I awake and look at my watch. It's twenty after five and no Marine has
called me. I am at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Officer's Club in Puerto Rico
and I'm confused in the tropical morning darkness. In my many years in
military operations, such an oversight has never occurred before. I pull
on a skivvy shirt and shorts and I think, "The wars over now and this is
what's happening. Like so many other things in post-war America, the military
has gone to hell."
Last night Lt. Commander Jack Mackercher, a Navy friend of war days had sent me off to my BOQ when he learned that I was not going to stay up half the night with the scores of other newsmen and photographers talking about the war years and drinking it up as guests of the Navy. Early tomorrow, 20,000 men including 6,000 Marines in a 42 ship, two aircraft carrier combat force will go ashore for landing games on the nearby island of Vieques. For the landing exercise the Island has been renamed "Ortsac," Castro spelled backwards. It is mid-October 1962, and the operation, the most powerful show of Naval force since the and of the war, will be heavily covered by most publications and wire services "it's just a game," someone at our table, a veteran war correspondent, told Commander Mackercher, "but a lot of us have come here for it because we're only 640 miles from Cuba and this is the way we'll do it" -- he pauses, perhaps remembering The Bay of Pigs -- "when we go over the beaches there for real."
The commander did not reply and turning to me said simply, "There's a car waiting outside. It'll take you to your BOQ." "You said something about an early call," I said, thanking him. "Yes," he answered. "At five. But don't worry about it. We'll get you up. There'll be a six foot marine at your bed shaking you. And you'll smell bacon and eggs too. The mess is just below your quarters."
Now in the predawn darkness I step out of my room onto the ship-like gangway that runs the length of the BOQ's third deck. I see no one! Astonished, I glance at my watch again. And then I run down the three flights of steps to the blacktop road that borders the brightly lighted mess hall. There's no one anywhere! Just no one! The smell of bacon and eggs is strong and enticing. I go into the mess hall. It's empty except for four or five sailors in whites working at cooking ranges and steam tables. The two sailors nearest me are scrambling eggs and one looks up. "What's happening?" I ask. He looks at me as he tosses the eggs in a large skillet.
'You got me." he says "What should be happening?'
"What's all this for?" I say pointing at the scrambling eggs.
"You press? he asks.
"There's going to be a lot of you guys this morning."
I walk out into the brightening dawn. I'm moved by the wonderful morning tropic smells, but I'm perplexed and disturbed too. When working on competitive stories with a gathering of reporters there's always the worry that if you don't know where the others are and what they're doing, something important may be happening and you may be left out.
When I reach my BOQ deck again someone comes out of one of the rooms. He's uncombed and has a towel around his waist and he's looking around wildly. He rushes over to me. "Christ!" he says. "Nobody's called me!"
"Or me," I say. "You're the first one I've seen." And pointing down towards the mess hall, I add, "and the mess hall's empty too."
Now, other reporters are coming out of their rooms. They also are uncombed and undressed. We pass the word: "Nobody's been called!"
"Something's up" someone pacing nervously among us repeats. "My office has been telephoning." He holds out a notebook with scribbles on it.
"What's is it?" voices ask.
"That's it!" He stops pacing. "No one knows! Its all turmoil back there."
Now more of the press is gathering along the gangway deck, coming out of their rooms undressed and in towels. They've all had calls from their offices too: from Washington, New York, Boston, from across the country.
The calls are increasing. Everybody's in on them. Still, no one knows what's going on. But the word "Cuba" appears increasingly in the talks. The editors everywhere are nervous and saying much the same thing; "We don't know what it is, but you're placed right. Stay with the Navy. They've got ships and aircraft. Stand by."
Now many of us have spilled out on the roadway near the mess hall entrance. We stand about, coffee cups in hand, some of us exchanging shouts with colleagues up on the BOQ landings who have telephones to their ears. There's a lot of yelling. And as always, when facts are scarce, there's a blossoming of rumors: Russian ships are on their way to Cuba; Soviet nuclear weapons are stored there; the games have been called off because unfriendly nuclear submarines are in the Puerto Rico--Vieques waters.
