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Cold War Warriors

The Cuban Missile Crisis - Part 1

Commander John Murphy, USN Retired

Late in October 1962 the U.S. Quarantine forces became concerned about the presence of four or more Soviet Foxtrot class submarines ( diesels ) operating in or near the Quarantine line which was then about 500 miles east of Cuba. What we did not know back then was that these submarines all carried nuclear weapons.

This fact became known in 2002 when it was published in a Russian book "The Cuban Samba of the Foxtrot Quartette". Something that President Kennedy's Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1916-2009 ) believed could have been a game changer. That, at the time of the incident, Kennedy was being pushed to invade Cuba. McNamara believed that the Soviets might have responded to such an invasion by firing their nuclear torpedoes which could have triggered nuclear war. Sound crazy? Read on!

As I recall the incident, a single diesel submarine was being aggressively pursued by U.S. Navy ships and aircraft on October 27, 1962. I remember thinking " We must be driving them crazy. "I would not learn how close I was to the truth for another forty years. At the time, I thought that this minor incident was almost laughable. Little did I know back then - that the encounter came very close to triggering World War III. At a time when we thought the crisis was coming to and end.

We had been tracking four or five Soviet Foxtrot submarines for over a month and knew that they were now in the area of our Quarantine forces east of Cuba. The U.S. Navy had its best, antisubmarine forces near the Quarantine line. Ships and aircraft backed up by long range, surveillance sensor systems such as SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) and BULLSEYE (Radio Direction Finding) which had tracked the subs since they left their bases near Murmansk.

Once a submarine entered the Quarantine area it would be detected and then pursued aggressively. On the October 27th the group of four Soviet Foxtrots was in the Quarantine area and being harassed with practice depth charges while submerged. After 18 hours of this treatment, one of the Foxtrots came to the surface and was challenged by the destroyer - USS Cecil (DD 835).

The USS Cecil shadowing a Soviet Foxtrot Submarine

When asked for its name - the sub responded with ?????? (KORABL). Shortly afterwards, a sailor came running into our Intelligence Unit at CINCLANT Hqs saying " Mr. Murphy, we challenged that Foxtrot that Cecil just surfaced and he gave us his name. Can you translate it for us ? " I told him that the name he had been given meant " SHIP " in Russian. The Foxtrot's commander had shown some character and wit at a stressful time.

Forty years later I heard the Soviet version of the incident for the first time. It was a much grimmer tale to say the least. In the Russian book " The Cuban Samba of the Foxtrot Quartette " ( Military Parade Magazine by Alexander Mozgovoi, 2002 ) the intense pursuit of a group of four Foxtrot submarines enroute Cuba is described in detail. To the Soviets, we literally had the four Foxtrots dancing a Cuban samba. The book takes particular note of a Foxtrot commanded by Captain Valentin Savitskiy. He tells how the Americans spotted it on the surface and how the sub submerged to escape further contact.

American ships then encircled the sub and began dropping "stun grenades". The attacks went on for several hours and Savitskiy's crew was in shock. Oxygen was running low and the heat in the submarine was up to 122 degrees Farenheit. After a particularly large explosion burst near the sub, Captain Savitskiy became enraged and ordered the arming of a nuclear torpedo."

There may be a war going on up there and we are trapped down here doing somersaults! We are going to hit them hard. We may die ourselves. We will sink them, but not stain our Navy's honor." Savitskiy eventually controlled his temper and ordered the Foxtrot to surface where it was met by U.S. Navy ships and a helicopter which bathed them with a searchlight. "We felt like a wolf hunted down "an officer recalled." It was a beautiful, but frightful scene."

Author Mozgovoy notes that use of nuclear weapons would have required the specific authorization of the Soviet Defense Minister, but the aggressive U.S. Navy pursuit of Savitskiy's submarine made it impossible for him to surface for his regular communications sessions with Moscow. Mozgovoy also notes that none of the other three Foxtrot submarine commanders considered using their nuclear weapons, but that "Savitskiy's crew was under terrible pressure at the moment - both psychologically and physically."

We know now that the four Foxtrots were trying to transit past our Quarantine line to reach a new, Soviet submarine base being created for them at Cienfuegos, Cuba. That they left their base area near Murmansk in late September and transited southward through the Atlantic.

I became particularly conscious of them right about the time we deployed the Quarantine Force (Monday, 22 October, 1962) because it seemed we were always seeing reports of a Foxtrot on the surface. At the time we thought this was a single sub that was having problems of some sort. Also, we had a lot more to worry about than one Foxtrot. There were probably about 24 diesel and nuclear submarines operating in the Atlantic and Caribbean during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were more worried about the nuclear submarines because of their speed and ability to remain submerged so long.

They were not as "observable" as the four Foxtrots. Also, late October 1962 was a transitional time in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It looked like things were going well, but the situation remained volatile. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were aware that a seemingly minor incident could still trigger nuclear war. Khrushchev in his exchanges with Kennedy had noted "If war should break out there is no way either of us can control what happens next. This is the logic of war". Also Khrushchev noted "They would" clash like blind moles, and then reciprocal extermination would begin."

By October 27 we had seen that the Soviets were not going to try and "run" the Quarantine line with ships enroute Cuba. Also, Khrushchev had told us that he was backing off and would remove his missiles. Now we just had to stay alert and keep track of the Bloc ships to the east of the Quarantine line and start inspecting any and all ships carrying the Soviet weapons out of Cuba.

In 1992 I told this story to a group of Soviet scientists and Soviet naval officers who had helped design the Foxtrot class submarines at the prestigious, Krylov Shipbuilding Institute in St. Petersburg. They loved it. Especially when I came to the punch line and asked the KGB officer across from me to translate ( for the Americans present ) the response to USS Cecil's challenge. " ?-?-?-?-?-? ". "S-H-I-P"! The room exploded in laughter. A great joke in 1992. Not so funny when we learned about Captain Savitskiy's real mindset in 2002 - 40 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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