Abbot off Cuba

USS Abbot in early 1960s

Our last shot fired in anger

Jack Kelleher

Early 1962. Time for Abbot’s last major overhaul. The place? Boston Naval Shipyard, oddly located across the Mystic River in Charlestown. But Boston is my hometown. Family, a place to sleep free of charge, away from the ship.

But Captain Craig had other plans for my sleeping arrangements. First, he sent me back to Newport, Rhode Island, for two months at the Naval Justice School, learning how to become the ship’s legal officer. Must have been my Jesuit education and major in political science that prompted this decision. Then a month at Dam Neck, Virginia, to learn how to be a gunnery officer. This was great. The BOQ was located right on Virginia Beach. After class or firing exercises, into a bathing suit, out the door and a 50-yard dash to the ocean. Next, a shower and Happy Hour before dinner. Every day and no class or drills on the weekends!

Thus, I happily avoided the perpetual pounding noise of a ship in dry dock and the endless “progress meetings” in the wardroom. But I digress.

The Navy’s punishment for needing a major overhaul was six weeks of refresher training at Guantánamo Bay. We must have been really down the bottom of someone’s list. We got to go in summer!!!! And, except for the electronic spaces, Abbot offered no air conditioning.

One typically glaring sunny morning, all hands at general quarters, we steamed stolidly into the Caribbean to endure, and hopefully survive, whatever tortures the embarked training team might throw at us. On the horizon, a Soviet freighter suddenly became the center of an unscheduled drill. By treaty, the river passage to Guantánamo, Cuba, is designated as international waters. However, through our Navy the U.S. jealously guards the entrance, and any ship entering the river mouth must first identify itself. This freighter refused.

COMNAVBASE Gitmo dispatched Abbot, bristling with her potent 5” and 3” batteries, to halt the freighter’s progress and demand identification. We straddled her projected path and trained out the 5” battery. Still she came, silent and no ID. Our orders: “Stop by any means necessary”. Captain Craig ordered, “Load Mount 51”, in preparation for a shot across the bow. Still she came. Flashing light from our bridge to the bridge of the ATF assigned the eternal duty of offshore patrol, and who first reported the arrogant Soviet freighter — “Stand clear my line of fire”. Right up there with, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” and “I have not yet begun to fight”.

The freighter finally got the message, and bow-on stopped about 2,000 yards from Abbot, and identified herself. This young ensign, up in Director 51, found himself greatly disappointed. My adrenaline yearned for action! At least the thrill of a shot across the bow.

The freighter cleared to Guantánamo, Cuba, the ships passed beam to beam and close aboard. One officer recalls a woman topside doing laundry. Another remembers a pregnant woman on the bridge shaking her fist at us. But these are details. You know how reliable eyewitness reports are. Not authorized to board, there was no way for us to determine any contraband cargo. None visible topside.

We unloaded Mount 51 “through the muzzle” to seaward, Abbot’s last shot fired in anger.

The day’s training drills were a major letdown after this exciting drama, played out between two ships on a quiet sea at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Navy Expeditionary ribbon

Abbot’s crew was awarded the Navy Expeditionary Medal for service off Cuba 1 July to 14 August 1962.