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. 

Walking the streets of Ye Olde London Towne: When a big book satisfies

My current streaming devotion is Netflix’s “The Frankenstein Chronicles” (2 seasons, 2015-17), a mystery and horror drama set in early 19th century London. The series features Sean Bean as Inspector John Marlott, lead investigator of a string of violent crimes possibly associated with a scientist who is intent on bringing the dead back to life. It’s a clever build on Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

“The Frankenstein Chronicles” depicts the London of the poor and downtrodden, drawing upon real-life historical figures to make for an entertaining mix of fact and fiction. This grim and gritty side of 19th century London has long held a fascination for me.

In fact, this current binge view caused me to reach for one of my favorite books of popular history, Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2001).  Here’s a snippet from the Publisher’s Weekly starred review of the book:

Novelist and biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers; T.S. Eliot; etc.) offers a huge, enthralling “biography” of the city of London. . . . Ackroyd examines London from its pre-history through today, artfully selecting, organizing and pacing stories, and rendering the past in witty and imaginative ways. . . . Anglophiles and others will rejoice.

London: The Biography is less a chronological history and more a thematic narrative, drawing generously on contemporary accounts from Londoners known and not-so-well known. Its greatest success is an array of especially vivid depictions of everyday life during the Elizabethan through Victorian eras.

Reading this book, you can practically smell the cooked food from street carts and cheap eateries, and the stinking slop of unsanitary streets. You can picture yourself walking into smoky coffee houses and seeing Londoners of all types conducting their business over “dishes” of the hearty brew. You can imagine the awful living conditions of the working poor and the destitute.  And you quickly grasp that stealing a bit of food or an item of clothing, even out of pure desperation, may lead to harsh and humiliating punishments meted out by an unforgiving justice system.

This is a big book — some 800 pages — but fortunately it can be read selectively and completely out of order, dipping and choosing based on one’s specific curiosities. If you decide to take a look at it, do remember that you’re not reading about a city celebrated for its beauty, such as Paris or Venice. Rather, as Patrick McGrath put it in a review titled “A City Much Like Hell” for the New York Times, this is:

…a loving portrait of a rambunctious monster, warts and all. Of the modern city Ackroyd says it ”can hold, or encompass, anything; in that sense it must remain fundamentally unknowable.” His own great accomplishment in this hugely entertaining volume is to make unknowable London to a large extent knowable — by the inspired selection and deft organization of extraordinary materials, and his spirited prose. He succeeds in animating on the page the lived life of one of the oldest and greatest — if dampest and grayest — cities in the world.

 

Masterful, self-directed learners: The Wright Brothers

A wonderful, fascinating story.

At this stage of my life and career, most of my learning is self-directed. I know that I share this trait with many other middle-aged adults. This understanding has led me to be thinking a lot about the philosophy and practice of self-directed learning lately. It also has caused me to return to  historian David McCullough’s wonderful book, The Wright Brothers (2015).

Before we dive into the main story, let’s start with a definition. In Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers (1975), renowned adult education professor Malcolm S. Knowles defines”self-directed learning” as:

…a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.

That’s as good a definition as any. It covers what a lot of us are doing to enrich our lives and hone new skills.

It also captures what Orville and Wilbur Wright did on their way to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, when they invented and flew the first successful airplane.

Going back to my boyhood days, I had long been familiar with the historic narrative of the two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and used virtually all of their spare time to learn about flying. I figured that I knew what I wanted to know about that story, until I started reading McCullough’s book and became enthralled.

McCullough writes about how Orville and Wilbur were raised in very modest surroundings by a missionary father who strongly believed in the power of reading, how their sister Katharine strongly influenced and supported their work, and how an intense devotion to teaching themselves the science and mechanics of flight led to their success.

The brothers were smart and eager to learn. Wilbur, notably, demonstrated qualities of genius. Their accomplishments were especially remarkable given that, as McCullough states, they had “no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.”

At the time Orville and Wilbur were reading the existing scientific studies about the prospects of manned flight and conducting experiments with homemade wind tunnels in their bicycle shop, other more prominent, well-funded, and well-credentialed inventors and scientists were also working tirelessly to become the first to achieve motorized flight. But this did not dissuade the two brothers from pursuing their goal, with a giant assist from sister Katharine. In fact, they would largely rewrite the book on the science of flying. and in the process refute previous theories and studies advanced by many “experts” on aviation.

Talk about self-directed learning…with a learning outcome that was literally airborne and with consequences that would change the world! If anyone doubts the power of self-directed learning, then let Orville and Wilbur Wright be prime examples that prove otherwise.

