Severson said.

A few days later, Severson said, his unit was told to get ready for a possible mission to Cuba. “They put all our armored vehicles on trains to Florida,” he said. “They flew all the people in the division on propeller jets to Fort Stewart, Ga.”

While he was at Fort Stewart, Severson saw President John F. Kennedy pull up in a Jeep, only 15 to 20 feet away. “We were supposed to all be facing straight ahead and be at attention, but we were all peeking” at Kennedy, Severson said. “It was quite a thrill to see him. He was talking to our platoon sergeant. He had a big grin on his face and didn’t look at all serious, although I’m sure he was.”

After a few nights camped out at a Florida horse racetrack, Severson and other soldiers in his division boarded Navy ships. “I don’t know how close we got” to Cuba, he said. Before the ships returned to the United States, he said, his officers said Khrushchev had backed down only a few hours before U.S. troops were to invade Cuba.

“It was a mixed feeling,” Severson said of his reaction and that of his comrades. “Most of us were happy there was going to be no war. But had been gung-ho and ready to go.”

Jerry Bishofsky, Onalaska

Jerry Bishofsky, 70, of Onalaska was a machinist’s mate, mostly doing hydraulic work, on the heavy cruiser USS Newport News. It was based at Norfolk, Va.

One weekend, he recalled, “The shore patrol was going around telling everybody to get back on your ship right now.” He believes he was at an enlisted men’s club when the word came down.

“We only had about a half a crew when the ship left” for the naval blockade of Cuba, Bishofsky said. “Eventually, the rest all got helicoptered over to our ship.

“It was at least a week before we had our full crew, so people were doing double-duty” and became exhausted, Bishofsky said.

“We were scared crapless,” Bishofsky remembered. “There were MiG jets flying around and our jets flying around. We were nervous. Everybody was on edge with talk of World War III.”

Bishofsky recalled seeing one Soviet cargo ship being checked for missiles.

“I think Khrushchev knew Kennedy meant business,” Bishofsky said, adding he thinks the U.S. president did a good job handling the missile crisis.

“The military really liked Kennedy because of that,” he said. “It took (courage) for him to do that. It could have been World War III.”

Larry Gensch, West Salem

Larry Gensch, 73, of West Salem was a boiler tender on the guided missile frigate USS MacDonough when it was part of the naval blockade of Cuba.

He also was a member of the ship’s 14-man boarding party, and remembers the night the MacDonough stopped a Soviet cargo ship that might have been carrying missiles destined for Cuba.

“They called general quarters, which meant everybody had to man their battle stations,” Gensch said. “And they called for the boarding party.”

He grabbed his Browning automatic rifle and a pistol. But then someone “higher up” decided against sending the boarding party onto the Soviet ship. Gensch never heard why that decision was made.

“We never left our ship, but we were ready to go,” Gensch said.

Gensch, whose ship’s home port was Charleston, S.C., said it was one of the first to participate in the blockade of Cuba.

“We had meetings on the blockade in the mess hall; they were teaching us what to do,” Gensch said.

“I’m sure it could have” led to nuclear war, Gensch said of the missile crisis.

Clark Gallup, Westby

Clark Gallup, 72, of rural Westby was a quartermaster 3rd class helping to navigate the destroyer USS Hazelwood while it was blockade duty. The ship’s home port was Newport, R.I.

During peaceful times, Gallup said, “We’d pick up a lot of Soviet submarines off the East Coast and shadow them.” His ship probably was doing that when the crisis began, Gallup said.

Gallup recalls seeing several Soviet cargo ships during the blockade, but said he wasn’t nervous at the time. “Back then, nothing scared us — we were young,” he said.

He enjoyed using his movie camera and remembers the day — during the crisis — that he filmed what he thinks was a U.S. spy airplane as it was shot down near the coast of Cuba.

“There were three big blasts and it just disappeared,” Gallup said. He lost his movie camera and the film a few weeks later, when the motorboat he was in overturned at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Gallup also remembers seeing Cuban surface-to-air missiles in caves, while the Hazelwood patrolled near the coast of that island nation.

The United States handled the missile crisis well, Gallup believes. “I give Kennedy credit for that,” he said. “We screwed up with the Bay of Pigs” invasion by Cuban exiles. “We should have gone in” to help them.

Jim Hammes, Holmen

Jim Hammes of Holmen was 18 and part of the crew manning a 5-inch gun on the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain while it was part of the naval blockade.

He was on the ship near Cuba in April 1961 when Cuban exiles launched a failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the coast of that nation. “We heard shooting and at night could see flashes,” Hammes said. “We didn’t get involved,” he said, although the aircraft carrier’s crew was at general quarters on and off.

During the missile crisis, Hammes said, “We launched a lot of planes.” He doesn’t remember seeing any Soviet jets. But Hammes remembers seeing what apparently were Soviet spy ships. “They looked like fishing trawlers,” he said, but with antennas.

“It was hotter than hell,” Hammes said of the weather.

“We didn’t lose any lives,” Hammes said. “We showed force. Nobody got hurt. But it could have been a war.”

Walter Verdon, La Crosse

Walter Verdon, 74, of La Crosse was an ensign on the USS Noble, an attack troop transport ship, during the missile crisis.

“Our mission was to carry Marines and their gear,” he said. The ship was at its base at San Diego, Calif., when it was ordered to sail near Cuba. “I remember sitting in the officers’ ward room waiting for dinner,” Verdon said, and hearing President John F. Kennedy announce on television that he was ordering a naval blockade. “We got underway and went to Seal Beach, Calif., to load Marines and Marine equipment,” Verdon said.

The Noble went through the Panama Canal and became part of a battle group south of Cuba. While the ships were heading north toward Cuba, “I was on the bridge when the message came from the president for the formation to turn 180 degrees” and head back south, Verdon said. “When we got that order, it was pretty clear the thing was over.”

The Marines on his ship had been doing lots of calisthenics and Spanish lessons during the crisis, Verdon said. “They had them pumped up; they were ready to go,” he said. “I had confidence we would have taken Cuba militarily” if an invasion occurred.

“I was amazed at the intelligence information we had” on Soviet troops and the installations in Cuba, Verdon said. “Everybody knew what was going on. They could tell us what vehicles, airplanes and ships were there, and where.”

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(2) Comments

  1. KrustyV
    Report Abuse
    KrustyV - October 15, 2012 5:13 am
    Napolean, you are a complete and total idiot.
  2. Napoleon
    Report Abuse
    Napoleon - October 14, 2012 1:10 am
    2013: Time for Romney's Iran Missile Crisis! It'll have cruise missiles, Russians, nukes and all that cool stuff! Start digging your bomb shelters today! Romney is gonna git us a new cold war with the Russkies! Or, maybe a hot one?

    Mark Chavalas: "...However, rasah did not cover the subject of killing in war or capital punishment, which were done only at the command of God...."

    God hath commandeth that we smiteth the Persians (Iran) in the year 2013.... the military-industrial complex needeth the cash. (DeuteRomney 19:1-13)

    As God beseechethed thy Burning GW Bush of Iraq, render Persia unto Caesar (Emperor of Ancient Romney). Let thy slaughter begin!

    Western defense budget cuts may be unstoppable

    U.S. defense spending in 2012 will total $612 billion, down slightly from 2010's $691 billion peak as operational contingency spending specifically earmarked for the Iraqi and Afghan wars fell, according to the Pentagon.

    Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney has pledged to increase Pentagon spending, particularly on the Navy.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/49404306/
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