Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Cold War Warriors

World War III will be at 8 AM in the Morning!

Commander John Murphy, USN Retired

I was the Operations Officer at a Black Sea warning site at the northern end of the Bosphorus strait in the late 1950s. We were about one mile from the Black Sea. About 100 miles from the Soviet Union and 50 miles from Bulgaria to our west. In the 50's, before satellites….

John Murphy celebrating his 50th Birthday and 25th Wedding Anniversary in 1983
 - about 15 miles north of Murmansk/Severomorsk in the Barents Sea.

We were an outpost of U.S. military power. Part of a worldwide network of "listening posts" and radar sites with names such as Kami Seya, Bremerhaven, Elmendorf and Todendorf. We had teammates in Germany, Italy, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan Japan, Korea and Alaska and all were wired together by modern communications systems and reporting methods.

By 1958 the National Security Agency had created a special CRITIC (Critical Intelligence) reporting system that was designed to place a message on the desk of the President of the United States within 10 minutes of an event. Quite a challenge in the days before satellite communications and high speed data systems. Still we practiced hard at meeting CRITIC reporting standards and by 1959 were pretty confident we could do what was expected. This tale is about one of the first bona fide CRITIC messages ever to rattle the national leadership and its intelligence community. I believe this incident occurred in the summer of 1960.

By the summer of 1959 when I arrived in Istanbul, the "pucker factor" between the U.S. and the USSR had reached a pretty high level. Each was trying to show the other that it had just come up with some new super weapon that put them ahead in the Cold War arms race.

The Soviets had quelled anti communist revolts in East Germany [1953) and had formed an alliance known as the Warsaw Pact (1955). The U.S. had launched it's first nuclear submarine [USS Nautilus in 1955]. Soviet tanks crushed a revolt in Hungary [1956] and followed this in 1957 with an impressive set of "firsts" - the first ICBM, the first earth satellite [Sputnik 1] , an animal in earth orbit [the dog Laika aboard Sputnik 2] and the world's first, nuclear icebreaker - the Lenin.

Would a Soviet "Nautilus" soon be announced? The U.S. czar of nuclear submarines Admiral Hyman Rickover did not think so. He did not believe that an inferior system such as the Soviets' was capable of achieving what his American program had done with Nautilus. He was wrong - the Soviets launched their first nuclear submarine in 1958 - the Leningradskiy Komsomolets .

Meanwhile, Soviet forces were training and testing their new Cold War "toys". At the four U.S. Black Sea warning sites at Istanbul, Sinop, Trabzon and Samsun - we were daily observing Soviet jet aircraft bombing exercises, new submarine and surface ship developments. You were ever conscious of the fact that there were major Soviet jet air bases, ICBM test facilities, and the power of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet just over the horizon from our little site in Istanbul. Every time I heard a jet roar south over the Black Sea towards us I would wonder "Was that it? The beginning of World War III? Did we miss it?"

It's interesting how paranoid you can be when you are a mere 15 minutes by air from the Soviet Union. You really didn't want to get caught by surprise.

And yet, very early on a Sunday morning I had the surprise of my young life. It came in the form of a phone call from my Commanding Officer. All he said was "Can't go into details, but get ready. A car is coming by to take you to the station immediately. Tell your wife to get packed. A bus will be by for her and your daughter Katie shortly. Tell them to pack for at least a three day trip. In Asia." It was around 4 or 5 AM as I recall.

The car arrived within minutes and we were speeding up the western shore of the Bosphorus to our normal Turkish ferry boat landing at Sariyer. No ferries were running at that time of the morning and we commandeered a fishing boat to take us across the Bosphorus … about 2 miles to the Turkish Navy base at Anadolu Kavak. Here, a U.S. Navy jeep from the site was waiting to take us one mile up to our site which was hidden behind an 11th century Genoese, Crusader castle in a highly restricted, controlled military zone. Any civilian wandering into this area would be met by Turkish soldiers - at gunpoint.

When I entered our four room, Operations Building around 6 AM, the Supervisor of the Watch met me and handed me a Top Secret CRITIC message from the National Security Agency. All it said was that they had just received a CRITIC from a warning site in Europe. The site was reporting an intercept of communications from an unknown Warsaw Pact unit saying that 'World War III will be at 8 AM this morning."

That was it. Follow-up CRITICs would be issued -if and when additional information was available.

The message was clear. "Prepare for the worst" and that was what the worldwide U.S. strategic warning system was doing.

Our three ELINT and two COMINT positions were intensely listening for any indications of suspicious activity. Particularly any absence of normal activity which was a good indicator of possible military operations. We did not detect anything. The air defense sites from Bulgaria to the Crimean and over to the east towards the Caspian appeared to be in their normal Monday morning routine. We reported this to NSA and then waited for any updates from them. 8 AM came and went and we heard nothing.

About 9 AM in Istanbul (5 PM in Washington D.C.] NSA sent a follow- p CRITIC saying they believed the initial "intercepts from a Warsaw Pact site were 'suspect'. Stay tuned -details to follow."

About an hour later we received a CRITIC follow-up from NSA saying we could go back to normal operations. That they had analyzed the intercepts that led to the initial CRITIC and found them to be baseless.

The final CRITIC wrap up messages from NSA went on to explain that the intercepts were from a Warsaw Pact Air Defense site in Yugoslavia and had been misinterpreted. "World War III was not going to happen at 8 AM this day."

Years later I was chatting with an analyst who had been present at the NSA Watch Office this day and he told me what really happened. It seems that two Yugoslav soldiers were chatting via radio telephone late in the evening. Both were drunk. One muttered that he had been drinking too much. The other responded something to the effect "So had he. That he was going to be in big trouble with his wife when he got home in the morning. World War III will be at 8 AM tomorrow!"

The rest is history. The new NSA CRITIC system had a good test. I continued on with a normal day's of work at the Black Sea entrance. Watching, photographing and reporting on any Soviet ships transiting the Bosphorus or keeping an eye on the Soviet military in the Black Sea.

Editor's Note: Captain John Murphy now calls Gettysburg home port and will be a regular contributor to our Cold War Warrior series.

Have your own Cold War Warriors' story?
If so, send them to us at

Read other articles by Commander John Murphy

Read other Cold War Warrior Articles