***

For more about self-directed learning, check out the International Society for Self-Directed Learning and the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

Some passages in this piece are drawn from a 2015 article about David McCullough and the Wright Brothers posted to my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.

Revisiting a classic: “The Civil War” by Ken Burns

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relevance of the American Civil War (1861-65) to our current political and social milieu here in the U.S. I have been fascinated by the Civil War since my boyhood days and long understood its ongoing significance in defining our civic life. Events of the past five years, in particular, have underscored the war’s continuing hold on this country.

Starting last week, I opted to re-watch Ken Burns’s 1990 award-winning documentary mini-series “The Civil War.” The debut of “The Civil War” was quite the television event in the fall of 1990, captivating millions of viewers who tuned into their Public Broadcasting Service stations over five consecutive nights. I was among them, and I have watched the full series on multiple occasions over the past 30 years.

In terms of production values, Burns set a new standard for historical documentaries. He recruited renowned historian David McCullough to narrate the series. He used well-known actors and other public figures to be the voices of historical figures. He utilized innovative camera work to bring contemporary still photos to life. He interspersed interview segments with leading historians and public intellectuals to provide authoritative commentary on the war. And he wove in popular music of the day to evoke the era, while brilliantly opting for an exquisitely haunting, modern folk instrumental, “The Ashokan Farewell,” to serve as the series theme music. (Listen to it here.)

Although “The Civil War” won dozens of awards and the hearts of reviewers, it also attracted its share of critics. Some claimed it was too sympathetic to the Northern, anti-slavery point of view. But others asserted that it was too soft on the slave-owning Southern side and critical questions of race and racism, feeding into the mythology of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

Especially in light of events in the U.S. during the past 15 months, I was curious to gauge my own reaction to this re-watch. How does “The Civil War” hold up against the backdrop of America of the early 2020s? How do criticisms of the documentary play out against our current situation?

Yup, I understand the criticisms that the series is too easy on the pro-slavery South. Historian Shelby Foote, a masterful storyteller who receives a lot of airtime, uses his aw shucks persona to romanticize the Rebel side. He also claims that the main cause of the Civil War was a failure of America’s remarkable ability to compromise, without explaining whether “compromise” includes permitting slavery to exist.

That said, the opening episode of the series devotes considerable time to framing the war in the context of the extraordinary evils of slavery. Also, the series explains how ending slavery increasingly became a central purpose of the Northern cause, in addition to reuniting the nation. Foote’s main counterpart, historian Barbara Fields, helps to take apart the Southern mythology, and her final remarks at the conclusion of the series eerily anticipate our present circumstances.

All in all, I found that “The Civil War” remains a compelling, even epic portrayal of this signature event in American history and a great example of narrative, historical storytelling via film. More than during any previous viewing, it underscored for me the painful reality that, as a nation, we have not resolved the fundamental differences that led to these four years of awful carnage.

Stamps as stories: The Penny Black

In a previous post, I wrote about reviving my boyhood hobby of stamp collecting. As a long-time amateur student of history, I especially love the educative value of stamps that commemorate significant events and individuals. Avid collectors often remark that the ways in which stamps tell stories is one of the great appeals of the hobby, and I heartily agree. 

In addition, some postage stamps constitute historical markers in and of themselves. I offer as a prime example the Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, printed in England during 1840-41. As mail service became an increasingly important part of English life and commerce, a British educator named Rowland Hill proposed an easy way of paying for postage, by using bits of printed paper that could be affixed to envelopes. 

Hill’s proposal eventually took hold, and the result was the Penny Black, featuring the profile of Queen Victoria. This marked the beginning of a long British tradition of adorning postage stamps with the profiles of monarchs. However, this took some getting used to, as initially some British subjects found it disrespectful to lick what they regarded as the back of the Queen’s head! Queen Victoria herself intervened to endorse the use of stamps, assuring everyone that no such offense was taken.

For the most part, stamp collecting is a very affordable hobby, at least at my level of engagement. But like any hobby involving collectibles, the rarer, more notable pieces can cost a chunk of change. From an affordability standpoint, the good thing about the Penny Black is that the Brits printed a lot of them, a fair number of which have survived in various conditions. Thus, while select specimens can run into the many thousands of dollars (or pounds, if you’re across the pond!), used Penny Blacks in lesser condition can be obtained at a cost equivalent to picking up the tab for a meal and drinks at a nice restaurant.

Earlier this year, I decided that I wanted a Penny Black as the cornerstone of my budding collection. So, here is my modest specimen, purchased online. It gives me goosebumps to think that this is an authentic piece of Victorian England, having once been affixed to a letter that made its way through the mail system during the 1840s. I can only imagine the story this stamp could tell!