Then all at once an item of straight news reaches us from the telephones in our rooms and from radios everywhere: The President will talk to the nation at seven o'clock tonight "on a grave national issue that could affect the security of the United States." Suddenly, everyone is still. It seems at first to reach each of us personally -- not professionally. Commander Mackercher appears and stands among us. He has a command presence. "'Whatever it is," he says easily, "you couldn't be in a better place." He's Navy at its best: immaculate, confident, quick of mind. Now he's assaulted by streams of questions from gesturing journalists. He avoids the questions and slips away.
But soon he is back. We surround him again, "All right," he declares. "Here's the drill. A decision's been made. We're flying to St. Thomas." "What's there?" someone asks. He ignores him. "And on our way we'll come down at San Juan for a planeside interview with Admiral Smith." Admiral Allen Smith Jr., is the Commandant of the 10th Naval District. "A Convair's being rolled into loading position right now to take us there."
Our expectations have risen sharply. But as we assemble on the ramp to board the plane, Mackercher strikes them down. "There's one thing I've got to tell you before you meet Admiral Smith," he calls out. "There'll be no questions about Cuba."
There's mutterings of disappointment and surprise. "Why not?" someone asks aggressively.
Mackercher turns to him and with a tiny smile replies, "Because someone senior to me says there won't be."
At San Juan, Admiral Smith is waiting for us. He says: "Gentlemen, the landing exercises scheduled for today and tomorrow have been canceled. The reason for this is the dispersal of the ships caused by storms at sea. High winds from hurricane Ella have been buffeting our fleet so that the landing craft will be unable to complete their mission."
After this brief statement, the Admiral has turned and is leaving, and one of us breaks the rule: "Sir," a reporter calls out, "The landing exercises and hurricane Ella? Is there any connection between the cancellations and the President's radio address tonight?" But the Admiral does not interrupt his departure and we feel put down and return to the Convair and climb back in. We are soon landed at St. Thomas. None of us knows why we are there, but we are expectant, and we pile into the cars the Navy has waiting for us. We are taken to the Gramboko Inn, a down at the heels hotel that the Navy has in some way secured for us on short notice at the expense of some of the residents whom we hear muttering as they pass us on their way out.
Many of us run for telephones and others gather in the big room on the first floor. An aging cabinet radio is there and some begin to press buttons and turn dials on it. The furniture is worn and there is a moldy smell that is common in hotels in the tropics that save by limiting the hours of their air conditioning. And we spread out there and wait for seven o'clock and the voice of the President. When it comes we cannot hear very well because his voice is distorted by scratchy sounds and static in the vintage radio, and we huddle around it and bend over each other straining to hear the President. His message is of extraordinary gravity. Last night, he says, a sea and air quarantine was imposed barring the shipment of military equipment to Cuba. The Soviet Union, he says, is building offensive missiles in Cuba that could fire medium range nuclear missiles 2000 miles. He has called on Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles, and he warns that the launching of any of them against a Western hemisphere nation would be met by retaliation against the Soviet Union.
There are murmurs among us and as we all crowd together straining to hear the President, a voice rises above our mumbled comments: "It's nuclear war!"
And for the rest of the night we continue listening to the radio and to telephone reports, scribbling notes on the developments as the enormity of the crisis grows: an hour before the President's broadcast, the East Germans had begun slowing the traffic between West Germany and Berlin; the US fleet, now at general quarters, is approaching Cuban waters with orders to turn back all ships that are carrying offensive weapons towards Cuba. If they refuse, the orders are to seize them. If the Soviets retaliate with action such as a Berlin blockade, be prepared for any risk.
When daylight comes there is no service in the hotel and our mood is ominous. We know we should be out there somewhere covering what is happening, We are unshaven and unready and our minds are not yet put together. Instead we find makeshift ways to brew coffee. We still do not know why we have been brought here and when word is passed that we are flying back to San Juan, our questions are unanswered: Are we to board combat ships there? Are we to be put on aircraft? Are we, after all, going in over Cuban beaches?
No one knows, and when we seek out Jack Mackercher, he shrugs. But for many of us, only a few years out of the last war, old fears return -- and more powerfully: this time the war will be nuclear!
