Cuban Missile Crisis
By Gary Jenneke, Navy
Writing Type: Prose
Oct.16, 1962. My 19th birthday. Not the most momentous event occurring that day, however, because it was also the first day of what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I was assigned to the Holiday Beach Communication Station on Kodiak Island, Alaska. I had already been in the Navy over a year, having enlisted at age 17. I was a radioman, one of about two dozen at the site. We were a remote outpost miles from the main base. Our barracks was on a cliff, the endless expanse of the northern Pacific stretching before and a range of snow-capped mountains sandwiching us in from behind. The radio station, we called it RC, was a mile away, part way up a mountain. RC was a windowless, gray one story concrete block building with antennas on top.
Kodiak has long been a fishing and hunting destination, but we neither had the money nor the means to go where those activities took place. When I first arrived I was welcomed with “You’re gonna love it here, there’s a girl behind every tree.” I looked around; there were no trees. We were in the middle of nowhere with little in the way of diversion. No people, no gathering place, no TV, no entertainment center, and if we did have liberty, no place to go. We did have a pool table, but all the cues had the tips broken off. There was a shuffleboard but that quickly became boring. We did have a ping pong table, and I was quite proficient at that sport by the time I left Holiday Beach. We also had a film projector and showed movies we picked up from the main base. It was our most precious form of entertainment. I estimate I saw close to 400 movies in my 13 months at Holiday Beach.
We were up there to work, and fortunately the work was interesting. We were a receiving station, copying messages from ships at sea and relaying them on up the command chain. This was back in the days when Morse code, CW to us, was still a viable method of communication. The vast majority of the messages we received were of the routine variety. The next level up was a bit more exciting and required some operational action, usually because of severe weather. Then there were two categories above that, two conditions I never expected or wanted to hear. The first was "emergency" and meant war was imminent. The top category indicated war had begun.
On my 19th birthday, information was passed to President Kennedy that the Soviet Union had begun a buildup of missile bases on Cuba. After monitoring the situation with U-2 spy planes, JKF announced the crisis to the nation in a speech on Oct. 22. In the meantime our lives got very busy. Holiday Beach became the military’s designated command post on the island, and RC was filled with high ranking officers. Maybe because we were located out in the boondocks, they thought we were less vulnerable. A platoon of Marines was assigned to guard the cliffs. I’m not sure why, maybe in case a Russian submarine tried to land some forces. Some of our guys were issued helmets and M-1s and stood guard duty alongside the Marines. I escaped that pleasure.
We were up at RC working a lot, and on our off time we tried to grasp the enormity of what was happening. The world was being threatened with war, a nuclear war. It occurred to us, given our remote location, we were safer than most. Nobody was going to waste a hydrogen bomb on us. For the first time in history, we in the military, off to defend our nation, were safer than our loved ones back home. I tried not to think about that. One of our complement of sailors was--how should I gently put it--not wired in the usual fashion. I’ll call him Harding, not his real name. Harding thought the crisis was fun, something he had been waiting for his whole life. He also assumed we would survive. None of us were yet aware of the long term effects of radiation or nuclear winter. We had a whale boat, and Harding began drawing up plans for how we would use it to get to the mainland and then fulfill our obligation to start a new society. Some women would have survived, he reasoned with delight, and it would be our duty to repopulate the world.
Somehow he ignored the logic that if some women survived the blasts, then the men in that area would too. When I was a kid some people in my small hometown began building bomb shelters in case of a nuclear strike. I asked my father if we were going to build one. He laughed and said, “Look who is building them. If they are the only people left, I don’t want to be around.” If I didn’t get his drift then; I certainly did up in Kodiak.
I had been at Holiday Beach for two and a half months when the crisis began. In that time I had never copied a message more urgent than "operational." After Oct. 16 most of the messages I copied were coded "emergency." All were encrypted, so I wasn’t privy to any secret information and had no idea of how close to war we were. What I did focus on, however, was the priority of the message which would be near the beginning of each transmission. It would be with relief when I copied the second worst of the possible scenarios and not the first, which would have meant the world would soon be turned into a huge baked potato.
The moment of truth was what would happen when Russian ships encountered a U.S. Navy blockade around Cuba. There were Russian submarines in the region, and if any hostilities erupted, if any American ships were sunk, well...again, baked potato time. Fortunately, the more rational sides of Kennedy and Khrushchev prevailed, and they negotiated a way out of the crisis.
Maybe there were a few people around the world disappointed with the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Gen. Curtis LeMay comes to mind, but Harding was the only one I personally knew. He saw it as an adventure missed, an opportunity lost. Myself, while it was happening, I have to admit I felt more excitement than fear. Maybe because I never really thought, deep down, that it would happen. Even though I was part of it, it still felt abstract, still a step removed, part of the moment but still a step removed. And as soon as the moment was over, as soon as the danger passed, with the brass quickly packing up and disappearing, it was like “did that just really happen?” Despite my participation in it, my recollection of the crisis is still more of a surreal memory than anything else.
Our world had been close to an end. I think we should be reminded of that periodically in the hopes we won’t go there again. If we do, let’s pray those in charge are as intelligent and steady as JFK and Nikita had been.