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Remembering when U.S. came close to nuclear war

Agreement reached late on Oct. 26, 1962

POSTED: October 20, 2012 11:59 p.m.

Ursula Stewman grew up in Nazi Germany, so she knew the meaning of war.

But nothing had quite prepared her for what would happen during her first trip across the Atlantic Ocean on a troop transport ship. She was with her G.I. husband and two young children.

“When we were within three days of landing in New York we were suddenly surrounded by jet fighters,” said Stewman, now living in Gillsville, in an email describing the event.

“The people on board rushed up on deck to use their transistor radios to try and find out what was happening, and word soon spread that the Russians had placed missiles in Cuba and the U.S. was on the brink of war.”

In an interview later, Ursula said simply: “I was scared to death.”

Fifty years ago this month, fear swept the globe as a nuclear near-miss played out between the U.S. and Soviet Union, Cold War superpowers and rivals.

The crisis erupted after an American U-2 spy plane had secretly photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviets on the island nation of Cuba.

President John F. Kennedy learned about the missile sites Oct. 16, and the government began internally fretting over how to deal with the situation.

The next day, American military units began “moving to bases in the Southeastern U.S. as intelligence photos from another U-2 flight show(ed) additional sites,” according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Gainesville’s Jan Waters of those dark times.

Just 5 years old at the time, she said she remembered her father, James Harper Sr., a captain in the Gainesville Police Department and a sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, arriving home from work and going straight into a private meeting with her mother.

After they talked, “he came out of the room, took a shower and changed into his Air Force uniform,” Waters said.

Her mother talked to her and her two siblings, saying their father was leaving for Dobbins Air Force Base — now Air Reserve Base — and “might be gone for a while.”

Waiting to launch
Parker Henderson, a Jacksonville, Fla., native, was a Navy pilot assigned to Attack Squadron 64 during those days and was aboard the USS Independence, the first aircraft carrier to arrive in Cuban waters, when the conflict started.

“I woke up in the middle of the night and the ship was shaking all over,” he said. “I went up and looked over the side (of the ship) and we were really making some knots.”

The next morning, the ship’s captain announced to the crew that the ship was about 200 miles south of Cuba.

“From then on, they canceled flying and loaded the airplanes with ordnance, bombs, rockets, napalm and assigned all of us targets on the eastern half of the island,” said Henderson, now 75 and living in North Hall. “We were in full flight gear, ready to launch at a moment’s notice.”

Henderson’s target was a surface-to-air missile site.

One other sure-fire memory from those days: His 25th birthday fell on Oct. 23 and “I had not been in my bunk to sleep for about a week and a half — just sitting around taking cat naps in the ready room in full flight gear. I said to myself, ‘This is my birthday. I’m going to go, by God, take a nap.’”

Just as he dozed off, a ship announcement ordering pilots to man their airplanes was sounded.

He slipped out of his bunk and headed for his aircraft.

“I just sat there. It was dead quiet,” Henderson said. “We were just waiting for a signal to launch. We sat there for about 30 minutes and then they canceled the alert. To this day, I never did really know what happened on the 23rd.”

Fifty years ago today, Kennedy met with Tactical Air Command Gen. Walter Sweeney, who told Kennedy “that an air strike could not guarantee 100 percent destruction of the missiles,” according to the JFK website.

The crisis picked up pace Oct. 22 as Kennedy established a National Security Council executive committee and instructed it to meet daily. He also notified former presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Kennedy also wrote a letter to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, saying, “I hope that your government will refrain from any action which would widen or deepen this already grave crisis and that we can agree to resume the path of peaceful negotiation.”

He then went on national TV, revealing in a now-famous speech evidence of the missiles in Cuba and calling for their removal.

Kennedy also announced a naval blockade around the island until the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle the missile sites and ensure that no additional missiles were shipped to Cuba.

Confrontation at sea
John Treat of Gainesville was a 3rd class radarman aboard the Navy destroyer USS Vesole, deployed to intercept Soviet freighters leaving Cuba with nuclear missiles aboard being returned to Russia.

