Noilly Prattle: Looking Back: 18 – on the brink of nuclear holocaust

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Looking Back: 18 – on the brink of nuclear holocaust

     My time of active military service was due to end on my 21st birthday, December 26, 1962. I was on what was then called a “kiddie cruise”. The deal was if you enlisted in the US Navy (instead of being drafted into the Army) right out of high school, your obligated military service (normally six years) would be cut by however many months you had left in your 17th year. In my case I was able to lop about six months off since I enlisted in July and my birthday is in December. Instead of a full six years, my obligated military service (including inactive reserve status) was about 5½ years.

     Therefore, as we steamed back to Jacksonville in mid October, I was a “short timer” counting the days until I would be free to get back into civilian life. Shortly after docking in Mayport, however, the shit known as the Cuban Missile Crisis hit a rapidly whirring fan and the bad news hit me right between the eyes—an indefinite extension due to the rising hostilities between the US and the USSR over Soviet nuclear capable missiles being installed in Cuba. In historical retrospect this was a time of mounting paranoia and hysteria firmly anchored in Cold War mentality and foreign policy. At the time, however we thought we were staring into the face of Armageddon. The 13-day affair was an exercise in testosterone testing and posturing and eyeball-to-eyeball arm wrestling that had the distinct possibility of a disastrous nuclear exchange.

President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense
McNamara during the crisis
Jupiter IRBM
      The roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis go back to the 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia and the unbending opposition to any kind of socialistic philosophy or domestic policy on the part of the US government—our then bogeyman -ism, Communism. As a result of the defeat of Germany in the Second World War, Soviet Union emerged as a serious rival to the allied powers when Germany was divided into four administrative regions under the supervision of Great Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. The US, seeking to contain Soviet expansion had placed Jupiter IRBM (intermediate-range ballistic missile) batteries in Turkey and Italy. The threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) through a nuclear exchange kept the inhabitants of the planet sitting on the edge of their seats during the Cold War. 

U2 spy plane photo of Soviet missile installation in Cuba
      Events came to a head in 1962 that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear conflict. After the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961, the Soviet Union decided to protect its client state under Fidel Castro from further similar incursions on Cuba by establishing a base capable of handling a nuclear deterrent aimed at the US similar to the US missile bases in Turkey and Italy. Learning of this base, the US dispatched a U-2 spy plane on October 14 and obtained hard pictorial evidence of its existence. This was the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis that ended on October 28 when the Soviets publicly agreed to dismantle their offensive weapons in return for a US pledge not to invade Cuba in the future. Secretly and privately, to save face, President Kennedy offered Nikita Khrushchev a quid pro quo by agreeing to dismantle the US missile bases in Turkey and Italy. Cooler heads and sanity prevailed that, according to some interpretations, would cost President Kennedy his life a year later.

A US Navy plane flying over a Soviet cargo ship
during the "quarantine" of Cuba
      Part of the crisis involved setting up a blockade (but called a “quarantine” since a blockade is considered an act of war) around Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from bringing in missiles and related hardware to Cuba. The Kaskaskia, an aging deep-draft, slow and clumsy oil tanker not designed for military confrontations was stationed on the quarantine. I remember what now seems an amusing fiasco in which the Kassy tried to catch up with and challenge a Soviet cargo ship, but was so slow and unwieldy as to be unable to even catch up with it, let alone challenge it. Fortunately, there were faster and more agile warships in the vicinity that were able to catch it and challenge it.

      The crisis, famously ending in 13 days, my indefinite extension was abrogated and I was released from active duty and returned to civilian life on December 17, 1962, and turned 21 a few days later on the 26th. I was free, no longer anyone to take orders from or tell me what to do and when to do it. Along with that freedom, however, came a new awareness, I was suddenly and for the first time, responsible for my own life—no more authority figures to do my thinking and make my decisions for me. Scary and sobering, but also full of exciting possibilities.

(Photos courtesy of Wikipedia)

To be continued... 

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