Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was a direct and dangerous confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and was the moment when the two superpowers came closest to nuclear conflict. The crisis was unique in a number of ways, featuring calculations and miscalculations as well as direct and secret communications and miscommunications between the two sides. The dramatic crisis was also characterized by the fact that it was primarily played out at the White House and the Kremlin level with relatively little input from the respective bureaucracies typically involved in the foreign policy process.

After the failed U.S. attempt to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba with the Bay of Pigs invasion, and while President John F. Kennedy's administration planned Operation Mongoose, in July 1962 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev reached a secret agreement with Cuban premier Fidel Castro to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter any future invasion attempt. Construction of several missile sites began in the late summer, but U.S. intelligence discovered evidence of a general Soviet arms build-up on Cuba, including Soviet IL-28 bombers, during routine surveillance flights, and on September 4, 1962, President Kennedy issued a public warning against the introduction of offensive weapons into Cuba. Despite the warning, on October 14 a U.S. U-2 aircraft took several pictures clearly showing sites for medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs) under construction in Cuba. These images were processed and presented to the White House the next day, thus precipitating the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Kennedy summoned his closest advisers to consider options and direct a course of action for the United States that would resolve the crisis. Some advisers--including all the Joint Chiefs of Staff--argued for an air strike to destroy the missiles, followed by a U.S. invasion of Cuba; others favored stern warnings to Cuba and the Soviet Union. The President decided upon a middle course. On October 22, he ordered a naval "quarantine" of Cuba. The use of "quarantine" legally distinguished this action from a blockade, which assumed a state of war existed; the use of "quarantine" instead of "blockade" also enabled the Unites States to receive the support of the Organization of American States.

That same day, Kennedy sent a letter to Khrushchev declaring that the United States would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba, and demanded that the Soviets dismantle the missile bases already under construction or completed, and return all offensive weapons to the U.S.S.R. The letter was the first in a series of direct and indirect communications between the White House and the Kremlin throughout the remainder of the crisis.

President Kennedy also went on national television that evening to inform the public of the developments in Cuba, his decision to initiate and enforce a "quarantine," and the potential global consequences if the crisis continued to escalate. The tone of the President's remarks was stern, and the message unmistakable and evocative of the Monroe Doctrine: "It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." The Joint Chiefs of Staff announced a military readiness status of DEFCON 3 as U.S. naval forces began implementation of the quarantine and plans accelerated for a military strike on Cuba.

On October 24, Khrushchev responded to Kennedy's message with a statement that the U.S. "blockade" was an "act of aggression" and that Soviet ships bound for Cuba would be ordered to proceed. Nevertheless, during October 24 and 25, some ships turned back from the quarantine line; others were stopped by U.S. naval forces, but they contained no offensive weapons and so were allowed to proceed.

US Navy Plan on the Quarantine Line: 24 October, 1962

The Commander in Chief, Atlantic, established the surface quarantine line on an arc 500 miles from Cape Maysi between 27-30N, 75W and 20N, 65W. The line thus established was out of range of Soviet IL-28 "Beagle" bombers based in Cuba. The line was to be manned by 12 destroyers from Task Force 136, which were proceeding to the following stations:
Lat N Long W Ship
28-00 70-50 Gearing
27-40 70-06 Witek
27-10 69-06 Lawe
26-30 68-10 Sellers
25-40 67-20 McCaffery
24-50 66-40 Summers
23-50 66-00 Leary
23-00 65-40 Pierce
22-00 65-20 Steinaker
21-00 65-10 Dewey
20-00 65-00 MacDonough
19-00 65-10 Greene

The destroyer line was backed up by two surface patrol units, an anti-submarine warfare/surveillance unit and a logistic support unit.

The force organization was:

CTF 136: Commander Second Fleet, Vice Admiral A. G. Ward.

CTG 136.0: Commander Flagship Group, Commanding Officer Newport News, Captain R. H. Bowers; Newport News (CA 148); Commander Destroyer Division 182 in Lawrence (DDG 4);Keith (DD 775).

CTG 136.1: Commander Surface Quarantine Group, Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Six, Rear Admiral J. W. Ailes, III; Canberra (CAG 2) (Flagship); Newport News (CA 148); MacDonough (DLG 8); Lawrence (DDG 4); Dewey (DLG 4); Keith (DD 775); Leary (DDR 879); Steinaker (DDR 863); Pierce (DD 753); Soley (DD 707); Borie (DD 704); Bigelow (DD 942); Lawe (DD 763); Gearing (DD 710); Royal (DD 872); Sellers (DD DDG 11); Witek (EDD 848).

