GROUND ZERO Those Close to Cuban Missile Crisis Recall How Disaster Narrowly Averted

Article excerpt

The film Thirteen Days' depiction of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis has refreshed many memories, especially for Northeast Florida residents. With three military bases, the area was in many ways on the front lines of the crisis.

Donald Robbins slept on a jet fighter's wing. Charles Jackson sat on a tarmac with his parachute and Browning rifle, waiting to invade Cuba. And Arthur Schaffer came so close to his enemies that they waved.

Almost 40 years after the United States blockaded Cuba to stop the shipment and installation of Soviet nuclear missiles near the American mainland, the crisis holds a vivid fascination for former sailors and soldiers who waged the most dangerous campaign of the Cold War.

"I realized at 19 how close we had come to a shooting nuclear war," said Richard Siebert, who was a machinist's mate onboard the Mayport-based destroyer USS McCaffery.

Recollections of the experience were rekindled this month by the movie Thirteen Days, a retelling of the crisis that began in October 1962. The subject inspires a mix of awe and pride among its veterans, even half a lifetime later.

"I think about it just about every year in October. . . . It was a lot more serious than we knew," said Lee Hart, an insurance marketing manager from Mandarin who was a Marine private during the crisis.

Summoned from his home by a messenger one Sunday night, the 20-year-old Hart and his squadron were flown before dawn from Cherry Point, N.C., to a naval air station outside Key West, a 20-minute flight from Cuba. An aircraft electrician trained to handle atomic ordnance, he waited at the base for weeks on 24-hour alert, maintaining planes that left on missions that were never discussed.

Even today, many servicemen and women deployed during the crisis know only pieces of its history, a complicated response that was at once military, diplomatic and political.

At the time, they knew much less.

Arthur Schaffer was a gunner's mate on the McCaffery, a World War II-vintage destroyer just back from a Mediterranean deployment, when the ship was ordered to leave with a quarter of its crew absent on leave.

The crew hadn't been told where they were headed or why, and after preparing to get under way Schaffer remembers being given 15 minutes to write a note to his family.

"I said, 'Dear Mom, do you know where I'm going?' " recalled the 61-year-old, now a retired letter carrier in Lakeland.

His ship and five others left Mayport's basin at the mouth of the St. Johns River six hours before President Kennedy announced the blockade on national television.

A host of Jacksonville units were put into action, from Mayport ships to Navy and Marine aviation squadrons and logistics planners from the Army Corps of Engineers. Another destroyer, the USS Bigelow, limped to sea with just one propeller working and most of its systems broken down for major repairs.

Even shore-based sailors were pressed into duty at a moment's notice.

Mary Frances Neil's husband of two weeks, Harold, vanished without a word from his job as a Mayport storekeeper. It was a month before she talked with him again in a phone call explaining he had been ferried to a ship that was shorthanded.

"It was terrible," said Neil, who now ministers with her husband at a church in Mandarin. "My first husband had been killed on the job, and I thought, "Is the Lord going to take him away, too?' "

For all the anxiety growing ashore, meetings at sea of Soviet and American crews were remarkably civil.

"You could hear them talking as we pulled alongside. They waved to us," said Schaffer, who could only stare at objects under canvas covers that might or might not have been missiles.

Actually answering that question had to wait. Crew members on both the McCaffery and Bigelow reported receiving orders on separate occasions to back off and let the warship USS Joseph P. …