Cuban Missile Crisis Comes to the Front

Soviet Union Top Secret Plans Released

Elroy M. Nelson


There were many books and articles written about the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. None of them were complete; they lacked top secret material that was not available to U. S. intelligence until 1995 and not made public until 2001. Now we have a new book, October Fury, that was published in September 2002. The author, Captain Peter A. Huchthausen, U.S.Navy (Retired), had served as a Soviet naval analyst and as a naval attaché in Yugoslavia, Romania, and Moscow, where he met the Russian submariners who had been involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis. His excellent book will be directly quoted often in what follows. To avoid clutter, quotation marks and attribution notes will be omitted, and corrected text will not be identified as such.

In 1962, Ensign Huchthausen was stationed aboard the USS Blandy (DD- 943). He had just graduated from the Naval Academy. His experiences on the Blandy provided him with a strong basis for writing his book, since that ship, a member of the anti-submarine Hunter-Killer Group Bravo, had a notable encounter with a Soviet submarine during the missile crisis. Though much of the book is focused on the Blandy's operations, Huchthausen also described how the USS Charles P. Cecil (DDR- 835) fulfilled her duties in the crisis. Two sailors who were stationed aboard the Cecil at that time, Commander Charles P. Rozier (Commanding Officer) and Sonarman 3rd Class Petty Officer Elroy M. Nelson, each read the book and noted a few errors of time, place and action in the account of Cecil's operations. Memories fade in forty years and some facts can be misstated. In this writing, the errors noted will be corrected, using the Cecil's official log and other documents for authenticity.

On July 10th, 1962, the Soviet commander of all military forces in Cuba, with his entire staff, left Moscow for Havana. The senior officers were dressed in civilian clothing, all disguised as engineers, agricultural experts and drainage technicians en route to assist the Cubans in a massive humanitarian aid program.

In mid-July the dry cargo ship Maria Ulyanova slipped her mooring quietly and sailed from Murmansk for the port of Cabanas, scheduled to arrive on July 26th. She was to be the first ship of what would surge to a total of eighty-five cargo ships and transports to depart from ports all around the Soviet Union carrying medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and other military equipment to Cuba. Operation Anadyr had begun.

On August 29th President Kennedy was informed that anti-air missiles had been sighted in Cuba. A U.S. U-2 confirmed the presence of eight SA-2 SAM sites; two were near sites the Navy had selected as possible contingency beach landing sites.

Operation KAMA was in its make-up. The Soviet Navy 's high command had been looking for nine submarines, but found only four that were in good shape. Four Foxtrot class submarines, that have three diesel engines and three electric motors, were chosen. Windows made of Plexiglass enclosed the navigation bridge providing eyes, making the subs look like four dark, ugly dragons. The submarines were moved under cover of darkness from their usual berths at Polyarny to Sayda Bay, to mask final deployment preparations.

Special weapons, nuclear-warhead torpedoes, were loaded aboard the four subs. This type of torpedoes had never been carried on any type of Soviet sub before. These 533-millimeter torpedoes were marked with a purple-painted nose to separate them from the normal twenty-one torpedoes stored in forward torpedo room which had a gray-painted noses. Along with the new torpedoes came a single weapons security officer who was clearly not a submariner, although he did dress like one. This officer seldom left the forward torpedo compartment, where he had a private berth erected above his torpedo in a small curtained area just large enough to cover the torpedo and his bunk which hung on chains. The Soviet Foxtrot submarine capability of creating a 15-kiloton nuclear explosion with a single torpedo was unknown to U.S. intelligence and remained so until 1995. This secret weapon was intended to destroy an entire U.S. force that might attempt an amphibious invasion of Cuba while Operation Anadyr was being carried out.

Soviet submarines were assigned permanent numbers instead of names. In the case of the Foxtrot Class or Project 641 boats, all had prefix B, in Russian meaning bolshoi or large. These numbers were not related to the tactical numbers sometimes painted on their sails; these numbers were often changed to enhance deception.

