Editor’s note: This past week marked the 58th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dorchak, the historian for Malone American Legion Post 219, was serving on a U.S. submarine during the standoff that brought the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
Since 1959, relations with Cuba had been rather strained –– to say the least. When Fidel Castro came out of the mountains that year, the USS Sailfish SSR572 was tied-up in Havana harbor and I was on the beach, standing in front of the Presidential Palace, trying to act like a tourist when a Shore Patrol jeep pulled up and told us to get in they were taking us back to the boat. When asked why, we were told Castro was on the way down from the mountains and there was about to be some changes made.
Well, Fidel did come down out of the mountains that day, and as a result, the world witnessed Cuba become more and more of a communist state. Our relationship with Cuba began to deteriorate until finally, in 1962, U-2 photographic missions showed Russian missile and nuclear weapon sites being built. Mother Russia now was entrenched on Cuban soil, 95 miles from our McDonald’s and mom’s apple pie, and the Cuban Missile Crisis began.
In April of 1962, one year after the Bay of Pigs debacle and about five months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, my boat, the USS Threadfin SS410 took a six-man SEAL team, led by Lt. Cmdr. Roy Boehm, on their very first clandestine mission into what was now hostile waters. Their mission was to recon the Cuban coast for possible landing sites. However, the team wasn’t in the water very long when it appeared the mission was compromised, as two Cuban Komar-class missile boats seemed to be heading towards them at very high rate of speed. The SEALs took evasive action and dove beneath the patrol boats before they were detected.
Five months later, in October, another recon mission would be made when our boat disembarked two recon teams in two rubber rafts to, once again, do a photo recon of the Cuban coast –– this time using our own crew-members. Their departure was made from the afterdeck of the T-Fin. As one of the team later remarked, “it was a lonely feeling when you are sitting in a rubber raft and the boat makes a dive under you.” The exciting part was when we picked them up. They had a line tied between the two rafts, and the 410 –– still submerged –– went between them towing the two rafts out to deeper water where we picked them up safely.
It is fortunate both missions never found that perfect landing site. It also is fortunate that we had a president who had experienced war and who at the time was reluctant to invade. It eventually became known that rather than 10,000 Russian troops being on the island, there were 43,000 troops with ground to ground nuclear weapons, and they were authorized to use said weapons. Had John F. Kennedy heeded the advice of hawks such as Air Force Gen. Curtis Lamay, nuclear devastation would have been the result.
All that I have stated here can be found in the book “Thirteen Days” written by Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.
Yet another fact related to me by a fellow submarine officer on the USS Sea Cat is that our orders to execute our mission did not come from the U. S. Navy or the CIA. Our orders came directly from President Kennedy, via the district commander, our mission was under presidential orders. This friend, who retired after 22 years as a full captain, informed me he had only run into that high-level situation three times during his career, and each time the orders involved the highest level of national security.
Some readers might be prone to ask “all right, so what’s the big deal, why is all this so important to you now?” Well, let’s put it this way, we who served during the “Cold War” have tolerated comments such as, “You guys didn’t serve in a real war. You didn’t have any bullets or rockets shot at your butts.”
In a way there might be some truth in that statement, but several questions remain. Was it not better that we cold war warriors kept the world out of a nuclear shooting war rather than a bloody war where young men and women lay lifeless on battlefields of countries with names that could hardly be pronounced? Was it not better that a mushroom cloud was never seen in Times Square?
The cold war era was an era of clandestine operations where we were sent places to do things, and then told, “We were never there.” Even today, 58 years later, I cannot find answers to questions I still have. For instance, it was not until approximately two years later we were awarded the “Combat Action Ribbon” by then Secretary of the Navy Frederick Korth, under most secretive circumstances.
Many here in the U.S. feel we should rekindle our relationship with Cuba, and this may bear some consideration, but first Cuba must be held accountable for certain issues that still exist. For instance, it is not common knowledge that Cuba was heavily involved in the Vietnam War. Cuban interrogators worked in the Hanoi prison known as “The Zoo,” where American POWs were being held. Prisoners such as Capt. Earl Cobeil, an F-105F electronics warfare officer whose body was ripped to shreds from bamboo slivers being driven under his skin.
Those wishing better relations with Cuba should know that 17 airmen taken to Havana’s Los Maristas secret prison, and the Mazorra Psychiatric Hospital to serve as human guinea pigs were never seen again. For those wanting a good Cuban cigar, think twice and say a little prayer for those military personnel never repatriated who now lay in unmarked graves on Cuban soil. Anniversaries are usually celebrated –– not this one, this one is a time of terrifying remembrance for those of us who were there in 1962.