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The Closest Call
Secrets from the Cuban Missile Crisis
By Gary Slaughter, author of the 'Cottonwood' series
October 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a standoff that brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear destruction. Just how close we came to an exchange of nuclear weapons was not revealed until the 2002 publication of Peter Huchthausen’s October Fury.
This gripping history describes the formerly top-
I played a role on the American side of this confrontation.
On October 27, 1962, as a young naval officer, I was standing watch on the bridge
of the USS Cony (DD-
At about five o’clock in the afternoon, the Cony detected a sonar contact, which
turned out to be the B-
Savitsky was correct. The nuclear device he was about to launch at Cony was estimated
to be in the 15-
This was the power of the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to end World
War II. Stories differ on why Savitsky did not launch his nuclear torpedo. Some witnesses
say he cooled down and had a change of heart. Others say that a peer, Captain Vasili
Arkhipov from the B-
In any case, Savitsky took five more hours of unrelenting ASW hounding or “prosecuting”
by Cony. With her batteries nearly depleted, B-
As communication officer, I was fully trained to communicate with Soviet warships
by employing the Cyrillic alphabet transliteration table, International Signals Book,
and Morse code. Soon after B-
At first, Savitsky refused to identify the name of his boat. When challenged, he replied that the submarine was “Ship X.” And he reported his status as, “On the surface, operating normally.” I then asked, “Do you require assistance?” Savitsky’s answer was a curt, “Negative.”
For nearly an hour, Savitsky and I stared at each other. The situation settled into
an uneasy standoff for both of us. Suddenly, an overzealous naval aviator disrupted
our relative serenity. Out of the night sky a land-
Bam! Bam! Bam! And the light flashes were absolutely blinding.
Understandably believing he was under attack, Savitsky cleared his conning tower and wheeled his boat around, bringing his nuclear torpedo to bear on Cony.
Commander William Morgan, Cony’s commanding officer, immediately directed me to
signal Savitsky, apologizing for the provocative nature of the pilot’s conduct. Then
Morgan, using ship-
Morgan’s standing order for me was simple. “Keep that Russian bastard happy.”
I spent the ensuing several hours doing just that. I started by nodding my thanks for Savitsky’s patience. The Russian nodded back. Our relationship, such as it was, appeared to become more cordial in nature.
Shortly thereafter, Savitsky surprisingly signaled (in plain English this time) that his crew could use some fresh bread and cigarettes if Cony could spare them.
I immediately arranged for a parcel of freshly-
When Savitsky realized that Cony’s intentions were benign, he re-
Cony steamed along like this for several more hours, until relieved by the USS Waller
(DD 466), a member of Cony’s destroyer squadron. After a respectful salute to Capitan
Savitsky, I retired to my stateroom for a long, much-
Some hours later, Cony received word that B-
Even though all Cony crew members, including myself, were sworn to secrecy about the whole incident, I was proud to receive a Letter of Commendation for my actions on that historic day.
My lips were sealed for the next 40 years.
Not even my wife knew about the incident until Peter Huchthausen asked me to write
an account of my recollections of this incident. I credit my ten years of ASW training
and experience as the reason this incident and all its facets have remained so vivid
in my mind. Learning of the obvious danger of the presence of a nuclear-
In terms of historical perspective, the Kennedy White House ominously called Saturday,
October 27, 1962, “Black Saturday.” In addition to Cony’s close call, an American
1. Ensign Slaughter as he looked at the time of the incident, to right.
2. The Soviet submarine Cony surfaced being escorting back to Russia by another ASW destroyer.
3. The USS Cony at sea.
4. The ASW Hunter-
The Documentary 'The Man Who Saved The World'
During the first half of 2012, I spent many hours working with Bedlam Productions,
a British filmmaker, to develop a documentary regarding the B-
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis this documentary was shown on all the nation’s PBS stations in October, 2012. Excerpts of my long interview that was filmed by Bedlam in Washington, DC, aboard a retired navy destroyer on exhibit at the Washington Navy Yard were included in the documentary.
The documentary was commissioned by PBS (Thirteen) which is WNET in New York. WNET produces and distributes programming for all PBS affiliates in the country. The documentary, entitled The Man Who Saved the World, is a part of the Secrets of the Dead series. Beyond this initial broadcast, the program will be shown many additional times between now and the end of the year. Please consult your local listings.
Over the past four years, I have turned down three other documentary filmmakers in favor of Bedlam. Among a number of reasons I chose Bedlam was the fact that Bedlam produced the 2010 Best Picture Academy Award winner, “The King’s Speech.” It’s one of my favorite movies.
For the record: I am not the man who saved the world. I was just one of many who helped keep it safe for all of us.
Learn more at
Listen to Big Blend Radio interviews 5 Naval Officers who were aboard the USS Cony: Gary Slaughter, Andrew Bradick, Bob Mitich, Jim Knapp, and Paul Goorjian