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Cold War Warriors

The Cuban Missile Crisis Part 3 - "Execute Scabbards '63 "

Commander John Murphy, USN, Ret.

I was on a Mid Watch at the end of the first week of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Around 2 AM on Saturday, 27 October, 1962. A day that President Kennedy’s staff had labeled "Black Saturday "and wondered if they would even be alive the following week. If the Soviets did not yield then an attack on Cuba appeared imminent. A thought that had occurred to many of us at CINCLANT Headquarters as well. It was just three days after we had set the naval blockade around Cuba and the Soviets appeared to have backed off, but the missile sites were still under construction. IL28 attack bombers were still being assembled in Cuba. The Atlantic Command was now in control of the largest gathering of U.S. military might since the Korean War – and most of it was in and around Florida and Cuba. SAC was at DEFCON 2 and bombers aloft 24/7 – armed with atomic weapons.

Khrushchev and Kennedy had been exchanging diplomatic messages for several days. JFK had expressed the hope to Khrushchev that the world would soon be back to normal. Khrushchev was touched and impressed with Kennedy’s thinking. He and his Presidium also wanted to resolve the crisis, but wanted to be assured that the U.S. would not invade Cuba if he removed the Soviet missiles from Cuba. About this time, Soviet spies had picked up rumors at the National Press Club that an attack of Cuba was imminent. That it would occur very soon. Khrushchev believed that Kennedy was under heavy pressure from his renegade military – to mount an attack immediately.

On Black Saturday morning, I was the Intelligence Interpretive Unit Duty Officer at CINCLANT. It was around 2 AM. A day when the Soviets would shoot down a U-2 reconnaissance flight over western Cuba. We were prepared to execute CINCLANT Operations Plans 312 (Air Strikes upon short notice), 314 (Joint Military Operations against Cuba) and 316 (a short reaction version of 314) - when directed. I was reading through massive amounts of intelligence summaries from the Quarantine forces; NSA; the Naval Intelligence Command, CIA etc. when suddenly I read an unclassified, one page, FLASH precedence message (highest precedence) that was sent out by my own command- CINCLANT to all of our forces.

As I recall it simply said "EXECUTE SCABBARDS 63". I could not believe it. As I recall ... Scabbards 63 was a code name for CINCLANT Operations Plan 312, 314 or 316. I cannot remember which, but I knew it was serious. We had worked very hard all Summer putting these plans together. Such a message was a clear order to attack Cuba - immediately. We had been trained to not only do all that was necessary to execute the order, but also begin preparations for nuclear war with the Soviet Union if an attack of Cuba was imminent. My mind raced forward. We could be in a nuclear war by morning. Or, so it seemed at that very moment. Part of my brain wanted to reach out to my family that was asleep at home about 5 miles away. I knew I had to stay focused on doing my job. To execute a bona fide order.

I had begun to go through a check list of senior officers that had to be alerted. Tell them to come in to CINCLANT for duty immediately. No sooner had I started this when I heard alarms ringing at our outer door. It was the CINCLANT Communications Center Watch Officer demanding that I give him any and all copies of the CINCLANT message ordering the attack of Cuba. Bear in mind, this was in the days before Xerox copying machines. Part of me wanted to make a copy of the CINCLANT message (we did have a poor quality Verifax machine ) to use when reporting on the incident at the end of my watch. But, no… this was not allowed. "Turn in all copies of CINCLANT "Execute Scabbards 63 "message immediately". I did so.

Shortly afterwards I would learn that the signed (released) message had been sent to the Communications Center by accident. We had been received many, senior officers from the Army, Navy Air Force and Marines in the past week. To augment our staff and serve as duty officers. A "Bird Colonel "(full Colonel whose service I will not mention) was on duty in our OpCon Center as the CINCLANT Command Duty Officer. He had a clipboard with a bunch of "pre released" messages attached to a set of message boxes at his right hand. He accidently hit the clipboard and the messages became mixed in with bona fide outgoing messages at his work station. One of them was the "Execute Scabbards 63" message.

When the CINCLANT CWO (Communications Watch Officer) saw the message he contacted the releasing officer by secure Gray phone and asked if really meant to send out the "Scabbards 63 message?" The officer reportedly became upset that this junior officer would challenge his action and ordered him to send it out. The CWO did so, but at the same time sent out a Communications "Z signal" message. Z Signals are pro forma messages used in the military communications world to say a lot in very few words. Basically what his Z signal said was (in effect) – "Treat this message with caution. We are trying to verify its authenticity. Will follow up ASAP."

The young officer sent out both messages and then ran over to the CINCLANT Command Center and showed the CINCLANT Duty Officer the message in question. The Duty Officer was horrified. "Where did you get this? " The CWO explained and the Duty Officer immediately gave him another message cancelling the CINCLANT "Scabbards 63" message. I heard the next morning that the officer was relieved on the spot and transferred back to his parent command the next morning.

In my mind … this was a very scary moment. As close as I, and about 10 other duty officers that night, would come to nuclear war. I am sure that "checks" would have come into play and the execution of CINCLANT War Plans would not have happened "automatically", but this was my scariest moment in the Cuban Missile crisis. The night we nearly went to war with the Soviet Union – by accident.

The irony of this fact is that the previous day Khrushchev was dictating a message to Kennedy where he insisted that a war would be a calamity for all peoples. And that if war should break out - neither he or Kennedy would be able to stop it. They would" clash like blind moles, and then reciprocal extermination will begin."

Years later while serving on the Navy staff in the Pentagon, I compared notes with a pilot who was aboard one of the carriers operating off Florida on Black Saturday. He recalled the same general incident. He recalled receiving an urgent order from CINCLANT to attack Cuba. And that the order was cancelled shortly after it was received. Without explanation. While he was sitting on the flight deck ready for launch.

Note: - John A. Murphy was assigned to Atlantic Command Headquarters in Norfolk, VA. during the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was the only Naval Intelligence Interpretive Unit duty officer on watch the night described in this incident.

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