April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
When I joined the U.S. Navy in January 1960, I was sent to Newport, Rhode Island, to learn Morse code and semaphore. I then reported to the USS Independence , and when I arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, my company commander sent me to officers’ school to learn about radar air interception of unidentified aircraft. I was the ship’s only enlisted man attending officers’ school for air control.
During this training I was always on the radar’s air picture when jet fighters were launched, but otherwise I was on the surface picture. To avoid collisions, whenever other ships appeared on radar, we would figure out CPA (closest point of approach)—time and distance.
When we left Norfolk Naval Base, we were sent to the Caribbean Sea, southeast of Cuba. This was during the naval blockade of the island in the fall of 1962, when high-altitude photographs showed Soviet missiles there, almost starting a war between the United States and the U.S.S.R. During that time I never left my radar set. I slept on the floor, and they’d bring my food up from the mess hall. This went on for five or six days. The officers would take over the air picture between 0800 and 1600 hours, and that’s when I’d try to sleep. I never showered or shaved; I must have stunk to high heaven.
Also during this time, we would go from a thirty-minute standby to launch an all-out attack on Cuba, then to a fifteen-minute standby, and, on a number of occasions, down to a five-minute standby. One evening an officer told me that the ship was going into complete communications and electronic silence. We were launching a radar aircraft between Cuba and Haiti in the Windward Passage, and it would transfer its radar image to my screen on the ship so I could observe any nearby surface contacts.
Just before midnight I noticed movement along the coast of Haiti, a ship heading west on a course of 285 degrees at seven knots. I called the watch officer, who in turn called the captain and the admiral, who was on board. Other officers showed up. They watched me track the hazy contact on my radar screen and decided to send out escort destroyers to intercept the unidentified vessel before it reached Cuba.
As suddenly as the officers had come, they all disappeared. I was alone again, but now I was tracking our destroyers heading to cut off the mystery ship. The officers returned early the next morning, so I fell asleep for a few hours, until word came in that the destroyers had stopped a Russian freighter with nuclear missiles on board. The destroyers made it turn around and head back toward home.
The news made me feel good, and I went back to sleep with a smile on my face while the officers stood around congratulating one another. When I awoke, I never heard another word about what had happened. But I won’t forget sitting in that quiet dark corner and finding that Russian freighter running along the coast of Haiti trying to make it to Cuba. It’s a small part of history, but I made it.