In October 1962 I was a sonarman on board the destroyer USS Waller , home-ported in Norfolk, Virginia. Our duty was antisubmarine warfare training in the Cape Hatteras area, which meant we were out two weeks and in two weeks. Suddenly all leaves and liberties were canceled. There was activity all over the base, and ships began loading stores, ammunition, and fuel around the clock. One of the guys in our division was sure something big was happening, but Sal tended to be an alarmist, so we paid him little attention. Instead we believed this was a large exercise, as we’d been told. Within a couple of days we were under way with Task Group Alfa, led by the carrier USS Randolph .
The weather was bad as we met several troop transports off Moorehead City, North Carolina. We were steaming “condition III”—men at battle stations—and were told that submarines and surface ships would try to penetrate our screen during this “exercise.” Sal continued to insist that something was up: too many brass were at sea at one time.
At quarters on the main deck next to the forward five-inch mount one morning the weather broke slightly, and Sal spied something on the horizon. It was a task group as large as ours. The division officer explained it as the ships that would be trying to break our screen. Sal didn’t buy it. An unusual thing about this “exercise” was we refueled after dark and under “darken ship” conditions—which was dangerous. Because of the number of ships involved, it took all night.
Contrary to what you see in movies, the skipper never spoke to us over the public-address system on our ship. Then one day the word was passed: “Now hear this. Stand by to hear from the captain.” We were stunned, but more amazing is what he said. “This is the captain speaking. Stand by to hear from the Commander in Chief.” Then we heard President Kennedy make the announcement the whole country was hearing: The Soviets were building missile bases in Cuba capable of launching nuclear strikes against the United States, and we were going to respond by turning back all ships carrying military equipment to the island. During his speech our ship was taking up station on the line. Sal reminded us strongly what he had told us.
All combat ships have lists of landing and boarding parties, which are usually just formalities until something serious occurs. While we cleaned and checked our weapons, updated lists were posted, and I found myself assigned to the landing party as the machine-gun squad leader. I had replaced an officer in this position, and when I asked the officer how I could stand in for him, he answered, “Who could this ship better afford to lose, a petty officer or a division officer?”
Tension was high as Soviet freighters continued to approach; scuttlebutt had it that Soviet cruisers and destroyers were escorting them. Then one of our U-2s was shot down, killing the Air Force major Rudolf Anderson, Jr. The situation seemed to be deteriorating. When the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. intercepted and boarded a freighter, I remember thinking politics were everywhere; I was sure that this ship had made the first stop because of its name.
One night on the mid-watch things got hot. Scanning my sector, I picked up a sonar contact. We were carefully trained in how to decipher different contacts—whales, shipwrecks, schools of fish. This, in my opinion, was a submarine.
The procedure when contact is established is to immediately report loud and clear into the sound-powered phones, regardless of traffic, “Sonar contact,” giving the bearing and range. General quarters was sounded, and the ship began closing on the target. Since my GQ station was the sonar shack, I didn’t move but stayed glued to my post.
The sub made some initial evasive maneuvers, but we were on him. Then he attempted to fool us by lying still. The captain ordered me to send a message: “India, Delta Kelo Alfa,” international Morse code for “Surface on an easterly course.” After what seemed like an eternity, the captain ordered the gunnery officer, who was right next to me, to send the same message. Still no movement.
A gunner’s mate was sent to the main deck with a case of hand grenades and told to drop one. I knew that as soon as it detonated, it would mask the target and I might lose it. Sure enough, I couldn’t see or hear a thing, but I kept the cursor trained to the last-known position and listened as hard as I could. The captain ordered a second grenade dropped. No movement. A third grenade.
There must be an unwritten international law of “three strikes and you’re out,” because shortly after the third explosion I detected Doppler: The sub was coming up. The Soviet captain, I thought, had made the right decision: If depth charges followed the grenades, he would never come up.
Before long radar had the sub on the surface. Three other destroyers joined us, and we began escorting this threat out of the area. It was daylight now, and the gunnery officer told me to go topside and take a look at what I had got. After playing cat and mouse with this submarine all night, it was very strange to see it a couple of hundred yards away. The four “cans” steamed in circles around it as we all headed east. There were two officers on the conning tower. As we crossed their bow, they wouldn’t give us the satisfaction of looking at us; they kept their eyes straight ahead.
We stayed with that sub for a day or so before returning to our station. A few days later we received word that the Soviet freighters heading for Cuba had stopped and were beginning to turn back. Khrushchev must have realized there was no way the missiles would be allowed to stay in place.
Many years afterward I learned that six submarines had been forced to the surface during the crisis. Looking back almost 40 years later, I feel privileged to have been a part of the action. Those weeks were arguably the most dangerous in the history of humankind, and all concerned were cool and professional enough to keep the lid on. After being trained in a particular area of Cold War strategy, I was one of the few able to put the instruction to the test in a real situation. And nobody was hurt. Thank God.