On October 19, 1962, KIDD was moored in Norfolk at the Destroyer Piers. It was a pleasant Friday and the crew was looking forward to a weekend. The following week we were scheduled to sail to Naval Weapons Station, Yorktown, Virginia, to off-load the ammunition in preparation for overhaul in Cramps Shipyard in Philadelphia. The Weapons Department planned an all-hands work party to move thousands of projectiles and powder casings from the magazines to a barge at the Weapon Station, while the Engineering Officers and Chiefs were busy making up the list of shipyard repair jobs. Early in the afternoon, RM3 Mock, with whom I had spent many quiet Quarterdeck watches, told me, “Mr. Van Arsdale, I’m worried. Something big is up.” He went on to explain that he had seen a huge amount of encrypted radio traffic, mostly using higher level keys which KIDD did not have. Apparently, the admirals and their staffs were doing a lot of communicating. It occurred to me that my plans to travel to New York to be in a friend’s wedding might be thwarted. What neither of us knew at the time was that in May, the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to deploy strategic nuclear weapons to Cuba. Under great secrecy, dozens of Soviet merchant ships headed toward Cuba carrying thousands of troops, short and intermediate range missiles, IL-28 bombers, and Mig-21 fighters. In early September, the first shipments of nuclear warheads arrived in Cuba. The only naval escorts the Soviets could provide for the merchant ships were four Foxtrot-class long-range diesel submarines.
The Soviet nuclear subs at the time, like the ill-fated K-19, were not reliable enough for critical missions far from the Barents Sea. Each of the Foxtrot subs carried an “equalizer” ó a torpedo with a nuclear warhead. On Sunday, October 14, a U-2 spy plane flew over Cuba. The following day, analysts at the National Photographic Interpretation Center identified Soviet MRBM sites near San Cristobal and President Kennedy was briefed by the CIA. The U.S. Defense establishment began planning a response. On Friday evening, several of us went to the nearby club while many KIDD sailors spread out to the bars along Hampton Boulevard for some much deserved liberty. As sailors returned to the ship, word spread about the Shore Patrol going through the bars, asking sailors “What ship?” If the reply was BLANDY or JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, the sailors were told that their liberty was cancelled and to return to the ship immediately. KIDD sailors were told they may stay. An even more ominous scene was that of civilian navy yard workers fueling destroyers. Somebody was paying the yardbirds overtime to fuel ships: this was serious! On Saturday morning, the Destroyer Piers were a hubbub of activity. Some ships had sailed during the night and others were preparing to get underway. Their skippers were told to “turn right at the sea buoy” and little else. The 1MC on the tender called for sailors receiving emergency transfers to report to Ship’s Office, as the destroyers tried to fill in for missing crew. KIDD was ordered to give our warshot hedgehog ASW [anti-submarine warfare] projectiles to another destroyer to top off her magazines.
By noon, KIDD and the tender were about the only warships left in Norfolk. The TV newscasts added to the sense of crisis. The local stations mentioned the ship movements without elaboration, but the national network news programs were silent about any military activity. Then, in mid-morning, a network station mentioned that President Kennedy was suffering from a cold and was cutting short his fundraising trip to Chicago. Cold? Sure. Aboard KIDD, we continued to worry until President Kennedy’s address on Monday, October 22, when he announced the naval quarantine of Cuba. It was a strange feeling to ponder the crisis and not be a part of the solution. Were we going to be incinerated in the blast of a Soviet thermonuclear warhead? Was this the start of World War III? We continued on our original plan, unloading ammunition and sailing to Philadelphia to enter drydock. For the next week, a game of “thermonuclear chicken” was played out until Khrushchev backed down with the promise [by President Kennedy] of removal of U.S. missiles based in Turkey. He was probably influenced by the knowledge that all four of the Foxtrot submarines had been detected by U.S. ASW forces. Guided by the SOSUS underwater sound arrays and the BLOWPIPE radio intercept system which could triangulate the short burst transmissions which Soviet subs used to report their status to Moscow, U.S. destroyers, P2V patrol bombers, and S2F sub hunter aircraft gained contact with sonar, sonobuoys, and magnetic anomaly detection (MAD).
Fortunately, the Soviet Submarine Group Commander, Admiral Ryblako, disregarding orders (and ending his career), transmitted to his boats the “U.S. Notice to Mariners” which outlined the U.S. procedure for stopping submerged submarines at the quarantine line. Three of the Foxtrots were held down until their batteries were exhausted and surfaced on the designated course. Had the Soviet skippers not known that the U.S. ships would be dropping sequences of small signal explosives, which at first sounded like depth charges, they may very well have fired their nuclear torpedoes. The risk of nuclear exchange and escalation to a conflagration was not fully realized until 1992 when a conference of surviving principles was held at Havana. It was then, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that the U.S. understood the number of tactical nuclear warheads with the Soviet troops, and their orders to use them to stop a U.S. invasion, or if a submarine was under attack.