On September 30th, 1962 all four submarine commanding officers were directed to attend a midnight meeting with their squadron commander in the small wooden shed at the foot of the piers. In this meeting, the four commanding officers were informed that they were to deploy at 4:00 A.M. The details of their mission had been delivered to their ships in sealed packets, and they were directed to read them carefully to their officers after submerging. They were also told they possess the capability of inflecting lethal damage to the American forces, but were urged to use discretion. It was considered highly unlikely that the American ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) force would be at more than their usual state of alert, considered not much of a threat.

Two of the submarine commanders, one of B-36 and the other of B-130 were viewed as the most efficient commanders in the squadron and tops in the brigade. Both looked forward to the adventure. The other two commanders, B-4 and B-59, were not enthusiastic about the deployment. Both B-36 and B-130 commanders thrived on the mystery and unknown aspect of their mission. All were concerned about the rules governing the use of the special torpedoes. What exactly are we to expect? How and when may we use them? The Northern Fleet Chief of Staff told the four commanders to enter these words in their log when they returned aboard: use of the special weapons is authorized under the following conditions: first, in the event you are attacked with depth bombs and your pressure hull is ruptured; second, if you surface and are taken under fire and hit; and third, upon orders from Moscow.

At 4:00 A.M., October 1, 1962 the four submarines sailed, completely darkened with running lights off, and steamed on electric power until clear of the channel when they started their three loud, throbbing diesel engines, which began to kick out clouds of foul smelling exhaust fumes. Total secrecy had been ordered.

While the four Foxtrot submarines were being prepared to get underway, the Cecil was docked at the D&S piers in Norfolk, VA. In home port, the crew was working hard maintaining the condition of their ship, having returned one month before from a very successful Mediterranean cruise of nearly seven months duration.

On their way to Cuba, in the North Atlantic ocean, the submarines came in contact with a severe storm with waves exceeding thirty feet in height. The sub commanders said that storm was the worst one they had ever seen. (All submarine commanders were aged in the low thirties, not much travel time in the often-rough North Atlantic.) Many problems developed in all the submarines. Some were fixed and some were bypassed.

On October 2nd, the U.S. Atlantic Fleet Amphibious Command conducted a multiple Marine Battalion Team amphibious landing exercise with Amphibious Squadrons 8 and 12 at Vieques Island, just off Puerto Rico. The objective of the exercise was to oust the Orange dictator Ortsac (Castro spelled backwards) from power. On October 7th the Soviet Union armed forces were on strategic alert. On October 11th Atlantic Fleet Command deployed the attack aircraft carrier USS Independence with the aircraft of Air Wing 7 aboard from Norfolk with destroyers USS English, Hank, O'Hare, and Corry as escorts. On October 13th the Second Marine Air Wing deployed elements of Air Groups 14 and 32 to the naval air station at Key West. The U.S. Army and Air Force pre-positioned supplies to bases and ports in the southern states. The Air Force moved selected squadrons and consumables to Florida bases.

On October 14th a U.S. Air Force U-2 mission revealed Soviet SS-4 Sandal medium-range ballistic missile sites under construction un Cuba. These missiles had a range of 1,020 nautical miles. A total of forty-two were deployed in Cuba with two- or three-megaton warheads. The U-2 flight also found SS-5 Skean intermediate-range ballistic missiles--four launchers and eight missiles per site, with a range of 2,200 nautical miles.

On October 15th all six U.S. Polaris ballistic missile submarines based in Holy Loch, Scotland, deployed to wartime stations. The Polaris boat USS Abraham Lincoln shortened her overhaul and deployed from Holy Loch along with two others from New London.

On October 20th the Navy activated Task Force 135, consisting of the attack carriers Enterprise and Independence and an underway replenishment group. Shore-based Fleet Air Groups 11 and 32 were flown into Naval Air Station Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. The Atlantic Fleet Commander ordered A-3J heavy attack squadrons from Air Wing 6 to be replaced by Marine Corps A-4D Skyhawk Squadron 225, a light attack unit. The Air Force's Defense Command deployed several of F-104 fighters to Key West.

