GROUND ZERO Those Close to Cuban Missile Crisis Recall How Disaster Narrowly Averted
Patterson, Steve, The Florida Times Union
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. Kennedy Jr. -- named for the president's late brother -- make the boardings.
News of what the ships were doing was sparse at best. Mayport officials initially claimed their vanished vessels were doing routine gunnery calibrations, but no one could contact them. Nearly all military movements were treated as secret.
By then, secrecy was getting old-hand.
Edmond Feeks had known for a while that members of his own squadron at Cecil Field were performing some hush-hush missions.
But he didn't know details until the crisis was full-blown, until diplomats at the United Nations were waving pictures of missile installations taken by his own squadron during flights that almost skimmed Cuba's treetops.
Eventually all the pilots in Light Photographic Squadron 62 would repeat the same route: Key West to Cuba in radio silence, just above the ocean in a one-man Crusader; inland then, following natural landmarks to one of eight or 10 reconnaissance targets; climbing to 1,000 feet to get overall pictures; then out to international waters fast to meet armed escorts and race for photo labs in Jacksonville.
"At least one of our planes was chased by a MiG," Feeks said. "He just outran it. He had to. He couldn't shoot, he didn't have any weapons."
Flying across Cuba took five or six minutes. Not much time, but long enough for W. Newby Kelt to marvel as he zipped past one after another Cuban anti-aircraft post whose soldiers were playing baseball. They would scramble to reach their guns, but by then Kelt and his wing man -- planes flew in pairs in case one camera didn't work -- were gone.
"You would look down and see that they were all playing baseball. . . . It was an amazing thing to see these people dropping their baseball gloves and running," said Kelt, who later became a top City Hall manager.
By the end of the year, Kennedy would personally award the squadron a unit citation, and pilots would receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.
But in October there was no time for celebrating.
American forces were racing into position, both in Florida and America's toehold in Cuba, the decades-old Navy base at Guantanamo Bay.
"They packed that base in no time," said Jay Smith, a retired stucco contractor in Putnam County who in 1962 was a firefighter at Guantanamo. "For three or four days, as soon as one [plane] landed or took off, another took its place."
Everywhere, people were on alert for war, expected to be ready day or night. Awake or asleep.
For five nights, Donald Robbins slept on the wing of a Crusader in the hangar of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.
"I wasn't allowed to go to bed," said Robbins, a retired Southside computer operator who in 1962 was an aviation ordnance man waiting to prepare the plane's bombs on a moment's notice.
Standing by was the order of the day. Charles Jackson stood by on a tarmac at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, where units of the 82nd Airborne Division mustered to board planes for an invasion. "As far as I could see, I could see the whole division," said Jackson, a St. Johns County resident.
Sergeants had been issued maps of Cuba, and grenades and flame throwers were distributed. Soldiers expecting to parachute into Fidel Castro's country sat on their parachutes for 12 hours, waiting for final orders.
Then they were ordered back to their barracks, and knew the crisis was passing. Faced with American resolve, Russian ships were turning back.
It was the news everyone, everywhere had been waiting to hear.
In South Florida, Richard Ridenour and other members of the 1st Armored Division waited to get that news from a black-and-white television at Gulfstream Park, a horse track where troops slept in cots under the bleachers.
"We could sit in the stands and watch the horses, but I think everyone was concerned with what was going on [in Cuba]," said Ridenour, a former corporal who works for a Jacksonville engineering company. "We had one sergeant who bit all his fingernails off, and his fingers were bleeding."
Even when the Soviets relented and began a weeks-long withdrawal of equipment from Cuba, sailors and pilots only relaxed by inches.
Some warships stayed on post until around Thanksgiving, ensuring the pullout was complete -- service that Robbins faults the new movie for overlooking.
Only later did many people comprehend how close they had come to disaster.
"When you're young, you don't think you can die anyway," said Smith, 58. "Now, when I think about it, I realize how close we came. And it was real close."
Times-Union staff writer Lindsay Tozer contributed to this report.
MORE ON INTERNET
For more about the Cuban Missile Crisis, including a Roger Bull column, please visit Jacksonville.com, Keyword: 13 Days
Photo: met_cubanCrisisKelt 01158423
As a Navy pilot, W. Newby Kelt took photos during secret reconnaissance missions over Cuba.
Photo: met_cubaRobbins 011801158425
Donald Robbins was an aviation ordnance man on the USS Enterprise during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For five nights he slept on the wing of a Crusader, ready to prepare the plane's bombs at a moment's notice.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: GROUND ZERO Those Close to Cuban Missile Crisis Recall How Disaster Narrowly Averted. Contributors: Patterson, Steve - Author. Newspaper title: The Florida Times Union. Publication date: January 21, 2001. Page number: Not available. © 2007 The Florida Times-Union. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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