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Cold War Warriors

The Cuban Missile Crisis - Part 2

Commander John Murphy, USN Retired

I stood on the quarterdeck of the USS Canberra (CA-70) in the early evening of 22 October, 1962 as President John F. Kennedy was informing the nation of a major crisis that was in progress in Cuba. That the Soviet Union had introduced Medium Range Ballistic Missiles) into Cuba that were a threat to the United States. That missile and bomber bases had been set up in Cuba. He called for Khrushchev to withdraw these missiles and their use against any Western Hemisphere nation would lead to an attack against the USSR.

USS Canberra was to serve as the flagship for the Blockade Force commander. All day ships had been streaming out of naval bases up and down the U.S. East coast. An unprecedented show of military resolve. .An intentionally showy act. We wanted Premier Nikita Khrushchev and his underlings in Moscow, to see us preparing for a major confrontation. Preparing for a war that THEY were creating. We knew that Soviet spies ("port watchers") in such naval bases a New London, New York, Norfolk, Charleston, and Mayport, Florida were seeing and reporting on our every move.

I reported to the Atlantic Command Headquarters (CINCLANT, CINCLANTFLT) in March 1962. To me, the headquarters was like a country club compared to the life I had just left at a Black Sea strategic warning site a short 100 miles from the Soviet Union. We knew about the Bay of Pigs fiasco that had occurred in Cuba the previous year, but this seemed like minor league stuff when compared to what was at stake over in Europe and Asia in the Cold War. The real Cold War was there. Cuba? A nuisance, but not a major challenge to the U.S.

Or so it seemed in March 1962 when I joined the CINCLANT Intelligence Interpretive Unit. A small group of eight officers who were watching every move the Soviets made in our geographic area of concern (i.e. Atlantic, Caribbean, Central and South America … including Cuba). Piece of cake! A chance to relax a bit … play some golf and tennis… take the family to the beach at Little Creek and Virginia Beach. Then, just when life was looking pretty good - compared to Istanbul - things started going downhill.

We started seeing subtle indicators that the Soviets were up to something. By July and August, Cuba no longer looked like a small, banana republic, but rather a nearby component of the Cold War. While Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was playing a power game that made some of his closest advisers nervous, in Norfolk we were preparing for any and all contingencies - from the invasion of Cuba to nuclear war - World War III.

By mid summer we were spending quite a bit of time on operations plans related to Cuba - OP Plan 312 (air strike against specific Cuban targets), and OP Plans 314 and 316 (airborne and amphibious assault of Cuba) . The planning activity became more intense as we moved from Summer into the Fall of 1962.

I remember that our initial planning was for massive, coordinated Air Force and Navy air strikes over Cuba simultaneously. Then, sometime in September, we were told to start developing plans for a naval blockade. We were not prepared for this, but were told to get prepared and to do it fast because it was beginning to look like this might be the approach preferred by President Kennedy and his staff.

By August, we had all-source intelligence that the Soviets were shipping Soviet MRBMs (Medium Range Ballistic Missiles) into Cuba aboard Soviet and Bloc cargo ships and tankers.

By September our new Project BULLSEYE HFDF system (radio direction finding) was in full operations and doing a great job of reporting on the increased flow of Soviet and Warsaw pact ships heading towards Cuba - loaded with military supplies. The Soviets upped the " pucker factor " for us when, on 11 September, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko said, in a speech at the United Nations that an American attack on Cuba would lead to a war with the Soviet Union. Thanks Andrey. So Another Bay of Pigs = WW III. Got it! At least it was a statement that was on the mind of every person on watch in Norfolk throughout the October Missile Crisis.

Then came October 1962 - a month I will never forget. On 3 October we were directed to increase surveillance of Cuba and get ready to set up a Naval Blockade - if and when ordered by the President. All was to be done with the greatest of secrecy. No "leaks" that would alert the Soviets that we were onto their dangerous game. The scene was about set. Then on 14 October a U2 reconnaissance aircraft discovered MRBM missile sites in western Cuba.

The next week was one of intense preparations to set up a Naval Blockade or Quarantine as it was being called at the time. One of my primary jobs during this period was to set up a special intelligence communications and operations room up in the bridge area of the USS Canberra - a major command ship for the Blockade.

The evening of Monday, 22 October, President Kennedy was telling the nation of the major crisis that was facing the nation - the Norfolk Naval Base looked like a wasteland. One ship was left at the major piers at NOB (Naval Operating Base, Norfolk). It was USS Canberra . I was delivering some final classified material as she was about to sail out the Hampton Roads into the Atlantic to assume command of the Naval Blockade. DEFCON 3 was set throughout the Atlantic Command. An increased state of Readiness from normal peacetime operations (DEFCON 4.) We viewed this massive deployment of all Atlantic Fleet ships as a clear signal to the Soviets that we were getting very serious about the crisis they had created in Cuba.

The next day (23 October, 1962) we nervously watched from the Atlantic Command Center as our Blockade forces took their positions along a large arc about 800 miles from Cuba. We were particularly interested in the dozen of more Soviet Northern Fleet diesel and nuclear submarines that were in or near Cuba. Our Intelligence Interpretive Unit was in a large 40 by 40 foot room with high ceilings. We had gigantic, sliding map boards that were used to display all available information on the movement of Soviet forces - worldwide. Late that evening the Secretary of Defense announced that our "Quarantine" forces (i.e. Blockade) were in place and the quarantine would go into effect at 2 PM Greenwich Mean Time the following day - Wednesday, 24 October. This would be 9 AM in the Quarantine area and in Norfolk.

On Wednesday, 24 October - The Strategic Air Command goes to DEFCON 2 - Maximum Readiness. The only time it was declared during the Cold War. A clear signal to Khrushchev and the USSR that we really meant business. None who served at sea or at major U.S. commands worldwide will ever forget that morning as the clock ticked down to 10 AM - and the Soviet ships and submarines continued to proceed towards the Blockade line. And …… I will never forget what happened next. Around 10 or 11 AM our BULLSEYE HFDF (radio direction finding) net began noticing a large surge in communications by Soviet and Bloc ships that were approaching the line. When the location of these ships was plotted on our large, map boards over a one to two hour period (10 - 11 AM local) -they showed that the ships we could see … all seemed to be making a large, right turn AWAY from the Blockade line. I have never seen this reported in any contemporary histories of the crisis, BUT … that is the way it looked to those of us who were on duty in the CINCLANT Command Center's Intelligence Interpretive Unit. It was as if the Soviets were using our very own surveillance system to tell us " Stay cool. I am backing off. " This - when coupled with a surge in reporting from air and seaborne units in the Blockade area - seemed to confirm that the Soviets were not about to challenge our Naval Blockade.

A clear sense of elation filled the Command Center. "They blinked!" The crisis was far from over, but at least - on this day - sanity seemed to have prevailed in the Kremlin. Something we were not used to seeing from Nikita Khrushchev and his war machine. In Washington President Kennedy gave orders that there should be no public commentary about the initial course changes we had noticed by Soviet ships.

Many years later I had the opportunity to talk to a former Soviet cargo ship Captain who was in command of one of those ships that was approaching our Blockade line on 24 October. He said that the previous night (Tuesday, 23 October) he received an encoded message from his Black Sea Headquarters. The first time he had to open up a special safe and break out a special code pad to "break " his urgent message from his superiors. The message instructed him to not cross the Blockade Line the following morning. That he was to proceed up to it and then make a large turn to the right and return home. He was to do this at about 1800 Moscow Time (1400 GMT).

John Murphy is a retired Naval Security Group Officer who was assigned to Atlantic Command Headquarter's Intelligence Interpretive Unit during the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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