Still, as we climb into the Convair on our way back to San Juan, many a seasoned war correspondent among us is struggling aboard with large, corrugated boxes of whiskey and gin purchased in St. Thomas's duty-free port. Even though an imminent nuclear holocaust threatens, we are not much different from the GI's and correspondents in past wars who made the most of opportunity.
Back in San Juan, the city has all but come to a stand still. The shops are crowded with people listening to the news, but no one breaks away to sell anything. People who are walking along the side walks have transistors to their ears, and taxis are parked everywhere, but none are taking customers. The drivers are gathered in groups at curbsides, listening to their radios.
We learn that it was the U-2s that brought this all about in the first place. It was their scrutiny that spotted the missiles being implanted, and though one of them was downed by advanced Soviet rocketry, it is their unerring flights and their eyes that can spot and identify a golf ball on a roadway that provided hourly progress reports of the Russians in making them ready. It is these reports above all else, that have turned the alert into a crisis, compelling the U.S. into its life or death commitment.
Next day, on October 24, we receive the news that 25 Soviet ships have been spotted en route to Cuba and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has ordered them intercepted beginning at 10 this morning. We clamor in San Juan -- and our offices pressure in Washington -- to get us aboard U.S. vessels and aircraft.
We learn that Khrushchev is challenging Kennedy's right to block arms shipments to Cuba. He warns the President he is courting nuclear war. Kennedy stands firm. And in the United Nations Security Council we hear Adlai Stevenson say: "We still hope. we still pray that the worst may be avoided...."
Then, on October 29, as many of us in the press are still standing by in San Juan, monitoring the developments and awaiting word from our offices and permission from the Navy as to where and when we are to be sent into the crisis, word comes that Khrushchev has reversed himself. He has agreed to meet President Kennedy's demand to take the missiles back to the Soviet Union under United Nations surveillance.
The widely expanded press corps, which originally assembled in the Caribbean for games of war and was suddenly overtaken by awesome reality, is now being told that none of us will be allowed into Cuba. We cannot witness the missiles being dismantled and removed from their stands. We must return home. I also go back to my base in New York. But suddenly the Navy, in yet another reversal, agrees to let the world see the finale of the crisis: the dismantled missiles being shipped away from Cuba, strapped to the decks of Soviet vessels. And I learn that I have been named a pool photographer to record this historic withdrawal for all publications and wire services.
On November 10, at Andrews Air Force Base, just out of Washington, I am taken to a Navy Lockheed P-3-A jet and I meet the plane's crew and its captain, Commander Perry Hunter. They welcome me and Commander Hunter tells me, "I have orders to give you whatever you want. I've got more fuel than you've got film. Just tell me where you want to be and I'll put you there." He directs me to the copilot's seat beside him and says, "We'll fly the passes together. There'll be a destroyer running alongside a Russian freighter. We'll talk with the destroyer and he'll talk with the Russians. And the Russians will do what he says, which means he'll do what you say." He laughs. "That's a lot of power you've got just because you've got those cameras hanging on you."
We take off that morning at 9:30 and in three and a half hours we sight Cuba. Now we're over a Soviet tanker the, Karl Marx. It is 30 miles east of where we are heading. But we buzz it. The Navy's designation of a Soviet ship is "Scotchtape" and this is "Scotchtape One." Commander Hunter talks Navy talk into his mike, and then as we turn away from the tanker, he tells me that it has no missiles aboard. And in a few minutes he points to two tiny craft in the distance running against the light on an easy sea, and he says that they are our targets. And in moments they loom big ahead of us: the U-8 Destroyer Vesole, No. 878, and just beyond it, making a parallel wake, "Scotchtape Six," the Soviet freighter Polzunov, The Navy had made contact with her at 4:30 this morning just after she pulled away from her Cuban dock.
Now at 1:33 we're over her. I see the missiles! There are five of them. They are thirty or forty feet long, each strapped to the decks and each dressed in neatly-fitted tan covers. For days in varying fantasies I have seen them differently: in various sizes and shapes and sometimes in progressive stages of imagined horrors. Now, here they are, lying just below me, perfectly shaped, truly pretty, and suddenly so benign!
Copyright, Carl Mydans 1993
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