CUBAN CRISIS -OCTOBER 1962
October 1962 brought news that shocked the world. Russian missiles were discovered on the island of Cuba, only 90 miles from the U.S. mainland!
Even before the dependents were evacuated on October 22, 1962 (full story on this follows), the Marines under the Commanding Officer, U. S. Marine Barracks were supplemented by Fleet Marine Forces. Marines of the Second and First Marine Division started to arrive at Guantanamo Bay on October 21, 1962 to reinforce the local defenders of the base.
Oddly enough the first reinforcements were an hour away before the local command knew they were arriving. The influx of additional Marines placed a strain on local messing facilities and consequently many hot meals were replaced by sandwiches which averaged 3,500 daily.
Ground Forces Command
A Ground Force Command was organized with Marine Brig. General William R. Collins as the Ground Forces Commander. He was assisted by Colonel George W. Killen, USMC, Commanding Officer, U.S. Marine Barracks, Guantanamo Bay, who became Chief of Staff of Ground Forces. A tight coordination was put in effect between the Ground Forces Commander and Commander, Naval Base then Rear Admiral E. J. O'Donnell.
Improvising became a byword the first few days after the dependents departed the area. Heavy rains drenched the Marines at their field positions and because the infantrymen could not leave their defensive positions, dry clothing to the troopers became a must. A clothing store on wheels soon alleviated the wet clothing problem. This was the first rain that fell on Guantanamo Bay in over six weeks.
When the Marine Forces arrived at Guantanamo Bay they found their defensive positions already occupied by men in green, Marine Corps type utilities. They were men of Mobile Construction Battalion FOUR, which had been in Gitmo since June 1962 on routine training deployment.
As part of the base defense mission, Navy riflemen from the Naval Emergency Ground Defense Force were taking part in scheduled exercises the weekend the Cuban situation became serious. "As far as we were concerned, it was just one more drill," reported one of the Seabees. "When the transport planes started landing and Marines came streaming out, I knew it was serious business and I sure felt better seeing those Marines," said another Navy man who was prepared to defend the Naval Base.
During the first two weeks of the crisis the Seabees, with the assistance of the Marines, built more than 20 miles of new roads. The Seabees also began a large-scale defensive construction project, building hundreds of concrete reinforced bunkers throughout the hilly terrain of Guantanamo Bay. Mobile Construction Battalion FOUR, augmented by Mobile Construction Battalion SEVEN, built the bunkers in record time. Two years later these bunkers still stand as originally built and others have been reconstructed under a separate Seabee project.
Throughout the first three weeks of the crisis, Navy men, Marines and the 10 remaining Navy nurses and one female Red Cross representative. worked beyond normal expectation. The average workday was 16 to 20 hours daily.
The Navy Exchange and other facilities normally filled with dependent wives and children were occupied by battle-dressed Marines. Marines as well as Navy men wore sidearms or rifles slung over their shoulders as they shopped for Christmas gifts for their loved ones back home. An order was issued by the Base Commander that sidearms and rifles could not be worn in the shopping areas for fear of an accidental discharge from any of the weapons. The cry "Lay Your Pistol Down" was soon heard throughout Gitmo by those desiring to go shopping on their off-duty hours. The order was well heeded and no accidents occurred.
Life at Gitmo Oct. 1962
The following message from the Chief of Naval Operations on November 2, 1962 gives the general conditions at Guantanamo Bay during the October crisis. It was compiled from numerous news releases submitted to Washington from the Command Information Bureau, office of the Base Commander.
"Since President Kennedy ordered quarantine of offensive weapons into Cuba, the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay has become a study in contrasts. Once a community with overtones of suburbia, the base now has all earmarks of an armed camp with stark remembrances of recent past.
"In many cases dinner was on the stove and the Monday wash on the line when the order came to evacuate dependent women and children. Security guards protect empty houses and patrol now quiet areas that were once tilled with children's noisy play little more than a week ago. Many married men relieved from emergency positions have teamed up to share their cooking and household chores rather than rattle around an empty house in their off hours.
"The Navy Exchange is still in operation, but the cosmetics and toy departments stand deserted, Men with slung rifles and sidearms come in at intervals with long shopping lists of soap and tobacco for their buddies.
"While most of their waking hours are spent sharpening their military proficiency and manning their defensive positions, the general attitude among Marines is one of calm watchfulness. The atmosphere is paradoxically broken by the arrival of an improvised Navy Exchange van truck which provides service to the men who cannot leave their posts. The shrubbery is dotted with green field uniforms drying in the sun. Marines are permitted to shuttle in relays to the showers for temporary- relief from the hot Cuban sun and the ever-present dust.
