Abbot & the Cuban Missile Crisis
Missiles of October
October 1962. The massive destroyer piers in Newport were empty of all but a couple of the 60 some DD’s home-ported there and a tender. Our sister ships had steamed south, forming an ocean barrier stretching in a rough arc from Miami, around the northern side of the Bahamas, past the coasts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to Puerto Rico, blockading the few passages through the islands for ships transiting from Europe to Cuba — the “Cuba Quarantine Line”, President Kennedy’s response to the discovery of Soviet ballistic missiles on that island. And we were left behind.
The message to the Soviets? No more missiles allowed and remove the ones already there.
Looking back, the “crisis” didn’t last nearly as long as it now seems. On October 14 the U.S. discovered the missiles on Cuba. When diplomatic overtures stymied, Kennedy ordered the quarantine on October 21. By Soviet radio on October 28, Khrushchev announced that Russia would remove the missiles, easing the high tensions created by fear of a nuclear war. That’s just two weeks!
How did Abbot earn her place in that little niche of history, if not underway to join the quarantine line until November 9, seemingly well after the fact? A radio announcement is one thing, hammering out a signed agreement between the two countries is another. Took another three weeks and Kennedy kept the ships on quarantine stations until then. It wasn’t just the missiles. The U.S. wanted the Soviets to remove all its light bombers as well, and the Soviets wanted some very specific terms and conditions that the U.S. would not invade Cuba.
Abbot’s role? We’ll get to that.
Our passage south was anything but uneventful. Not long at sea, we steamed directly into near hurricane-force winds and seas. Slowed us down some. Also experienced a couple of unexpected “this is not a drill” 1MC announcements. One night the fire alarm in the starboard hedgehog magazine sounded and off to GQ we went. Very tough to do on a heavily rolling ship and high winds. I had a devil of a time crawling up the ladder to Director 51 and, of the three of us manning it, only Jack Koscielniak and I made it. XO Bob Small, Gun Boss Chris Bayley, ASW Officer Pete Ellis, and other crew members, looked like something out of a Hollywood movie as they struggled to open the sprinkler system valve, which didn’t work, and the magazine for inspection, the wind flapping their clothes mightily, like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, seawater stinging exposed skin. Turned out to be no fire, just a short in the electrical alarm system. Back to our racks.
Next a possible man overboard, or at least “missing”. Daily muster found one of our “snipes” not answering roll call. Captain Craig ordered a 180° turn to backtrack for a search, not a very easy maneuver under near-hurricane conditions. Missing snipe found asleep behind an electrical switchboard in one of the engineering spaces. No, he was not on watch, lucky for him. Didn’t need the distraction of a prisoner in the brig awaiting trial. We turned south again, finally finding calm seas.
Even these events were not the end of our adventurous passage. Discovered we were carrying an extra 200 tons or so of unwanted cargo — seawater! An 18-inch split opened in one of our seams, resulting in the flooding of the four forward supply store rooms. What an unholy mess!! Like the aftermath of a tornado tearing through a trailer park.
Diverted to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for repairs we spent several days there, getting back into combat-ready status. Pretty embarrassing situation for a modern day “man o’ war”, delaying whatever mission CINCLANTFLT had in mind for us.
Finally, on station and carrying out our quarantine duties. In the retelling they seem rather mundane. Abbot functioned as kind of a “messenger and mini-resupply” ship, coming alongside a supporting oiler nearly every morning, transferring personnel who missed their ships due to the emergency sorties, needed spare parts, mail, perhaps swapping off some movies, and refueling when necessary. When the other tin cans stopped by an oiler for a sip of fuel and topping off, they would pick up whatever we dropped off for them. Guess we picked up the folks to transfer and all the other “stuff” during our unscheduled stop in San Juan. Got a lot of hands-on training rigging and unrigging the hi-line and refueling hoses. After all, Abbot and The Sullivans by then had received distinction as training ships for the newly established U.S. Naval Destroyer School for Officers, so we were expected to do it right every time.
There was even some scuttlebutt that, should the quarantine last that long, Abbot would dash to some nearby U.S. port and pick up turkeys for Thanksgiving and trees for Christmas, so that the crews of our sister DD’s would have something to cherish us by. Must have been some truth to it, since the engineering officers spent some time surveying where they would lash down the trees topside, protected from the ravages of seawater and salt air, and the supply officer calculated how much room there was in the reefers for the turkeys. Then we would be known as “The Pilgrim’s Ship” and “Santa Claus’s Seagoing Sleigh”. Didn’t come to pass, though. With the agreement signed the ships scattered, Abbot returning to Newport and moored alongside Pier 2 on November 24.
Now, why Abbot for this somewhat unusual mission? There are those who say that CINCLANTFLT chose us for such mundane duty as an aging destroyer already scheduled for decommissioning in less than three years. Beneath the dignity of newer and classier ships. Us crew folks at the time know better. A fleet-footed Fletcher Class could get that job done quicker and more efficiently than any other tin can in the Atlantic Fleet!
Actually what we did wasn’t so mundane when compared with the blockading ships, carving circles in the ocean at 5 knots for hours and hours, hoping for a Soviet freighter to wander into their little patch of sea to stir up a few thrilling moments for their entertainment every now and then. Very few of the other tin cans even sighted a Soviet ship, never mind boarded and inspected one. But — we had something to do every day! Even got to steam from oiler to oiler at some 20 knots.
Fifteen days of some fun and exciting memories and, thanks to the efforts of XO Bob Small, ship and crew were awarded the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.
Abbot’s crew was awarded the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for service 11 to 22 November 1962.