Something funny happened on the way to the Cuban Missile Crisis

by | Nov 10, 2016 | Other News

Jim Eilberg, CAPT, SC, USNR (RET)

I had just finished supper when the telephone call came from the Petty Officer of the Watch. “This is not a drill,” he announced. “This is a 100% recall. Return to the ship immediately.” That was Monday, October 23, 1962, about 6:30 pm.

The call came from my ship the USS Blandy (DD 943), a Sherman class destroyer homeported in Newport, Rhode Island. I was the Blandy’s Supply Officer. I quickly donned my uniform, that of a Navy Lieutenant. I grabbed a few personal items and drove the five miles to the pier where Blandy was moored.

Foodstuffs that I had requisitioned for delivery the following day were being stacked on the pier for immediate loading. These were mostly perishable items such as milk, eggs, vegetables and fruit. Otherwise, the ship always attempted to keep a 60-day supply of frozen and canned goods in stock.

At 8 pm, the officers not on watch gathered in the wardroom to view President John F. Kennedy’s address to the nation on TV. He advised the country of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba just 90 miles from the U.S. He further announced a strict quarantine of all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba. At that point we all realized why our recall had been initiated.

As I looked around the wardroom I realized my assistant LTJG Steve Jackson was not present. I knew he had just married and was no doubt still on his honeymoon. The two of us shared logistic responsibilities aboard Blandy. I was the department head and handled the ship’s budget as well as procurement of all supplies and materials. I was also in charge of feeding the crew of 350 enlisted and chief petty officers. The officers had their own dining arrangements overseen by the rotating jobs of mess caterer and mess treasurer, aided by several stewards.

Steve was the disbursing officer in charge of paying the crew and officers twice monthly. He also oversaw the running of the ships store, the vending machines, the laundry and barbershop. Initially I didn’t anticipate Steve’s absence would create any problems.

About one hour after listening to the President’s speech Blandy got underway, steaming out of Narragansett Bay in calm seas. The ship had been given only a southerly course and a speed of 25 knots, which was well above our normal cruising speed of 12 to 15 knots.

The next morning we arrived off the Virginia Capes and received more specific instructions by classified messages. We were to be part of an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) group consisting of several destroyers traveling with the aircraft carrier USS Essex. We would also serve as one of several ships enforcing a quarantine (blockade) 500 miles northeast of Havana, an outer barrier named the Walnut Line. It was the mission of the ships on the Walnut Line to intercept any incoming Soviet merchantmen delivering war materials to Cuba. They were to be stopped and inspected for such cargo and directed to turn around if they failed the inspection.

Aboard Blandy we did not really have the big political picture that was developing in Washington. This period of time later came to be known as The Thirteen Days (October 16–28). A fine reconstruction of that period was made into a movie starring Kevin Costner and called The Thirteen Days. Never since that time has the U.S. come as precariously close to a nuclear engagement. We did know that there were at least four Russian Foxtrot class submarines deployed in the waters around Cuba. We did not know that each was equipped with several nuclear-tipped torpedoes. Nor did we know until much after the conflict that the sub commanders had been given authorization by Moscow to use this weaponry if attacked.

Blandy spent the next days on plane guard duty for Essex which continued to launch its aircraft in search of the Russian subs and Russian freighters. We then broke off from time to time to investigate sub contacts or intercept merchantmen.


Meanwhile, as the Supply Officer, I was concerned as we went from normal steaming to sudden general quarters that there were always at least sandwiches, cold drinks and plenty of coffee available around the clock. Fortunately, I had two chief petty officer commissarymen, WW II veterans who made the task easy. The weather of course was hot and only the dining areas had air conditioning. Keeping the laundry machines operational 24 hours a day was a challenge and fresh water was at a premium. But, as we approached the end of the month and without a disbursing officer, I was beginning to wonder how I could hold payday on the 31st. By law, I had no access to the disbursing officer’s combination safe, nor did anyone else.

Happily, money was being regularly spent in the ship’s store and in the vending machines and as we approached payday, I had about $9,500 in cash on hand. But with a crew of close to 400, that sum was not nearly enough. On the other hand, most of the senior enlisted and officers had allotments which sums were taken out of their salaries and sent directly to their banks ashore each payday to benefit wives, mortgages, car payments, etc. So, I made an appeal in the ship’s Plan of the Day requesting the crew to ask for only as much cash as they thought they would absolutely need for the next two weeks or until the next payday on 15 November. Of course, none of us knew where our travels might find us at that time.

So, with the consent of the Captain, I devised a plan to pay only half the crew on the regular end of the month payday (October 31). Then, depending on ship store and vending sales in the following days, I could probably raise enough cash to complete payday. If we were lucky enough to be able to borrow cash from one of the replenishment ships when they drew alongside to refuel us, I could also get lucky. That did not happen. A few days later I did have sufficient funds to pay about half the crew. Three days later, I held a second payday, and three days after that, the last of the crew was paid.

October 30 was in fact a fearful day aboard Blandy. We had made contact with a Russian sub designated B-130 shortly after midnight. Contact was continuously maintained for nearly 17 hours while neither C.O. knew what the other might do. In fact, B-130 was severely disabled with two of her diesel engines out of operation and rapidly running out of fresh air. We were driving her crew to distraction by continuing to ping on her hull with our powerful SQS 23 sonar. Otherwise, we dropped only hand grenades in the sub’s direction, not really wishing to inflict real damage. Fortunately, the Russian skipper had the good sense to forego launching torpedoes. A nuclear strike against us, he was aware, could also destroy his own boat.

Finally, B-130 had no recourse but to surface and face the music. We could see immediately that he was disabled, spewing black smoke from his one operational engine and able to make no more than two knots on the surface. We did not then realize he could not submerge again. Bravely, he refused all assistance and headed back to the north. A few days later he met up with a Russian sub tender who nursed him back home to the North Sea.

Well after the sub adventure and the innovative payday, LTJG Jackson, my Disbursing Officer was finally highlined back aboard. He was able to hold a normal payday in mid-November. Blandy returned to Newport after nearly 30 days at sea well after the missile crisis was averted and the weapons removed from Cuba. To my surprise, the story of the novel payday I held was picked up by The Providence Journal and later, Time magazine (Dec. 7 1962). The payday crisis had been nicely resolved as had the Cuban one.

—Jim Eilberg served 31 years in the U.S. Navy, both active and reserve and retired as a Captain in the Supply Corps in 1988.