“They would not cooperate with our demands to be boarded, and the situation almost escalated to the point of them being fired on,” Treat recalled. “We steamed alongside one freighter at a distance of about 100 feet for 24 hours with them totally ignoring our demands to stop and be boarded, and in the dark of night, they constantly kept changing course trying to cause a collision.”

The next morning, “we trained one of our forward gun mounts toward their bow in preparation to fire a shot ... that, if ignored, would result in them being fired on and sunk. Thankfully, the admiral in charge of our task force gave the order not to fire, as that would have had a bad outcome.”

Jimmy Wilkins Jr. of Gainesville was stationed at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif. He was part of the Air Police Squadron, which was in charge of protecting the KC-135 Stratotanker, a refueling aircraft, and B-52 bombers.

During the missile crisis, “our Air Force Base went on 24-hour alert for 30 days,” Wilkins said. “We worked 12 hours on and 12 hours off. (It was) very much a test for all involved.”

Stewman said that during the crisis she was afraid, with her husband in the military, “that I might be left alone in a strange country.”

“I was so afraid that I told my husband that when we landed (in America) ‘me and the kids are going to stay on board and head right back to Germany.’”

Homefront on alert
The crisis also affected the American public at large.

“The enduring image in my mind is the sight of long lines of flatbed train cars rolling through town, headed south and loaded with tanks and other military vehicles and materiel, for use in a possible invasion of Cuba,” said Gainesville lawyer Wyc Orr, who was a high school junior in Tifton at the time.

“And the enduring sound is that of those rumbling, rolling trains, a sound which lingers even today,” he said, “and with it, the sense of danger and risk that was in the air, including the airwaves as President Kennedy made his famous television broadcast informing Americans of the stakes and necessity of bold action.”

Kirk Turner of Dawsonville was 6 years old at the time and living in Atlanta.

“I actually remember the ‘duck and cover’ film and exercises (in school),” he said. “Along with the exercises, one weekend all the students were timed on how much time it took for them to walk home. We walked from school to our house with our parents and reported the time to the principal.

“The plan was that if a student lived within 20 minutes of home, they would be allowed to walk home in case of a missile launch to be with their parents if a parent was home. If the student lived more than 20 minutes walking time from home or if both parents worked, they would stay at school.”

Diplomacy, mixed with military maneuvers on both sides, dominated the days following Kennedy’s national announcement.

“You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us,” Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy at one point.

According to the JFK website (www.jfklibrary.org), Cuban dictator Fidel Castro implored the Russians to launch a nuclear first strike in case of a U.S. invasion of Cuba.

“I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba ... then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense,” he wrote to Khrushchev.

On Oct. 26, Khrushchev later offered to remove the missiles in exchange for the U.S. lifting the blockade and vowing not to invade Cuba. The Soviets, however, stiffened their resolve; the next day, they demanded the U.S. removal of “obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey,” the JFK site says.

Nuclear crisis averted
The two sides reached an agreement late that night and, on Oct. 27, announced to their respective nations that the crisis was over. The missiles were leaving Cuba.

“Thanks to the leadership, guts, and negotiating skills of President Kennedy, and the expertise of our military, (the U.S.) averted what could have evolved into World War III,” Treat said.

Orr said he believes that when the crisis had been resolved, most Americans probably had no idea how close to nuclear war the U.S. had come.

“But we know now,” he said. “And we should learn from that crisis how presidents must resort to war only as a last resort, after all other options have been exhausted.”

Stewman, whose husband died five years ago, said, “Luckily, by the time we reached New York harbor, the crisis had died down enough that my husband was able to remain with us and introduce his family to our new country.

“We (later told) everyone that we came to America in style, with our own jet escort.”

Jennifer Smith, an associate history professor at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, said that panic truly set in for many Americans at the time.

“There were stories of people really thinking this would be the end, taking all of their money out of the bank and deciding they were going to go off with a big bang,” Smith said. “And people wanted to be with loved ones when the event occurred.”

For many in today’s generation, raised in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the missile crisis doesn’t hold as much relevance, she said.

“The fear of nuclear weapons is not something they think about very much,” Smith said of her students. “1962 was not that far removed from 1945, so (nuclear war) seemed like a real possibility at the time and there had been talk of using them in the (Korean War).

“We tend to think that our leaders will be smarter than that.”


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