CTU 136.1.1: Commander Surface Blockade Unit, Commander Destroyer Squadron 26, Captain W. R. Hunnicutt, Jr.; Dewey (DLG 4) (Flagship); Leary (DD 879); Steinaker (DD 863); Pierce(DD 753); Bigelow (DD 942); Lawe (DD 763); McCaffey (DD 860); Zellers (DD 777); Royal(DD 872); Sellers (DDG 11); Witek (EDD 848); MacDonough (DLG 8).

CTU 136.1.2: Commander Task Unit, Commanding Officer, Canberra (CAG 2), Captain R. K. Irvine; Canberra (CAG 2); Soley (DD 707); Borie (DD 704).

CTU 136.1.3: Commander Task Unit, Commanding Officer, Newport News (CA 148), Captain R. H. Bowers; Newport News (CA 148); Lawrence (DDG 4); Keith (DD 775).

CTG 136.2: Commander Task Group, Commander Carrier Division, Rear Admiral E. A. Christensen; Essex (CVS 9); Blandy (DD 943); Keppler (DD 765); Sperry (DD 697); Barry (DD 933).

CTG 136.3: Commander Task Group, Commanding Officer Elkomin (AO 55), Captain W. O. Spears; Elkomin (AO 55); Kaskaskia (AO 27); Great Sitkin (AE 17); J. P. Kennedy (DD 850); Weeks (DD 701).

Essex loaded with two S2F squadrons of 22 planes, 14 HSS-2's, and one WF-2, in company with her four destroyers were assigned to patrol the zone north and west of latitude 25N, 65W. The Bermuda ASW Group (CTG 81.5), consisting of 11 P5M's in VP-49 and 11 P5M's in VP-45, was tasked with air surveillance of a zone north and east of 25N, 65W. The Caribbean ASW Group (CTG 81.7) at Roosevelt Roads had aerial-surveillance responsibility for the zone east of the quarantine front and south of 25N; this group was made up of 11 VP-5 P2V's.

The strike force afloat consisted of the carriers Independence and Enterprise with screening destroyers. These ships had taken up their patrol positions south of Cuba in the vicinity of 18N, 74-30W.

The task at hand was to positively locate ships en route to Cuba and prepare for interception when they crossed the quarantine line. The tentative first intercept was the Kimovsk, suspected of carrying military equipment, and the second was to be the Poltova with a possible cargo of missiles.

During daylight hours and when in visual signal distance, a destroyer was to be dispatched to a position close aboard but which would not give the Soviet ship an opportunity to ram. The destroyer would then display by visual flag hoist the international signal "K" (You should stop at once) or "ON" (You should heave to at once). These signals were to be paralleled by signal light.

In signifying his intent to stop a ship, the commander of the destroyer was to use all available communications, including international code signals, flag hoists, blinking lights, radio, loud speakers, etc. when hailing the ship, a Russian linguist would be used. If the ship did not stop upon being signaled or hailed, warning shots were to be fired across the bow. If this failed to halt the intercepted ship, minimum force was authorized to damage non vital parts of the ship but to refrain if possible from personnel injury or loss of life.

Once the ship was stopped, a party, including Russian linguists, were to board the ship. Visit and search was to include examination of the manifest and inspection of the cargo. In the event visit was refused, the ship was to be taken into custody and forcefully boarded to control the ship's operation.

If the boarding met with organized resistance, the ship was to be destroyed. If the ship submitted to custody, the boarding party was to consist of a temporary master, control and engineering personnel, and an armed guard detail. Coast Guard officers, who were expert in search-and-visit procedures, were embarked in the flagship of the Commander, Quarantine Force.

Once in custody, the seized ship would be escorted by one or more destroyers and sailed to either Charleston, San Juan, Roosevelt Roads, or Fort Lauderdale. The Coast Guard established units at those ports to take custody from the Navy prize master.