"The base activity this past weekend was reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay in more normal times. The Naval Hospital beat Mobile Construction Battalion 30-12 in the opening game of the base football league. The second game of the twin bill saw the Naval Air Station tie the Marine Barracks 13-13. Marines in field uniforms formed an interested gallery on the golf greens as a few energetic local players came through for a few holes in the morning hours. Adding to the normal course hazards of sand traps and the like were the tents of a Marine Headquarters and service company which have been pitched on some of the greens. All nine movie theaters and the three modern bowling alleys on the base are open all week for those who can find time to use them.
"Staff Sergeant William C. Musler, a Korean veteran from Ferguson, Miss. summed up the professional attitude of those at Guantanamo Bay, when asked for his thoughts concerning the feelings of the men there: 'As with Korea, we have a job to do here. It is a job we are trained for, a job we are ready to complete."'
The Marine Battalions departed Guantanamo Bay in just about the same fashion as they arrived rapidly. Upon conclusion of talks between the United States and Russia concerning the disposition of missiles in Cuba the forces left Guantanamo Bay, the first group departing on December 11, 1962.
In what residents of the Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay had come to regard as normal procedure, RADM E. J. O'Donnell, then Commander Naval Base, ordered a Base Defense Exercise for October 20 and 21, 1962, the sixth of the year. As it turned out, this event heralded not only the evacuation of dependents and those male Civil Service personnel who wished to go, but exposed the presence of Soviet offensive weapons on Cuba.
Instead of terminating the exercise as scheduled, personnel continued to man their defensive positions and on Monday, October 22, plans for the evacuation were announced and effected immediately. The base was divided into areas, and responsibility for notification and transportation to the awaiting ships and aircraft was given to the various commands.
Dependents Move Out
At 10 a.m. notification began. Evacuees were told that one suitcase should be packed for each member being evacuated, to bring evacuation and immunization cards and to have an Emergency Payment Authorization, to tie pets in the yard, leave the keys to the house on the dining table, and stand by in front of the house ready to board busses.
Ships participating in the evacuation included the USNS UPSHUR, USS DUXBURY BAY, USS HYADES and the USS DESOTO COUNTY. All planes left from Leeward Point and evacuated the dependents from that area, the hospitalized patients and a scattering of personnel from the Naval Base. An attempt was made to air evacuate all pregnant women whose estimated date of delivery was prior to December I. Mrs. Louise H. Kittleson, wife of Paul R. Kittleson, ATI, was scheduled for delivery at Gitmo's hospital by Caesarian section on October 22. She was evacuated by air and upon the plane's arrival at the Marine Corps' Air Station, Cherry Point, N.C., she was admitted to the medical facility and delivered a baby girl by Caesarian section. Mother and daughter did fine.
As busses became loaded with evacuees and their luggage, they were routed to the boarding stations. The flow of traffic dictated who was evacuated by what means and by what ship. The UPSHUR was berthed at Wharf Bravo, the DUXBURY BAY at Northwest Pier Lima, the HYADES at Northwest Pier Victor, and the DESOTO COUNTY at Southwest Pier Lima.
Life Aboard Evacuation Ships
Evacuation ship's company was auR7nented by base personnel to assist in the care of the evacuees. These included, two doctors and a medical service officer, a chaplain, four dental technicians, eight commissarymen and four stewards. The approximately 2,80-0 evacuees were loaded on the ships and aircraft and were underway before 5 p.m. The ships went in convoy until about noon Wednesday, October 24, when the UPSHUR was ordered to proceed independently due to her superior speed. There were 1,703 persons on this ship, 341 on DUXBURY BAY, 290 on HYADES, and 96 on DESOTO COUNTY.
Women and children were made as comfortable as possible but due to overcrowded conditions some ladies had to share bunks on 8-hour shifts. On the UPSHUR approximately 1,400 evacuees were berthed in troop areas and were fed in the troop mess. There were approximately 400 women and children berthed in one large troop compartment. Personnel who were under orders or making a "Round Robin" trip were moved out Of their cabins unless they were infirm or had children less than o years of age. An attempt was made to provide mothers with two or more children under six years of age, pregnant women with small children, old (over 60) and infirm women; with cabin space. There were, however, more personnel by far who met the criteria for cabins than could be accommodated. As conditions changed, there was some reassignment of cabin space. Male children eight years old or older were berthed in troop quarters, older boys and men divided the youngsters into squads and voluntarily looked after them. There was contact between mothers and male children as needed or desired during daytime hours.
In the women's and children's troop quarters the ship endeavored to berth the mothers who were pregnant, the young and the elderly (who refused cabin space so more needy persons could be properly cared for) in the lower bunks. These quarters were hard to maintain in a sanitary condition, but many women without children volunteered to clean the compartment and try to keep it livable. The food service on all ships was reported as outstanding.
Following is a report made by HYADES, which is considered typical of the events immediately before and during the evacuation: "HYADES had reported a 150-person lift capability to the CO, U.S. Naval Station on October 20, but her actual dependent lift was 290. The embarkation of passengers was smooth and orderly with excellent cooperation from the evacuees. The eldest passenger was a 70-year-old retired Civil Service employee, and the youngest was a four-day-old infant. Twenty-four mothers on board had three or more children accompanying them.
