Living history: The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as experienced by a U.S. Navy officer on a destroyer

October 2022 marked the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a perilous showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which the two superpowers narrowly averted a catastrophic nuclear war. On this Veterans Day in America, I thought I’d share the story of a late friend (and his fellow crew members) aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Waller, which served with distinction during that critical episode in our history.

The conflict began when reconnaissance photos taken by a U.S. surveillance plane flying over Cuba revealed the stunning presence of nuclear silos, a clear sign of a potential Soviet nuclear capability within easy striking distance of America.  During a 13-day period, the U.S. and Russia engaged in a taut diplomatic and military chess match that brought us closer to nuclear holocaust than at any other time in human history. Eventually the give and take of diplomacy prevailed, but not before saber rattling between the White House and the Kremlin and U.S. and Soviet naval forces risked a nuclear exchange.

During the Crisis, my friend Brian McCrane (Annapolis ’53) was an officer aboard the Waller, which was assigned to the U.S. Navy task force that created a quarantine zone around Cuba to prevent Russian vessels from reaching the small island. After Brian passed in 2018, his oldest daughter Denise (and one of my dearest friends) gave me several albums she had assembled for him, containing records and mementoes of his service in the Navy. One of these albums is devoted to Brian’s service on the Waller, covering the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reading through it recently, I understood that this was a bit of living history.

The most significant informational document in the Waller album is a memorandum that Brian prepared in 1992, in response to a request from a military historian who was researching the specific actions of U.S. Navy warships during the Crisis. Brian’s written answers to the historian’s very specific questionnaire tell a dramatic story, but you need to dig beneath a Navy officer’s tight, descriptive verbiage to grasp just how perilous the situation happened to be. I’m pleased to share some of it here, using snapshots from the album.

Brian’s memo starts by giving his dates of service on the Waller and his rank (Lieutenant) during that time.

From the album, here’s a photo of young officers aboard the Waller. Brian is on the far right.

I chuckled when I noticed that Brian was the only one not holding a drink. The son of a man who served in World War I and owned a car dealership in New Jersey, he was an earnest and serious officer, sharply focused on his duties.

Watches stood during Crisis

Here, Brian was asked to list his watches, i.e., the times that he was assigned to specific duties and responsibilities. Let’s break this down.

“Officer of the Deck” means that Brian had significant responsibilities on the ship’s bridge. Wikipedia explains that, in the U.S. Navy, the officer of the deck:

…is a watchstanding position in a ship’s crew…who is tasked with certain duties and responsibilities for the ship. The officer of the deck is the direct representative of the ship’s commanding officer and is responsible for the ship.

“General Steaming” is what it sounds like. No doubt the men were on alert, but there was no immediate threat.

But then we get to “(General Quarters) Condition I ASW,” a ship’s highest state of readiness. A call to General Quarters means that engagement with an enemy combatant is present or imminent. If you’re wondering what this might’ve sounded like on the Waller, the first 15 seconds of this recording will give you an idea:

And “ASW”? That’s anti-submarine warfare. The Waller and other U.S. Navy warships were intercepting and tracking Russian submarines, and now the situation was coming to a head. More on that below.

Fortunately, things did wind down. “Condition II ASW” indicates that a threat is present, but not imminent.

Dramatic action for the Waller

In order to stop the Soviets from delivering more weaponry to Cuba, President Kennedy ordered the Navy to set up a quarantine line designed to intercept Russian ships bound for Cuba. The Waller was among the ships assigned to that task. Brian describes the assignment as a “barrier patrol,” during which the Waller “conducted ASW operations and patrolled the assigned sectors for surface ship interdiction.”

In his compact prose, Brian describes the Waller‘s involvement in one of the most dramatic moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Waller was responsible for surfacing one Soviet submarine.” They had detected a Russian diesel submarine and maintained contact with it for some 36-48 hours. The Waller kept up this cat-and-mouse game, until finally forcing the sub to surface. The Waller and supporting aircraft then escorted the sub out of the area.

So that, dear readers, is part of what “(General Quarters) Condition I ASW” was all about during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What the U.S. Navy didn’t know

Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Russian submarines were carrying nuclear weapons. Indeed, we now know that another Russian submarine that reached the U.S. Navy’s quarantine line came perilously close to deploying a nuclear torpedo. Again, I draw upon Wikipedia:

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet patrol submarine B-59 almost launched a nuclear-armed torpedo while under harassment by American naval forces. One of several vessels surrounded by American destroyers near Cuba, B-59 dove to avoid detection and was unable to communicate with Moscow for a number of days. USS Beale began dropping practice depth charges to signal B-59 to surface; however the captain of the Soviet submarine and its zampolit took these to be real depth charges. With low batteries affecting the submarine’s life support systems and unable to make contact with Moscow, the commander of B-59 feared that war had already begun and ordered the use of a 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo against the American fleet. The zampolit agreed, but the chief of staff of the flotilla (second in command of the flotilla) Vasily Arkhipov refused permission to launch. He convinced the captain to calm down, surface, and make contact with Moscow for new orders.

In other words, but for the intervention of one Soviet officer and the cool-headed, deliberate actions of Navy personnel on both sides, nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union might have started right then and there.

Recognition and reflections

Although my friend Brian was not one to tout his individual recognitions in the Navy, it should be noted that he carried out his duties with distinction during this precarious time. Here is the formal letter of commendation he received in recognition of his performance:

Brian didn’t mention the commendation letter in the memorandum that he prepared for the military historian. However, you will see his brief assessment about the Waller‘s readiness to perform its duties:

Brian’s overall performance would soon lead to the realization of one of his major life aspirations, the command of a Navy warship. In fact, he would become the skipper of two Navy destroyers, the USS Calcaterra and the USS Joseph P. Kennedy. (The Kennedy, by the way, has found a home in Massachusetts, as part of the Battleship Cove museum of U.S. Navy ships in Fall River, not too far out of Boston, where I live.)

Brian’s years in the Navy would remain among his most cherished set of memories, and many of those he served with would be counted among his dearest friends. Here he is in 2017, about a year before his passing, enjoying one of his Navy albums.

Of course, Brian’s story is just one of millions of those who have served in the military. On this Veterans Day, please allow this lifelong civilian to bow in appreciation of that honorable service.