On Saturday, October 20th, the Cecil OOD (officer of the day) received word that the ship was to get underway in the afternoon. The Cecil had two of three duty sections on liberty, causing the ship to be shorthanded. Many departments needed sailors to fill their requirements to get underway. The big search was on for the sailors on liberty and replacements from other ships. The sonar (submarine hunters) gang decided that they had enough men aboard as they were short only one.

The shore patrol in Norfolk located Commander Rozier (Cecil's commanding officer) and family having lunch at their favorite barbecue restaurant, Fat Boy's North Carolina Pit Barbecue, and notified him to report to the squadron commodore at the Des-Sub Piers. Commander Destroyer Squadron 26, Captain William Hunnicutt, after discussion with the commanding officers, agreed that the two destroyers, the USS Charles P. Cecil (DDR- 835) and the USS Stickell (DDR- 888), should sail for combat operations with no fewer than 225 men on board, about 10 per cent less than peacetime complement. Commander Rozier was ordered to delay sailing in order to collect more crewmen of both ships, and give time for CDS 26 to draft enough men from other ships to meet the agreed minimum. .The Stickell departed at 8:30 P.M. October 20 with only 150 of her crew aboard. Commander Rozier later got the Cecil underway with 200 of ship's crew and a mixed group of 100 men borrowed from other ships, 25 for the Cecil and 75 to be transferred to the Stickell upon rendezvous later.

At 2:00 A.M. Sunday morning, October 21st, the Cecil departed Norfolk, not certain of the assignment. Their oral orders were to turn south to sail. The officers assumed that the crisis had to do with the Caribbean area, but they didn't know exactly what until sealed orders could be opened. The highly classified Atlantic Fleet operation order assigned Cecil to escort and screen ships of TG 136.3, the underway replenishment ships supporting the quarantine force. By 11:00 A.M. when the Cecil overtook Stickell and the two underway replenishment ships she had been screening, ammunition ship Wrangell and fleet oiler Chikaskia, Cecil's 25 borrowed sailors had been incorporated into the ship's organization and assigned watch-standing duties, bunks and lockers. The next morning the 75 men borrowed for Stickell were transferred rapidly across two highlines between the ships. Cecil would find no opportunity to exchange the 25 borrowed men for her own crew members until November 7th. Cecil and Stickell continued to screen Chikaskia and Wrangell proceeding toward the Caribbean Sea.

On October 22nd, when the Cecil was east-northeast of the Bahamas, all hands listened to President Kennedy's speech , which the captain directed to be piped on the 1MC loudspeakers throughout the ship. The President established ) October 24 as the effective date for a quarantine line to prohibit the transport of any more armaments to Cuba.

The Chikaskia, Wrangell, Cecil and Stickell continued via the Windward Passage into the Caribbean Sea where the USS Adams (DDG-2) joined the evening of October 24th. The next day, Adams and Wrangell departed, and the remaining three ships set course for Mona Passage, en route to a replenishment position about 240 miles north of Puerto Rico. The group arrived the evening of October 26th. On October 28th Cecil was assigned to report to the fleet oiler Kankakee to provide screening duties. The next day, Cecil was detached to proceed independently to the USS Steinaker (DD-863) on the quarantine line to swap the 25 borrowed crewmen for her own crewman left behind in Norfolk October 21st.

At 7:04 P.M. that evening, October 29th, Lieutenant (j.g.) John Hunter, OOD on the bridge, and Radarman Third Class Russell Napier in CIC observed a small radar contact on their scopes, distance about 15,000 yards. The contact did not show any lights. Hunter, suspecting that the contact was a submarine, reported this to the Captain and was advised to continue course and speed. Hunter directed sonar to shift to passive mode. When at 7:18 P.M. the contact had closed to about 9,000 yards, the OOD was directed to investigate, and he changed course toward the contact and increased speed to 22 knots. At 7:19 P.M. the contact disappeared from the radar scope. Speed was reduced to 16 knots, the ASW Condition 1 AS was set, the sonar was placed in active mode, and the Captain took the conn. On arriving at the datum at 7:32 P.M., the Captain began a "Tomato" (expanding-square) sonar search. At about 7:40 P.M. Sonarman Third Class Elroy M. Nelson noticed a dim sonar contact. He went through the normal classification procedures and classified the contact at 7:42 P.M. as a possible submarine. The ASW attack team were in their stations. The gun mounts were loaded and manned, the depth charge racks were manned, the torpedo system was set up, and the hedgehog mounts. were loaded. The hedgehogs that were loaded on the mounts had a dummy charge. Commander Rozier wanted this done to prevent an accident or communications error causing the third world war. The dummy load had to be fired first, then reloaded with service ammunition hedgehogs.

