Writer's Block: Recollections of Cuban Missile Crisis
Yesterday, while catching up on the news, I was reminded that this week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It brings back some interesting memories for me and I thought that I would share them with you.
In early October 1962 I found myself in a small second floor classroom at the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina. I had received orders to attend Language School after cajoling my Commanding Officer and convincing him that the squadron needed an officer fluent in Spanish. My motive was duplicitous in that my object was to transition from helicopters to jets and find my way to an attack squadron. During a poker game in September I learned from a squadron mate that he had followed this route and been checked out in the F-9 Cougar, a fighter trainer. He gave me the name of his mentor in the transition squadron and promised to forward a recommendation. And so it happened. Orders were written and I drove the 40-some odd miles up the highway from New River MCAS to Cherry Point. Before reporting to the school I met with my “contact,” got briefed, checked out in the pressure chamber and picked up my pressure suit. All set to go.
After about a week my Spanish was improving and my afternoon rides in the F-9 were going great. Early one morning I was distracted by all the commotion going on outside the window. Hundreds of troop carriers were arriving with Marines in full battle gear and the Marines were being loaded onto C-130 transports. Something was going on. An orderly came into the classroom with a message from my squadron. “LT. Torrey, you have two hours to get back to New River.” The next two days the whole Air Group ferried what was left of the Second Marine Division out to the aircraft carriers coming down from Norfolk and on the 17th of October the squadron flew out to the USS Boxer(LPH-4) and headed toward Cuba. Our destination was still classified but it didn’t take much imagination to know where we were headed. About two days later our task force joined the armada somewhere off the southeast coast of Cuba. I don’t know how many ships were there, probably four or five hundred, maybe more. Every infantry man, Marine and Army, was afloat.
The next week was spent in briefing sessions, flying the mail out to the fleet, cleaning our weapons, checking on our Marines and trying to learn what was going on by listening to the static on a few cheap FM radios. On about the 27th or 28th of October we were summoned to the pilots’ ready room for a classified briefing at 8 p.m. We would be going ashore the next morning. Landing zones were assigned, approach and departure routes designated. We were to be in our aircraft at 4 a.m. and launch 30 minutes before dawn. The ship would be 20 miles off the coast. About 3:30 a.m. we dressed, strapped on our side arms, and headed topside. The Boxer was an old WWII straight deck carrier converted to a LPH or landing platform for Marine Amphibious Assault. It was configured to carry a helicopter squadron of 24 aircraft (48 pilots) and one battalion of Marines. Because of the urgency of this mission there were two helicopter squadrons aboard and two marine battalions. The extra battalion, about 400 men, were bivouacked on the hangar deck, a cavernous space below the flight deck. Our route to our aircraft took us across the hangar deck where many of these marines were still sleeping, their ponchos spread out on the steel floor.
The ship was under DEFCON 2, the Navy at battle stations, and the only illumination allowed was the dim, eerie glow of the red battle lighting. I tried my best not to step on any of the sleeping marines but, about half way across the deck, I stumbled on someone’s ankle. Amidst a colorful string of profanity the marine jumped to his feet glowering at me. “Sorry Marine, I’m real sorry for waking you,” I muttered. When he saw the bars on my flight suit he snapped to attention and saluted. Although the light was very dim I recognized him right away. He was none other than my old drill instructor from Naval Flight School at Pensacola. The first sixteen weeks of flight school, if you went through as a cadet like I did, were pretty rough. Maybe not as bad as Paris Island but close to it. The drill instructor’s job was to make your life as miserable as possible in the hopes that you would quit. The completion rate was about 50 percent. So here I was, nose to nose with my old nemesis, and what happens? My knees started shaking, I dropped my helmet bag and snapped to attention also. Then I realized the absurdity of the situation and spoke to him. “Sergeant Bosquet, it’s me, MARCAD Torrey. Remember me?”
There was too much adrenaline flowing and the sergeant was too wired. I squeezed his shoulder and told him to be careful, then I joined my squadron mates on the aircraft elevator for the trip up to the flight deck.
We manned the aircraft and the deck crew rolled them forward and unfolded the stowed rotor blades. At about 5:45 a.m. the marines got aboard, twelve in each helicopter in full battle gear. We started our engines and waited for the signal from the deck officer to engage the rotors. Thankfully it never came. Somehow President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev had reached an agreement. We shut the engines down and went below to get some sleep. We were on station for about another three weeks and then headed back to North Carolina. On the way home we encountered a tropical storm and relieved our newfound boredom by playing a game of chicken, each man taking a turn facing a 50-foot wave as it broke over the flight deck. We held on to the lead man by locking our arms around each other’s waist and snaking out a labyrinth passageway on the forecastle deck.
I had to wait three years until I went with the airlines to resume my jet career and I’ve tried to keep up with my Spanish, but I still have fond memories of my times in the Corps — especially that short reunion with Sergeant Bosquet.