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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-secret facts concerning a near-catastrophic confrontation between an American destroyer and a Soviet submarine armed with a deadly nuclear torpedo.



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-508), an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyer. My ship was part of an ASW task force including a squadron of destroyers and the USS Randolph (CVS 15), an ASW aircraft carrier. The task force was stationed on the Cuban Quarantine Line about 300 miles southwest of Bermuda. American ASW strategic intelligence had identified a number of Soviet submarines that were traveling southward toward Cuba in advance of the Soviet freighters carrying medium-range nuclear missiles and other arms for use by Fidel Castro’s forces positioned on the north coast of Cuba, only 90 miles from our coastline.


At about five o’clock in the afternoon, the Cony detected a sonar contact, which turned out to be the B-59, a Soviet Foxtrot class, diesel-battery powered submarine. Following the naval protocol for challenging unidentified submarines to surface, Cony crewmen dropped five practice depth charges. This action apparently panicked the submarine’s already stress-ridden commanding officer, Captain Vitali Savitsky who ordered his crew to arm their nuclear torpedo. Witnesses aboard B-59 reported that Savitsky screamed, “Maybe the war has already started up there, while we’re down here doing summersaults. We’re going to blast them now! We’ll die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our Navy.”


Savitsky was correct. The nuclear device he was about to launch at Cony was estimated to be in the 15-kiloton range.

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-59 squadron commander’s staff dissuaded him. Still others say that pressure was brought by all of the officers aboard B-59.


In any case, Savitsky took five more hours of unrelenting ASW hounding or “prosecuting” by Cony. With her batteries nearly depleted, B-59 finally surfaced at 10 o’clock that night. Following the rules laid out in the protocol, B-59 assumed an easterly heading and a slow speed while recharging her batteries. The Cony followed the submarine from a position about 200 feet off the submarine’s starboard beam.  


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-59 was on the surface, my signalmen and I used our flashing light to interrogate the submarine.

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-based, fixed-wing Neptune P2V roared over the scene and dropped several small incendiary devices, presumably to activate his photoelectric camera lenses to photograph the submarine. The incendiaries sounded like a string of large firecrackers exploding.


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-to-ship radio, transmitted a scolding rebuke of the Task Force Commander’s staff for allowing such an act to occur. When Savitsky observed no further provocative actions, he cooled down, accepted my apology, and resumed an easterly heading. .


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-baked bread and American cigarettes to be transferred to the submarine by high-line, which involved the use of a shotgun to propel a floatable projectile attached to a light line over to the receiving ship. The Russian high-line procedure called for the use of a “monkey fist” attached to a light line, thrown by hand. When Cony had closed to within 80 feet or so, the boatswain mate discharged his shotgun. At the sound of the shot, Captain Savitsky ducked and cleared his conning tower once again, apparently preparing to submerge.


When Savitsky realized that Cony’s intentions were benign, he re-manned his conning tower, retrieved the parcel, and came to a north-easterly heading.  As he slowly chugged toward Russia, recharging his batteries, Cony set a parallel course and followed, just off B-59’s starboard beam. Again Savitsky and I exchanged cordial nods and even a small smile or two as I recall.     


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-deserved night’s rest. Cony returned to its position in the ASW screen ahead of the Randolph.


Some hours later, Cony received word that B-59 had submerged and the Waller had lost contact with the submarine.


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-tipped torpedo sharpened my memory as well.


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 U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. Historians agree that this was the most dangerous day in the history of our country.


Featured images:
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-Killer Task Force of which Cony was a part, top.


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-59 and my ship’s role in a formerly top-secret incident that occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Historians agree that this incident was the closest the world has ever come to an exchange of nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union.


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.


Links:
- To watch
The Man Who Saved the World, visit http://to.pbs.org/TGrPsP

- To watch a Nashville Public Television interview of Gary Slaughter visit http://bit.ly/TuMy0k     

Learn more at www.GarySlaughter.com

Watch The Man Who Saved the World: Full Episode on PBS. See more from Secrets of the Dead.

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