After six or seven transmissions, at 7:49 P.M., the keying relay on the transmitter stopped operating and sonar contact was lost. Someone had to start keying the system by hand. Sonarman Third Class Joel A. Smith, of East Douglas, MA, grabbed a screwdriver and keyed the relay every time Sonarman Third Class Nelson would shout out "Key". This went on for a few transmissions, then the relay started to work by itself. The relay must have had some dirt causing the problem. The ship began another Tomato search, and contact was regained at 8:07 P.M. Soon afterward, a P2V ASW patrol aircraft from VP-56, which had reported to Cecil, was directed over the contact by Lieut.(j.g.) Hunter and the first of a series of MAD (magnetic anomaly detection) contacts confirmed Nelson's sonar contact as a possible submarine.

Initially, the submarine used evasive maneuvers with speeds of 5 to 7 knots, with no success except for a 2-minute loss of contact at 9:16 P.M. Then the submarine used speeds of up to 10 knots, also unsuccessfully. At 10:25 P.M. USS Sellars (DDG-11) joined and also gained sonar contact, but had to depart on assigned duties at 11:30 P.M. After midnight the submarine slowed to speeds of 2 or 3 knots, and from 1:45 A.M. to 3:22 A.M. the sonar contact was virtually dead in the water. Petty Officer Nelson spent a long time on the sonar stack holding range and bearing on the contact. The Cecil's Executive Officer even came down to the sonar shack thinking we had found a whale contact. The sonar gang disagreed with his thought, and proved to be right when the contact began to move again at 2 to 3 knots. After a couple of hours, the submarine began a series of evasive actions. False targets were released. He increased speed causing doppler effects. An on-off cycle noise maker was turned on, causing enough noise to cover the contact. When it went into its off cycle, he hadn't moved very far and when it turned back on, it proved that we were still on the correct contact. That noise maker must have been stuck to the sub. The moving period was very short. But one maneuver put him in the ship's wake and resulted in loss of contact at 6:57 A.M. for about four minutes. The submarine did not resume evasive tactics until late that afternoon, during which contact was lost again by his getting into the Cecil's wake. The sonar gang regained contact six minutes later, and maintained contact from then on.

Cecil was alone on the surface while tracking the submarine from the 29th thru the 31st of October, except during two short periods of time. As mentioned, the Sellars "got a little ping time,"about one hour, on the Soviet submarine. USS W. C. Lawe(DD-763) joined at 8:25 the next morning ( the 30th) , and remained about seven hours. Though the Cecil had successfully tracked the submarine for 20 hours, CTG 136.1 issued an order for the Cecil to turn over the contact to the Lawe, a ship with the latest sonar equipment. The Captain of the Lawe recognized the injustice in that order and recommended that the Cecil be allowed to finish the job. The task group commander assented, and the Lawe was ordered detached by CTG 136.1 at 3:37 P.M. For the remaining 14-plus hours until the submarine surfaced the next day, the only U.S. forces in the area were Cecil and one VP aircraft.

At 3:45 A.M. October 31st, Sonarman Third Class Tuell relieved Sonarman Nelson on the sonar watch. At about 5:45 A.M. Sonarman Tuell heard the submarine blow his tanks, an indication that he was in the process of surfacing. At 5:53 A.M. the announcement came over the 1MC "The Russian submarine has surfaced." Sonarman Third Class Whitsel said that this caused the fastest reveille this ship had ever had. The entire rail was manned by the ship's crew who were standing in their skivvies and shower shoes.