Plan for Destroyers to make a boarding: 25 October, 1962

In the morning, President Kennedy issued an order not to intercept and board a Soviet-bloc vessel first in view of Soviet Premier Khrushchev's apparent desire to avoid a direct U.S.-Russian confrontation. In view of this, reconnaissance forces were directed to seek out a ship of other than Bloc registry, preferably United Kingdom, which could be intercepted at the earliest possible time. In the search for an early intercept candidate, a Greek ship, Sirus, at first was thought to be a good prospect. She had identified herself earlier, declared her cargo, and requested permission to proceed to Cuba. However, the Lebanese merchant freighter, Marucla, was chosen as the most likely first intercept, after a destroyer had been hurriedly dispatched to close on Sirus. The Marucla was identified at first as "Zaruwi," which resulted from an erroneous reading of the letters spelling the name of the ship. The destroyers Pierce and Kennedy were dispatched to intercept and board Marucla at the earliest possible moment.

Early in the afternoon, the Pierce closed on what she thought was the Marucla, but proved to be the East German cruise ship Volkerfreund Schaft. The destroyer continued to shadow the East German until 2234Q, when the decision was made to let her pass. The Pierce then broke off and headed to join the Kennedy en route to intercept Marucla. Efforts to locate the Lebanese ship Marucla were confused late in the afternoon by a report that she had turned around. This report was proven false and, as daylight faded, her position was still uncertain. At 2100Q, an S2F from the Essex spotted her. Communications which temporarily had been lost with the Pierce and Kennedy were regained, and the two ships were ordered to board the Marucla when found, day or night. This procedure was later modified to board at first light after the two ships had encountered her at 2245Q.

The world watches USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr DD850: 26 October, 1962

In the early morning, a boarding party from the Pierce and Kennedy was enroute to the Marucla to execute the first quarantine interdiction. Outfitted in their dress white uniforms and soaked from water during the motor whaleboat ride to the Marucla, the boarding party was aboard the Lebanese ship at 26-16N at 0750Q, 75-24W. The executive officer (Reynolds) of J. P. Kennedy Jr., who was in charge, obtained a copy of the merchantman's cargo manifest and checked it against bills of lading. General cargo included sulphur, asbestos, news-print, emery paper, lathes, and automotive parts. on the weather decks were 12 trucks. All holds were battened down and inaccessible; however, one was opened for inspection, since it contained questionable material listed as "electro-measuring instruments." The boarding party left the ship at 0820Q and the Marucla was released and underway for Havana at 1020Q.

Crisis continues and resolution: 26 October, 1962


Meanwhile, U.S. reconnaissance flights over Cuba indicated the Soviet missile sites were nearing operational readiness. With no apparent end to the crisis in sight, U.S. forces were placed at DEFCON 2--meaning war involving the Strategic Air Command was imminent. On October 26, Kennedy told his advisors it appeared that only a U.S. attack on Cuba would remove the missiles, but he insisted on giving the diplomatic channel a little more time. The crisis had reached a virtual stalemate.

That afternoon, however, the crisis took a dramatic turn. ABC News correspondent John Scali reported to the White House that he had been approached by a Soviet agent suggesting that an agreement could be reached in which the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba if the United States promised not to invade the island. While White House staff scrambled to assess the validity of this "back channel" offer, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a message the evening of October 26, which meant it was sent in the middle of the night Moscow time. It was a long, emotional message that raised the specter of nuclear holocaust, and presented a proposed resolution that remarkably resembled what Scali reported earlier that day. "If there is no intention," he said, "to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this."

Although U.S. experts were convinced the message from Khrushchev was authentic, hope for a resolution was short-lived. The next day, October 27, Khrushchev sent another message indicating that any proposed deal must include the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey. That same day a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance jet was shot down over Cuba. Kennedy and his advisors prepared for an attack on Cuba within days as they searched for any remaining diplomatic resolution. It was determined that Kennedy would ignore the second Khrushchev message and respond to the first one. That night, Kennedy set forth in his message to the Soviet leader proposed steps for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba under supervision of the United Nations, and a guarantee that the United States would not attack Cuba.

It was a risky move to ignore the second Khrushchev message. Attorney General (and former USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr DD850 sailor) Robert Kennedy then met secretly with Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, and indicated that the United States was planning to remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey anyway, and that it would do so soon, but this could not be part of any public resolution of the missile crisis. The next morning, October 28, Khrushchev issued a public statement that Soviet missiles would be dismantled and removed from Cuba.

The crisis was over but the naval quarantine continued until the Soviets agreed to remove their IL-28 bombers from Cuba and, on November 20, 1962, the United States ended its quarantine. U.S. Jupiter missiles were removed from Turkey in April 1963.

Source: US Department of State, CNO Report on Cuban Missile Crisis.