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50 years later: Veterans reflect on Cuban Missile Crisis

They discuss lessons learned after world moved to brink of nuclear war

Military veterans reflect on the Cuban Missile Crisis 50 years later during a CU Denver program

By Chris Casey | University Communications

DENVER - The tensions roiling the Caribbean were 2,000 miles away from western Montana in October 1962. Charles Simpson, a maintenance officer with the 569th Strategic Missile Squadron, didn't know the specifics of the conflict, but he knew the nation lurched closer to nuclear war with each passing day.

"All we knew was that every missile was to be put on alert and we were to keep them on alert," said Simpson, a retired colonel. The Strategic Air Command was put on DEFCON 3 on Oct. 22 and DEFCON 2 on Oct. 25. "You don't expect things like that. We were told over and over again to keep everything close to launch. ... It gets a little scary when you're hearing the (commander) say we're about to go to war."

Simpson and four other retired U.S. military veterans spoke at "Too Close for Comfort: The Cuban Missile Crisis 50 Years Later," a panel discussion held in the North Classroom Wednesday evening. The program was sponsored by the University of Colorado Denver Department of Political Science and the U.S. Navy League.

A historical context to those 14 days in October 1962, when the world came the closest it's ever been to nuclear war, was provided by Steve Kelly, an intelligence analyst and retired member of the Naval Reserve.

After World War II, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union grew as the Soviets strengthened control of eastern Europe and East Berlin. The 1950s ushered in the era of nuclear deterrence as military strategy.

Starting in August 1962, U.S. U-2 aircraft photographed evidence of arms shipments, both offensive and defensive missiles, to Cuba. President Kennedy assembled EX-COMM, a dozen of his top advisers, to deal with the crisis.

Soviet Premier Khrushchev argued that the buildup was necessary to prevent a U.S. invasion of Cuba. In reality, Khrushchev was creating a lethal bargaining chip to barter Soviet advantage in East Berlin, where the Berlin Wall had been built in 1961 but the U.S. and France still had military presence, and other strategic locations.

Kennedy's advisers realized that with Soviet missiles moving to Cuba, the U.S. early warning system to safeguard against a missile attack was no longer effective. "These offensive missiles (in Cuba) could reach their targets in 15 minutes," Kelly said. "They saw this as a decision that Khrushchev had made to put the missiles there so that when the Soviet Union did take other steps and moved into other places the missiles could serve as a gun to the head of the United States."

The crisis grew more intense when Kennedy ordered a Naval quarantine of Cuba on Oct. 22 and demanded that the Soviets remove all offensive missiles from the island. The crisis reached its peak on Oct. 27 when a U-2 was shot down, killing an American pilot. On Oct. 28, after tense negotiations between the the U.S. and Soviet leaders, Khrushchev agreed to remove the offensive weapons in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba.

Some of the veterans' experiences during the conflict were surreal. Hugh Greenwood, a retired B-47 co-pilot with the Strategic Air Command, recalled that his squadron, based in England, "heard rumblings that something was going on in Cuba." Soon, they were told to load thermonuclear bombs and ammunition and, within days, they were dispersed to civilian airports in the United States. "That had never been done before and it's never been done since."

In the airport restaurants, curious travelers asked the military men what they were up to. The airmen told the civilians that they were performing training exercises. "We didn't tell them we had 25-megaton weapons out there," Greenwood said.

Other stories were tragic. Don Shipman, a retired colonel with the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing Command Post, recalled the dangerous missions of the reconnaissance aircraft during the crisis. "We lost 18 men in 45 days," he said. "It was not a good time."

David Leighton, a retired colonel with the 1st Marine Amphibious Brigade, said his brigade moved into position for an amphibious landing in Cuba. "We knew where we were going. The interesting thing was -- and they could have omitted telling us this -- but they expected 65 percent casualties on that first landing. That was not very comforting."

Some stories were even comical. Leighton recalled that as the Marines prepared for their operation, a lieutenant in his unit was preoccupied by his finances. "He was a bachelor who had an interest in the stock market, and he was growing frantic because he had no communication with his stock broker."

An audience member asked the panel what lessons were learned by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Leighton said the crisis brought home the sobering reality of the potential costs in a nuclear war; it was estimated that the United States and Soviet Union would each suffer at least a million casualties.

William Marshall, a duty officer with the Naval Air Station in Guantanamo Bay, said the crisis ushered in the use of the "red phone." "It was a direct line between the White House and Moscow," he said. "So you could have this dialogue between the leaders. That red phone exists today, and I would say it was one of the key things that came out of this from a national standpoint."

Leighton added that any time differences can be negotiated without armed conflict "that's the way to go. Nobody hates war more than this group."

Shipman, a newlywed at the time of the crisis, noted that "wives get too little credit for what they endured" during the time. Secrecy was the norm of the military and wives were often left to raise the children while their husbands were sent away for months at a time.

Greenwood felt certain that war was imminent in October 1962. "The Joint Chiefs of Staff to a man were in favor of some sort of military action in Cuba," he said. "We knew it was not a matter of if, but when. SAC stayed on DEFCON 2 for almost a month and that was the first time any military organization had gone to DEFCON 2, and I don't think it has happened since. It was quite a monumental moment.

"Fortunately," he said, "it all turned out OK."

(Photo: Military veteran panelists at the Cuban Missile Crisis program were, from left, William Marshall, Hugh Greenwood, Don Shipman, Charles Simpson and David Leighton.)