At about 8:00 A.M. Sonarman Nelson went to the bridge to obtain permission to power down the sonar system. He saluted the OOD and requested permission to power down. At that time Commander Rozier (Cecil's CO) was sitting in the Captain's chair and heard the request. He informed the OOD that he was taking the conn.. The Captain then gave permission to power the sonar down. The four power tubes needed to be replaced in the transmitter, to ensure proper working of the system in the future.

With the Soviet submarine on the surface, Commander Rozier remained clear of the submarine by about fifteen hundred yards. He ordered the international signal "Can I be of assistance?" to be hoisted at the yardarm. Then the signalman sent the message by flashing light. No reply was returned.

During the time the submarine was surfaced, many sailors were topside viewing the prize catch. Sonarman Third Class Nelson spent a lot of time admiring the results of a long two-day endeavor. He noticed how often new sailors kept coming up in the conning tower, to get cooled off in fresh air. It must have been very uncomfortable below. It was disclosed in 2001 that the temperature in some of the compartments reached 150 degrees F. The stress of such conditions and the continuous loud pinging of the Cecil's sonar must have stretched the crew's nerves very thin. Fortunately, their captain wisely avoided attacking Cecil. One Cecil sailor told the possibly apocryphal story that at one time while the submarine was being waved at as Cecil steamed past, one of the Russian sailors waved back. He was hustled right back down into the lower deck, someone didn't welcome that move!

While Sonarman Nelson was looking at the submarine, the Cecil's Operations Officer, LT. W. B, Peirce took a photo of him with the sub in the background. After the mission was over, he gave Nelson a pleasant surprise by handing him the photo, signing the back, "My Compliments, W. B. Peirce."

The Soviet submarine remained on the surface for more than 56 hours, making repairs and charging its batteries. On November 2nd the submarine submerged in mid-afternoon, taking advantage of the "afternoon effect," which is the development of a temperature layer by the heat of the sun's rays. The layer bends the sonar signal upward, so that the echo from a submarine below the layer is weakened. Cecil continued tracking it but lost contact after about 40 minutes' as the submarine went deep and remained silent. Failing to regain contact after thoroughly searching the area, the ship left the scene and proceeded toward the previously interrupted rendezvous with the Steinaker to swap regular assigned crew members. Before achieving the rendezvous, Cecil was ordered to return to the datum where the contact had been lost. Continued search proved fruitless and on November 6th, the ship was ordered to San Juan, Puerto Rico for refueling and minor repairs.

That was the end of a great historic event. The teamwork within the Cecil's crew proved to be superior for everyone involved. The Cecil (a radar picket ship, not an ASW ship) was the only ship who had sonar contact with one of those Soviet submarines that was able to track it with very little assistance for 34 hours, forcing it to surface. The two other submarines were forced to the surface by the combined efforts of an ASW Hunter-Killer Group of several ASW-configured ships, aircraft and helicopters.

The Soviet Union agreed on October 29th to remove the missiles from Cuba. All the ships transporting the removed missiles were viewed by U.S. Navy ships or aircraft and the count was taken. Counts proved to be correct. Though Russia had removed all ballistic missiles in early November, the Cuban Quarantine remained in place until the 4th of December, when the Navy was able to report that all Soviet Il-28 medium range bombers had also been removed., over Castro's strident protests.

On June 17th, 1963, Rear Admiral J.O. Minor, Commander Cruiser Flotilla Destroyer Eight, aboard the Cecil, presented seven crew members, with one of the highest Navy awards. The Secretary of the Navy Commendation for Achievement Award was presented to LT(jg) John C. Hunter, LT(jg) Charles J. Gallagher, acting leading Sonarman Second Class Elroy M. Nelson, of Milltown, WI, Sonarman Second Class Allen Clay Tuell, of Santa Criz, CA, Sonarman Second Class Dale C. Whitsel of Mapleton, PA, and Sonarman Third Class Joel A Smith of East Douglas, MA. Commander Rozier was presented the Navy Commendation Medal.