The entire ship's company gave up their usual berthing facilities to the dependents. A total of 230 bunks were made available in five berthing compartments. In addition, the lower CPO bunk room provided six bunks. Officers doubled up and made five staterooms available to new mothers, expectant mothers in the late stages of pregnancy and to medical cases.
Every effort was made by the ship's company to entertain the evacuees. Games, books, hobby shop material and recreational gear were made available to them. Movies were shown three times daily, one matinee and two evening presentations.
Winter clothing, a much-needed item in the northern latitude, was high-lined on October 25 from USS SHAKORI, to replace the tropical sun suits many were wearing. Laundry service for diapers was a numerical process-they were deposited in the morning and the same number was collected in the afternoon. Disposable diapers unlike line item-were not on board.
The only medical cases of note were one five-year-old boy with intracable asthma and a four-year-old boy who developed an infected ankle joint. Both were transferred to the Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Va., upon arrival. A 24-hour nursery service, set up in the Engineering Log Room, relieved tired mothers of their children. It was staffed by volunteers from both the crew and passengers."
The evacuees debarked from the ships and aircraft into the capable hands of the Amphibious Training Command, Little Creek, Va. The weather during the trip from Gitmo was fair and seas relatively smooth which contributed greatly to the perfect safety record. There was some seasickness, but not above average for the type passengers carried. The reception afforded the Gitmo evacuees was tremendous. The entire Tidewater area (Norfolk, Portsmouth and Little Creek) provided free clothing, food, lodging and other necessities. Agencies such as the Red Cross and Navy Relief Society assisted weary mothers with their children and made necessary transportation arrangements for those traveling to other parts of the United States. The response of the military commands and citizens of the greater Norfolk area was beyond words.
The personnel sent TAD from the base to assist the dependents notified the ladies that notes, letters and messages would be taken to their husbands if they wished. These letters, which totaled over 2,000, were distributed to each command Friday night, October 26. Letters continued to proceed from these dependents until the end of the year, at which time all had returned.
Return of Dependents
The first dependents returned to Guantanamo Bay on December 7, 1962, via MATS aircraft. The majority of dependents returned to their home prior to Christmas 1962, giving Guantanamo Bay the happiest Christmas ever.
The following message was released from the office of the Base Commander concerning the dependents return to Guantanamo Bay: "'There's no place like home', had more meaning today at Guantanamo Bay than any other place in the world. As the first group of dependents arrived at the Leeward Point Airfield at Guantanamo Bay, tears of happiness flowed and strong embraces filled the area. The excitement and anticipation of the twelve fathers and husbands was clearly visible as the silver transport made its approach to land. As the plane neared its position on the field, the tension could be felt throughout the gathered crowd. The reunion was almost pandemonium as waiting husbands, scores of friends and just plain curiosity seekers gathered at the reception area. It was a joyous moment for those waiting, those arriving and to the hundreds of others at this Naval Base, who will soon be greeting their loved ones in time for the Christmas season. The scars of the sudden departure were suddenly healed as this giant American community in the Caribbean once again will be filled with laughing children, busy housewives and contented husbands whose family has joined them. As the plane taxied up, the faces, some smiling, some crying, could be seen peering out of the small windows of the plane. While in the background, Sailors, Marines, and some civilians draped over ledges, leaned out of windows and stood in doorways-watching! Those that returned today more than represented something for everybody-a sense that Gitmo has at last returned to the normal fun-filled community-American style U.S.A.
"Among the civilians present was Perry Como, on the base for a round of personal appearances. Perry was just another greeter this day, however, and he would have wanted it no other way. It was a gracious act for him to be there-but the stars of the show were "Mommy and Kiddies".
"After much hugging and kissing, Gitmo's first reunited families gladly posed for photographers and interviews by newsmen present for the occasion. The comments boiled down to one simple but meaningful phrase, "It's good to be home".
"Although this American community in Cuba will not have a "White" Christmas it will certainly be blessed with a most Merry one plus a joyous New Year."
The remainder of the dependents continued to arrive by aircraft and via MSTS ship. The USNS GEIGER brought in the first group of returning dependents on December 14, 1962.
In addition to the Perry Como troupe that entertained the men in December 1962, Ed Sullivan filmed his 1962 Christmas show at the Naval Air Station movie lyceum. In January 1963, Eddie Fisher visited the base and gave several shows throughout the area, rounding out the big-time entertainers.
Although these entertainers provided the men and returning dependents with first class shows, perhaps the most heart-warming gesture for those stationed at Guantanamo Bay then was a special "Gifts for Gitmo" project undertaken by Radio Station KPRC Houston, Texas. The project received the wholehearted support of the Houston citizens who donated 2,000 gifts as a token of their appreciation. A huge silver Christmas tree and the gifts arrived aboard a special flight from Texas.
Go to Chapter Twenty